Nice: a river runs through it

Nice: a river runs through it

Many towns have grown up around rivers which have later been covered in (Liverpool and London included). Beneath the city streets, waterways continue on their ancient courses in underground culverts. Nice was once such place, where the Paillon, a river fed by mountain streams that flood each year with the melting of the snows, for much of the 19th century divided old Nice from new, poor from rich, servant from master.  Then,  in 1883, the Paillon was culverted, paved over, and became an unknown presence.

But last October, in a dramatic beautification of the city landscape, a new, linear park – the Promenade de Paillon – opened following a major urban renewal project that restores, at least metaphorically, the Paillon to its original place in the heart of the city.   Continue reading “Nice: a river runs through it”

Too Soon to Tell: Rebecca Solnit’s case for Hope, continued

Too Soon to Tell: Rebecca Solnit’s case for Hope, continued
Idle No More: a Canadian First Nations environmental protest against tar sands exploitation

I thought I’d pass on some inspiring thoughts from a new essay written by writer, environmental campaigner and global justice activist Rbecca Solnit (no stranger to these posts – see the links below).  Ten years ago Rebecca Solnit began writing about hope with her online essay Acts of Hope, posted at Tomdispatch in May 2003, that bleak moment when it seemed that the huge antiwar demonstrations had failed as the Bush administration launched Shock and Awe in Iraq.  Solnit says that the essay changed her life and her work, revealing how the Internet could give wings to words. What she wrote spread around the world, putting her in touch with people and movements, and led to deep conversations about the possible and the impossible.

Solnit’s message – developed in her book Hope In The Dark – might be summarized as a rebuttal of Alice’s assertion in Through the Looking Glass that ‘one can’t believe impossible things’. For Solnit that notion of the impossible represents the war being waged to inhibit our collective imagination. In that war every creative act, every thoughtful inquiry, every opening of a mind is a victory for hope.  We may not be able to discern their results immediately, but somewhere down the line there will be consequences.

Each December since the publication of Hope In The Dark, Rebecca Solnit has written an end of year essay for Tomdispatch, and now she has published a new essay that updates the vision of that first one, written in dark times ten years ago, when she ‘tried to undermine despair with the case for hope’.  In Too Soon to Tell: The Case for Hope, Continued, Solnit argues that a decade later, much has changed, and not necessarily for the better. But not entirely for the worse either:

If there is one thing we can draw from where we are now and where we were then, it’s that the unimaginable is ordinary, and the way forward is almost never a straight path you can glance down, but a labyrinth of surprises, gifts, and afflictions you prepare for by accepting your blind spots as well as your intuitions.

The nub of her philosophy is this:

If you take the long view, you’ll see how startlingly, how unexpectedly but regularly things change. Not by magic, but by the incremental effect of countless acts of courage, love, and commitment, the small drops that wear away stones and carve new landscapes, and sometimes by torrents of popular will that change the world suddenly. To say that is not to say that it will all come out fine in the end regardless. I’m just telling you that everything is in motion, and sometimes we are ourselves that movement.

Hope and history are sisters: one looks forward and one looks back, and they make the world spacious enough to move through freely. Obliviousness to the past and to the mutability of all things imprisons you in a shrunken present. Hopelessness often comes out of that amnesia, out of forgetting that everything is in motion, everything changes. We have a great deal of history of defeat, suffering, cruelty, and loss, and everyone should know it. But that’s not all we have.

There’s the people’s history, the counter-history that you didn’t necessarily get in school and don’t usually get on the news: the history of the battles we’ve won, of the rights we’ve gained, of the differences between then and now that those who live in forgetfulness lack. This is often the history of how individuals came together to produce that behemoth civil society, which stands astride nations and topples regimes — and mostly does it without weapons or armies. It’s a history that undermines most of what you’ve been told about authority and violence and your own powerlessness.

Civil society is our power, our joy, and our possibility, and it has written a lot of the history in the last few years, as well as the last half century. If you doubt our power, see how it terrifies those at the top, and remember that they fight it best by convincing us it doesn’t exist. It does exist, though, like lava beneath the earth, and when it erupts, the surface of the earth is remade.

Things change. And people sometimes have the power to make that happen, if and when they come together and act (and occasionally act alone, as did writers Rachel Carson and Harriet Beecher Stowe — or Mohammed Bouazizi, the young man whose suicide triggered the Arab Spring).

If you fix your eye on where we started out, you’ll see that we’ve come a long way by those means. If you look forward, you’ll see that we have a long way to go — and that sometimes we go backward when we forget that we fought for the eight-hour workday or workplace safety or women’s rights or voting rights or affordable education, forget that we won them, that they’re precious, and that we can lose them again. There’s much to be proud of, there’s much to mourn, there’s much yet to do, and the job of doing it is ours, a heavy gift to carry. And it’s made to be carried, by people who are unstoppable, who are movements, who are change itself.

Solnit doesn’t deny that at the present juncture, things look grim, with the Arab Spring stalled, the Occupy movement dissipated, and resistance in places like Greece and Spain fading. Then there’s climate change; as she was writing the essay:

The news just came in that we reached 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, the highest level in more than five million years. This is terrible news on a scale that eclipses everything else, because it encompasses everything else. We are wrecking our world, for everyone for all time, or at least the next several thousand years.

The last time CO2 levels were so high was probably in the Pliocene epoch, between 3.2m and 5m years ago, when Earth’s climate was much warmer than today.  But, argues Solnit, there are people ‘doing extraordinary things to save the world’:

For you, for us, for generations unborn, for species yet to be named, for the oceans and sub-Saharan Africans and Arctic dwellers and everyone in-between, for the whole unbearably beautiful symphony of life on Earth that is imperilled.

Occupy Sandy
Occupy Sandy: one of the examples given by Solnit of activism that has morphed out of Occupy

But Solnit is sustained by the memory that in 2003, there was no climate movement to speak of (at least in the United States). Now, she says, things have changed.

There’s a vibrant climate movement in North America. If you haven’t quite taken that in, it might be because it’s working on so many disparate fronts that are often treated separately: mountaintop coal removal, coal-fired power plants (closing 145 existing ones to date and preventing more than 150 planned ones from opening), fracking, oil exploration in the Arctic, the Tar Sands pipeline, and 350.org’s juggernaut of a campus campaign to promote disinvestment from oil, gas, and coal companies. Only started in November 2012, there are already divestment movements under way on more than 380 college and university campuses, and now cities are getting on board. It has significant victories; it will have more.

And though global climate agreements have proved feeble

Some countries – notably Germany, with Denmark not far behind – have done remarkable things when it comes to promoting non-fossil-fuel renewable energy. Copenhagen, for example, in the cold gray north, is on track to become a carbon-neutral city by 2025 (and in the meantime reduced its carbon emissions 25% between 2005 and 2011). The United States has a host of promising smaller projects. To offer just two examples, Los Angeles has committed to being coal-free by 2025, while San Francisco will offer its citizens electricity from 100% renewable and carbon-neutral sources and its supervisors just voted to divest the city’s fossil-fuel stocks.

And though Occupy may have faded from the news, it ‘began to say what needed to be said about greed and capitalism, exposing a brutality that had long been hushed up, revealing both the victims of debt and the rigged economy that created it’.  Moreover, Occupy has morphed into ‘thousands of local gatherings and networks’ such as Occupy Sandy, still doing vital work in the destruction zone of that hurricane, and Strike Debt, a movement challenging ‘the immorality of the student, medical, and housing debt that is destroying so many lives’.  She cites the xample, too, of Idle No More, the Canada-based movement of indigenous power and resistance to a Canadian government that has gone in for environmental destruction on a grand scale. Founded by four women in November 2012, it’s spread across North America, sparking environmental actions and new coalitions around environmental and climate issues.

Strike Debt
A Strike Debt protest

Read the essay in full: it’s inspiring.  This is how Rebecca Solnit sums up her message:

Here’s what I’m saying: you should wake up amazed every day of your life, because if I had told you in 1988 that, within three years, the Soviet satellite states would liberate themselves non-violently and the Soviet Union would cease to exist, you would have thought I was crazy. If I had told you in 1990 that South America was on its way to liberating itself and becoming a continent of progressive and democratic experiments, you would have considered me delusional. If, in November 2010, I had told you that, within months, the autocrat Hosni Mubarak, who had dominated Egypt since 1981, would be overthrown by 18 days of popular uprisings, or that the dictators of Tunisia and Libya would be ousted, all in the same year, you would have institutionalized me. If I told you on September 16, 2011, that a bunch of kids sitting in a park in lower Manhattan would rock the country, you’d say I was beyond delusional. You would have, if you believed as the despairing do, that the future is invariably going to look like the present, only more so. It won’t.

I still value hope, but I see it as only part of what’s required, a starting point. Think of it as the match but not the tinder or the blaze. To matter, to change the world, you also need devotion and will and you need to act. Hope is only where it begins, though I’ve also seen people toil on without regard to hope, to what they believe is possible. They live on principle and they gamble, and sometimes they even win, or sometimes the goal they were aiming for is reached long after their deaths. Still, it’s action that gets you there. When what was once hoped for is realized, it falls into the background, becomes the new normal; and we hope for or carp about something else.

The future is bigger than our imaginations. It’s unimaginable, and then it comes anyway. To meet it we need to keep going, to walk past what we can imagine. We need to be unstoppable. And here’s what it takes: you don’t stop walking to congratulate yourself; you don’t stop walking to wallow in despair; you don’t stop because your own life got too comfortable or too rough; you don’t stop because you won; you don’t stop because you lost. There’s more to win, more to lose, others who need you.

You don’t stop walking because there is no way forward. Of course there is no way. You walk the path into being, you make the way, and if you do it well, others can follow the route. You look backward to grasp the long history you’re moving forward from, the paths others have made, the road you came in on. You look forward to possibility. That’s what we mean by hope, and you look past it into the impossible and that doesn’t stop you either. But mostly you just walk, right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot. That’s what makes you unstoppable.

Rebecca Solnit: lecture on Hope, May 2011

See also

Hope in the Dark

Hope in the Dark

Daryl Hannah and great-grandmother Eleanor Fairchild at Texas tar sands protest

Relentless rain, dark days, bad news all over.  Savage spending cuts – with the poorest councils facing the most drastic reductions that foreshadow a wave of library, social services and leisure centre closures. The British economy heading for an unprecedented triple-dip recession and the poor bearing the brunt. Climate change taking place before our eyes.  The hopes of 2011 – Occupy and the Arab Spring – seeming to fade.  With evidence like this, it’s so easy to adopt the default position of many on the left: doom, gloom, pessimism, impending apocalypse.

But, as the year turns, here’s a message of hope. I’ve just finished Hope in the Dark (the third book by Rebecca Solnit that I have read this year).  It began as a single essay, Acts of Hope, written and posted at Tomdispatch in May 2003, that bleak moment after the huge antiwar demonstrations had seemed to fail and the Bush administration had launched Shock and Awe in Iraq. Solnit’s message might be summarized as a rebuttal of Alice’s assertion in Through the Looking Glass that ‘one can’t believe impossible things’. For Solnit – writer, environmental campaigner and global justice activist – it’s the knee-jerk pessimism, perfectionism and defeatism of many of those involved in these political movements that needs to be resisted. For her, the only war that counts is the war waged to inhibit our collective imagination: in that war every creative act, every thoughtful inquiry, every opening of a mind is a victory for hope.  We may not be able to discern their results immediately, but somewhere down the line there will be consequences.

Writing in 2003, Solnit began Hope in the Dark by accepting the future as dark, a place of probabilities and likelihoods, but no guarantees:

On January 18, 1915, six months into the first world war, as all Europe was convulsed by killing and dying, Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal, ‘The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.’ Dark, she seems to say, as in inscrutable, not as in terrible. We often mistake the one for the other. Or we transform the future’s unknowability into something certain, the fulfilment of all our dread, the place beyond which there is no way forward.  But again and again, far stranger things happen than the end of the world.

Who twenty years ago would have pictured a world in which the Soviet Union had vanished and the Internet had arrived? Who then dreamed that the political prisoner Nelson Mandela would become president of a transformed South Africa?  Who foresaw the resurgence of the indigenous world of which the Zapatista uprising in Southern Mexico is only the most visible face? Who, four decades ago, could have conceived of the changed status of all who are nonwhite, nonmale, or nonstraight, the wide-open conversations about power, nature, economies and ecologies?

There are times when it seems as though not only the future but the present is dark: few recognise what a radically transformed world we live in, one that has been transformed not only by such nightmares as global warming and global capital, but by dreams of freedom, of justice, and transformed by things we could not have dreamed of.  We adjust to changes without measuring them, we forget how much the culture changed. […]

Zapatistas march in December 2012
Zapatistas march again in Mexico, December 2012

A central tenet of Solnit’s case is that small, seemingly insignificant actions that appear to achieve nothing, can, like the flap of a butterfly’s wings, have consequences in other times or other places. She recalls one such action that seemed to go nowhere:

One June day in 1982, a million people gathered in Central Park to demand a nuclear freeze. They didn’t get it. The movement was full of people who believed they’d realize their goal in a few years and then go home. Many went home disappointed or burned out. But in less than a decade, major nuclear arms reductions were negotiated, helped along by European antinuclear movements and the impetus they gave Gorbachev. Since then, the issue has fallen off the map and we have lost much of what was gained. The US never ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Bush administration is planning to resume the full-fledged nuclear testing halted in 1991, to resume manufacture, to expand the arsenal, and perhaps even to use it in once-proscribed ways.

It’s always too soon to go home. And it’s always too soon to calculate effect. I once read an anecdote by someone in Women Strike for Peace, the first great antinuclear movement in the United States in 1963, the one that did contribute to a major victory: the end of aboveground nuclear testing with its radioactive fallout that was showing up in mother’s milk and baby teeth. She told of how foolish and futile she felt standing in the rain one morning protesting at the Kennedy White House. Years later she heard Dr. Benjamin Spock – one of the most high-profile activists on the issue then – say that the turning point for him was seeing a small group of women standing in the rain, protesting at the White House. If they were so passionately committed, he thought, he should give the issue more consideration himself.

The lesson Solnit draws from this is that many activists make the mistake of expecting that for every action there will be an equal and opposite and punctual reaction.  If there isn’t one, they regard it as failure. But, she argues, history is shaped by the groundswells and common dreams that single acts and moments only represent:

It’s a landscape more complicated than commensurate cause and effect. Politics is a surface in which transformation comes about as much because of pervasive changes in the depths of the collective imagination as because of visible acts, though both are necessary. And though huge causes sometimes have little effect, tiny ones occasionally have huge consequences. […]

From the time the English Quakers first took on the issue of slavery, three quarters of a century passed before it was abolished it in Europe and America. Few if any working on the issue at the beginning lived to see its conclusion, when what had once seemed impossible suddenly began to look, in retrospect, inevitable. And as the law of unintended consequences might lead you to expect, the abolition movement also sparked the first widespread women’s rights movement, which took about the same amount of time to secure the right to vote for American women, has achieved far more in the subsequent 83 years, and is by no means done.

I know this for myself: my radicalism (like many of my generation) was inspired by the actions of people far distant from me in place and experience.  It was the actions, words and joyful music of civil rights activists in the United States and those resisting apartheid in South Africa that galvanised me. Solnit would argue that the student radicalism of the sixties and the Northern Ireland civil rights movement are just further examples of the law of unintended consequences, and that the plunge into the dark that both of those initiating movements represented is still continuing – the fight for equality irrespective of skin colour, ethnic origin, gender or sexual orientation goes on.  A black man wins a second term as President of the United States.

Václav Havel visiting Ruzyne Prison, where he had once been incarcerated, Prague, March 1990
Václav Havel visiting Ruzyne Prison, where he had once been incarcerated, Prague, March 1990

We should not confuse hope with optimism, Solnit argues.  She recalls that F Scott Fitzgerald is often quoted as saying that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.  What people nearly always overlook, says Solnit, is Scott Fitzgerald’s next sentence: ‘One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise’.  Solnit wonders what kept Vaclav Havel hopeful through all those years when the Czechoslovakian communist regime seemed impregnable and he was imprisoned or subject to constant government surveillance.  She offers Havel’s own words as an answer:

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.  Hope is a feeling that life and work have meaning. You either have it or you don’t, regardless of the state of the world that surrounds you.  Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.

Nobody knows the consequences of their actions, Solnit says: history is full of small acts that changed the world in surprising ways. She gives an example from her own experience.  In the late 1980s she was one of thousands of activists at the Nevada Test Site, where the US and UK have exploded more than a thousand nuclear bombs, with disastrous effects on the environment and human health:

We didn’t shut down our test site, but our acts inspired the Kazakh poet Olzhas Suleimenov, on February 27, 1989, to read a manifesto instead of poetry on live Kazakh TV – a manifesto demanding a shutdown of the Soviet nuclear test site in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, and calling a meeting. Five thousand Kazakhs gathered at the Writer’s Union the next day and formed a movement to shut down the site. They named themselves the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Antinuclear Movement.

The Soviet Test Site was indeed shut down. Suleimenov was the catalyst, and though we in Nevada were his inspiration, what gave him his platform was his poetry in a country that loved poets. Perhaps Suleimenov wrote all his poems so that one day he could stand up in front of a TV camera and deliver not a poem but a manifesto. And perhaps Arundhati Roy wrote a ravishing novel that catapulted her to stardom so that when she stood up to oppose dams and destruction of the local for the benefit of the transnational, people would notice. Or perhaps these writers opposed the ravaging of the earth so that poetry too – poetry in the broadest sense – would survive in the world.

Solnit suggests that pessimism about the future often derives from a perfectionism that holds that anything less than total victory is failure, a premise that makes it easy to give up at the start or to disparage small victories or advances:

This is earth. It will never be heaven. There will always be cruelty, always be violence, always be destruction. There is tremendous devastation now. In the time it takes you to read this, acres of rainforest will vanish, a species will go extinct, women will be raped, men shot, and far too many children will die of easily preventable causes. We cannot eliminate all devastation for all time, but we can reduce it, outlaw it, undermine its source and foundation: these are victories.

Barack Obama meets Aung San Suu Kyi on historic Burma visit, November 2012
Barack Obama meets Aung San Suu Kyi, elected to Burmese Parliament in April, during his historic Burma visit in November.

Each December since the publication of Hope In The Dark, Rebecca Solnit has written an end of year essay for Tomdispatch. In 2006 she wrote:

The future, of course, is not something you predict and wait for. It is something you invent daily through your actions. As Mas Kodani, a Buddhist in Los Angeles, said in the early twenty-first century: ‘One does not stand still looking for a path. One walks; and as one walks, a path comes into being’.  We make it up as we go, and we make it up by going, or as the Zapatistas more elegantly put it, ‘Walking we ask questions’.  What else can you do?  Perhaps respect the power of the small and the mystery of the future to which we all belong.

In December 2011, Solnit commented on a year that had seen the Arab Spring and the spread of the Occupy movement:

Perhaps the greatest gift that it and the other movements of 2011 have given us is a sharpening of our perceptions – and our conflicts. So much more is out in the open now, including the greed, the brutality with which entities from the Egyptian army to the Oakland police impose the will of rulers, and most of all the deep generosity of spirit that is behind, within, and around these insurgencies and their activists. None of these movements is perfect, and individuals within them are not always the greatest keepers of their brothers and sisters.  But one thing couldn’t be clearer: compassion is our new currency.

Nothing has been more moving to me than this desire, realized imperfectly but repeatedly, to connect across differences, to be a community, to make a better world, to embrace each other. This desire is what lies behind those messy camps, those raucous demonstrations, those cardboard signs and long conversations. Young activists have spoken to me about the extraordinary richness of their experiences at Occupy, and they call it love.

In the spirit of calling things by their true names, let me summon up the description that Ella Baker and Martin Luther King used for the great communities of activists who stood up for civil rights half a century ago: the beloved community. Many who were active then never forgot the deep bonds and deep meaning they found in that struggle. We — and the word “we” encompasses more of us than ever before — have found those things, too, and this year we have come close to something unprecedented, a beloved community that circles the globe.

In her latest end of year essay, Solnit reminds us how mistaken we can be when we judge the past – or the present; there have been losses, but also gains unimaginable three or four decades ago:

When I remember the world I grew up in, I see the parts of it that were Paradise – and I also see all the little hells. I was a kid in California when it had the best public education system in the world and universities were nearly free and the economy was not so hard on people and the rich paid a lot of taxes. The weather was predictable and we weren’t thinking about it changing any time before the next ice age.

That was, however, the same California where domestic violence was not something the law took an interest in, where gays and lesbians were openly discriminated against, where almost all elected officials were white men, where people hadn’t even learned to ask questions about exclusion and racism.

Which is to say, paradises are always partial and, when you look backward, it’s worth trying to see the whole picture. The rights gained over the past 35 years were fought for, hard, while so much of what was neglected – including public education, tuition, wages, banking regulation, corporate power, and working hours – slid into hell.

Pussy Riot members  Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, were arrested and charged with hooliganism. A third member, Yekaterina Samutsevichtrial
Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich on trial in August.

When you fight, says Solnit, you sometimes win. When you don’t, you always lose. She concludes with a return to a favourite theme – the war on imagination:

This is, among other things, a war of the imagination: the carbon profiteers and their politicians are hoping you don’t connect the dots, or imagine the various futures we could make or they could destroy, or grasp the remarkably beautiful and complex ways the natural world has worked to our benefit and is now being sabotaged, or discover your conscience and voice, or ever picture how different it could all be, how different it will need to be.

They are already at war against the well-being of our Earth. Their greed has no limits, their imagination nothing but limits. Fight back. You have the power. It’s one of your gifts.

Solnit offers many examples of extraordinary acts of civil disobedience by people working to build a better world – one in which humankind and some of the beauty of this world might have a chance of surviving. People resisting the forces threatening our futures and the planet’s. People like 78-year old great-grandmother Eleanor Fairchild and actress Daryl Hannah (picture, top) resisting one of the world’s wealthiest multinational corporations building a pipeline across Texas to carry tar sands oil.  (Fairchild was arrested for trespassing – on her own property.)

In 2012, they rose up from Egypt and Russia to Canada and Chile. They are fighting for themselves and their future, but for us, too. They have remarkably few delusions about how little our world is prepared to offer most of them. They know that the only gifts they’ll get are the ones they can wrestle free from the powers that be.

Paradise is overrated. We dream of the cessation of misery, but who really wants a world without difficulty? We learn through mistakes and suffering. These are the minerals that harden our bones and the milestones on the roads we travel. And we are made to travel, not to sit still.

Take pleasure in the route. There is terrible suffering of many kinds in many places, but solidarity consists of doing something about it, not being miserable. In this heroic age, survival is also going to require seeing what fragments of paradise are still around us, what still blooms, what’s still unimaginably beautiful about rivers, oceans, and evening skies, what exhilaration there is in witnessing the stubbornness of small children and their discovery of a world we think we know.

Reading Solnit’s words brought to mind one of the year’s most inspiring songs for these hard times – Bruce Springsteen’s ‘We Are Alive’:

We are alive
And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark
Our souls and spirits rise
To carry the fire and light the spark
To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart

This rain must end sometime, these floodwaters recede.

See also

The Meaning of Trees

The Meaning of Trees

Who would have thought that the dark grey shapes in a pack of dog biscuits are derived from willow ash, a product which aids digestion and reduces flatulence?  This was just one of the fascinating insights offered by Fiona Stafford, Professor of Literature at Somerville College Oxford, in a series of Radio 3 essays last week entitled ‘The Meaning of Trees’.

Tree
In her talks, Fiona Stafford explored the cultural, economic and social significance of five different trees – yew, ash, oak, willow and sycamore – outlining the symbolism and importance of each tree in the past and their changing fortunes and reputations.  She revealed how some trees are yielding significant new medical and the environmental benefits.

So, for example, in her first essay Stafford noted that the Yew has been labelled ‘the death tree’ because of its toxicity: every part of the tree is poisonous, and it bleeds a remarkably blood-red sap.  Yet today these ancient trees have the most modern of uses – as part of the fight against cancer.

Fortingall Yew

Yews are renowned for their astonishing longevity, and are most often associated with churchyards.  Yet, as Stafford pointed out, many ancient yews pre-date the churchyards where they stand.  They mark ancient, sacred sites on which Christianity, as the new religion, built. Yews continued to be planted in churchyards where their toxic leaves would not endanger grazing livestock.

The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire (above) is Europe’s oldest tree at over 3,000 years old, and was already a veteran when the Romans arrived. Stafford spoke of how the astonishing longevity of the yew and its evergreen branches have suggested comforting thoughts of everlasting life to mourners in churchyards, while the dark, dense boughs offer privacy and stillness.

A distinctive feature of yews is that they don’t conform to any standard, but evolve into many diverse shapes and forms.  They were tamed and trimmed in Renaissance mazes and parterres, and over the centuries some have grown into fantastical forms, as we saw for ourselves some years back  at Powis castle in Wales, where the terrace is bounded by a 30 foot yew hedge and huge strange shaped ‘tumps’ formed over the centuries by the annual round of clipping and shaping. (below).

Powis

But, said Fiona Stafford, the yew also gained a reputation as ‘the death tree’, due to its toxicity – every part of the tree is poisonous.  Shakespeare described the tree as ‘double fatal’ – its boughs poisonous, while arrows crafted from yew also brought death.  The yew, that bleeds red with remarkably blood-red sap if its bark is cut, has triggered deep fears: yews are there in ghost stories and gothic horror and loom through the gathering darkness of Gray’s Elegy.  In Tennyson’s In Memoriam, the yew is both resented for still being alive when his friend is dead, but also celebrated for its longevity:

Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the under-lying dead,
Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones.
The seasons bring the flower again,
And bring the firstling to the flock;
And in the dusk of thee, the clock
Beats out the little lives of men.
O not for thee the glow, the bloom,
Who changest not in any gale,
Nor branding summer suns avail
To touch thy thousand years of gloom:

And gazing on thee, sullen tree,
Sick for thy stubborn hardihood,
I seem to fail from out my blood
And grow incorporate into thee.

With its blood-red berries and leaves resistant to winter’s trials, yews were a symbol of everlasting life, the oldest living things in Europe.  The longevity of the yew was illustrated by Fiona Stafford when she told how, at Fountains Abbey in the 12th century, the yews were already so large that the monks could live in them while the abbey was being built. Some living yews are older than Stonehenge or the pyramids.  Trees that were seedlings 3000 years ago were already vast by time Romans arrived.

The idea of the yew symbolizing everlasting life might now be reinforced, Stafford argued, by the tree’s new role in the fight against cancer.  In the 1960s, scientists discovered that taxol, derived from the bark of the yew, could be used in chemotherapy. A newer formulation is now used to treat patients with lung, ovarian, breast and other forms of cancer.

But there’s a downside for the tree: stripping bark from the trees kills them, and as a consequence the Himalayan Yew is now an endangered species.  Careful harvesting of yew needles would produce the same benefits and be more sustainable but, being slower, yield lower profits.  ‘The impulse to fell’, Stafford concluded, ‘has a humane as well as a profit dimension’.  This is not the first time that human exploitation has threatened the yew: Stafford described the medieval decimation of the European yew for arrows.

But, Stafford concluded, it is not the yew’s dark façade or poisonous needles but its very long life that is troubling: the tree will survive into a future when we’ve all been forgotten.  If all that’s left of the people who planted some of our more venerable trees are their broken beakers, she queried, what will remain of those in today’s garden centres trundling their potted yews to the checkout?  Their purchase may be their most long-lasting legacy.

Although we don’t yet know what else the yew has hidden away, one day we might. What is the meaning of the yew?  Stafford concluded: it’s much too early to say.

David Hockney- Woldgate lane to Burton Agnes, 2007

In her second essay, Fiona Stafford tackled the tree which has suddenly hit the headlines. The Ash is now threatened by the arrival in Britain of the fungus called Chalara fraxinea which causes ash dieback. But, said Stafford, the Ash has survived since the birth of humanity and has met mortal threats before.  Despite many different near fatal epidemics over the centuries, delicate ash trees have survived for millennia.

As evidence of the significance of the Ash in our culture and for the British landscape, Stafford cited David Hockney’s recent Royal Academy show in which ash trees peopled the fields of the Yorkshire Wolds (above) – a return, she said, to the great tradition of British landscape painting.  [For a discussion of the prospects for the trees painted by Hockney, see Will Ash Dieback affect Woldgate Hockney Trees?]

Stafford cited John Constable as an example of another English painter in love with the graceful form of the ash.  The tree figures in paintings such as Cornfield and Flatford Mill, and in drawings which Constable made of a favourite ash on Hampstead Heath (below).

In the summer of 1823 Constable rented a house in Hampstead. He admired trees and made many studies of them, always noting their specific shapes and varying foliage. In this drawing – Study of an ash tree – inscribed and dated ‘Hampstead June 21 1823. longest day. 9 o clock eveninghe defined the particularities of an ash tree at a given moment and at a specific location, combining intense feeling for the tree with accurate observation of the tree trunk, branches and leaves, as well as capturing the air between the leaves and the wind passing through.

John CONSTABLE Study of an ash tree

Stafford told how Constable described the tree as having died of a broken heart after a notice warning against vagrancy was nailed unceremoniously to the trunk.  ‘The tree seemed to have felt the disgrace’, he lamented, for almost at once some of its top branches withered, and within a year or so when the entire tree became paralysed, and ‘the beautiful creature was cut down to a stump’.  His friend and biographer C.R. Leslie wrote of Constable’s love of trees, and of the ash in particular:

I have seen him admire a fine tree with an ecstasy of delight like that with which he would catch up a beautiful child in his arms.  The ash was his favourite, and all who are acquainted with his pictures cannot fail to have observed how frequently it is introduced as a near object, and how beautifully its distinguishing peculiarities are marked.

It was a favourite tree, too, of Edward Thomas. In Ash Grove, written in 1916, war has concentrated his mind on a vision of England, at ‘a moment’, in Stafford’s words, ‘when the past, unwilling to die, floods the present with joyful sunlight, and an ordinary clump of trees becomes magnified into something extraordinary’.  Thomas also evokes his Welsh ancestry in the poem’s recollection of a girl singing the old Welsh folk song ‘The Ash Grove’:

Half of the grove stood dead, and those that yet lived made
Little more than the dead ones made of shade.
If they led to a house, long before they had seen its fall:
But they welcomed me; I was glad without cause and delayed.

Scarce a hundred paces under the trees was the interval –
Paces each sweeter than the sweetest miles – but nothing at all,
Not even the spirits of memory and fear with restless wing,
Could climb down in to molest me over the wall

That I passed through at either end without noticing.
And now an ash grove far from those hills can bring
The same tranquillity in which I wander a ghost
With a ghostly gladness, as if I heard a girl sing

The song of the Ash Grove soft as love uncrossed,
And then in a crowd or in distance it were lost,
But the moment unveiled something unwilling to die
And I had what I most desired, without search or desert or cost.

Stafford discussed the many cultural associations of the ash, including its health benefits.  Pliny noted that its leaves were considered an effective antidote to snake bites, while later generations valued the ash as a cure for  obesity and gout, and its bark a tonic for arthritis, while warts could be eradicated by a prick from a pin that had been inserted into the bark.

The ash was an integral part of life, giving its name to innumerable places, and wherever people lived and worked the ash tree was a constant companion.  Its reputation as a friend to man rested not only on its physical beauty or medicinal value, but also the versatility of ash wood.  Its toughness and elasticity lent itself to the manufacture of wagon wheels, skis, walking sticks, bentwood chairs, as well as cricket stumps and billiard cues.  Stafford told how, during the Second World War, when metal was scarce, ash was used in construction of the de Havilland Mosquito, a wooden bomber.  Ash was also the wood used for the Morris Traveller wood frame, and is still used today in the construction of Morgan sports cars.

Given the ubiquity of the tree, it was not surprising, Stafford suggested, that the ancient people of northern Europe thought the entire world depended on the ash.  In Nordic myth, even human beings were thought to derive from piece of ash driftwood the Norse gods found on the shore.  Ask was the first human, created by the gods from that piece of ash; in Old Norse askr means ‘ash tree’.

Our history with the ash is long. In Norse mythology, the World Tree Yggdrasil was an ash tree, with two wells feeding its roots – wisdom and destiny.  Stafford told how Norse mythology also ‘foresaw the end of the known world when Yggdrassil would shake and crack, the land would be engulfed by ocean, and the old gods overthrown. They knew that the great ash tree would not last forever.’ But, asked Stafford, can we protect the ash now that it fights off a new threat to its existence?

She pointed out that ashes not renowned for their longevity, living only a couple of hundred years at most.  But coppiced they will continue to send up shoots from the dead heartwood, and their abundant seeds – or keys – also lead to rapid propagation.  The ash is tolerant of almost any soil, and – until now – has been one of most familiar trees in Britain.  It is hard to imagine an ash-less Britain, but, with Chalara fraxinea now alarmingly set on sweeping through British Isles, Stafford concluded, ‘the future of the ash tree is far less assured than its past’.

Allerton Oak

Fiona Stafford began her essay on the Oak in that most English of locations – the bar of the Royal Oak.  Here, in a pub bearing  the third most popular pub name in England, you are likely to be surrounded by oak – the bar and tables made of oak, and the beer’s flavour and colour deepened in oak barrels. Oak, she said, is  such an integral part of our culture we scarcely notice it.

Sturdy, stalwart, stubborn: the oak is a symbol of enduring strength that has inspired poets, composers and writers for millennia. But not just in England.  The oak has been chosen as the national tree of many other countries, too, including Estonia, France, Germany, Moldova, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the United States, and Wales.

Civilisations have been built from oak, as its hard wood has been felled for houses, halls and cities, its timber turned into trading ships and navies. Other woods are as strong, but few are as long-lasting as oak.  Some oak trees, observed Stafford, served as ale houses, some were gospel oaks under which parishioners gathered to hear readings from the Bible.  She might have added that the spreading branches of others served as shelter for local council meetings – such as the Allerton Oak (above) in Liverpool’s Calderstones Park, now over a thousand years old, beneath which the sittings of the local ‘Hundred court’ were held.

When war threatened, oak proved crucial for national defence, oak wood being unique for its hardness and toughness and thus ideal for shipbuilding.  But the oak’s value also led to its decimation since a large naval vessal required some 2000 oaks, and replanting was a slow affair, with replacement trees only reaching maturity after two or three hundred years.

In one of the most fascinating parts of her talk, Fiona Stafford explained that the English are not alone in identifying the oak as a symbolic tree.  The oak is the emblem of Derry in Northern Ireland, originally known in Gaelic as Doire, meaning oak.  The Irish County Kildare derives its name from the town of Kildare which originally in Irish was Cill Dara meaning the Church of the Oak.  The oak is a national symbol for the people of the Basque Country, as well as being used as a symbol by a number of political parties, including the Conservative Party.  As Stafford observed:

The outspread arms of the oak offered a congenial symbol and make the complicated story of its political exploitation a telling example of how different notions of nationhood  can be cultivated, felled, or replanted.  If the same tree can inspire both conservative admiration for inheritance and radical enthusiasm for equal rights, as well as unionist pride in inclusiveness and separatist determination for independence, it’s difficult to be too absolute about what the oak’s real meaning might be.

Major Oak

Sacred to the Celts and the Ancient Greeks, the oak tree has been central in British culture, present in place-names and national songs; yet it is also the national tree of dozens of countries.  It was once the most common European tree, but then the huge demand for oak timber led to a steep decline. Commenting on the famous Major Oak of Sherwood Forest (above), Stafford wondered:

‘Is the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, its collapsing branches so carefully cradled by poles and wires, a heartening image of a caring community, or does it provoke less cheering ideas of a people clinging to memories of a great, but increasingly vanishing past?’

But then, she concluded, perhaps the impulse to interpret trees as anything but trees is one to handle with care.

Cutting osiers

The poor soul sat singing by a sycamore tree.
Sing all a green willow:
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow:
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur’d her moans;
Sing willow, willow, willow
– Othello,
Act IV, Scene 3

Fiona Stafford began her essay on the Willow by observing that for poets and dramatists it has long been the tree of loss, abandoned lovers, and broken hearts. Shakespeare had Desdemona singing her willow song on the last night of her life and Ophelia sinking into the brook by the willow:

There is a willow grows askant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come: [….]
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook.

Something about this tree, it seems, makes everyone want to weep – but the problem, as Stafford pointed out, is that many such references to the willow in folk songs (and in Shakespeare) pre-date the arrival of the Weeping Willow in Britain in the 18th century.  It’s claimed that the Weeping Willow was first introduced by the poet Alexander Pope who received a basket of figs from Smyrna in Turkey. Noticing that one of the twigs making up the basket was still alive, he planted it in his garden in Twickenham where it grew into the willow tree from which, it’s claimed, all others have been propagated.  By early 19th century the Weeping Willow was widely recognised, not least due to the willow pattern pottery designed by ceramics artist Thomas Minton (who also invented the legend which the design illustrates).

So Shakespeare’s willow, and the willow of old folk songs, must have belonged to one of the many indigenous varieties – white willow, crack willow, bay willow, etc, etc.  The easiest of trees to propagate, the pliable branches of the quick-growing willow have been used for basket-weaving, wicker-work, cradle-making, thatching or fencing. Osiers, the shrubby willows (above), are the best for basket-making, with stems so strong and pliable that they can be woven into wickerwork without snapping.

Willow Man

A dramatic symbol of the past importance of the willow for local economies is, as Fiona Stafford noted, Serena Delahaye’s giant willow man (above), a prominent landmark beside the M5 northbound between junction 24 and 23, near Bridgwater in Somerset. The sculpture stands 40 feet high and is made of locally grown black maul willow, woven around a steel skeletal frame.  The current figure is the second on the site. The original was destroyed by fire in 2001.  We have seen it from a speeding car on our way to Cornwall: a celebration of the traditional local industry of the Somerset Levels.  Fiona Stafford offered a reminder that in Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, Roger Deakin devoted a chapter to the willow growers of the Somerset Levels.

The willow’s fortunes have fluctuated over the centuries, according to the practical needs of the time.  In times of war its lightness and flexibility meant that it was used to make artificial limbs, while willow charcoal was used to make gunpowder. Doctors also used the charcoal for dressing wounds, and willow was used as a remedy for fever and rheumatism. Pain relief derived from the willow’s salicylic acid, which yielded aspirin.  Eventually this led to the development of salacin, an anti-inflammatory agent that is produced from willow bark and which is closely related in chemical composition to aspirin.  Willow charcoal is not only the best for sketching, but has also been used to manufacture medicinal biscuits aimed at aiding digestion – thus the grey dog biscuits mentioned at the start.

The willow’s flammability (which led to its use in making gunpowder) mean that it is now being developed for biomass.  In Scandinavia, willow wood chip is already replacing oil as a cleaner fuel for domestic heating, as well as for industrial purposes. Willows offer a reliable, carbon-neutral source of heat – they grow so fast, absorbing carbon dioxide, that they can be harvested very frequently, producing cheap and easily-renewable supplies of fuel. Willow-fuelled power stations being planned.  Willows could also form part of an effective defence against flooding, with the long roots thriving in moist soil and helping to stabilise river banks.

So, synonymous with Englishness, having furnished the raw material for cricket bats since the 1780s (when a new variety of white willow was identified in Suffolk, providing an especially resilient, wide-grained wood) the willow is now at the cutting edge of medicinal and biomass development.

Fiona Stafford finished her survey of the willow’s meaning, by noting that when Claude Monet was trying to achieve ‘the ideal of an endless whole, unlimited by shores and horizons’, he turned again and again to the lily pond at Giverny.  ‘It was’, said Stafford,  ‘as if he could paint with plants, filling the pool with water lilies, surrounding it with weeping willows.  In the paintings, planes and surfaces dissolve as the multi-petalled flowers float on reflections of trees, and the vertical fronds of the willows make waves more visible than water’.

‘Monet’s willows’, concluded Stafford, ‘are perhaps the ultimate image of the ever-shifting willow: a tree so adaptable that it can be taken for water, sky, earth or sun.  And what might the willow be saying?  So much depends on the circumstances’.

In massy foliage of a sunny green
The splendid sycamore adorns the spring,
Adding rich beauties to the varied scene,
That Nature’s breathing arts alone can bring.
Hark! how the insects hum around, and sing,
Like happy Ariels, hid from heedless view­—
And merry bees, that feed, with eager wing,
On the broad leaves, glazed o’er with honey dew.
The fairy Sunshine gently flickers through
Upon the grass, and buttercups below;
And in the foliage Winds their sports renew,
Waving a shade romantic to and fro,
That o’er the mind in sweet disorder flings
A flitting dream of Beauty’s fading things.
John Clare, ‘The Sycamore’

There’s a tall sycamore that stands in a neighbouring garden and in summer, from mid-afternoon, casts our lawn and patio into deep shade.  It has annoyed me through the thirty-odd years that we lived here, and I have longed for it to be cut down.

In her final essay, Fiona Stafford challenged the popular image of the Sycamore as an unwanted, problematic weed, the cause of ‘the wrong kind of leaves on the line’ that disrupt British railways each year; the tree with too many leaves, too much sap, and too many seedlings.

Instead, Stafford focussed on the benefits of the sycamore.  As John Clare observed in his poem, with its dense foliage and sweet sap the tree is a haven for insects and sipping bees.  Clare, said Stafford, was ahead of his time in understanding this.  The sycamore is now valued, too, as a haven for all kinds of birds.

Sycamores annoy because of their resilience.  Sycamore seeds, with their propellers, spread far and wide on the wind and take root anywhere. They are hardy trees, loved by urban councils for their resistance to salt and tolerance of the pollution and harsh environment of city streets.  Consequently, the sycamore has become the most common tree in British cities.

In Britain, as Stafford noted, attitudes to the sycamore have always been ambivalent. Already, in 1664, John Evelyn was asserting that the sycamore should be banished from gardens and avenues because of its reputation for shade, and the honeydew-coated leaves which, after their fall, ‘turn to a mucilage … and putrefie with the first moisture of the season [and so] contaminate and marr our Walks’.  Many continue to hold such views, and see it as a weed which should be eradicated. As Richard Mabey observes in his magnificent book Weeds:

The mythology stacked against it is formidable.  It’s a true weed, invasive and loutish.  Its myriad seedlings swamp the ground and out-compete native trees.  Its large and ungainly leaves litter the earth, then slowly rot to a slithery mulch.  They are ‘the wrong sort of leaves’ that famously cause trains to skid to a halt every autumn.

But as both Stafford and Mabey observe, though widely regarded as a non-native species, the sycamore was introduced to Britain in Tudor times while, ironically, more recent arrivals, such as 19th century exotic imports, have been highly prized.

Yet, for Stafford, there is ‘something inspirational about the ordinariness of the sycamore’.  Seen as an ordinary tree, the sycamore has never been valued for its rich timber, even though its wood is as strong as oak, and more easily dyed. The sycamore, she suggested, stands for extraordinary possibilities latent in the commonplace.  A familiar feature of almost every rural area, their thick foliage offers shade to sheep and cattle, shelter to solitary farmhouses, and has inspired poets as varied as John Clare and W B Yeats.  In Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth expressed his profound delight in the prospect of the Wye valley seen from beneath a ‘dark sycamore’,  referring to its sun-blocker foliage.

Stafford finished by recalling that the oldest sycamore in England is probably the Tolpuddle tree, beneath which gathered, in 1834, the Dorset agricultural labourers who became pioneers of the trade union movement.  Barred from church halls or other indoor spaces, they gathered beneath the sycamore to stand up for their rights and resist their long hours and low wages.

Tolpuddle sycamore

The Tolpuddle sycamore

50 years after ‘Silent Spring’

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, originally published on 27 September 1962.

Silent Spring has come to be regarded as an environmental classic which instigated the modern environmental movement. The book’s warning about the dangers of pesticides touched a nerve, but also reflected wider concerns in the emerging counter-culture of the sixties – that modern technologies, combined with rampant consumerism, were causing environmental problems that had otherwise not been widely noticed or, worse, suppressed by vested interests.

Personally, the book has a special meaning.  It was one of the first books that I borrowed when a public library opened in our village in 1962, when I was 14.  How much of the book I actually read, I cannot now remember – but what I can recall is the impact that the introduction made upon me then.  It was almost like reading the science fiction to which I was addicted at that time:

There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of colour that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines. Then foxes barked in the hills and deer silently across the fields, half hidden in the mists of the autumn mornings.

Among the roads, laurel, viburnum and alder, great ferns and wildflowers delighted the traveller’s eye through much of the year. Even in winter the roadsides were places of beauty, where countless birds came to feed on the berries and on the seed heads of the dried weeds rising above the snow. The countryside was, in fact, famous for the abundance and variety of its bird life, and when the flood of migrants was pouring through in spring and autumn people travelled from great distances to observe them. Others came to fish the streams, which flowed clear and cold out of the hills and contained shady pools where trout lay. Sot it had been from the days many years ago when the first settlers raised their houses, sank their wells, and built their barns.

Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. In the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients. There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among adults but even among children, who would be stricken suddenly while at play and die within a few hours.

There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example – where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled an disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.

On the farms the hens brooded, but no chicks hatched. The farmers complained that they were unable to raise any pigs – the litters were small and the young survived only a few days. The apple trees were coming into bloom but no bees droned among the blossoms, so there was no pollination and there would be no fruit.

The roadsides, once so attractive, were now lined with browned and withered vegetation as though swept by fire. These, too, were silent, deserted by all living things. Even the streams were now lifeless. Anglers no longer visited them, for all the fish had died.

In the gutters under the eaves and between the shingles of the roofs, a white granular powder still showed a few patches; some weeks before it had fallen like snow upon the roofs and the lawns, the fields and the streams.

No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.

This town does not actually exist, but it might easily have a thousand counterparts in America or elsewhere in the world. I know of no community that has experienced all the misfortunes I describe. Yet every one of these disasters has actually happened somewhere, and many real communities have already suffered a substantial number of them. A grim spectre has crept upon us almost unnoticed, and this imagined tragedy may easily become a stark reality we all shall know.

It was here that, for the first time, I was introduced to the idea of the inter-connectedness of all living things, and the pernicious effects of industrial development on the environment.  It was a concept that sank like a pebble in a pool, lost in my consciousness for many years, but resurfacing a decade or so later. For someone of the ‘ban-the bomb’ generation, reading the following passage so soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis was particularly alarming:

The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings. To a large extent, the physical form and the habits of the earth’s vegetation and its animal life have been molded by the environment. Considering the whole span of earthly time, the opposite effect, in which life actually modifies its surroundings, has been relatively slight. Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species man acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.

During the past quarter century this power has not only increased to one of disturbing magnitude but it has changed in character. The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible. In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world and the very nature of life. Strontium 90, released through nuclear explosions into the air, comes to earth in rain or drifts down as fallout, lodges in soil, enters into the grass or corn or wheat grown there, and in time takes up its abode in the bones of a human being, there to remain until his death. Similarly, chemicals sprayed on crop lands or forests or gardens lie long in soil, entering into living organisms, passing from one to another in a chain of poisoning and death. Or they pass mysteriously by underground streams until they emerge and, through the alchemy of air and sunlight, combine into new forms that kill vegetation, sicken cattle, and work unknown harm on those who drink from once pure wells. As Albert Schweitzer has said, “Man can hardly even recognize the devils of his own creation.”

It took hundreds of millions of years to produce the life that now inhabits the earth eons of time in which that developing and evolving and diversifying life reached a state of adjustment and balance with its surroundings. The environment, rigorously shaping and directing the life it supported, contained elements that were hostile as well as supporting. Certain rocks gave out dangerous radiation; even within the light of the sun, from which all life draws its energy, there were short-wave radiations with power to injure. Given time – time not in years but in millennia –  life adjusts, and a balance has been reached. For time is the essential ingredient; but in the modern world there is no time.

The rapidity of change and the speed with which new situations are created follow the impetuous and heedless pace of man rather than the deliberate pace of nature. Radiation is no longer merely the background radiation of rocks, the bombardment of cosmic rays, the ultraviolet of the sun that have existed before there was any life on earth; radiation is now the unnatural creation of man’s tampering with the atom. The chemicals to which life is asked to make its adjustment are no longer merely the calcium and silica and copper and all the rest of the minerals washed out of the rocks and carried in rivers to the sea; they are the synthetic creations of man’s inventive mind, brewed in his laboratories, and having no counterparts in nature.

To adjust to these chemicals would require time on the scale that is nature’s; it would require not merely the years of a man’s life but the life of generations. And even this, were it by some miracle possible, would be futile, for the new chemicals come from our laboratories in an endless stream; almost five hundred annually find their way into actual use in the United States alone. The figure is staggering and its implications are not easily grasped: five hundred new chemicals to which the bodies of men and animals are required somehow to adapt each year, chemicals totally outside the limits of biologic experience.

Among them are many that are used in man’s war against nature. Since the mid-1940’s over 200 basic chemicals have been created for use in killing insects, weeds, rodents, and other organisms described in the modem vernacular as “pests”; and they are sold under several thousand different brand names.

These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the “good” and the “bad,” to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in soil all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called “insecticides,” but “biocides.”

[…]

Along with the possibility of the extinction of mankind by nuclear war, the central problem of our age has therefore become the contamination of man’s total environment with such substances of incredible potential for harm substances that accumulate in the tissues of plants and animals and even penetrate the germ cells to shatter or alter the very material of heredity upon which the shape of the future depends. . . .

What is the legacy of Silent Spring?  There are some interesting opinions and archive materials in this discussion, hosted on The Guardian website two days ago, while the Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson can be explored on this website.

There’s an excellent essay, Re-Reading Silent Spring, published by Earth Island Journal that draws attention to how much was already known in 1962 about the environmental health impacts of petrochemicals, and how little the  regulatory response to the environmental impact of chemicals has changed, despite the advances in scientific understanding since then:

Reading Silent Spring today, it is disquieting to realize how much was already known in 1962 about the environmental health impacts of petrochemicals. Even more shocking is to recognize how little our regulatory response to these chemicals’ effects has changed, despite the past five decades’ great advances in scientific understanding.

Best known for its alarming account of DDT’s decimation of bird life across the United States, Silent Spring is widely credited with sparking the public concern that lead to the chemical’s ban in the US ten years later. “Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of birds, and the early mornings, once filled with the beauty of bird song, are strangely silent,” Carson wrote, describing the toll pesticide use had taken on American birds. Without changes in practice, brought about in part by Silent Spring, the bald eagle (whose numbers had plummeted to about 400 breeding pairs in the continental US by 1963) might well have disappeared from the lower 48 states.

But Carson also described the accumulation of synthetic chemicals in people – including newborns – and these chemicals’ interaction with the innermost workings of living cells. “For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death,” Carson wrote. “These chemicals are now stored in the bodies of the vast majority of human beings, regardless of age. They occur in the mother’s milk, and probably in the tissues of the unborn child,” wrote Carson more than 40 years before an Environmental Working Group study found 287 industrial chemicals in newborns’ umbilical cord blood, and decades before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began finding such chemicals in the majority of Americans tested.

A year ago I wrote that I had been listening to The Essay on Radio 3:  five talks on the theme ‘Before Silent Spring‘ in which five writers, scientists and environmental campaigners reflected on how Carson built on the work of others who had gone before her, figures whose ideas preceded Silent Spring and laid the foundations of the contemporary environmental movement.  Read that post here.

Two interesting videos from YouTube about the impact of Silent Spring:

Footnote, 8.12.2012

There’s an excellent essay in today’s Guardian by Margaret Attwood in which she assesses the significance of Silent Spring.  Here’s an extract:

One of the core lessons of Silent Spring was that things labelled progress weren’t necessarily good. Another was that the perceived split between man and nature isn’t real: the inside of your body is connected to the world around you, and your body too has its ecology, and what goes into it – whether eaten or breathed or drunk or absorbed through your skin – has a profound impact on you. We’re so used to thinking this way now that it’s hard to imagine a time when general assumptions were different. But before Carson, they were.

In those years, nature was an “it”, an impersonal and unconscious force; or, worse, malignant: a nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw bent on afflicting humanity with all the weapons at its disposal. Against brute nature stood “we”, with our consciousness and intelligence. We were a higher order of being, and thus we had a mandate to tame nature as if it were a horse, subdue it as if it were an enemy, and “develop” it as if it were a female bustline or a male set of Charles Atlas biceps – how awful to be underdeveloped! We could then exploit nature’s resources, which were thought of as inexhaustible.

Three streams of thinking fed into this civilisation/savagery construct. The first was biblical dominionism: in Genesis, God proclaims that man has dominion over the animals, and this was construed by some as permission to annihilate them. The second was informed by the machine metaphors that colonised linguistic space after the invention of the clock, and that spread across the west during the 18th-century enlightenment: the universe was an unfeeling machine, and life forms too were machines, without souls or consciousness or even feeling. Therefore they could be abused at will, because they weren’t really suffering. Man alone had a soul, situated inside the machine of his body (possibly, thought some, in the pituitary gland). In the 20th century, scientists threw out the soul but kept the machine: for a strangely long time, they held that to ascribe anything like human emotions to animals was anthropocentrism. Ironically, this was a direct contradiction of the granddaddy of modern biology, Charles Darwin, who had always maintained the interconnectedness of life, and – like any dog owner or farmer or hunter – was well aware of animal emotions.

The third line of thinking came – again ironically – from social Darwinism. Man was “fitter” than the animals, by virtue of his intelligence and his uniquely human emotions; thus in the struggle for existence man deserved to triumph, and nature would have to give way eventually to a fully “humanised” environment.

But Carson questioned this dualism. Whatever airs we might give ourselves, “we” were not distinct from “it”: we were part of it, and could live only inside it. To think otherwise was self-destructive:

The “control of nature” is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.

The state we’re in: journal entry 1,054

Towards the end of The Four-Gated City, the final volume in Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence sequence, Martha Quest starts to collect newspaper cuttings that reveal what, to her, are signs of an impending apocalypse:

local catastrophic occurrences – the poisoning of a country, or of an area; the death of part of the world; the contamination of an area for a certain period of time. These events will be the development of what is already happening…. All kinds of denials, evasions are made.  It can be taken as an axiom that all governments everywhere lie.

In these days, too, stories in the news seem to carry the same portentous inference: catastrophe and contamination, denials and evasions.

  • Item: ‘As the US suffers the worst drought in more than 50 years, analysts are warning that rising food prices could hit the world’s poorest countries, leading to shortages and social upheaval’. (Guardian)
  • Item: ‘The worst drought in a generation is hitting farmers across America’s corn belt far harder than government projections and forcing them to a heart-breaking decision: harvest what’s left of their shrivelled acres or abandon their entire crop’. (Guardian)
Illinois farmer gazes at a pond that used to water his cattle.
  • Item:  ‘If average temperatures increase, so will temperature extremes. As temperatures increase, so will evaporation. As evaporation increases, so will precipitation. As tropical seas get warmer, so will the increased hazard of cyclone, hurricane or typhoon. Nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred in this century. Last year was the second rainiest year on record worldwide; the winner of this dubious derby was 2010, which, with 2005, was also the warmest on record. …  Some of the most catastrophic floods and lethal heatwaves ever observed have claimed many thousands of lives in the last decade, and the increasing probability of such extremes has been predicted again and again: by the World Meteorological Organisation; by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; by the UN’s inter-agency secretariat for disaster reduction; and by researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany who have listed the 19 hottest, wettest or stormiest ever events, all in the last decade. There are other, less direct indicators. The northern hemisphere growing season has expanded by 12 days since 1988. Sea levels are rising. Higher sea levels make storm surges – and consequent catastrophic floods in estuaries, flood plains and coastal cities – more likely, more costly and more deadly. The signals are clear enough. Climate is changing, and local weather patterns are responding. Conditions that seem bad now may be regarded as relatively benign in decades to come…. Weakened by successive disasters and a mix of ugly reasons that include corruption, civil war and endemic poverty, governments are less able to respond. The long-term forecast is not promising’. (Guardian editorial)

  • Item: ‘[The Arctic] is home to a quarter of the planet’s oil and natural gas reserves, yet humans have hardly touched these resources in the far north. But in a few days that could change dramatically if Shell receives approval to drill for oil in the Arctic. … Exploiting the Arctic’s vast oil reserves is just one cause of environmental unease, however. The far north is melting and far faster than predicted. Global temperatures have risen 0.7C since 1951. In Greenland, the average temperature has gone up by 1.5C. Its ice cap is losing an estimated 200bn tonnes a year as a result. And further rises are now deemed inevitable, causing the region’s ice to disappear long before the century’s end’. (Observer)
Arctic melting is a clear sign of global warming: temperatures have risen faster than elsewhere on the globe.
  • Item:  ‘The former head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, posited that four pillars of the international banking system are: drug-money laundering, sanctions busting, tax evasion and arms trafficking.  The response of politicians is to cower from any serious legal assault on this reality, for the simple reasons that the money is too big (plus consultancies to be had after leaving office). Herein … lies the problem. We don’t think of those banking barons as the financial services wing of the Sinaloa [Mexican drug] cartel. The stark truth is that the cartels’ best friends are those people in pin-stripes who, after a rap on the knuckles, return to their golf in Connecticut and drinks parties in Holland Park. The notion of any dichotomy between the global criminal economy and the “legal” one is fantasy. Worse, it is a lie. They are seamless, mutually interdependent – one and the same’. (Ed Vulliamy, The Observer)
  • Item: ‘This week evidence emerged that HSBC abetted massive money laundering by Iran, terrorist organisations, drug cartels and organised criminals. By this point, should this surprise us? Selling defective mortgage securities during the housing bubble; creating and selling securities to bet on their failure; bringing the world to the brink of collapse; colluding to manipulate interest rates; hyping your failing company while secretly selling your own stock; cooking the books; assisting Bernard Madoff. For many people in banking, it would seem, securities fraud, accounting fraud, perjury and conspiracy are just another day at the office’. (Charles Ferguson, director of the best documentary in this decade, Inside Job, in The Guardian)

  • Item: ‘A global super-rich elite has exploited gaps in cross-border tax rules to hide an extraordinary £13 trillion ($21tn) of wealth offshore – as much as the American and Japanese GDPs put together – according to research commissioned by the campaign group Tax Justice Network’. (Observer)
  • Item: ‘Interest rates on Spain’s 10-year borrowing rose to the highest since the euro was created … following fresh bad news about the financial health of the country’s regions. … What began as a Spanish banking bailout looks to be moving rather quickly towards a possible sovereign bailout. Overlay that with increasingly negative news on Greece and you get a fairly negative mix. …The cost of bailing out Spain would dwarf the packages already agreed for the three smaller eurozone countries – Greece, Ireland and Portugal – and would heap pressure on monetary union’s third biggest economy Italy’. (Guardian)
Protest march in Madrid against the Spanish government’s austerity measures

John Gray the philosopher (who once wrote, in Straw Dogs, ‘humans … cannot destroy the Earth, but they can easily wreck the environment that sustains them.’) gave an provocative response to the question ‘what would Maynard Keynes do in the current situation?’ in his BBC Radio 4 Point of View essay last week:

We do not find ourselves today struggling with the aftermath of a catastrophic world war. Yet the situation in Europe poses risks that may be as great as they were in 1919. A deepening slump there would increase the risk of a hard landing in China – on whose growth the world has come to depend. In Europe itself, a downward spiral would energise toxic political movements – such as the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, which won seats in parliament in the last election in Greece. Facing these dangers, Keynes’s disciples insist that the only way forward is through governments stimulating the economy and returning it to growth.

It’s hard to imagine Keynes sharing such a simple-minded view. As he would surely recognise, the problem isn’t just a deepening recession, however serious. We face a conjunction of three large events – the implosion of the debt-based finance-capitalism that developed over the past twenty years or so, a fracturing of the euro resulting from fatal faults in its design, and the ongoing shift of economic power from the west to the fast-developing countries of the east and south.

Interacting with each other, these crises have created a global crisis that old-fashioned Keynesian policies cannot deal with. Yet it’s still Keynes from whom we have most to learn. Not Keynes the economic engineer, who is invoked by his disciples today. But Keynes the sceptic, who understood that markets are as prone to fits of madness as any other human institution and who tried to envisage a more intelligent variety of capitalism.

Keynes condemned Britain’s return in 1925 to the gold standard, which famously he described as a barbarous relic. Would he not also condemn the determination of European governments to save the euro? Might he not think they would be better advised to begin a planned dismantlement of this primitive relic of 20th Century utopian thinking?

I suspect Keynes would be just as sceptical about the prospect of returning to growth. With our ageing populations and overhang of debt, there’s little prospect of developed societies keeping up with the rapid expansion that is going on in emerging countries. Wouldn’t we be better off thinking about how we can enjoy a good life in conditions of low growth?

Keeping Quiet by Pablo Neruda

And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about,
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.

In the closing words of The Four-Gated City, Martha Quest struggles to come to terms with our predicament on this planet:

 Now the voices and the sound of movement were gone, and the stream could be heard running quietly under its banks.  The air was full of the scent of water and of flowers.  She walked, quiet… She walked beside the river… She thought, with the dove’s voices of her solitude: Where? But where. How? Who?  No, but where, where …Then silence and the birth of a repetition.  Where? Here.  Here?

Here, where else, you fool, you poor fool, where else has it been, ever?

See also

Festival: after all these years, a new park for Liverpool

Festival: after all these years, a new park for Liverpool

It’s taken a long time, but at last the site of the 1984 International Garden Festival has reopened, giving Liverpool a new, freely accessible park.  The site has been derelict since 1997 when Pleasure Island, a rather shoddy theme park that occupied the site following the Garden Festival, finally closed.  The other day I took a walk through the 90 acre open space, now named Festival Gardens: I came away impressed with the quality of the restoration of some of the best features of the Garden Festival and with the beauty of the gardens.

Entering the park from Otterspool Promenade, the first sight that greets the visitor is a lovely wild flower meadow, bright with ox-eye daisies, cornflowers and poppies.

Care has been lavished on the paths and walkways, with some board walks extending across water features.  The opening of the site to the general public has been delayed for several months, but the benefit of this is that the plantings are now fully mature, with none of the raw sparseness that greeted visitors to the Garden Festival in 1984.

The International Garden Festival took place between May and October 1984.  The aim was to promote tourism  and revitalise the city of Liverpool following the decline of port and traditional industries, and the riots of 1981. The plan was supported by the Conservative Environment Minister Michael Heseltine, appointed Minister for Merseyside after the riots. The festival was hugely popular, attracting 3.8 million visitors, including ourselves – with our daughter, born that year.

The Yellow Submarine was one of the highlights of the Festival.  After the Festival site closed, the Submarine found a home for several years in Chavasse Park (now part of Liverpool One) before being retired from public view when its condition deteriorated.  It was subsequently renovated and found a new home at John Lennon airport in 2005

Apart from the Yellow Submarine sculpture and the Typhoo Tea ship, the star attractions of the original Garden Festival were the Chinese and Japanese gardens.  Both of these have now been beautifully restored.

Two Chinese Pagodas formed the centrepiece of the Garden Festival in 1984. In the years since, the original pagodas had deteriorated from lack of maintenance and the adverse effects of weather, with one sinking into the ground.  Now they have been restored by experts from around the world, including a team of artists who worked on the pagodas’ painted beams, recreating the original vivid colours. Five thousand decorative tiles for the pagoda were sourced from China.  The original waterfall has been reconstructed and the pagodas now look out across a beautiful lake.

For many visitors, the Japanese garden was the highlight of the festival site; now, it has been brought back from a state of overgrown dereliction, with a landscape architect from the same company which designed the original garden brought from Japan to oversee the work.  The original garden was presented to the people of Liverpool by the Japanese government in 1984, with the features of the garden, such as the plants and the waterfall, all authentic.

The focus of the Japanese garden is the azumaya, or rest house, which was redesigned and re-built after the original was burned to the ground.   The garden is entered via two traditional Japanese arches.

Liverpool was the first of five garden festivals held across the UK – the most successful being in Glasgow. The site in Govan, which attracted five million visitors, is now a thriving digital media hub and the home of BBC Scotland.  In the north-east, the Gateshead event of 1990, which preempted the creation of Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, was hailed as a triumph and the site now houses a nature reserve. Similar events were held in Ebbw Vale and Stoke-on-Trent, both of which also suffered serious industrial decline in the 1980s.

When the Liverpool Garden Festival closed its doors, a large part of the site was developed into residential housing, while the remainder went through various incarnations as leisure and entertainment facilities, until finally it was left derelict in 1997 and fell into disrepair.  The Festival Hall dome was demolished in late 2006.

Until I came across these old photos of the Garden Festival on the BBC website, I had forgotten how extensive the site was.  The photo above shows the entrance to the Festival at the old Herculaneum dock, with the newly constructed Britannia Inn.  Herculaneum dock was afterwards redeveloped as City Quay, a new dockland residential development where our daughter now lives.

Another feature of the Garden Festival that most people remember was the Moon Wall.

This photo of the Moon Wall during the decade when the site lay derelict comes from the Land Trust blog.

The Moon Wall has been fully rebuilt – part of the restoration process that began in November 2006, when local companies Langtree and McLean announced plans for the site that involved the construction of more than 1,000 new homes around the cleared dome area, as well as the restoration of the original Festival gardens.  In 2007, Liverpool City Council granted Langtree planning permission to develop a residential-led regeneration scheme of the Festival gardens which included the restoration of the formal gardens and the development of 1,300 homes.

The redevelopment work finally began in February 2010, having been delayed by the collapse of McLean, the building company that had been responsible for the City Quay development. There’s a revealing photo on the Seven Streets blog, taken when the area had been derelict for a decade.

The Festival Gardens project is managed by The Land Trust on behalf of the land owner Langtree and Liverpool City Council and benefitted from a grant of £3.7m from the Northwest Regional Development Agency.

In the thirty-odd years since the Garden Festival, the initial tree plantings have reached maturity, with the pleasing result that there are shaded woodland paths that wind uphill, eventually arriving at a viewpoint looking out across the Mersey to the Wirral and the Welsh mountains beyond.

Directly across the Mersey from the viewpoint is another former landfill site at Bromborough, soon to be be transformed into the ‘Port Sunlight River Park’.  Over the next 3 years development partners – including Biffa Waste, The Land Trust, the Forestry Commission, Wirral Council and Port Sunlight Village Trust – plan to develop a community woodland, open space and a major new waterfront visitor attraction on the site.

It’s a shame to end on a negative, but the day I visited Festival Gardens, Radio Merseyside had reported instances of vandalism on the site.  I found this example, an information board pretty thoroughly defaced by someone who must have taken some minutes to do this.  Langtree  have responded by saying that they plan to recruit wardens to patrol the site. Not a bad idea: when I was there, there were dozens of young lads racing around on bikes, bathing in the lake by the pagodas and hurling the ornamental pebbles on the shore into the water.  It’s great that they have discovered a wonderful space to expand into, but the presence of one or two figures of authority just to ensure things don’t get out of hand would be no bad thing at all.

See also

Curtains for Lonesome George – and the rest of us too?

This is the giant tortoise Lonesome George, last survivor of his Galapagos Islands subspecies, at the Darwin research centre on Santa Cruz Island, Ecuador, where he died last weekend, aged 100. George had survived pirates, whalers and goats, which ate their way through his habitat. But his destiny was to be the last of his subspecies, the Pinta Island tortoise.

On the same day as it reports this news, The Guardian carries George Monbiot’s latest column in which he eviscerates the leaders of the most powerful nations – the United States, the UK, Germany, Russia – who could not even be bothered to attend the Earth summit in Rio last week.  It is, Monbiot says, ‘the greatest failure of collective leadership since the first world war’. The Earth’s living systems are collapsing and yet the world’s nations solemnly agreed at the end of the summit to ‘keep stoking the destructive fires’: sixteen times in the final text, Monbiot notes, they pledged to pursue ‘sustained growth’, the primary cause of the biosphere’s losses.

The efforts of governments are concentrated not on defending the living Earth from destruction, but on defending the machine that is destroying it. Whenever consumer capitalism becomes snarled up by its own contradictions, governments scramble to mend the machine, to ensure – though it consumes the conditions that sustain our lives – that it runs faster than ever before. The thought that it might be the wrong machine, pursuing the wrong task, cannot even be voiced in mainstream politics. The machine greatly enriches the economic elite, while insulating the political elite from the mass movements it might otherwise confront.

Monbiot writes dismissively of what has been achieved internationally in the last two decades:

It marks, more or less, the end of the multilateral effort to protect the biosphere. The only successful global instrument – the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer – was agreed and implemented years before the first Earth Summit in 1992. It was one of the last fruits of a different political era, in which intervention in the market for the sake of the greater good was not considered anathema, even by the Thatcher and Reagan governments. Everything of value discussed since then has led to weak, unenforceable agreements, or to no agreements at all.

In his column last week, he was even more scathing:

This … earth summit in Rio de Janeiro is a ghost of the glad, confident meeting 20 years ago. By now, the leaders who gathered in the same city in 1992 told us, the world’s environmental problems were to have been solved. But all they have generated is more meetings, which will continue until the delegates, surrounded by rising waters, have eaten the last rare dove, exquisitely presented with an olive leaf roulade. The biosphere that world leaders promised to protect is in a far worse state than it was 20 years ago. Is it not time to recognise that they have failed?

These summits have failed for the same reason that the banks have failed. Political systems that were supposed to represent everyone now return governments of millionaires, financed by and acting on behalf of billionaires. The past 20 years have been a billionaires’ banquet. At the behest of corporations and the ultra-rich, governments have removed the constraining decencies – the laws and regulations – which prevent one person from destroying another. […]

You have only to see the way the United States has savaged the Earth summit’s draft declaration to grasp the scale of this problem. The word “equitable”, the US insists, must be cleansed from the text. So must any mention of the right to food, water, health, the rule of law, gender equality and women’s empowerment. So must a clear target of preventing two degrees of global warming. So must a commitment to change “unsustainable consumption and production patterns”, and to decouple economic growth from the use of natural resources.

He is led to draw the deeply pessimistic conclusion that we have missed the chance of preventing two degrees of global warming, and that most of the other planetary boundaries will be crossed. So, he asks, what do we do now?

Some people will respond by giving up, or at least withdrawing from political action. Why, they will ask, should we bother, if the inevitable destination is the loss of so much of what we hold dear: the forests, the brooks, the wetlands, the coral reefs, the sea ice, the glaciers, the birdsong and the night chorus, the soft and steady climate which has treated us kindly for so long?

He offers three ways of continuing to care for the planet, focussing on rewilding – the mass restoration of ecosystems – which, he believes, offers the best hope we have of creating refuges for the natural world. He, personally, decided to spend much of the next few years promoting rewilding in the UK and abroad.

Which brings us neatly back to Lonesome George.  Although his relatives were exterminated for food or oil by whalers and seal hunters in the 19th century, and his habitat on Pinta was devastated by escaped goats, his survival was the result of his relocation from Pinta Island in 1972 to Santa Cruz Island, where conservationists run a tortoise breeding centre.  Scientists tried to get George to mate with other giant tortoises from the Galápagos Islands and to eventually repopulate Pinta – but all their attempts failed, even that of Sveva Grigioni, a Swiss zoology graduate student, who smeared herself with female tortoise hormones and, in the cause of science, spent four months trying to manually stimulate him.

But, echoing George Monbiot’s point, whereas in 1960, only 11 of the Galápagos Islands’ original 14 populations of tortoises remained, and most were on the point of extinction, today, around 20,000 giant tortoises of different subspecies inhabit the islands and most of the feral goats that plagued Lonesome George have been eradicated.

Conservation scientists agree that George was important because he symbolised both the rapid loss of biodiversity now taking place around the world, but at the same time he provided the inspiration to begin restoring it in places like the Galápagos Islands.

Monbiot concludes his piece by turning his guns again on the failure of world leaders at Rio:

Was it too much to have asked of the world’s governments, which performed such miracles in developing stealth bombers and drone warfare, global markets and trillion-dollar bailouts, that they might spend a tenth of the energy and resources they devoted to these projects on defending our living planet? It seems, sadly, that it was.

Ragged Robin: scruffy but unpretentious

Ragged Robin: scruffy but unpretentious

I noticed the splash of brilliant colour from a distance: walking with my dog on Childwall Fields this afternoon, I encountered a patch of Ragged Robin, a favourite flower from childhood.  It’s a plant that likes damp places like boggy meadows, marshes and ditches, and the reason I was able to get close enough to take these photos without getting my feet wet was that the recent hot, dry weather had dried out the boggy patch where they were growing.

The reason for the flower’s name is obvious: the ragged bright pink petals have a tattered appearance and, as Sarah Raven writes in her recent book Wild Flowers, they:

look a bit dishevelled, like a skinny dandy after an all-night party.  So many flowers are exercises in perfection and prettiness, but Ragged Robin is cooler than that: a Red Campion that has been through a shredder.

The American writer of children’s poetry, Laura E. Richards, picks up the theme of scruffy unpretentiousness in a pretty awful poem, ‘Ragged Robin’, which begins:

O Robin, ragged Robin,
That stands beside the door,
The sweetheart of the country child,
The flower of the poor,

I love to see your cheery face,
Your straggling bravery;
Than many a stately garden bloom
You’re dearer far to me.

For you it needs no sheltered nook,
No well-kept flower-bed;
By cottage porch, by roadside ditch,
You raise your honest head.

The Ragged Robin has acquired many nicknames – in different parts of the country it was once called Meadow Spink, Polly Baker, Crow Flower, Shaggy Jacks, Thunder Flower, Bachelor’s Buttons or The Cuckoo Flower.  The botanical name is Lychnis flos-cuculi; the first part – ‘lychnis’ – from the Greek for ‘lamp’ (the bright pink flowers were thought to stand out in the landscape like a lamp) while the second part – ‘cuculi’ – translates as ‘the flower of the cuckoo’ (from the observation that it comes into flower when the cuckoos first call).

It was good to see Ragged Robin flourishing in an urban setting like Childwall Fields since the frayed flowers are an increasingly rare sight in the wild. Developments such as the drainage of land for agriculture and the loss of ponds, has resulted in many of the UK’s wetlands disappearing. Here, though, they flourished alongside yellow flag in a boggy area by a pond.

See also

Magnolia: ‘the whiteness is a gift’

Magnolia: ‘the whiteness is a gift’

These are the mornings when I pull back the curtains and light floods into the room as if overnight there has been a sudden, heavy fall of snow.  It’s the magnolia in the front garden, planted nearly thirty years ago that for a week two in spring is clothed in dazzling splendour, the creamy white flowers like candles, touched with pink blush.

It never lasts long; after their couple of weeks of glory, the petals fall and carpet the garden as if snow has fallen. Richard Lambert’s poem, ‘The Magnolia’, speaks of this:

Will you watch the wind blow
white blossom from the tree,
will you watch it blow,

the branches strained with love,
the garden stained with white,
will you watch the wind?

A blackbird leaps into the height
and sings; sky is blue.
Will you watch it blow?

The whiteness is a gift.
Soft, and slow, it opens
on the limbs. Watch it so.

Old hippy that I am, it’s usually a tune by The Grateful Dead that sings in my head as I gaze at the tree:

Sugar magnolia, blossoms blooming, heads all empty and I don’t care …

Sunshine, daydream, walking in the tall trees, going where the wind goes
Blooming like a red rose, breathing more freely,
Ride our singin, I’ll walk you in the morning sunshine

And those blissed-out lyrics seem just right for these days of fine weather, warmer than southerly parts of continental Europe such as Barcelona, Nice and Majorca.  As if we’ve skipped a season and plunged straight into summer.

Magnolias are, I learned from Wikipedia, truly ancient.  Named after a French botanist Pierre Magnol, they evolved even before bees appeared, the flowers developing  to encourage pollination by beetles.  Fossilised specimens of Magnolia have been found dating to 20 million years ago, and of plants identifiably belonging to the family Magnoliaceae dating to 95 million years ago.  A primitive aspect of Magnolias is their lack of distinct sepals or petals.

This reminded me of  the recent BBC TV series presented by geology professor Iain Stewart, How to Grow a Planet.  Branching out from rocks and volcanoes, he set out to demonstrate how plants are the ‘silent power’ that has shaped the Earth as much the geological processes he usually describes.

As recently as 130 million years ago plant life was so limited in its evolutionary journey that the part of a plant we prize above all else – the flower – didn’t exist at all. Stewart went on to show that in the geologically short time they’ve been around flowers have brought about the single most powerful transformation in our planet’s history:  they kick started an explosion of diversification in the animal kingdom – that ultimately lead to homo sapiens.

It was all to do with sex.  All organisms have to reproduce to survive, and that’s what a flower is for, of course.  But before flowers the plant kingdom consisted of  conifers and ferns, and they relied on something completely random – wind and water –for reproduction.

But flowers are basically super-efficient sex organs which, by forming all kinds of partnerships with animals, were incredibly successful, transforming the planet and helping  to steer evolution of animals at the same time.

Scientists still don’t know exactly how and why flowers appeared – there’s some evidence they share genes with fir cones, or evolved from adapted leaf structures. What’s remarkable is that flower fossils all start appearing around the same time – 140–130 million years ago. Darwin called this sudden appearance an ‘abominable mystery’.

Iain Stewart explained that flowers emerged at a time of geological transformation:  the ancient mega-continent of Pangaea was breaking up and new habitats and niches were being formed. Flowering plants evolved a survival ‘toolkit’ that made them better adapted to colonise a changing planet.  Above all, the reason why flowers were so successful was because they harnessed animals to reproduce – flies, beetles, and above all, bees.

As bees evolved they became perfectly adapted to collect pollen from flowers. Their whole bodies became covered in hair, so that the pollen would stick when they landed on flowers. They developed special antennae to smell out nectar,  and their sophisticated compound eyes, each made up of up to 6000 tiny lenses, were perfect at spotting flowers. While we are all familiar with the idea that flowers use colour to attract insects, Iain Stewart demonstrated that insects can also see ultra violet markings on plants – patterns that are indetectable to the human eye.
The magnolia in our garden has been around for close on thirty years, but its kind have flourished on this planet for a few million years longer.

Dungeness: strange beauty under threat

Dungeness: strange beauty under threat

A couple of years ago, we visited Dungeness, on the trail of Derek Jarman and wanting to see a place described in today’s Observer as one of ‘strange beauty’.  Indeed, this largest expanse of shingle beach in Europe is a landscape that haunts the imagination, the shingle stretching to meet an endless sea and sky, dotted with rare plants usually at home in the desert. Windswept and lonely, birds wheel and call in a sky that goes on forever.

Where the shingle ends on the landward  side are dotted 99 Dungeness houses – many of them built on top of Victorian railway carriages dragged on to the shingle a century ago, and one of them Prospect Cottage, the former home of Derek Jarman.  Look in one direction and the black and white stripes of the lighthouse interrupts the horizon; in the opposite direction squats the grey hulk of the nuclear power station.

Dungeness

Now, according to The Observer, this wild and beautiful place is threatened by a plan that would mean up to 100 quarry lorries a day trundling along the unmade road for five days a week and diggers scooping out up to 30,000 tonnes of shingle a year to dump it back into the sea a few miles away down the coast – to prop up the beach in front of the power station.

Derek Jarman in the garden at Prospect Cottage in 1992

In 2008, Howard Sooley (whose photographs illustrated the book Derek Jarman’s Garden) wrote in The Observer about this strange but beautiful landscape:

Dungeness is a dynamic and wild landscape….there’s little hope of thinking you’re in charge of nature here… a shifting spit of shingle jutting out in the English channel, being fought over by the waves from two sides and encroaching grass from the other….and right at the end ……a nuclear power station ( I have yet to understand the thinking behind it’s positioning). […] The horizon….is endless, broken only occasionally by telegraph poles pushing up from the verge of the road only to be dwarfed by the magnitude of the sky above.  As we walked along in the sun Derek started to reveal the treasures of the ness, the curious emerging purple shoots of sea kale (crambe martina) anchored deep in the moving shingle with their long tap roots, the misty blue leaves of the yellow horned poppy pushing past the dry dead spires of last years dock flowers, a maritime form of herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) in a tight alpine dome and the entwining tendrils of a sea pea. The native wild flowers of Dungeness are something special to see, though some are hard to see lost between the immensity of the sky and shingle.

Modern Nature, written by Derek Jarman at Prospect Cottage during 1989 and 1990 after he had been diagnosed as HIV positive, opens with this entry for Sunday 1 January 1989:

Prospect Cottage, its timbers black with pitch, stands on the shingle at Dungeness. Built eighty years ago at the sea’s edge – one stormy night many years ago waves roared up to the front door threatening to swallow it . . . Now the sea has retreated leaving bands of shingle. You can see these clearly from the air; they fan out from the lighthouse at the tip of the Ness like contours on a map.

Prospect faces the rising sun across a road sparkling silver with sea mist.  One small clump of dark green broom breaks through the flat ochre shingle.  Beyond, at the sea’s edge, are silhouetted a jumble of huts and fishing boats, and a brick kutch, Iong abandoned, which has sunk like a pillbox at a crazy angle; in it, many years ago, the fishermen’s nets were boiled in amber preservative. There are no walls or fences. My garden’s boundaries are the horizon. In this desolate landscape the silence is only broken by the wind, and the gulls squabbling round the fishe~men bringing in the afternoon catch. There is more sunlight here than anywhere in Britain; this and the constant wind turn the shingle into a stony desert where only the toughest grasses take a hold – paving the way for sage-green sea kale, blue bugloss, red poppy, yellow sedum.

The shingle is home to larks. In the spring I’ve counted as many as a dozen singing high above, lost in a blue sky. Flocks of greenfinches wheel past in spirals, caught in a scurrying breeze. At low tide the sea rolls back to reveal a wide sandbank, on which seabirds vanish like quicksilver as they fly close to the ground. Gulls feed alongside fishermen digging lug. When a winter storm blows up, cormorants skim the waves that roar along the Ness – throwing stones pell-mell along the steep bank. The view from my kitchen at the back of the house is bounded to the left by the old Dungeness lighthouse, and the iron grey bulk of the nuclear reactor – in front of which dark green broom and gorse, bright with yellow flowers, have formed little islands in the shingle, ending in a scrubby copse of sallow and ash dwarfed and blasted by the gales.

In the middle of the copse is a barren pear tree that has struggled for a  century to reach ten feet; underneath this a carpet of violets. Gnarled dog roses guard this secret spot – where on a calm summer day meadow browns and blues congregate in their hundreds, floating past the spires of nettles thick with black tortoiseshell caterpillars. High above a lone hawk hovers, while far away on the blue horizon the tall medieval tower of Lydd church, the cathedral of the marshes, comes and goes in a heat haze.

This lovely place – ‘these precious fragments’ in Jarman’s words – should not be defiled and desecrated.

to whom it may concern
in the dead stones of a planet
 no longer remembered as earth
 may he decipher this opaque hieroglyph
 perform an archaeology of soul
 on these precious fragments
 all that remains of our vanished days
 here – at the sea’s edge
 I have planted a stony garden
 dragon tooth dolmen spring up
 to defend the porch
 steadfast warriors

– Derek Jarman, journal, 13 February 1989

Derek Jarman’s ‘dragon tooth dolmen’

See also

Wangari Maathai: I will be a hummingbird

The elites have become predators, self-serving and only turning to people when they need them. We can never all be equal, but we can ensure we do not allow excessive poverty or wealth. Inequality breeds insecurity.
– Wangari Maathai

John Vidal’s obituary for Wangari Maathai in The Guardian today is a stirring account of the life and achievements of an exemplary woman. Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, and the first Nobel laureate to make the link between keeping peace and conserving the environment:

The state of any country’s environment is a reflection of the kind of governance in place, and without good governance there can be no peace.

Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement is led by and for rural Kenyan women. What began with planting a few tree seedlings grew to forever reshape the political landscape of Kenya and the world. Maathai trained thousands of women on everything from water conservation to civic leadership, and to date, they’ve planted 35 million trees in a country devastated by deforestation. Along the way, they also helped overthrow a dictatorship.

Vidal observes that initially, the Green Belt movement’s tree-planting activities did not address issues of democracy and peace.  However, it became clear to Maathai that responsible governance of the environment was impossible without effective democracy. The tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya and a way of challenging widespread abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement:

The tree is just a symbol for what happens to the environment. The act of planting one is a symbol of revitalising the community. Tree-planting is only the entry point into the wider debate about the environment. Everyone should plant a tree.

Vidal begins by recalling his last conversation with Maathai:

For a young Kikuyu girl growing up in the early 1940s, the small village of Ihithe, in the lush central highlands of Kenya, was next to perfect. There were no books or gadgets in the houses, but there were leopards and elephants in the thick forests around, clean water, rich soils, and food and work for everyone. “It was heaven. We wanted for nothing. … Now the forests have come down, the land has been turned to commercial farming, the tea plantations keep everyone poor, and the economic system does not allow people to appreciate the beauty of where they live.”

And you can hear the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings when you read that after graduating from high school in 1959, she won a scholarship to study in the US, as part of the ‘Kennedy airlift’ in which 300 Kenyans – including Barack Obama’s father – were chosen to study at American universities in 1960.

After her return from the US, Maathai became increasingly involved in environmental causes and activism.  In 1977, the first ‘Green Belt’ action in Nairobi instigated what became the Green Belt Movement. Maathai encouraged women throughout Kenya to plant tree nurseries in their villages, searching nearby forests for seeds to grow trees native to the area. She agreed to pay the women a small stipend for each seedling which was later planted elsewhere.

Presenting her with the Peace Prize in 2004, the Nobel committee hailed her for taking  ‘a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular’ and for serving ‘as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights’.

Elsewhere in The Guardian, John Vidal has written of Maathai’s fierce denunciation of the rich north in a talk she gave on a visit to Britain in 1988:

The top of the pyramid is blinded by insatiable appetites backed by scientific knowledge, industrial advancement, the need to acquire, accumulate and over-consume. The rights of those at the bottom are violated every day by those at the top.

Her disdain for the economics promoted by Britain, the World Bank, and the west was huge:

The economic and political systems are designed to create more numbers, population pressures show no sign of waning, deforestation and desertification continue. The people at the top of the pyramid do not understand the limits to growth and they do not appreciate that they jeopardise the capacity of future generations to meet their own needs.

Wangari Maathai planting a tree

In a tribute on the BBC website, Richard Black, Environment Correspondent, writes:

It’s not just planting trees – it’s the reasons why trees are planted, it’s the social side of how the tree-planting works, it’s the political work that goes alongside tree-planting, and it’s the vision that sees loss of forest as translating into loss of prospects for people down the track.

There is, in some parts of the world, a backlash now against these ideas.  Every couple of days an email comes into my inbox asserting that the way to help poorer countries develop is to get them to exploit their natural resources as quickly and deeply as possible with no regard for problems that may cause.

Organisations promoting this viewpoint are not, to my knowledge, based in the developing world but in the Western capitals that might make use of the fruits of such exploitation – cheaper wood, cheaper oil, cheaper metals. It is the opposite of sustainable.

Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai is a documentary film that tells the dramatic story of a woman whose simple act of planting trees grew into a nationwide movement to safeguard the environment, protect human rights, and defend democracy.  YouTube has a clip:

It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. And we cannot be intimidated. So we must stand up for what we believe in.
– Wangari Maathai

Here’s an example of Wangari Maathai’s inspirational message – ‘I will be a hummingbird’ from the film, Dirt: The Movie:

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