(A revolutionary critique of Richard Mabey)
(Comments on Woolley Colliery/ Maybey’s “Beechcombing”/ The great storm of 1987 viewed as free form art/Essential childhood differences regarding play and their enduring effects)
Of all the new nature writers Richard Maybey is without a doubt the most art conscious in the “progressive” sense and the one with by far the biggest profile. I intend to confine my comments to his most recent book “Beechcombings” (2007) which came out in 2007, though with luck we intend to finish a short film on the Yorkshire sculpture park shot in 2006 when the park hosted an exhibition of Andy Goldsworthy’s nature nonsense which Maybey praised to the skies. The site could not have been more apt or the contradictions more telling. For just across the MI lay the old pit spoil heap of Woolley colliery now the scene of the utmost destruction upon which a new housing estate, with regal pretensions, was in the process of being constructed. Bearing the portentous title of Woolley Grange, the pit had once employed Arthur Scargill as well as hosted West Yorkshire’s largest Dingy Skipper colony. As far as we know this is the only estate that has actually been constructed on the slopes of the giant spoil heaps that bulk up through West and South Yorkshire, the latter in particular. The others have all been built on the flat surrounding them, so, with a bit of luck, soil creep and inadequate drainage just might result in a well-deserved po-mo Aberfan, the stepped piles of lego-brick, neo-Georgian terraces eventually slithering down the spoil to end up on the muddy flats alongside a pair of rare Little Ringed Plovers. Not only was the estate a triumphalist snub to the former mining community, it was also an act of malevolence against an endangered butterfly whose fate mattered as little to the developers (and ultimately their conservationist legitimators) as did that of the miners.
|Above: Woolley Colliery's magnificently disturbed hills just across the M1 from the bland 18th century landscaping of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park at Bretton Hall....|
The sub title to “Beechcombings” is “the narratives of trees” implying there are a number from which we can take our pick. It also has post-modernist overtones suggesting each is a fiction in its own way and none really true. And like all post modernist writing it is taboo to ever once mention capitalism, that especially being a fiction we construct - or deconstruct - according to how the mood takes us, any one perspective as valid as that of any other. However the last thing Mabey can be accused of is relativist nihilism - merely that he backs off from ever hitting hard, though the mild mannered, erudite and it has to be said, gentlemanly text is constantly on the edge of tipping into real anger and critique. In the unlikely event of Mabey exploding with fury, he would unfortunately find that he would lose all of his false friends, partner and publishers overnight and that they would not be replaced by a better class of person, which by rights is what ought to happen. Such is the subtlety and brutishness of today’s blanket totalitarianism he would find himself marginalized to a degree he would not have thought possible, disrespected and denigrated at every turn. On the upside he would, at long last, find out who his real friends were.
Yet throughout the book Mabey’s real sympathies obviously lies with the commoners, as if they alone came closest to understanding and appreciating the essence of trees and the variable essence of woodland renewal and regeneration. Though hardly a let be approach, their “narrative” comes closest to that of the trees themselves had they been gifted with the capacity to speak. These and artists belonging to the 19th Century Barbizon school and ----- would you adam ‘n’ eve it ------ today’s installation artists! Though he does not specifically mention Andy Goldsworthy in his book, Mabey does reproduce his nature sculpture “Beech Leaves at Scaur water” dated 1992 and his “Continuous Grass Stalks - Climbing a Tree Pinned with Thorns” dated 1983 from the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and “Wall Sheaves” from 1993, a beech sculpture by David Nash, in fact mere planks of wood, which, though beautiful in themselves, are made ugly by being claimed as art by some tit of an artist. When compared to a fabulous photo of pollarded beech trees taken in1962, the former artworks pale into nothingness beside this twisting, crippled, arthritic flare-up of a tree. Away from the stink of art, this unpretentious photo lets nature speak for herself.
Mabey does however quote Antony “Gormless” Gormley approvingly whose studio was wrecked by the Great Storm of 1987 and whom he claims was one of the few with the discernment to enter into the storm’s critical spirit. He told a Times journalist “I regard the whole thing being in a sense nature pruning the works of man. There are times when I feel it was strangely appropriate…. One whole aspect of my work has been to reposition man within a kind of elemental context”. Banking context more like, for all installation art is a for-runner and celebration of gentrification, of money destroying what’s left of the exceptional and hope for a better future. Imposing the most dreadful conformity to commodification there has ever been, it is the death knell of let be, revolt and spontaneity whether in nature or man.
Two days after the Great Storm, Mabey toured the Kent /Sussex border to inspect the damage. Two days after the storm we were laying floors for a solicitor who had made something of a reputation defending the Angry Brigade. His pretend radicalism had long gone and amassing money had become the sole purpose of his wretched existence. Not content with the fees he was earning defending rich villains, he too treated the storm as an opportunity – an opportunity to make money by hiring lorries to pick up the felled trees he then intended to mill and sell. Unable to conceal our disgust, a day later we were laid off for taking the piss. Mabey says of the storms aftermath “the elegant landscape parks of the Garden of England were comprehensively rearranged”. We were delighted that Seven Oaks had lost all but one of its oaks and that especially the Royal Parks were a scene of utter devastation. Try as he might, Mabey couldn’t quite stifle his enthusiasm either, describing the Petworth estate in Sussex as “turned into a free form jungle” and that “he saw children having the time of their lives crawling about these vast natural climbing frames”.
|Uprooted trees in Kensington Park, London following the great storm of October, 1997. One of the great storms of history, its real threat was not to trees - most elderly trees withstood the hurricane force winds - but to public order, dramatically changing this most royal - and boring - park for the good. But, of course, the trees were not allowed to thrive horizontally, and even in less doctored environments, it is rare to find a flourishing tree just as it fell in this most salutary of storms. Left unmolested in Kensington Park, and just two years on from the defeat of the British miners' strike, these leveling trees could easily have been read as foretelling the fall of the Windsor’s. Dendrologists learnt much from the roof plates of the blown-over trees and it became apparent that the trees most affected were young trees that had reached full size but had not the girth or developed root system to resist the gale. But, as always real conservation had to be sacrificed to the ruling ideology of conservation, the clean-up and indiscriminate replanting inflicting at least as much ecological damage as the storm itself. The colossal sums of money spent on "restoring the nation's ravaged woods and parks" would only be exceeded (in fact greatly exceeded) by the amount lavished on spoil heap makeovers come the turn of the millennia. However, the latter was a vengeful act taking every conservationist body with it, whereas it is becoming increasingly respectable to condemn the wholesale rush to hew and sell-off the stricken trees following the hurricane of 1997.|
The two contrasting perspectives are the measure of the differences separating us from Mabey. As a young lad growing up in the Chilterns he had given names to old (beech) trees, all of which are still standing. We did the same, except the location could not be more different. The landscapes of our childhood in the Co Durham and West Yorkshire have been all but obliterated for they were semi industrial though nature rich. Though not the only ones, railway stations, goods yards, sidings were our playgrounds of choice now all gone excepting the ‘heritage line’ that runs from Darlington to Bishop Auckland. Today a shadow of its former self, the line once continued on to Tow law and Wearhead right into the heart of the England largest expanse of common land totalling over 90,000 acres! Some years ago fondly looking at a photo of a field outside of a mean row of five station houses at Heighington in Co Durham where once we were privileged to live, it suddenly came to me the now grassed over, undulating strips were the remains of common land tillage. But the other lines that once were our familiars, like the one that ran from Wakefield to Bradford, are now nearly untraceable beneath unforgiving, ‘executive’ housing estates and roads including the MI which cuts right through it. I can never cross the refurbished railway bridge, the olive green wrought iron panels now replaced with breeze block, on Station Road in Ossett without recalling with a pang what once lay beneath it as recently as 1970. A magnificent railway station built on a curve, for example, the formally innovative utilitarianism – coach houses were traditional in comparison – involuntarily, and only briefly, redolent of a new way of living, malling having now totally destroyed the promise that once existed in railway stations.
|The above photos are of a Heighington station, Co Durham and its environs that no longer exists marking the exact place where George Stevenson's Locomotion No 1 was first placed on the railway in 1825. The bottom right photo is of nearby Codlings Bridge where corncrakes could regularly be heard and where the dark green fritillary and var hospita albino form of the wood tiger moth were relatively abundant. Indeed in one of the trees near the bridge we once espied a large tortoiseshell butterfly....|
Dead moths in their hundreds would accumulate at the bottom of the glass bowls protecting the gas mantles and if we were there when the mantles were replaced on Ossett station we would take the moths away with us. An entry in a joint nature diary from August 13th 1954 records how we witnessed a Swallow chase a moth and “eat it up” that had been disturbed by a railway worker passing under the eves of a shed in the goods yard. Another entry records how on May 10th in the same year and in the same yard we caught “a short tailed field vole” measuring “about 2 ½ inches” and that “I nearly went over it one (sic) my bike”. These once fairly commonplace occurrences now truly are a thing of the past.
|Above photos taken in the mid 20th century of the beautiful structure that was once Ossett station and its surrounds in West Yorkshire. it was an environment where industry and wild-ish nature happily intermingled though on the cusp of the devastating invasion of an increasingly highly capitalised horticulture. In this peripheral wilderness of weeds, large elephant hawk, poplar hawk and peppered moth caterpillars - the latter mainly of the industrial melanic form - thrived in late summer/early autumn The bottom left photo shows the remnants of a burnt out signal cabin which simply exploded one night at the bottom of our garden. For days after we remained fearful that we had accidentally set the cabin ablaze simply because our feral gang was in the habit of regularly creating small fires for the joy of sitting around in a circle like Native Americans. However, occasionally things would get out of hand as the regular use of tar for fuel meant a plate layer's hut got taken out etc. Always in scrapes with authority we scarpered....|
The young Mabey would take adults on a tour around his called-into-being trees in the Chilterns. We gave names to the local topography of dereliction, particularly the long barrow like mounds that had been pushed up overnight during the 2nd World War to disguise the nearby armaments factory. “Indian Hill” was our favourite and it may well have concealed a number of natural hills for on its summits there were the splintered, hollow carcasses of what, thinking back, may well have once been elm trees. The entire man-made creation was covered in gorse that attracted flocks of Goldfinch and, to our delight, the occasional Waxwing in autumn. To facilitate access we thought nothing of cutting a maze of ‘secret’ passages through the gorse and such was the absence of constraint on this industrial common that we went about it entirely unmolested, except for once being stopped by the police who wanted to know what we doing carrying makeshift bowie knives.
Maybey’s relationship to the landscapes of his youth was passive in comparison to ours and hedged with restrictions, this common metaphor a graphic illustration of how hostility to enclosure has entered the unconscious of the English language. Other than in farmers’ fields, we knew no hedges and we made free play with the industrial detritus left lying about. And so decades later when we ventured once more on to industrial wastes in search of butterflies, the unreflected anarchism of our childhood and early youth surged within us once more as ours by right and we exploded with incomprehension whenever we were stopped by authority, for right of access was in our blood much as the right to pasture animals once was for commoners. And so we collided head on with conservation bodies whose first priority, we mused bitterly, was to give butterflies lessons in Lockeian civics which would teach them not to trespass and to respect other people’s property.
Mabey grew up at a time when the countryman and woman and traditional country crafts were rapidly disappearing from the rural scene to be replaced by the ignorant, vulgar, experiment phobic, 4 wheel drive, home owning circus of nothingness we are all so heartily fed up with. Peopled with slaves to the market in consumer goods, the countryside becomes a mere image on a postcard and the last refuge of the petrol head, nature a selling point in the estate agents description. Between the latter and the industrial agronomists there is a growing army of professional ecologists whom are not exactly buzzing with life, that don’t swear, get drunk and beside themselves with rage and who never savagely kick back. In the last analysis, Mabey is very much part of this refined coterie of buttoned-up professionals, far more likely to move on and become therapists than ever frankly admit the only solution is revolution.
And Mabey does mention in passing just such a case - and that of Arthur Tansley the renowned botanist who, for a short while, gave up botany to study with Freud. Quitting his post in Cambridge in 1923, Tansley returned to academia in 1927 when he was appointed Sheridan Professor of Botany at Oxford, before stooping lower still to become a knight. However Tansley’s abrupt move sideways is not to be dismissed so easily because it is a cotyledon of something that threatens to grow like Jack’s beanstalk, combining childhood, nature, the psyche and revolt. Though it has never found its proper voice, throughout the country’s history of the last eight centuries we continue to hear the strongest of echoes – like when Wordsworth wrote “the child is father of the man”.
Researching the history of industrial activity, particularly mining and quarrying, on the common lands of the South Pennies and whose residue of earth works and shales have greatly aided the recent, astonishing spread of the Green Hairstreak butterfly, I became aware of how these upland rural areas once teemed with characters whose lives at some point must have touched on the insurrection taking place in the rapidly industrialising valleys below. Take ‘Old Three Laps’, for example, who appeared to have modelled himself on Heathcliff: indulging his unrequited love, he took to his bed for forty years. (Well, it beats working, the late Victorian writer reprimanding him for his indigence whilst having to admit ‘Old Three Laps’ certainly added variety to the upland scene!) Except for the odd rambler, today, the countryside is an impoverished wasteland of dull conformity where nature fascinates more than people, when, particularly in the days of Defoe and John Ray, a happier equilibrium once existed.
Returning to my childhood I recall how we would go ratting with Mr Goldsborough, a railway worker who also owned the field on which the marks of communal strip cultivation were still visible. Close to a brick tunnel through which ran Demon’s Beck and over which ran the legendary Stockton and Darlington railway, there was an old oak tree, the “old oak tree” as we called it. Over the years it had become top heavy, its root system dangerously exposed by the scouring action of the beck. It needed pruning and so a terrific guy of ‘a retard’ employed by the railway was given the task of sawing off some of the trees biggest limbs. We children were the only ones present and watched him climb the mighty oak, ease himself along a branch and begin to saw, with him seated on the outer reach of the branch. Sure enough, when it did crash to the ground he was on it. “Lighting Dennis” was another shining ‘retard’, remembered and respected for backing almost an entire goods train into the waters of Whitby’s inner harbour, right opposite the still working boatyard where Captain Cooke’s “Endeavour” was built, where this singular wreck of a goods train could have made the most memorable ever artificial reef. And then there were the railway men who, from the safety of the goods yard running alongside the mouth of the river Esk, would stretch night lines across the harbour with little fear of the water bailiffs ever catching them.
|The railway sidings at Whitby in the early 1860s set alongside the river Esk right next to the tidal mud flats where the golden plover regularly nested. A later typical development of the inner harbour for leisure time yachting meant the bird was exterminated. The photo left is of the railway line along Upgang to Sandsend and the coastal route to Middlesborough and though closed well before the 'Beeching cuts' of the early 1960s; it signified the triumph - and ultimately eco disaster - of car transport....|
I mention these incidents since Mabey is unable to reminisce like this. What has this to do with the battle for nature? Well in truth as little and as much as Thomas Bewick’s many vignettes depicting the human–all-too-human foibles of Northumberland’s rural poor and who had just as much right to be there as did a Woodcock and Mistle Thrush. For people and nature formed more of a continuum then and which must be recovered in ways we can scarcely, as yet, guess at. Looking back I have a fund of very precious memories which directly challenge the insidious stereotyping of the industrial working class as straight laced, uniformly dull, nature comatose men and women lacking in imagination and a desire to change life. And when the “revolution of everyday life” finally did hit this country in the late 1960s, it not only instantly tied so many separate strands together but caused me to reconnect with my teen and preteen years. The many incidents I had witnessed came to be imbued with a radical hue through which a new life was visibly searching to be born. Continuing to worry out yet more memories, my opinion has not changed in over forty years.
Take my grandfather’s signal box situated on Battersby Junction station midway between Middlesboro and Whitby. This signal cabin looked on to the North York Moors and there is a photograph of my grandfather in it. Someone with half an eye must have come across the photograph because a few years ago it was on sale in Whitby, alongside Sutcliffe’s pioneering photos of the harbour taken in the closing years of the 19th century. In this photograph my grandfather, contentedly puffing his pipe, is sitting in an easy chair. It was an obligatory fixture in all signal cabins, the turned wooden legs invariably charred by the burning cinders which fell out of the coal fires that superheated these unlike greenhouses mounted on preposterously exaggerated brick foundations, and that made signal cabins such welcoming places in winter. A canopy of plants obscures the ceiling, some of whose tendrils appear to be entwined around the less frequently used signal levers (and which were always that bit harder to pull). He has made the place his own. To describe it as home from home is to misinterpret what the cabin signified to my grandfather. It was an escape from home - and my grandmother would have to send her children down to the station to implore him to come home, otherwise, once his shift was over, he could have well stayed in his cabin all night long. The communal nature of allotments has habitually functioned as a safety valve, venting pressures building up within the nuclear family. At their best they prefigure a new world and, it has to be said, miners’ allotments excelled in this respect. These allotment were never just about saving on household bills: they were also a declaration of intent, a right to build as one thought fit – free -form extemporisation as opposed to the dragging tidiness of home life, four walls and the linear terrace, scrounged material as opposed to the shop bought commodity. However, in my grandfather’s case it was a very controlled environment - and had to be given it was a functioning signal box. Though at the bottom of the cabin steps there was a poke that housed a pig, a chicken run and several beehives (he swore he could tell which were his honey bees whenever he went on the moors), within the limits of the permissible, my grandfather had conjured a spell binding palace of glass, leaves, electromagnetism, pulleys, levers, gear wheels and flowers out of a no frills, industrial man-coop.
|Grandah Wise in his signal box surrounded by a jungle of hanging potted plants. Above right, a present day Battersby Junction station now overgrown with a delightful display of weeds....|
Back at the family home, one of about thirty houses divided into two red brick terraces more typical of a Lancashire mill town than the farms and villages built of stone that dot the sylvan foothills of the North Yorks Moors, the one and only picture that hung on the wall was of a local farm set in a fold on a moor land hillside. It was simply called “Midnight Farm” because the sun never shone on it. I always wanted to be taken to this anti farm, this negation of sunshine, chlorophyll and everything that a farm stood for, its mysterious allure obviously capturing the imagination of our grandparents as well as my brother and I. What did this dark, forbidding place, this Wuthering Heights of non-conforming agriculture, really say about my grandparents? Why did they prefer it to a far happier reproduction of, say, the “Hay Wain”, or a Gainsborough or Hobbema? They must have felt a seed’s kinship with this darkness. Was it, perhaps, calling time on a sunny tradition of landscape painting, as if only out of a midnight nursery like this could a new world come?
At the local village school in Ingelby, the children of railway workers repeatedly outshone children from agricultural backgrounds, including farmers’ children. When I pause to reflect what this humble signalman, with virtually no schooling, had picked up in terms of rearing animals, keeping bees, growing vegetables in addition to mastering morse, basic mechanics and developing an interest in mathematics for its own sake, I am led, at the very least, to conclude here were the rudiments of a more developed totality. Given habitual experiences like this, is it to be wondered that from our earliest years we never found nature and industry to be that antithetical.
(Ecology and corporatism/the industrial commons and freedom /Shelley & industry/Children’s nature book especially Kenneth Grahame/On dens & anti architecture)
Ecologists, particularly in this country, tend to spontaneously bundle workers and management together in the same, detestable, corporatist package. No matter how the pack is shuffled, they are inclined to find this combination of nature and industry, rather than nature v industry, an abhorrent one and are wilfully deaf to its historical resonance in this country. It would be surprising if, parallel with demands for greater job security and an end to wage cutting subcontracting, wildcatting, engineering construction workers in the energy sector were not beginning to openly argue the case for a green energy plan. (The inspirational occupation of the Vestas plant on the Isle of Wight points to this) In terms of an equitable exchange between nature and industry, it is now or never. And the energy sector is at the heart of this exchange. However there is not a chance it can be accomplished within a capitalist framework. The question therefore can never, never, never be solely a technical one and though technical innovations, like carbon capture and sequestration can buy much needed time, mankind will not be free so long as ecological technocrats, bureaucrats, politicians and capitalists are free to roam the earth.
Growing up in the years following the Second World War, I have, on reflection, become aware of other formative aspects. In a curious way the ancient liberties of the commons merged with the ideology of nationalisation, the coal and steel industry but particularly the railways, forming an ever present background to our play and fledgling interest in nature. Ideologies are never empty chimeras and the ideology of public ownership positively contributed to the surprising absence of restrictions we experienced as mere striplings. In comparison with today’s youth, it was a “self-determined” childhood. The comparative freedom from constraint afforded by this unique, greened over industrial playground moreover bred in us a psychological expansiveness, the absence of hedges a preparation for the tearing down of barriers of a different order that would later arise. And so when we did eventually come to read the romantics, the ready acceptance of horizonless disparities on a collision course – adventure - immersion in dreams, landscape, engine sheds, chimneys, industrial cowls - love of butterflies and moths - biology- depth psychology – love - popular struggle came about because it was the fruit of an experience that, in considerable part, went back to the unfettered play we enjoyed on these “unbounded” industrial commons.
Though not an entirely apt one, a line from Shelley springs to mind: “I love all waste and solitary places where we taste the pleasure of believing what we see is boundless, as we wish our souls to be.” Writing when he did, his love of Waste is insufficiently nuanced, Shelley’s conception of industry then the opposite of a Waste. In his early 20s, and though impoverished, he had enthusiastically raised money for a reclamation scheme in Cardigan Bay which involved the building of a giant embankment, or Cobb, across the mouth of Traeth Mawr. The expansion of the port of Holyhead in North Wales sealed the fate of the projected port at Porthdinallen in Cardigan Bay, though the Cobb, somewhat ironically, now carries that talisman of functioning industrial antiquarianism, the Ffestiniog Railway. Knowledge of Shelley the friend of industry has been buried beneath that of the nature poet, and we need to be reminded of the fact. That said, the straitjacketed categorisation of the latter won’t do either. Evident in practically everything that Shelley wrote is the search for art’s transcendence in unrestrained nature. The Skylark’s song is perfect fulfilment and cannot be surpassed whilst art remains “a thing wherein we feel some hidden want”.
Actually the Cobb, and the related reclamation scheme upon which the new town of Tremadoc was built, required an act of Parliament, presumably because it was Common Land. Surprisingly, census figures from 1956 show that the area of common land in Cardigan had expanded slightly since the last census in 1873, doubtless due to a post war increase in the number of nature reserves and SSS1s. In industrial Glamorgan there had only been a marginal decrease. Again this is surprising, given that during the interval there had been a massive increase in the number of pits sunk in the steep sided Glamorgan valleys. The Commission on Common Land held during the mid 1950s were forced to conclude “if the land is common land, it would seem that many of the mining operations – construction of railway sidings, works, site of dumps etc – by the National Coal Board is ultra vires. Furthermore, much of the land concerned is eminently suitable for afforestation, but who has the right to plant?” This absence of an unambiguous legal framework meant that even prior to nationalisation, much industrial infrastructure was treated by workers – and not just workers – with an impatient, expropriating disregard because ,come the crunch, trespass laws were fundamentally unenforceable. Closer to the present day, Thorne Waste, a raised peat land of great age and scarcity, was saved from almost certain destruction by a gang of cutlass brandishing, dynamite hurling desperados that went by the name of “Bunting’s Beavers”. Composed of miners from Thorne Colliery, engineers, (and anyone else who cared to join in and could keep schtumm) they would leave calling cards that read “sue us you buggers if you dare”, their exhaustive knowledge of common law rendering them virtually untouchable, though some spent time in jail. (We hope to put together the story of the Beavers from a former member we met on Thorne Wastes who like the Ancient Mariner had us spellbound, unable to move off the largest raised wetlands in Western Europe even though night was falling).
|Above left: Large Heath butterfly on Thorne Wastes on the day we met Bunting's Beavers on July 17th 1997. The opposite photograph is of the general terrain but with the extremely tall winding gear of Thorne pit in the background. The pit was mothballed during the 1993 pit closure programme but has since been pulled down...|
A long held, very fierce grudge against the privatisation of common land morphed to include the private industry erected on it, the abolition of private property signifying to many an industrial worker (and from our experience, usually the most experimental and alive to new ideas) a retracing of lost steps to a scrap heap reinvention of life in the wild. Was it just our identification with Native Americans that caused us to name the long barrow of an artificial hill we haunted “Indian Hill” and along whose side there ran “Street One”, a concrete road as unforgiving and Euclidean as only industrial roads can be. Or were more local ancient spirits already speaking the language of subversion to us? Sometimes we carried staves and one railway worker in particular would always ask us if we were going “lancing”, an expression which even then struck me as unusual and could not possibly mean joisting. Perhaps it harked back to the black acts or even earlier and referred to the illegal spearing of wild animals on enclosed manorial estates. The word den grew its meaning on common land, for Denns in the 8th century were originally outlying, felled woodland pastures. The overtone of remoteness, of a secret place safe from prying eyes and adulthood was taken up by children, we in particular becoming the ingénue architects of a hundred dens, some of the most imaginative the least noticeable and as cryptic as a barely detectable Buff Tip moth at rest on a budding twig . There but at the same time not there, they were the ones we would most dream about when tucked up in bed at night. Almost invisible to the naked eye they were, for that reason, as indestructible as childhood itself, and I don’t doubt that the ideas we were to develop much later on of a pushed- to- the -wall, negation of building, have their origins here. Though once thought sheer lunacy not that long ago, a growth architecture that postures as not-architecture is rapidly becoming part of the mainstream. However, what really counts here is the media bio feed nurturing architects’ reputation. We on the contrary sought nothing less than imaginative self build on a global scale, a vision that automatically lead to the destruction of the role of architect on a global scale.
A den was also home to a fox – at least in Co Durham and North Yorks though elsewhere lair may have been the more common term. A badger had its sett, the rabbit its burrow and warren, the squirrel its drey but the wily fox had its den. Once in a hen run, the fox was merciless, yet our hearts went out to it. There was something about its fugitive, hunted existence that appealed to the railway workers I knew as a child. I recall how my mother once opened the back door to a fox that had been pursued across the railway lines by the Quorn hunt, then rushing quickly to open the front door so the fox could escape the hounds. More than a wish to protect the fox that had recently slain all our hens, this was a protest against the two Co Durham’s, that of its aristocratic landowners in West Durham and that of its spat-upon industrial workers, particularly miners, in East Durham, my mother having come from a mining background. High upon the list of my grandfather’s (the signalman mentioned previously) favourite books was “Reynard the Fox”, a book that also delighted us as children. He too must have felt a strong identification with foxes, despite their periodic raids on his hens. The saying “as sly as a fox” may have been construed by him as an ability to remain poker faced when confronted with authority – in my grandfather’s case the hated railway bosses, for this was the era prior to rail nationalisation. Though it is easy to dismiss the humanization of animals as mere folk psychology and more typical of pre-industrial eras, here are instances of it informing industrial struggle. In America’s Deep South the boll weevil, which destroyed cotton crops and therefore the livelihood of slave owners, became another symbol of resistance.
Another favourite country writer of both my grandfathers (one a signalman, the other a miner) was G Branwell Evans, the Methodist minister turned poseur gipsy and going by the name of “Romany”. Though Evans gave repertory names to the birds and mammals he observed in company with Tim, a farmer’s son, his chapters on “Droll and Darkie the Rooks”, “Brock the Badger” etc were full of naturalistic observation. And though the ‘stories’ would unfold over several seasons, they were not anthropoid narratives in the manner of Kenneth Grahame, author of “Wind in the Willows”, or Beatrix Potter and would never make it onto the West End Stage. In fact they were more akin to Favre’s beguiling, and much superior, narratives of insect life from which the human persona is even more absent. Mulling over these facts and a few phone calls later it occurred to me I knew next to nothing about Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton tail, Swallows and Amazons Puck of Pooks Hill, Peter Pan and the entire arcania of children’s stories written in the closing years of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century. Would I have done so if they had been on my parents and grandparents’ bookshelves? And why weren’t they there? Did they perhaps find something repellent in them as I did - and still do? However “Sajo and her Beaver People” and the characterines of “Big Small” and “Little Small“, the two beavers, were a different matter, the antipodal naming delighting me as much as the fact that waterproof canoes could be made from birch bark, no other tree thereafter having quite the same appeal to me as the birch. A portent of spring, the birch became a symbol of rebirth in more ways than one, for it was the first tree to appear on industrial spoil and in railway sidings. Today I see it as a harbinger of a nature sensitive, industrial renewal, a liberatory tree for a liberatory technology, just as the beavers’ names suggested the possibility of a countermanding renewal of language.
But as for “Wind in the Willows”, I do recall doing a jigsaw puzzle at the age of six or seven of Toad of Toad Hall pursued by a gang of wildcatting weasels in a train. Our sympathies even then were with the weasels, not least because they were actually leaning out of a steam engine with a perspiring Squire Toad fleeing before them, in fear for his life. Now Co Durham, where we were then living, was the birthplace of the railways, and odd though this sounds, it was popularly perceived as a “proletarian” achievement, an idea, though it had reactionary implications (the apostle of self help Samuel Smiles wrote a book entitled “The Great Engineers”) not as daft as it might first appear. Many of the great early railway engineers received little schooling: not only was the great George Stephenson, the inventor of the “Rocket” (the first antigravity machine, steam pressure replacing gravitational pull), actually illiterate but he liked nothing better than to challenge someone to a bout of bare knuckle boxing to relieve the tedium of a “board meeting”. Real kids stuff and we loved nothing better than as children to be taken on a Saturday morning by our uncle to a small industrial workshop in Shildon where engineers would casually gather to shoot the breeze but also discuss technical stuff. The workshop was situated on the road to Brusselton, the great incline having featured in a panoramic illustration from the 1820s that not only depicted the stationary engines and cables that hauled coal trucks up the incline, but also, on the level ground, Stephenson’s locomotives that were as “busy as ants”.
|Shildon, Co Durham many moons ago. The photo left is of the oldest engine shed in the world in a state of dereliction. Thirty years later and the shed became a museum. Standing opposite (photo left) was the home of Timothy Hackworth, the railway engineer who invented the spoke wheel. Like everyone else we called the place "Tintacs". A similar fate was to befall that dwelling too and you wonder which is worse: a gutted landscape or gentrification?|
The metaphor whispers in another way for my uncle was both a skilled carpenter and foreman at a small wagon works owned by British Rail. Much of the timber that came into the yards for the repair of damaged rolling stock came from abroad and he would feed our imaginations - and his - with real tales of wood boring larvae, some so fearsome they could slice through a carpenter’s pencil with the ease of an executioner’s axe. A likely story, but the truth of falsehood with a good conscience turned trumps and we became fascinated with native wood boring moths like the evil smelling Goat Moth, the beauteous Leopard Moth and the many different, harmless, Clearwing moths that mimicked stinging wasps such as the Hornet Clearwing, the latter the only Clearwing we have so far seen. We, in turn, wove our own slightly less exaggerated history around them, others also, including adults, becoming fascinated by them. To be sure, we did embroider nature but I can’t say our expectations were dashed and we became progressively disenchanted as we learnt more about these extraordinary insects. It was easily more nature friendly any day than, after reading “Wind in the Willows”, fancifully expecting to see frock coated animals buttoned up against the cold amongst knotted tree roots. From an early age the bleached carcases of tree stumps became a source of inspiration to us, their form and content of great appeal to us. Lying on their sides like a tipped over L, the shattered trunk and branches became a skeletal torso of arms, elbows, hands and preternatural head that crumbled into rotting chips revealing beetles and hopefully the moth larvae we were intent on finding. We had no need of further animation because these ghost trees were already alive. Today, “Buglife” rightly argues for the retention of fallen trees but many years earlier we and others had intuitively arrived at the same conclusion, though not necessarily by the same route. A tree left where it fell indicated a relaxing of property rights and, like a disused factory or siding, that monster field was now safe to enter. When visiting the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2006 to jeer at everything we saw but especially Andy Goldsworthy the only escape we found from artistic oppression was in the sheep droppings and the occasional dead tree, but even these lost their allure latter took on some of the characteristics of it surroundings and became art losing its dead treeness.
None of the books I mentioned above we ever read in the sink schools we attended as children and teenagers. This must say something fundamental about them. Added almost en passant as if he does not wish to draw too much attention to it Mabey does admit that in “Wind in the Willows” class war was waged against the weasels. He also acknowledges the tamed suburban nature grown up on the ruins of a buried city which badger, ratty and mole inhabit is not that of the wildwood but through a persistent misreading has become so. In a characteristic inverting of the truth, it is the denizens of the wildwood that are stand offish, peculiar and “not like us”, the animals grouped around badger never anything other than affable and approachable in an offbeat kind of way. Inevitably it is the suspicious, easily offended, unpredictable lumpen weasels that start the trouble, with badger and the other animals, like true, decent Brits, forced into retaliation, secure in the knowledge they did not cast the first stone. Like most of the other seminal children’s stories previously cited, “Wind in the Willows” was written against a background of growing social unrest and though it pleads for a return to nature, it is, above all, a moderate, reformist plea for a bourgeoisified nature. In Grahame’s eyes, the unyielding, machined austerities of Victorianism and equally motorized morality had finally let loose the primeval beast of “the great unrest” that formerly had rampaged on the great “wastes” safely beyond the ken of civilisation.
Though no one at the time was able to make the connection, the old mole of revolution had grubbed away in a double sense. To Kenneth Grahame, Secretary to the Bank of England, the real wildwood and unbidden, more than consciously autonomous, industrial action had come to mean much the same thing It is not just the fact these children’s books were an exact hominid ledger of class society that made them somewhat mystifyingly distasteful to us. This got-up fantasy of middle English speaking animals also amounted to a kind of betrayal, even to our child minds, of the imagination, natures inherent riches not needing to be dressed up in nursery costumes. Free to roam from a very early age, our childhood was lived outside the “nursery”- whatever that was. We befriended animals; we even had an animal graveyard for out pets, every so often digging up the tortoise to see “how it was getting on”. Our eyes transfixed on an infinitely varied surface, we did not need to metamorphose them into something they were not. In the school playground a ditty made its round: “There are fairies in the bottom of my garden/ There are fairies in the bottom of my well/Are there fairies in the bottom of your garden? –Are there hell!” Yet this down to earth, crushing realism was far from lacking in vision. Its anti mythological concreteness and practical engagement with the world was, I sincerely believe, more an anticipation of classless society and the polar opposite of Graham’s ethological anthropomorphism and deification of suburbia.
|Above is a photo of a dead oak tree on Ashstead Common, Surrey, together with a photo of a purple emperor on a youngish oak sapling in July 1997. Many of the often 500 years old oaks around Ashstead are now virtually dead specimens ending their days as gnarled oddities easily giving off the appearance of ghoulish witch-like monsters that take up their roots and walk when darkness falls. No wonder they were the inspiration for all those Arthur Rackham illustrations that scared many a child witless.|
One wonders what Mervyn King, the present Governor of the Bank of England, might now come up with were he to open his laptop after first getting ripped on smoke. A guileless, free-market “Animal Farm” or “Animal Pharma” would be too obviously political and seen as satirical in intent, thus defeating its purpose. The watchword has to be obedience to the laughing hyenas of the banking fraternity who want us scurrying about like scared rabbits rather than behaving like rats in a trap, or worse, massing like locusts on the Thames embankment prior to descending on the City of London .
Manipulative children’s fantasies cast their most binding spell when they appear not to have a political axe to grind. Moreover dead tree format has had its day, so a more interactive format would need to be found, a Wii game, perhaps, in which the bot flies of the of the Financial Services Authority take on us plodding shire horses stabled on dealing floors? However, in order that the FSA or dealing floors remain an immovable fixture in our lives, it is absolutely essential they first be interred deep underground and their controlling presence made to appear a nigh on absent one, just like the urban foundations of Graham’s pseudo wildwood. How very, very English!
(The conceit ridden character of English/Milton & Keats/Mabey’s beeches and Marx’s commodity fetishism/the commons as realisation of the critique of rights/Mabey’s dislike of social and ecological revolution/ The near uselessness of conservation bodies)
No other language is more conceit ridden than English and to probe the reasons why is a major investigative task in itself. The cataclysmic events that rocked Britain, though in particular England, from the peasants revolt onwards resulted in a layering of the language that was so dense as to almost obscure the actual revolutionary convulsions that lay beneath it, language through its own autonomous development appearing to become convulsed instead. The siren voices of revolution are everywhere in Shakespeare, though probably despite himself. Then comes Milton and “Paradise Lost”, this epic poem the end of the line for all epic poetry and also rooted in a civil war in which the spectre of communism is more than just an apparition and so altogether different from the Peloponnesian Wars of the Iliad or that of Rome v Carthage in Virgil’s Aeneid. Try going back and all you will get instead are the bore wars of Middle Earth and digitised sublimity for the kiddies. Then compare Miltonic literalness with the “dromedary camel” of the metaphysical poets, the beginnings of modern industry and communal seekings, part of the “new philosophy that puts all in doubt” in which “meanings press and screw”. Then finally there are the Romantics after which the English language very abruptly – at least in England - settles into a suspicious, insular slumber from which it cannot be awakened, its once inexhaustible formal inventiveness traduced into the idiom of industry, of iron, steel, steam, pipes, girders, batteries, cylinders, pumps----------- requiring a revolutionary proletariat for their proper articulation, without which this industrial disequilibria will remain mere doggerel. “Too vast a matter for so weak a rhyme” proclaims Shelley in his remarkable “Letter to Maria Gisborne”. But otherwise this historical shift went unnoticed. As for the English language------well that becomes French, literary symbolism demonstrating once and for all that once society becomes indecipherable then the poetry must follow suit, until finally the only way out is to permanently swap the pen for the hammer.
Meanwhile in science Cartesianism is the name of the game throughout, matter existing independently of mind, each of which can be studied without reference to the other. Mabey is right to want to unambiguously put the ghost back into the machine in a “literary”, if not a metaphysical sense, because a non-metaphorical beech tree is a dead one, dead to history, dead to us, and above all dead to itself, the scientific realization of “literature” enabling the tree to live for the first time in natural history and social history, it too acquiring an omega all of its own at the “end of pre history”. And Mabey does put it most eloquently “Beech trees are persistently cast as victims, they’re repeatedly looted, excoriated as bad influences and wastes of land, granted reprieves, turned into scapegoats and hostages – this is the story of the beeches with an eye for the trees experience of what happened”. But let us at least grant that in large part these metaphors are rooted in social relationships, more specifically in a class divided society and that they also are the real expressions of a class divided society and not mere artifice. These metaphors reflect the social character of trees not just as a raw material but also as political facts and a source of enjoyment (or otherwise) itself mediated by changing tastes driven in the last analysis by changes in the modes of production. Like the commodity they become a personification of social relationships but whereas the universal medium of exchange, money, - its genus if you like –, takes on many different popular names (chicken feed, rhino, dosh, readies, bread, loot, smackers, spondulies etc) the genus tree never undergoes a comparable name changing. Only in the genera’s individual ramification as separate species does it do so and then only at the moment of gravest crises for Keats’s “the grand democracy of forest trees”. Coming very late in the day, this is, at best, only a halfhearted admission that natural facts are also social facts and that natural history is also a people’s history, dinosaurs included, which is not the same thing as saying we walked alongside them.
Mark Cocker in his recent book “Crow Country” reckoned he had just about read everything there was to read in English on crows. One cannot help wondering did Mabey sit himself down to read every item that came up when he googled “beech” on his computer? There is something too literary about his beech conceits that overwhelm the subject and that tend to turn the beech into a work of art and nature into a gallery. However Mabey as a proto gallerista of the wild, a trend that is becoming ever more important, spurred on by the reaction to the financial crises has to be left for another web that specifically deals with this issue. Yet this whole drift into fantasy projections, at the same time both imaginary and real, caused neurons to fire in my brain and I was drawn once more to open Marx’s “Capital” and read Chapter 4, “The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret”. And what material does Marx select to demonstrate how a raw material becomes a commodity? Why, wood of course! And what does our carpenter make of the wood? Why a table, in all probability a table made of beech wood from a tree cut down in the Chiltern Hills where the legs were also initially turned by the bodgers that peep into Mabey’s tale of beech trees, as most tables in London at the time were made from Chiltern beeches. These justly famous legs not only sit four square on the ground but dance as well, their capers as a commodity performing more wonders to behold than the table turning of mediums. The entire chapter is an essay in religious demystification; man not only creating god but the commodity form as well, which then assume the “fantastic” form of a relation between things. Mabey has scanned the far horizons for references to beech trees, even citing passages from Orwell’s “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”. How come that he missed this reference, then? Though not exactly explicit, it is also rather more than just bordering on the credible. And what a can of worms Chapter 4 opens up. And how necessary it is for all ecologists to read it and take on board what is there revealed and to henceforth treat it as a base line. For without it, we, and vast swathes of nature, are doomed.
Marx began his life’s work with a critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right. “What has this to do with the price of eggs” ecologists might well ask, or at least the pitiful few prepared to take the above approach seriously. Well, it is also a critique of the state and Hegel’s statolatry, mind and nature coming to rest in the state in Hegel’s system. Though natural scientists since the mid 19th century have split their sides laughing at Hegel’s “preposterous” philosophy of nature (a presumptuous judgement in any case which is now being questioned, particularly in America), the deification of the state by today’s ecologists, climate scientists etc is equally preposterous and just as metaphysical. By entrusting the future of nature and the human race to the state, this closet Hegelianism works behind their backs, barely one natural scientist even remotely suspecting they are the victims of what is rapidly turning out to be history’s biggest ruse.
As for Mabey, literary imagery becomes actual imagery - tree stumps and the hobgoblins of pollarded trees. Unbeknown to himself he has metamorphosed the truth of literary imagery and the literary past and made into a tree and at the same time rescuing it for science by letting it live. However he then goes too far in the range of literary and painterly references meaning the tree itself becomes a work of art an exhibit a natural gallerification. Mabey – as previously pointed out - really is a gallerista of the wild, a collector of nature’s artefacts, a Guggenheimer of greenery.
Mabey shies away from ever mentioning his radical past when articles written by him in the mid 1960s appeared in the often excellent, New York based “Rebel Worker” via being copied and pasted from the often insipid London based “Peace News”. (In truth, quite superficial appraisals of the 60s growing youth revolt as personified in the Mersey Sound). I can understand why Maybey might not wish to be reminded of the former but not “Peace News”. I also have a very early book of his entitled “Class in Britain” which I got in the hope I just might find an enlightened coming together of class struggle and the battle for nature. Not a whisper and I did actually wonder if there might be another Richard Mabey. In “Beechcombings” he describes in some detail the past history of the repeated attempts to enclose Berkhamstead Common. Matters came to a head in 1865 and fences were torn down in a night raid - just as they had been in 1640 when a local man had led a “disciplined” band of 100 men in an earlier foray, cheered on by 1000s of locals. The adjective is hardly neutral, given the date, and the precision of this military style enterprise reads more like an anticipation of the New Model Army to come. Significantly Maybey’s two direct references to the English Civil War are a shade negative, one regretting the looting of the forests that took place, (much the same happening during the French Revolution,) the other that Epping Forest, after the Civil War, become a place of refuge for former soldiers turned deer hunters - a sort of back to front remake of the Hollywood blockbuster if you like. How would he deal with the Digger, Gerrard Winstanley, one is compelled to ask? Would it be any different to that of W.G. Hoskins and L. Dudley Stamp, joint authors of the New Naturalist” “Common Lands of England and Wales” (1961) and who had been part of the royal commission on Common Land (1955-8)? (This commission marked the moment the matter of the Commons became part of a wider landscape amenity aesthetic and conservation “ethic”, culminating, at the end of the decade, in Nan Fairbrother`s “New Lives, New Landscapes” which positioned this altered perspective in an industrial change-over promising automation and consumer abundance. We can only regret the visionary, revolutionary upheavals of the late sixties were not powerful enough to stamp on the book, for it has a lot to answer for – the chapter “The Disturbed Landscape of Industry” suggesting that it is not merely an eyesore but also akin to a psychological abnormality).
Hoskins was an historian and Dudley Stamp a geographer, neither really kicking against the limits of the academic division of learning. However it was geography that was about to take the most surprising leap forward, and though to Dudley Stamp psychogeography (then taking its first, and best steps) would have been beneath derision, it is implicit in his catching descriptions of the terraced houses of the Welsh valleys “climbing gradually up the hillsides in congestion and disorder to present a specialized industrial landscapes which has become famous or infamous the world over”. To the historian Hoskins, the Commons had throughout their chequered history not only been threatened with “longing commercial eyes” but were confronted with “another attack ---- from an entirely different angle This was the revolutionary movement of the Diggers (who) advocated particularly the ploughing up of the commons and waste land throughout England regardless of the rights of the lord of the manor. He concludes, “This dangerous revolutionary movement was quickly crushed “.
We think it more than likely that Mabey would box clever on this issue and keep his counsel, knowing that to lend his name to such a crass denunciation could be his undoing. However it has to be said we get a better feel of what the Commons were actually like from Hoskins, in particular the fact that the monetary economy was a late arrival on the scene, “money for the majority of English and Welsh people playing only a marginal part in their economy until the early parts of the 19th century.” As we are living “in a complete money economy” today, this is hard to grasp given the constant temptation to remake the past in the image of the present, the heritage industry being the final triumph of this unhistorical tendency. One gets the impression reading Mabey’s drawn-out account of Berkhamstead Common that a monetary economy had thrived on the Commons since time immemorial and so had beech wood commodity speculators. Nowhere does he explicitly say that throughout the entire existence of the commons money played only a marginal role in the reproduction of the society of commoners.
|The ancient commons of Grassington in the North Yorkshire Pennines. The photo on the left is of the limestone pavement on the top of the largely ash tree array of Grass Wood where the only indigenous plant of the lady's slipper orchid remains. On the right is a photo of a wall overgrown with thick moss deep in Grass Wood. Sixty years ago a peculiar, indistinct, sooty-coloured variety of the rare Scotch Argus butterfly - an Arctic species - flew here....|
Though Hoskins and Dudley Stamp only twice mention Berkhamstead and the battles to retain it as a Common not once, their discussion of rights has an odd Marxist ring to it, as though they were no strangers to the examination of the matter by Marx in “The Critique of the Gotha Programme” taking it upon themselves to develop the critique still further. Where there was an ample supply of land, and especially on the wastes, it was not possible to speak of “common rights” for they had “no need of definition, and therefore could hardly be said to exist”. This absence of definition defines the Commons, though more especially the Wastes, as a place of freedom from constraint upon which everything is permitted and a fool can dethrone a king. When Hoskins declares “where there is no limitation, there can be no rights” an extreme libidinal craving breaks through despite himself, and what is clearly meant to be a colourless statement of the obvious becomes marvellously shadowed with suggestion. It is rather ironic to be reminded that Mabey had written a long article in The Guardian (14/3/09) deeply critical of the lack of engagement he felt in the New Naturalist series of interesting books that dominated nature writing in the decades following the Second World War. Is he not guilty of a greater charge, a more metaphorical approach to nature that yearns to be the thing itself, much as Keats described the infilling of “negative capability” and that paradoxically says more on the plane of objective truth than the commonsense of science, ultimately falling down because of a total absence of a critique of political economy, hints of which we find in the authors of “The Common Lands of England and Wales”?
This intense dislike of revolutionary upheaval also shapes Mabey’s attitude to avant-garde art. Going no further than installation art, will he forever be able to keep the hatches battened down on the territory that lies beyond it and which he knows full well is there and just hopes no one will out him over? It is a logical step to take but few are prepared to go that extra mile because everything about their life will change. Never able to fully purge the memory of the past, Mabey dreads radicalism because it embodies his more real self, the one he has been running from for decades. When Mabey trespasses accidentally into a lime wood he describes it as an “intervention”, as though the word has wantonly slipped through the snare in his throat, despite his continuing efforts to tighten the noose on it. Called La Tillaie, it was a reserve biologique in the Fontainebleau Forest, though dedicated to the unmanaged growth of beech rather than lime trees. Would Mabey have done so had he seen the notice beforehand pointing out that La Tillaie was a strict non-intervention zone? What we, and the rest of the English speaking world, now understand by the word is etymologically rooted in French usage. So to make an “intervention” is not mere motion in space and time that thrusts others aside just for the hell of it, but a deliberate, thought out challenge to authority, a provocative act that encourages the common people to take heart and take over. As an invitation to an uprising rather than an opening at a gallery, it clashes head on with the property relations typical of capitalist society. So when Mabey says of this minor act of transgression in Fontainebleau that “I had become an intervention myself, as I had much more aggressively in Hardings Wood” he forgets to add he is the titular owner of Hardings Wood and therefore free to do more or less as he pleases. In Mabey’s hands the vital word becomes emptied of meaning. This was not what was meant by the realisation of art and the setting free of nature that the powerless early 19th century, East Anglian peasant poet John Clare could only yearn for, the enclosing fences torn down in his mind’s eye only.
Now had we, in desperation, taken a chain saw to the encroaching carr woodlands in Healey Mills Marshalling Yards, West Yorks to save the Grayling butterfly, that would have been an “intervention”. Though it would have led to our arrest and a swingeing fine, the situation had potential and might have ended up acutely embarrassing the owners of the yards (now Deutsche Bahn and presumably less thick skinned than the former owners, EWS) but more especially conservation bodies who allegedly are there to protect wild life but fail massively when it comes to brownfield sites. We say “had the potential” to cause profound embarrassment but this is by no means a foregone conclusion. Such a drastic intervention may not have received any publicity at all because the growing rapprochement between conservation groups and the media only serves to stifle all independent criticism and silence dissident voices (like ourselves), despite the latter being numerically easily the largest, and potentially most proactive, constituency. It is the latter, among others, to whom we address our theories and our experiences in practical action.
|Above: A burnt out carriage in Healey Mills Marshalling Yards and photo right, a grayling butterfly|
Mabey as the titular owner of Hardings Wood sensibly has allowed the place to become the property of a village trust. I’m unable to own a piece of nature because I simply don’t have the money. But in the highly unlikely event of ever being left any money and with no dependants, perhaps I too would want to purchase an uncoppiced wood, a piece of a spoil heap or quarry and see what I could do with it in terms of creating a variety of habitats and attracting wild life. Meanwhile I am very much a member of that unsung band that goes around giving nature a hand and is constantly knocked back. Virtually all my guerrilla seeding and planting has come to nothing: whether mown down or pulled up or whatever, it has all been destroyed in one way or another. More than disheartening, it flattens a person. It occurs with such devastating regularity it is beginning to seem like it is fated to happen. It is as if all our efforts are being monitored on CCTV, a panel of invigilators then sending out a swat team dedicated to ensuring that nothing is allowed to regenerate of its own accord but must be covered with evergreen aliens and then mulched to stop native weeds from appearing. Every bit of trefoil that we have planted around Shipley station on the outskirts of Bradford to extend the threatened Common Blue population has literally been ground into the dirt it thrives on, if left alone. However, for a couple of years our efforts did meet with success and for the first time ever we succeeded in drawing the Blue across the Bradford beck, “t` mucky beck” as it is known locally. With no one to lend a helping hand, it is a lone, thankless task though if something drastic is not done in the immediate future, the butterfly is doomed to die out at the station.
Conservationist bodies do not like individuals taking matters into their own hands. That way they lose control, their unwritten motto being “everything within the party nothing outside it”. I had intended to write “organisation” rather than “party” but what came out instead is very telling. For we find members of conservationist parties have something of the apparatchik about them. This control fetish is also a property fetish and the fact that all our planting involved trespassing means it is therefore illegal and to be doubly condemned. Conservationism profoundly mirrors the society we live in and is riven by an us and them of believers and sceptics, of representatives and the betrayed represented whose “stakeholding” is much weaker and therefore far more open to the idea that we must be rid of the reservation mentality and all that implies. We go to look at a reservation or SSSI in a frame of mind akin to that of visiting a museum or gallery or any staged performance. We must begin to envelop ourselves in nature, approach it with hands, feet, spades, hammers, saws, as well as eyes, prepared, this time, to work with nature rather than against it. We must cease to seat ourselves before it as we would a TV, treat it as easy viewing in the confident expectation it will perform as requested and at the time of our choosing. Looking at nature has made us blind to it.
To take the theatre out of nature so we might better grasp it comes at the end of a long development that has its origins in classical German philosophy. Appearing in 1849, the explorer Von Humboldt’s “Ansichten der Natur” was the apogee of one particular strand arising out of this tangled skein in which art and nature are intertwined and which essentially sets the scene for today’s pretty pretty, natural history aesthetic. For these “pictures of nature” were aesthetic presentations of research into natural science and geography that Von Humboldt honed up into a dazzling series of lectures and which won him a worldwide following. These polished performances also suggested a new approach to travel as opposed to the fearsome privations of the voyage, the comfort of the planned tour, the travelogue and leisure cruiser taking the place of the “floating coffins” which were the sailors names for Darwin’s “The Beagle” sister ships.
Hegel would have undoubtedly objected to Von Humboldt’s “pictures” because surface appearances were only part of the story. Much in the same way, Faust longed for a philosophy and praxis that transcended the dead objectivity of the solely contemplative and the disunity between knowledge of nature and human nature. His first step in Faust Part One was to explicitly reject the notion of drama as simply denoting a play, bending it to mean something far wider. I merely cite the latter not in order to show off, but so that conservationists may begin to take us more seriously. And so to conclude this lengthy digression on Mabey, suffice to say this has never been his problem but it is ours, just as our praxis of conservation is profoundly different and basically at loggerheads with his and the entire conservation Cominterm.
So is it possible to neatly sum this guy up? Richard Mabey as a young man with flair liked the razzmatazz of the mid 1960s - what blues shouter George Melly referred to as revolt into style – a relatively mild-mannered non conformity that also occasionally nurtured an often astounding radical expression quickly following on its heels; one which demanded the world be turned upside down. It was a vision of total social revolution. And pronto! We guess that Mabey was flummoxed by much of this. Nay more; he probably hated it and he probably hated all the people like us who tried to practise a situationist critique. Mabey’s turn to nature throughout the 1970s was also a retreat from the uproar as he couldn’t even countenance social ecology a la Murray Bookchin never mind a critique of art and the state and nearly everything else beside. Suffering from periodic nervous collapse – an inevitable by-product of intensifying alienation – Mabey sought in nature quiet, contemplative ponderings and solitude, looking for a wholesome fulfilment that forever escaped his grasp; a deflected eros that we have more than a little sympathy for, as it also soothes our furrowed brows. Ineluctably though the great themes of revolt slunk through the cool, dark woods and crept through the back door of his country cottage. Maybey had to confront them or rather, he made it his business not to confront them, deflecting them into cul-de-sacs of fine sounding phraseology and prose which on the surface look so profound but end up meaning little. The guy cannot be crude, he cannot forthrightly hate the system, and as for the very word capitalism, why it is an ugly expressive description to be avoided at all cost. Above all, Mabey has no faith in a liberatory uprising of ‘the people’. The bald truth is that elusive but utterly essential revolution of the green, red and black combined is not for the likes of an English gentleman naturalist who sees in such an uprising something of Edmund Burke’s “swineish multitude” nowadays given added value by an hysterical media that views all of us at the sharp end as part and parcel of a psychotically maimed collective. Mabey baby you should first pronounce on the real psychotics who administer and promote this end game suicide capitalism?
Stuart Wise with help from bro’: Late Summer, 2009
The above should perhaps be read in conjunction with "Fuck the 'New' Nature Writing" of which Mabey has played a big part. The above is also a prelude to the critique of Maybey’s erstwhile friend, eco artist Andy Goldsworthy who despite all his self-serving images to the contrary, is the person most responsible for an even greater invasion of value and monetarisation of nature, especially through the paid for up front concept of an aestheticised nature walk and counterpart to an eco tourism more expensive than any banal, humdrum, cheap and nasty, swimming pool vacation in Lanzarotti.
20/20 vision in William Hazlitt's Maidstone and an addendum
...... the discovery of a fold made of beech trees in October 2009.......
Quite by accident we discovered this fold made from beech trees on a piece of waste ground known locally as 20/20 in Maidstone, Kent. The land now belongs to Wimpey's and planning permission had been granted for yet another suburban atrocity when like a deus ex machina, the credit crunch struck and so the brownfield site was, at least temporarily, saved from predation.
Chancing on the site was a transforming experience and made our day. We had passed what we took to be a beech coppice several times without paying it that much attention, except to unconsciously note for a large beech it did look rather squat lacking the height, if not the breadth, of a mature beech. Stooping beneath the low-slung branches that concealed the trunk from view, we were surprised to find ourselves confronted with a palisade of beeches. We immediately thought the beeches had once formed the boundary of an ancient path but shimmying between the close set trunks we were even more amazed to find we had entered a dark, rectangular enclosure bounded on all sides by beech trees. Except where the light was able to break through the canopy in the centre of the fold, there was no other woodland vegetation apart from decaying beech leaf litter and therefore not that untypical of beech woods generally. This geometric, malfunctioning naturalness had taken on a life of its own and instantly caught our imaginations, for we had never seen anything remotely like it before. A fold constructed entirely of beech trees must be virtually unique, surely? Why beech, why not fast growing hawthorn ("quickthorn"), for there was plenty of hawthorn on the 20/20 site?
We instantly began to notice other irregularities. In the gloom there appeared to be a glowing crystal of considerable size. A bag of white cement perhaps that had been left outside in the rain? On closer inspection it turned out to be a shattered ball of gypsum, strewn fragments scintillating from beneath the decaying vegetation. Where had the quartz come from? Perhaps the cement works located some distance outside of Maidstone? Strangest of all, though, were a large number of buried plant pots, their terracotta rims just to say visible and which we would have overlooked had not the strangeness of the place quickened our perception. An illicit marijuana plot? Hardly, for very little could grow in these sunlight-starved shadows. There was also an abandoned plough and an old wrought iron gate which a blacksmith must have fashioned in the late 19th century. It was now laying on the ground where it had once had stood upright in the only gap in the four-sided figure of beech trees. Rough cyclists had practised in the clearing, a series of earthen ramps having been thrown up and which are now becoming rapidly grassed over. The cyclists have now moved on to a patch of sandy ground outside of the pill box.. Someone has sprayed "local" on it as if this was an alternative, criminal Tesco's owing to the numbers of shopping trolleys that had been dumped around it. By the side of the pill box there are a couple of cherry trees with branches that have been rived off, this delinquent 'pollarding' contrasting with the traces of 'legitimate' pollarding in the rows of beeches back in the hidden fold. However the fold could not have been much more than 150 years old and by then pollarding was going out of fashion as coal replaced wood as the commoners' household fuel, and iron began to take the place of wood in buildings for industrial use, the construction of machine frames and in ships and barges etc. Henceforth, in addition to becoming objects of scientific study as more was learnt about trees in one decade than in the entire previous history of dendrology, trees would increasingly be aestheticized and revered for their intrinsic beauty as art aspired to break through representation and be life itself. As absorbers of CO2, rather than just providers of oxygen, only latterly have trees proved to be more functional and necessary to mankind than ever, a necessity however that, up to a point, proscribes their centuries old utilisation: rightful tree worship has finally rid itself of pagan crankiness, found its corresponding science and come of age.
The fold (on reflection intended for pigs rather than sheep, goats, cattle or horses) may actually have been a beech coppice that was traditionally foraged by pigs and that has been chopped down piece-meal over time. The commoners' right of pannage for swine in Kent - the Andredsweald - reached back to the 8th century. Any beech mast that had taken root may well have been grubbed out and then planted in straight rows. If wood anemones and dogs mercury, both specifically woodland plants, appear in spring, then almost certainly we are dealing with a ghost wood that has been made-over and aligned into a pig pen. We looked for signs of other trees between the individual beeches but found none, so presumably a temporary fence cut from the nearby hawthorn had once protected the newly planted hedge. Once the beech trees had gained in girth, the hedge would have withstood any amount of rough treatment by pasture animals.
(Though, in the scale of pasture animal values, the pig ranked below that of the milk cow, it was above that of the goose and it was the fate of the goose more than any other “farm yard animal”- the notion of the farmyard was a consequence of enclosure- that sparked revolt. It was not the pig but the goose that prompted the inspired, anonymous, couplet that has resounded down the centuries and just too acute and stinking of muck for any self styled poet: “they hang the man and woman that steals the goose from off the common /but lets the greater villain loose that steals the common from the goose”. We have lost sight of the fact the goose once was a life and death issue for the poorer commoners summed up in the lapsed popular saying someone’s “goose is cooked” meaning they’d completely had it. The dreams of the poorest burst with excess and the commoners desire for untold riches and freedom from toil was centred on the “goose that lays the golden eggs” and a good layer that nurtured her goslings eventually evolved into the Mother Goose of Xmas pantomimes, theatre but a poor substitute for the lost dramatic significance of domesticated wild fowl)