Walking my dog Noah recently around several wooded areas I was surprised at the amount of litter and dog fouling in car parks, on pathways, and in hedgerows. On our walk last night I decided to collect as much as I could and dispose of it safely. We first encountered a lot of sweet wrappers.
This type of sweet wrapper is made out of metallised plastic film, a material which is not recyclable, therefore if it is not disposed of it will remain and be a potential danger to wildlife.
There were a lot of wet wipes scattered around the car park; according to ‘Recycle Now’, baby wipes, cosmetic wipes, bathroom cleaning wipes and moist toilet tissues are not able to be recycled.
On our walk we picked up several piles of dog waste that had been left in the middle of pathways. Dog fouling is not only an offence with a fixed penalty of £100, it can be extremely dangerous to health so must be picked up by the owner.
The organisation Keep Britain Tidy, which has been active since 1954 has great information about the benefits of litter picking, reducing waste, keeping our spaces clean and tidy for us all to enjoy and campaigns everyone can join in to keep our environment safe, tidy and clean.
I scattered generous amounts of wildflower seeds containing different grasses and flowers to create a ‘meadow’ hoping to attract insects like bees and butterflies and eventually a diverse array of birds.
Throughout April and May patience was required as green shoots begun to appear – then in early June, vibrant cornflowers begun to reveal themselves, ready to attract bees and butterflies.
Within ten days the area was transformed from green to a spectrum of colour.
Each day new colours appear as flowers begin to bloom – poppies and daisies arrive anew each morning providing pollen for bees.
Hoverflies have begun to arrive – mimicking bees and wasps in appearance, they are in fact true flies. The adults drink nectar and eat pollen and honeydew.
Hopefully as the summer months proceed the ‘meadow’ will continue to attract an increasingly diverse number of insects and birds, and the new butterfly house will become occupied. With very little effort on my part the garden has become transformed, where there was concrete and barren soil there is now life and colour. The area is teeming with activity, providing a small space in my urban backyard for nature to exist and flourish.
The poet Edward Thomas was killed on the first day of the Battle of Arras in April 1917. A stray German shell dropped near where Thomas stood creating a vacuum as it passed by and threw him to the ground, his body was uninjured but the vacuum created a violent absence of air resulting in a pneumatic concussion, meaning his heart stopped. Thomas was thirty-nine years old with a wife and two children back in England. He had not always been a poet, he had been grinding out a living as a prolific essayist and ‘hack’ writer, but through the encouragement of his friend, the American poet Robert Frost he finally began to write poems which reflected his love of nature, many written just before and during the war. When war broke out in 1914 he was not obliged to serve, he was thirty-six with a young family, but felt increasingly compelled to volunteer. Not moved by a sense of nationalism which he found at times shallow and pompous, it was his passion for the English landscape which helped finally to set his course. A lifelong enthusiastic walker, Thomas once replied to being asked why he volunteered by bending down and scooping soil up from the earth saying ‘literally for this’ as it fell through his fingers.
One of his most famous poems is ‘Adlestrop’, comprising of four stanzas written in quatrains. The speaker of this poem begins as if replying to being asked about the place, ‘Yes, I remember Adlestrop – ‘. The speaker recounts pausing there one afternoon in ‘late June’ on the express train, and it is this fleeting pause which allows the true essence of what Thomas draws out of nature in his poetry to become the focus. Rarely relying on visual experience alone in his poems, it is the sounds, smells and emotions which create the remembrance of place. The speaker recalls ‘The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat’, utilising onomatopoeia to create the sound of the train and an anonymous passer-by to invoke the movement of people. The speaker then recalls a series of natural smells, ‘And willows, willow-herb, and grass’, followed in the last stanza by the song of a ‘blackbird’, suggesting perhaps that it is nature which creates a strong sense of place and memory, human endeavours are secondary.
In ‘The Brook’, Thomas utilises a simple rhyme scheme to convey a message of innocence and experience, reminiscent of the Romantic poetry of Wordsworth. The poem begins with the speaker settling themselves by a brook ‘watching a child’, the reader is then presented once again with the sights, smells and sounds of the natural world. The mellow ‘blackbird sang’, ‘There was a scent like honeycomb’, ‘A butterfly alighted’ and ‘The waters running frizzled over gravel’. But it is at the end of the poem where the reader experiences the true meaning of ‘The Brook’ when the child says, ‘No one’s been here before’ and the speaker admits this is how they felt ‘yet never should have found // A word for’. It is only the innocence of the child that is able to capture the sense of what the adult speaker wishes to convey, a difficulty of conveying meaning about nature that Thomas will perpetually be aware of and striving for in his poetry.
The poem ‘Tall Nettles’ suggests a passing of time and the cyclical aspect of nature as the speaker tells of how the tall nettles cover up as they have done ‘These many springs’. All of the human made objects have become dilapidated; ‘the rusty harrow’, the plough ‘Long worn out’, the ‘roller made of stone’, insinuating the power of nature over humans as it reclaims these objects through the tall nettles. Thomas privileges nature in this poem as the renewing, cycle of the natural world contrasts with the inanimate human made devices.
As we continue to negotiate the Anthropocene and question our individual actions, the poetry of Edward Thomas can provide reflection, direction and companionship. The love, passion and joy he exudes in his poetry from the sights, sounds and smells of nature remind us that it is worth fighting for, worth changing our habits for and even worth dying for.
In his recent book Underland, Robert Macfarlane recounts a conversation he had with Dr Merlin Sheldrake in Epping Forest regarding how humans attempt to explain the connections and networks which are being discovered amongst trees below the surface. Tired of the same worn analogies Sheldrake states that ‘The forest is always more complicated than we can ever dream of’, to which Macfarlane suggests ‘Maybe, then, what we need to understand the forest’s underland … is a new language altogether’. In Earth Emotions, Albrecht explores new language, new emotions and new concepts, which can begin to bridge the gap between humans and nature to create a symbiotic relationship, rather than a translatory one.
An Australian environmental philosopher, Albrecht draws on his personal history, work and beliefs in Earth Emotions, to ultimately suggest a positive route forward within the current environmental crisis. In the ‘Introduction’ Albrecht states that the emotional makeup of humans is locked into a battle between what he calls ‘terraphthora’ and ‘terranascia’, the former being negative emotions and the latter more positive. He concludes that it is the more nurturing emotions associated with ‘terranascia’ which prevails, otherwise humans would have destroyed themselves long before now. In the twenty-first century however, Albrecht believes that this battle is raging openly ‘in a period of rapid cultural and biophysical turmoil’. He believes it will only be through embracing terranascient emotions that the earth will begin to flourish once more.
In a chapter entitled ‘Solastalgia: The Homesickness You Have at Home’, Albrecht describes the origins of the word and emotions associated with ‘Solastalgia’. Whilst working in the Hunter Valley, Albrecht was encountering more and more people suffering from emotional afflictions perpetuated by the increase in open cut mining in the area. Similar to the sentiment of nostalgia, Albrecht identified that these people were homesick, but they had not been displaced or forcibly removed, they remained at home. Therefore, Albrecht concluded that the people ‘were losing solace or comfort once derived from their relationship to a home that was now being desolated by forces beyond their control’. Not able to attribute a suitable word to these emotions Albrecht combined ‘solace’ from the Latin ‘solari’ and ‘desolation’ from the Latin ‘desolare’ and created ‘solastalgia’, which is the ‘pain or distress caused by the ongoing loss of solace and the sense of desolation connected to the present state of one’s home and territory’.
Albrecht introduces the concept of the ‘symbiocene’ in the chapter entitled ‘The Psychoterratic in the Symbiocene: Positive Earth Emotions’ as a helpful next step in human time upon the earth, rather than being associated with the negative connotations of the ‘Anthropocene’. Albrecht explains that humans have separated themselves from the rest of nature through believing we are physically and morally autonomous, competition between individuals rules in both nature and society, and the belief that competition in a free market within an economy is an expression of natural competitive order. Symbiosis, at its centre, ‘counters the idea that evolution is inherently and solely competitive’, it is driven ‘by both cooperation and competition’. It is cooperation that Albrecht believes is a positive forward step in creating a strong connection with nature, which will create a deeper understanding of how humans are part of the natural world and to survive, a balance of interests must be struck.
As the current environmental crisis continues it is naïve and arrogant to believe we have the language, concepts and emotional maturity to explain, engage in discourse and emote what we are encountering. Albrecht introduces helpful new concepts and language in Earth Emotions, which I believe will begin many conversations about our relationship with nature and how to communicate emotions never before experienced.
Earlier this week in Cambridge, I had the pleasure of listening to Robert Macfarlane in conversation about his recent publication Underland; he spoke passionately and enthusiastically about the book, deep time, nature and the individuals he encountered in his research, but I left thinking about a remark he made in reply to a question from the audience. A lady had asked for advice regarding which groups, charities or societies were best to join or partake in amidst the ecological crisis and Macfarlane responded by suggesting that it was essentially positive to actively engage however the individual was able or pertaining to their interests. He also included in his response a question that we should all be asking ourselves regarding our own actions and behaviour towards the natural world and fellow humans, which is ‘Are we being good ancestors?’. This resonated with me as I have sought to question and amend my own actions and behaviours over the last few months to try and reduce my own ecological impact, but it also resonated because over the last few weeks several global incidents have occurred which demands the question of us all.
In early May the IPBES,delivered its findings regarding a three-year study comprising of over 310 contributing authors and 145 experts who have assessed the changes in biodiversity and ecosystems over the past fifty years. The headlines are shocking in their mere simplicity; ‘1,000,000 species threatened with extinction’, ‘Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions’, ‘Urban areas have more than doubled since 1992’. Nature is being swallowed up, destroyed and effectively driven to extinction by anthropocentric desires, not necessities, wants. ‘Are we being good ancestors?’
The Swedish school girl Greta Thunberg has inspired and led a global student movement whereby children and young adults strike or march on Fridays demanding government action and policy changes to ensure there is a world for future generations to inhabit. Thunberg has travelled Europe speaking at rallies, conferences and summits, sat down with politicians and media, but the frenzy surrounding the movement is not yet reaping ecological rewards; via social media Thunberg has stated this week a truth we all know, ‘There’s absolutely no change in sight. We have to prepare ourselves to go on school striking for a very long time’. ‘Are we being good ancestors?’
In April the world was astonished and saddened as fire engulfed Notre Dame Cathedral, destroying centuries of human architectural history, religious artefacts and hearts in the process. In response to the huge amount of money raised in mere days to rebuild, many ecological commentators were criticising and remarking on the speed with which the money had been donated, contrasting it with natural sites which languish with no economical support. Several responses have subsequently and justly suggested that the financial and emotional response to Notre Dame is not erroneous and suggestive of an apathy towards nature; Dr Manu Saunders– comments that ‘Notre Dame and Nature are incommensurable, especially in terms of intrinsic value’, and Professor Jeff Ollerton– states that ‘The response from environmentalists and others was a reasonable one, as was the offer of millions of Euros for Notre Dame. Both are equally valid. Whether both are equally “important” is something that we could debate forever …”. Whilst taking the importance of both human culture and nature into consideration, the response seems to be ‘Are we being good ancestors?’
The answer to the question inherently feels negative; we have known the consequences of human actions on nature for decades, we know we are not good ancestors, but we could be, there is still time. In light then of the IPBES report, our youth demanding their future and a controversial human response to the destruction of a human made building, a better question that could be asked concerning the individual, business and governmental response to the ecological crisis is ‘What will it take?’.
In 1979 Audre Lorde agreed to take part in a New York University Institute for the Humanities panel at the Second Sex Conference. The essay ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’was composed from comments at that conference and posed the question ‘What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?’ – the answer is that ‘only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable’. This powerful, provocative and insightful metaphor continues to shape discourse around gender, sexuality, power and race, but I believe it is also relevant to the current ecological crisis and the motives of a number of environmental campaigners who last week published an open letter and website advocating ‘Natural Climate Solutions’.
On the 3rdApril in The Guardian newspaper a number of distinguished and respected individuals including the activist Greta Thunberg, author Philip Pullman, CEO of Friends of the Earth Craig Bennett and the journalist George Monbiot called on governments ‘to support natural climate solutions with an urgent programme of research, funding and political commitment’. The same day Monbiot wrote for The Guardianin more detail about ‘natural climate solutions’, juxtaposing the current preferred method of ‘bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS)’ with the restoration of living systems to draw carbon from the atmosphere in an increasingly futile attempt to keep temperature increase to below 1.5C. Monbiot explains that by protecting and restoring natural forests, allowing native trees to repopulate, and restoring peat and wetlands nature could provide a plentiful source of natural solutions to draw carbon from the air.
A visit to the Natural Climate Solutions website reaffirms and extends these elucidations. The website is coherently divided into chapters detailing how a particular natural entity can provide a way to capture and store carbon. The first three chapters deal with ‘Reforestation’, ‘Forest Protection’ and ‘Other forest carbon solutions’; the point is made that of ‘the millions of hectares of land that have been deforested, much of it provides little or no food production, but would provide good opportunities for cost-effective reforestation’, meaning carbon dioxide could be stored without any disruption to food production. It is also suggested that improvements in forest management could allow trees to store more carbon if logging was reduced and harvest cycles were extended and if timber plantation rotations were also prolonged.
Natural climate solutions appear logical, cost-effective, and non-hazardous to the rest of the natural world and humans; so why is there such a reluctance to embrace these methods? One major reason is economic factors, a point acknowledged on the Natural Climate Solutions website. Whilst discussing reforestation it is suggested that creating financial incentives to plant trees by creating ‘new markets for more sustainable timber and forest products’, could make the prospect more attractive. Restoring wetlands is also noted to be expensive and ‘a relatively high-cost pathway’, especially in the US. But can we afford to continue making decisions solely on economic factors, as a cost will inevitably be paid elsewhere.
There are several studies which, with some caution, suggest that geoengineering could combat climate change by releasing sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. This will essentially mimic the effect of a volcano, pumping gas into the sky that will turn into aerosols which reflect part of the sun’s heat. This would be a temporary measure however not a solution, as it would not combat the continual accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or the acidification of the oceans and could potentially interfere with rainfall and storm patterns.
Ultimately, we are at crisis point, and the utilisation of scientific intervention in the form of BECCS or the release of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere is reminiscent of using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. The ecological crisis emerged through the anthropocentric burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and the appropriation of land for agriculture and it seems illogical that the crisis will be averted by utilising the same tools which were implicit in its destruction. Natural climate solutions may be slow, steady and expensive, but perhaps the master should allow the natural world to use its own tools to right the human wrong, maybe then the required perimeters of change that are drastically and urgently required will occur.
The above picture is looking out across the Irish Sea from the shoreline of St. Bees in West Cumbria; if you continue following the coast you will reach the town of Whitehaven, which in the eighteenth-century boasted of having the greatest port outside of London and looks upon the mountains of the Lake District National Park. On the 19 March 2019, Cumbria County Council approved a plan by West Cumbria Mining Limited to operate the first deep coal mine in thirty years at Woodhouse Colliery in a £165 million deal which is to be located between St. Bees and Whitehaven. The mine will process 2.5 million tonnes of coking coal a year destined for the UK and European market replacing imports from the US, Canada, Russia and Columbia. The controversial plan gained support from councillors representing all the major political parties and one of the reasons it was ultimately given the green light was expressed by Councillor Geoff Cook who stated that “the number of jobs on offer … outweighed concerns about climate change and local amenity”. The mine is expected to employ 500 people and an estimated 2,000 more jobs will be created within the supply chain. The approval has angered climate protestors as the justification based around employment irrevocably places anthropocentric interests above the sustainability of the planet.
But what is coking coal? Known also as ‘metallurgical coal’, it is primarily used in the steel industry. Metallurgical coal is much harder and blacker than coal used for thermal purposes and it contains more carbon and less moisture. As carbon dioxide is the greenhouse gas most commonly produced by human activity and is responsible for 64% of human made global warming, the approval of the mine does appear counter to the goals of the 2016 Paris Agreement about climate change. The agreement focuses on keeping the average global temperature increase to well below 2 celsius above pre-industrial levels and to limit the increase to 1.5 celsius, a long-term goal made harder with the continual burning of fossil fuels.
The action group ‘Keep Cumbrian Coal in the Hole’, have been active in petitioning the planning application for a number of reasons. They are concerned about the mines proximity to the Sellafield nuclear power plant as it will be located less than five miles from the site. There is also concern about West Cumbria Minings plan to sell a percentage of the coke on the open international market as it could end up being burnt in power stations or potentially in the manufacturing process of projects such as Trident submarines. There is also anger towards the suggestion, which was used as part of the PR campaign, that the coke is necessary for producing steel for wind turbines. An argument which seems condescending when the planet is in the grip of an environmental crisis.
The approval of the Woodhouse Colliery highlights the most fundamental issue within the Anthropocene, that of the human versus the natural world. At a time when our children and young adults are protesting climate change and begging for adults to responsibly be the custodians of their future planet, a plan which undeniably puts human factors before those of the environment is a detrimental step backwards and threatens the security of the planet for us all.
As February has moved into March and Spring has begun in earnest I have embarked on a ‘rewilding’ project in my back garden. It is a fairly modest size and typical of a Victorian terrace house, rectangle in shape and leads out to an alley way that runs the back of our house and those opposite. The garden is currently essentially concrete, covered in what were once coloured slabs that made a chessboard design with a thin soil boarder around the edge. At the moment practicality dictates that I use one small corner of the garden for my project as the dog still needs space and we need access through the back gate, however, all my research indicates that even a small area can make a massive difference to the local wildlife and increase biodiversity.
On a large scale, the idea of ‘rewilding’ has gained momentum over the last five-ten years and many environmentalists believe it to be a good land management alternative. Rewilding Britain states that the idea “is the large scale restoration of ecosystems where nature can take care of itself”, suggesting that the intent is for humans to stand back and effectively let nature be. The aim is to reverse the ecological damage which has been done for centuries and “reinstate natural processes and, where appropriate, missing species – allowing them to shape the landscape and habitats within”. The introduction of ‘missing species’ is a controversial idea, with many against the notion of reintroducing wolves or the lynx back to Scotland. Writing in The Guardian in 2017, Catherine Bennett is critical of reintroducing species for safety reasons and because of the irony in humans being part of that process in order for nature to become wild again. Rewilding Britain supports these actions because our “ecosystems are broken and nature is struggling – with 56% of species in the UK in decline and 15% threatened with extinction”. The environmental writer George Monbiot,believes rewilding “offers the hope of recovery, of the enhancement of wonder and enchantment and delight in a world that often seems crushingly bleak”.
Rewilding my back garden may be a small action, but it is a manageable one. I have removed some of the slabs, turned the soil and scattered various seeds, aiming for a meadow like effect that will attract butterflies, bees and more exotic birds than pigeons and blackbirds. I will not use any chemicals on the area, no pesticides, slug pellets or fertilisers. The concrete which remains I will endeavour to decorate with plants and flowers that will attract a diverse range of insects and birds. I will therefore effectively be letting nature take care of itself and yes, there is an irony in a human hand creating the space but there must be a balance between the human and nature within the current ecological crisis and a working together rather than an anthropogenic dominance.
As February 2019 begins to move towards March is has been hard to ignore the increase in the daily temperature resulting in coats and jackets remaining in cloak rooms to be replaced by t-shirts, shorts and flip flops for the truly brave. Accompanying this change in attire has been the smells and sights of Spring arriving early. A fragrant perfume of flowers beginning to bloom and grass being mown, a blanket of vibrant spring flowers emerging and trees budding their infant blossom. Birds and insects have begun to build nests and wake up, swallows have been sighted across the country and bees and lady birds have been spotted as early as Valentine’s day.
The problem with such an early Spring is that if March, when true Spring is expected to commence, has effectively swapped places with February, then the birds and insects may find themselves struggling through a cold and wet month, battling to survive as food becomes scarce and night time temperatures plummet. This will then impact their ecosystem as food chains struggle and nests built early in the year on the promise of a warm Spring find themselves empty.
As we begin to experience increased fluctuations in weather patterns it is vital that data is recorded and analysed to ascertain the causes and effects of these anomalies, especially the impact of climate change, and this is known as ‘phenology’. This is “the study of the timing of natural events, especially in relation to climate … Historical data proves how responsive species are to changing temperatures”. As part of the Woodland Trust, Nature’s Calendarencourages the public to record signs of natural happenings beginning earlier than expected to track these changes. Through data collected and already analysed, Nature’s Calendar have determined that the “overall period of active plant growth each year is lengthening’ and that across Europe Spring “is now advancing by 2.5 days per decade”. Indicating that if this pattern remains, in twenty years Spring will be five days longer and in forty years up to ten, suggesting that in most of our life times these recent temperatures and early Spring will become the norm.
It is essential therefore that as the narrative of the Anthropocene continues to evolve we strive to become active participants not only in reducing our anthropogenic impact, but also by recording these natural happenings to ensure a true pattern can be established. Please visit https://naturescalendar.woodlandtrust.org.uk/add-a-record/to view which species have been recorded already this year and how you can record your own.
In The Secret Network of Nature by Peter Wohlleben the close connections that exist between flora and fauna are explored and several unexpected relationships reveal the delicate balance which maintains vulnerable ecosystems. Wohlleben stresses that nature works on cause and effect, however the earths ecosystems are too complex for us to ever easily map out simple rules to ensure the balance is never interrupted. It is therefore difficult for us to imagine today some of the long-term effects and disruption being created through the anthropocentric control of nature.
One of the most interesting chapters in the book is entitled ‘Salmon in the Trees’ and here Wohlleben explains the relationship between salmon, bears and trees. He states that along the Pacific Coast of North America black and brown bears catch salmon as they journey back upstream in preparation to spawn. The bears catch the salmon but will discard the carcass if they are no longer carrying much body fat, ensuring a tasty meal for other animals in the area. The head and bones of the salmon often get left to rot amongst the vegetation and this subsequently fertilises the soil. This results in extremely high levels of nitrogen being distributed which has the effect of speeding up the growth of the Sitka spruce in particular which grows nearby. It has been reported that more than 80 per cent of the nitrogen that is found in the trees can be traced back to fish.
In Europe, where we no longer have salmon swimming in abundance in rivers, it is difficult to ascertain what effect their absence has had as we are unable to test trees for nitrogen levels because as Wohlleben states, since the Middle Ages, forests have either been cut down or “so heavily exploited that all the ancient trees have disappeared”. It is a sad but surprising fact that in Germany forests which are commercially managed have no tree older than eighty.
Alongside other fascinating relationships examining ‘Why Deer Taste Bad to Trees, ‘Is the Bark Beetle All Bad?’, and ‘How Earthworms Control Wild Boar’, Wohlleben addresses many of the myths which surround biodiversity. In particular the idea that if we manage to save one particular animal or plant we are doing a good thing for the environment, the effect this then has on the survival of several other species is often ignored. Wohlleben highlights the fact that in Germany alone there are 71,500 known species, meaning we can never know how many will be destroyed by the anthropocentric decision to alter the environment to ensure the survival of one.
The Secret Network of Nature is an accessible, illuminating, factual account of how anthropocentric management of the environment can interrupt the balance of life. The notion of cause and effect reminds me of the 1952 Science Fiction short story ‘A Sound of Thunder’ by Ray Bradbury. Set in 2055 the protagonist Eckles pays a lot of money to return to the past to hunt a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Eckles and his fellow hunters are given strict instructions to remain on the path and only shoot when instructed so they do not cause any damage in the past that will have consequences in the future but, panicked at the sight of the T-rex Eckles runs into the forest straying from the path. On their arrival back in 2055 subtle changes have taken place which indicate something must have gone wrong. On examining his shoe, it becomes clear that Eckles has crushed a butterfly when he deviated from the path. The story concludes on a sound of thunder resonating from the past highlighting the damage caused by anthropocentric actions. Wohlleben’s book is a sound of thunder in the Anthropocene, our current actions will and do have far reaching consequences; but understanding the ‘network of nature’ may help us stick to the path and ensure the balance of these relationships.