I’d really like to be writing about leaping out of the car and measuring gorse thorns in search of Western Gorse – Ulex gallii, or paying a return visit to a possible Babington’s Leek – Allium ampeloprasum down near the watermill at Poltesco. It’s all so romantic – if you like that sort of thing. But actually what keeps grabbing me and shaking my shoulder is just one feature of the gathering climate catastrophe, and that’s the link between species loss, landscape devastation and what we like to think of as human culture.
Our materialistic worldview has taught us all that nature is a kind of evolutionary pyramid at whose pinnacle we sit; masters of all we survey but somehow separate from it at the same time. What the agonised debates surrounding climate change are beginning to teach us is that if the pyramid collapses we disappear with all the rest. A ridiculous ideological blind spot seems to allow us to carry on with destructive economics, dangerous fossil fuel burning and anthropogenic species extinctions regardless of the ecological damage – by systematic avoidance of the evidence.
And to take a step further in the argument we might ask – what is it that so scares us about the gathering storm that we can’t bring ourselves even to think about it? My suggestion is that it’s something along the lines that loss of species, habitats, farming and horticultural practices, manufacturing and the whole panoply of material practices is not just a loss of ways of doing stuff but of ways of being. So the loss of any of those practices entails a corresponding loss within our culture; chipping away at our sense of what it means to be human.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast
Here in Cornwall, and especially in North Wales the sense of loss is palpable. In Wales it’s language that has become the focal point of all that grief. To lose a language is the greatest tragedy that can befall a nation because it is the cultural matrix that holds past, present and future together and allows us to feel at home; fully human. In Cornwall it seems to be a festering grievance that the relationship between England and Cornwall has been essentially colonial. Great wealth has been removed from the county, won by miners working in appalling conditions, and now the English are completing their extractive work by pricing some of the poorest people in the county out of their homes, which are turned into holiday homes and AirBnb lettings.
Cultural losses are the inevitable collateral damage of material changes, and in that light the pushback by fishermen against quotas, and by would-be lithium miners against environmental objections is easier to understand. So too with farmers and vegetable growers struggling against piratical supermarket contracts; and especially hill farmers – because they all labour against not just the weather but the onslaught of trolling by smart ass politicians and commentators who’ve never held a spade or a net in their lives.
What this can easily result in is a kind of truculent resistance even to productive and necessary change and a clinging to an over sentimentalized vision of the past which can always trump the future because that’s a bit speculative. They’ve all heard “we’re all in this together” when the evidence is that they always seem to trouser the proceeds. The great thing about looking back is that you can always remember the full nets of pilchards but eliminate the memories of home made oilskins and regular famines. Stargazy pie celebrates the relief of a famine in Mousehole when a fisherman called Tom Bawcock braved a storm to bring pilchards back to a starving village. That was in the 16th Century – memories are deeply rooted here.
Only a new vision – and I mean vision – will give us the collective will to face the daunting challenge. Until we know, really know ourselves to be a part of nature, and as vulnerable as any red list plant or Orangutan or Whale then the difficulties will be insuperable. In this age of populist dictatorships the liars will always think of a more appealing narrative that allows the rich to drain the last drop of lifeblood until we all fall silent.
We have to be courageous enough to cross the chasm between the way things used to be by accepting that the past, its languages, symbols and culture enrich the future – we mustn’t let them threaten it.
This wonderful poem, first published in 1937 – that’s eighty three years ago – just about sums up what I’m saying. It’s a reflection on mortality, written in the shadow of the first world war and the gathering strength of nazi power accompanied by the Great Depression of the 1930’s. It matters because Thomas manages, almost miraculously, to frame in a non religious way the interpenetration of nature and humanity. It’s that kind of thought that will lay the first stone in the bridge between ought and is.
The force that through the green fuse drives the flowerDylan Thomas
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.