Sometimes the gentlest put-down is a tiny work of art. My son, for instance, was at a party once and recounted an overheard conversation that went something like this:
She: Where do you work then
He: Oh I’m a physicist, I work in Cerne
She: On the Hadron Collider?
She: You mean that big one that goes for miles underground?
He: No I work on the small one.
She: How sweet!
One of my many come-uppances came when I was a curate at St Mary Redcliffe. I was introduced to a very well dressed woman wearing the kind of understated clothing that announces itself silently and tells you exactly where you belong in the great scheme of things. I was wearing an extremely expensive silk cassock that was bought for me as a gift and which lifted me out of my mongrelry into another category of humanity. It was a useful disguise. When she discovered my name she demanded (no really, she demanded in a voice like melting pack ice) “are you one of the Somerset Poles?” “no”, I replied airily “I’m one of the Kingswood Poles”. Part of my dad’s family did in fact come from Somerset but they most certainly weren’t part of the Somerset Poles and I didn’t feel obliged to enlarge on my reply.
However my quarry today is a different branch of the put-down family that relates to the way we perceive and value the natural world. If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that we had a break in St Davids a few weeks ago and I got going on a list of plants I found while we were there – there were well over a hundred in the end. Several, though, turned out to be a bit of a rarity and so I emailed a local botanist with their names just so he could check them out (referee them) and add them to the records. Yesterday, after a long silence, I had a charming reply to my email thanking me and mentioning in passing that this was the second record for Sedum forsterium he’d received and that the other, found a couple of streets away, was – the finder believed – the garden form, ssp. elegantissimum. I was instantly deflated, notwithstanding the fact that I’d identified it properly, but a garden plant?
So how is it in the great scheme of things that a large hadron collider is more important than a small one, a Somerset Pole is more worthy of conversation than a mongrel Pole from Kingswood, and a rare wild plant more important than a hybrid of the same family that manages to escape from a garden and eke out a miraculous living on a streetside wall. Who is it that determines these things? and does it even matter?
Well yes, it matters a great deal when our environment is becoming more and more degraded, because sympathy, money and research tends to flow to the places determined as ‘more important’ and away from those determined to be less so. I was disappointed with myself that I had fallen into a lazy way of thinking about priorities that had been handed to me as a ‘faite accompli’ and lurked unchallenged at the back of my mind for goodness knows how long.
Opposite where we live there used to be an old industrial site complete with gasometer and suchlike. In Bath there is a desperate need for more housing, and the local council have no money and so like so many other councils they had to allow the desperately needed houses to be built by a developer. But first there was a legal requirement to conduct an environmental impact survey – which I’ve read, along with the promises of low-cost housing, a doctor’s surgery and a new primary school. Here’s a retrospective environmental assessment of what actually happened –
The trend is for steady loss of this habitat type. When Bath Western Riverside was cleared for redevelopment, invertebrate communities of Regional importance that were associated with this habitat were lost.
The school and the surgery were quietly dropped because they impacted on the profits, and the first-time housing that had been so loudly trumpeted as a sweetener started off at £500,000 a flat. The ‘regionally important’ habitat was bulldozed away and replaced by a miserable “park” of municipal ryegrass. Little notice was taken of a wildlife corridor connecting the centre of the city to the countryside to the west and crucially all this was assisted in its passage because the development was taking place on a ‘brownfield site’. Who goes out to demonstrate over a derelict gasworks when there are homeless people living on the streets? Our use of language and imagery really does matter because it colours our priorities, and wrong priorities take us further away from our desired objectives. Clearly we all agree that the environment is increasingly important because all the evidence stacks up behind that proposition. But expressions like ‘brownfield site’, ‘alien’, and ‘invasive’ subtly embody a hierarchy of significance that can subvert our behaviour. What if the ecologically diverse environments are now the brownfield sites and the ‘green belt’ land we’re so desperate to protect is so doused in chemicals and so overcropped that the soil is all but dead? In a ‘battle of the priorities’ homes, surgeries and schools will always win over spiders and bryophytes. It all changes, though, if the schools and surgeries are never built, the houses are utterly beyond the reach of first time buyers and the ecologically diverse environment is destroyed in any case, in the pursuit of profits for developers.
It matters that this isn’t an argument about aesthetics, although the riverside development is known among the locals as “The Gulag” and it certainly looks like a Soviet era bonded warehouse. I thought the gasworks site with its abundance of Ragwort and Buddleia looked better and the wildlife certainly thought so! But we’re not facing a crisis of beauty, we’re facing a crisis that entails the death of thousands of species, the destruction of the soil that feeds us and the air that we’re forced to breathe. “We have seen the enemy – it is us”, and we can’t solve the crisis unless we accept that more of the same can only make things worse.
Let’s imagine I own the wall with the Sedum forsterianum in St Davids and I want to knock the wall down, dig up the garden and build a car port for a holiday rental. The local council are minded to grant the permission because it knows the city relies absolutely on the tourist trade. A local and enthusiastic amateur botanist comes along and says “you can’t do that it’s a three star rarity”. I appoint an independent enviromental consultant who says – yes you can it’s ssp. elegantissimum which is just a garden escape. The County Recorder joins the fray and says “not only is it a garden escape it’s an invasive garden escape that’s driving out all the real (i.e pure) Sedum forsterianum from the inaccessible cliffs hereabouts. The local Friends of the Earth get involved and start a petition to prevent any more car ports while the Gardening Club are incensed at the marginalisation of a favourite rockery plant. Plaid Cymru demand an end to holiday lets because the local people can’t affotd to buy houses any more. A local independent councillor says “something must be done!” without specifying what exactly that might be. Meanwhile a tidy minded council worker spots the offending weed in the wall and sprays it with Roundup while he’s doing the cracks in the pavement.
It’s a rare plant, it’s an invasive menace, it’s a garden escape, it’s a hybrid, it’s a weed, its a meal ticket for a host of experts and it’s a vote winner too. It’s the gift that goes on giving for me, the lucky developer because every specialist interest group in town is so engaged in this turf war about a plant that they can’t agree what to do, and I get my application through without any effective opposition. The environmentalists all get to keep their virtue intact and the environment takes another small step in the wrong direction.
No amount of home baking, kefir production, artisan gin and allotmenteering is going to save the environment unless we learn to collaborate and that means watching our language and engaging seriously with a flood of data that may feel difficult and counter-intuitive at times. Sometimes I feel like withdrawing to the allotment or propping up the Potwell Inn bar until it’s all over but in my heart I know that the only chance we have is to engage. The Sirens with their dark money will say we can have it all – but it’s not true and it never was. The sun’s shining and the insects will be out and about this morning so our neighbour Trigger will be up at the allotments with his little hand spray. He doesn’t tell his wife he’s spraying and she will sometimes say “d’you know these beans were covered with blackfly last week and now they’re all gone.” He doesn’t tell her about his little secret spray because he knows she’s trying to garden organically and because he loves her, he wants her to succeed. Damaging the evironment doesn’t require evil or malice, just lack of thought will achieve the same end.