Pristine? Virgin? – is it time to give these concepts a break?

Mine rake on the Mendip Hills

Reading Fred Pearce’s book “The New Wild” again this week I felt uncomfortable. As he listed some of the less glorious attempts of some conservationists to turn back the clock in the hope of recovering the pristine environment, a voice in my head was shouting – what about Whitefield in Dyrham Park? what about those glorious wildflower meadows in North Yorkshire or – closer to home the hills surrounding Bath? The main thrust of his book is to say – look here, nature is fast, adaptive and highly dynamic. Trying to hold back change by micromanaging nature reserves and SSSI’s is an expensive path to nowhere, so we should maybe step back and give evolution a chance.

But then, as I pondered my instinctively hostile reaction, I thought of Eddie Cox – my first and best childhood friend – and our adventures and exploits out in the wild as children. Wild, for us, was post industrial; brownfield and, on reflection, very dangerous; but if our inner landscape is furnished by early memories then my young imagination was furnished by crumbling nineteenth century buildings, an abandoned dram road running back from the river to abandoned coal mines; paths hard packed with waste from the nearby fireclay pipeworks; mineshafts we could drop stones down, the old Cattybrook brick kilns whose flues we could wriggle up and watch the sky above the chimney and surrounded by spare and half starved soil. There were rows of miners’ cottages whose original occupants were long since dead.

Our environment – although we were far too young to understand it – was a palimpsest; one historical layer superimposed on another. At the surface were us baby boomers navigating the fragile demilitarized zone between our parents’ wartime experiences and our own unknown futures among the remains of an industrial revolution that had run its course. Below us and also around us were the remains also of a wealthy woollen industry; the unrestored magnificent houses of slave owners and place names which went back to the Domesday Book. Amidst the burgeoning post-war housing estates where we lived, were sacred wells and ancient footpaths. The older local people knew the plant names but often worked in the last of the factories; Douglas motorcycles, Vespa motor scooters and the ubiquitous small workshops supporting the local shoe industry – all now gone.

Rodway Hill

So what was my pristine? Well as sure as hell it wasn’t rare orchids and wildflower meadows. My grandparents left their smallholding in rural Oxfordshire and came to Bristol before I was old enough to name a plant. My first ecstatic memories of plants were all from Rodway Hill; a gruffy outcrop of sandstone where I would lie amongst the tussocky grass and inspect the Harebells. The memory has its own inscrutable hot links and my idea of the pristine was forged from these unpromising elements. Orchids and wildflower meadows came much, much later.

So what I dredged up from the sediment of my mind as I pondered Fred Pearce’s book was the reason for my attachment to these post industrial landscapes and their flora. When we walk down Velvet Bottom or almost anywhere else at Charterhouse I feel at home because in that complicated subconscious way I am at home. When I look through the albums of photographs of plants I’ve taken, less than half are what you might call proper wildflowers; the rest are the waifs, strays, stragglers and thugs of the plant world who’ve learned how to live with little light, food or soil, or being constantly trampled by walkers, peed on by dogs and strimmed off by zealous council workers. Some of these plants have developed the capacity to live on mine waste polluted by heavy metals. They’re often tiny little things with tiny un-showy flowers but you can’t help but admire them for their tenacity.

When I run over the list of our favourite places like mid Wales, Lizard in Cornwall and so the list goes on; they’re all post apocalyptic post industrial landscapes. Yes of course, walking through a meadow and totting up twenty plants in flower is a wonderful experience, worth a day of anyone’s time – but according to Fred Pearce and many others including Richard Mabey, the old post industrial brownfield sites have become haven and home to multitudes of flora and fauna which can no longer survive the inundation of their native habitats by the plough and with chemicals. The point is – nature is showing the way to adaptation. We humans, who created the anthropocene and can’t survive a day without our mobile phones, need to accept that there are no good old days because the peregrines nesting on the spire of St John’s church here in Bath have made the transition already.

Gerard Manley Hopkins was right – nature is not a steady state phenomenon constantly needing repair – it’s a Heracletian fire”.

Is it wild or isn’t it?

IMG_6043This holiday is turning into a prolongued commentary on the books I’m reading in the wet and windy evenings here in the Lake District, and the photo is completely out of focus, I know –  but it was this little flower that caught my mood and crystallised some thoughts I’d been mulling over earlier.

The flower is a particular favourite of mine and its vernacular name is Fox and Cubs – Pilosella aurantiaca, an irresistably pretty member of the Daisy family.  I’ve only ever seen one other plant and that was on a village playing field near Portscatho in Cornwall. But it’s not particularly rare and in fact it’s another garden escape, first planted in gardens in 1629 – according to Harrap’s Wild Flowers (recommended) and first spotted in the wild in Europe in 1793.  So we’re not talking Japanese Knotweed!

In the background is Muncaster Castle which was  there in 1258, so it’s been long enough for a naturalised plant to take up residence, although I doubt very much if that’s what’s happened in this case.

So that’s the flower and the castle and now the book, which is called “Deep Ecology – living as if nature mattered” by Bill Devall and George Sessions.  It’s a primer of extracts and a commentary on most of the main philosophical threads of the environmental movement in general, and in particular a ‘deep’ ecology that goes beyond conservation in its generally accepted  sense; and so “wildness” is one of the concepts that gets explored in great detail. We spent today at the castle and part of the experience was to visit and watch two displays of owls and vultures being flown. I’m not keen on zoos, but there was no opt-out at the ticket desk and so we went with the crowd and saw the caged birds and also watched them flying in the displays. Ironically (or perhaps not), among all the rarities, the one bird that tugged most at my heart was a Tawny owl that sat in its cage and called persistently. We often heard Tawny owls when we lived in the countryside, and the very first night we moved to our flat, we heard a Tawny calling outside as if to say “don’t worry I’m still here”.  It’s amber listed in the UK , and I’m sure it was only there because it had been rescued but ….. all that space and woodland around and it was in a cage. IMG_6041

It was a fabulous place to sit and watch the birds flying so close that we were warned to duck if they were heading directly towards us. I was trying (displacement activity)  to use the display to watch the birds – there were owls as well as vultures – and to admire and understand the way they were using their wings so differently but my underlying feeling was that there was something sad about these magnificent creatures being kept in cages for much of their lives. I was involved in a silent conversation with the keepers whose commentary was largely concerned with conservation. Vulnerable and threatened species of all kinds may disappear altogether if we don’t do something.  Breeding programmes, game reserves and all the available bureaucracy of grant aid and legislation are turned towards the preservation of these species but I can’t help feeling that it’s us who have to change. We’re still inclined to think of the natural world as being essentially there for us – for our education, leisure and entertainment; as a resource for geneticists and drug companies, as a raison d’être for conservationists, rangers and wardens, but we rarely understand them as existing entirely in their own right within a family of which we are only a part.

If we want to save these creatures we  – WE – have to stop exploiting and destroying their habitats, not gift aid a tenner to a charity at Christmas. Do we care about them enough to relinquish our cars, feed ourselves differently, stop kidding ourselves that mass tourism into ever more remote areas brings much needed development, preserve our remaining wild areas while turning a blind eye to deforestation in Brazil so we can go on eating cheap meat.  We, collectively, are the biggest threat to wildlife on the planet and the planet needs us to turn around.

Of course the other threatened species on display at the castle was the building itself. My heart goes out to the owners who must struggle every day to keep the show (and their ancestral home) on the road. I confess I’m a bit of a propeller head when it comes to drainpipes, I’ve seen some beauties over the years, and among the (cheap) cast iron downpipes outside the building there were some beautiful hand-made lead pipes.  Clearly the hand-to-mouth restoration of the building is being done one drainpipe and one ceiling at a time.

So how do we resolves these issues of preservation and conservation? There’s a growing thread of purism in the conservation world that demands huge reductions in human populations and industrial growth, with the re-creation of vast amounts of ‘wilderness’. It is, some say, a spiritual issue. If that means that we have to change our culture at the very deepest levels of our being then I totally agree, but not if it means forcing the solution on to the most vulnerable people on earth, because we are all too often the cause of their poverty.

Is the orange daisy lookalike wild or cultivated? Does it really matter in the great scheme of things?  Is a sperm bank or a seed store in the permafrost the best way of addressing the extinction crisis? – don’t be silly! Is a castle worth saving when there are millions of homeless out there? Well why not build some (eco) houses rather than forcing the owner to sell it off to a hotel group and leaving another family to be housed and most of the present staff unemployed.

We have seen the problem – it is us!

I’m not quiet I’m thinking!

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Actually that’s not totally true because like many grandparents find, school holidays offer lots more opportunities to be with grandchildren and this last couple of weeks we’ve also got together with all our grown up children. However that’s not where most of my energy has been going, because I’m in the process of changing my mind. This isn’t a small matter of believing X rather than Y, but a fundamental problem with the way X and Y have been understood. LIke the vast majority of people who are interested in natural history I’ve gone along with the prevailing view that the preservation of threatened species of all kinds hinges on re-creating the precise ecological communities – if necessary behind high fences –  that once allowed them to flourish. The vocabulary of conservation is spattered with words like ‘virgin’ and ‘pristine’ that imply that nature was OK until we messed it up and so we need to rewind the programme to the point where it went wrong and then press the freeze button for the rest of time. It implies that there is some kind of evolutionary plan that resulted in everything being the way it used to be before we spoiled it, and, even worse, that these ecological relationships were somehow ‘right’ and any deviation from them – for instance when so-called ‘alien’ species (the very word gives the game away), move in, they need to be removed, or perhaps ‘cleansed’ in order to return to the pre-lapsarian state of grace. Forgive the religious language but it’s actually a religious thought wearing a white lab coat, but it’s all wrong, and that’s where I’ve been stranded, reading furiously (in every sense of the word) and trying to catch up with a field I know very little about.

At the very moment I was finally getting settled into my botanical studies, I started to get interested in weeds because there are a lot more of them nearby to study; one thing led to another and now I’m in limbo trying to figure out what it’s all for.  What’s the direction we need to travel in in order to repair the ecological damage we’ve done, without  reducing the natural world to a desert with a few gated reserves dotted around to remind us what we’ve lost? What does a healthy and productive earth look like? – feel like? How can we live our lives fruitfully without making things worse? How did we get to the point where we defined the best interests of a tiny part of the human race with the interests of the whole earth? … and I don’t have any answers at all yet. Doubtless they’ll come along eventually but in the meanwhile I’m prowling around the Potwell Inn in a mist of self doubt needing to examine a large part of my experience and memory, paying special attention to the presuppositions that have been pit props and retaining walls to my inner world for decades.

Of course there’s a wider context for all this.  The political chaos that hangs over us like a black cloud is an inescapable source of anxiety, but personally too, things have happened that threw me off kilter.  A farmer I’d known well in one of my parishes fell down the stairs at the weekend, broke his neck and died the next day. It’s a heartbreaking event for his own family, but it leaves us all feeling that life is fragile, fugitive. What with the morons in charge and accidents and illness threatening, what’s the context in which we can  understand the earth, its tides and weather in the broadest sense.

It feels like grief.  Cooking and gardening feel like going through the motions, displacement activities. Yesterday I went to the local stationers and to my great surprise I was able to buy a card index – the beginnings of the Flora of Muckyannydinny Lane.  It’s a card index because you can’t design a database until you are able to define it detailed purposes and I’ve no idea yet what that purpose might be so it’s back to the technology of the quill pen.

But now I’m off to try to mend the fridge on the campervan before we take a break driving as far North and West as we can in England. Yet again we were drawn to the West, and we’re going further North too – right to the Scottish borders, completing the last link from Cornwall in the South and catching up with friends on the way.  There’s nothing systematic in this, just happenstance and curiosity and a big pile of books of which the latest is Fred Pearce’s “The New Wild”. Read it – it’ll explode your mind!

 

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