(PART 4) BRADFORD'S BRIGGATE. DIAL M FOR MURDER: AN ECO-PETERLOO
A photographic record cum commentary on how an urban commons of extraordinary bio-diversity was obliterated.
This entire stretch of the former Bradford Canal and the land on either side has been derelict since time immemorial - or rather, at least since its closure in 1926. In part, it had become something like an urban commons, a term coined by the naturalist, Richard Maybey to describe how people had started to make use of these derelict places following the decades of de-industrialisation beginning in the early 1980s.
They were / are polluted, seemingly unappetizing; 'ugly' places of little potential use value especially when dissected by stinking open sewers like the Bradford Beck. But suddenly something wonderful started to happen, against all the odds, as nature began to colonize these god-forsaken wastelands they became alive with insects, birds, unusual plants, etc. They were / are so rich in wild life they came to be known as "post industrial rain forests" and the area around Shipley Station was no exception to the rule - so much so it became a matter of utmost urgency that its amazing, overlooked bio diversity be protected.
On top of this there was a remarkable array of plants. Since the site was still relatively unexplored, a species inventory was badly needed covering plants, dragonflies, bees, hoverflies, flies, moths, fungi, mammals other than the rabbits and foxes in evidence. And not forgetting the birds inevitably attracted by the abundance of insects and the warm, wooded shelter the place once provided. We could only do so much by ourselves regarding ourselves as facilitators and still live in hope that others will follow suit.
The former Bradford Canal is lodged in the city's unconscious. Like a fatal trauma, the memory of it won't go away and every so often unbalances the entire city. It is the most infamous canal in all history, and Briggate was the last extant remnant of what has to be the most infamous canal in history, this industrial Styx periodically bursting into flames, like it was flowing straight from hell. Its waters were black, the headwaters that lapped the cathedral reminding John Ruskin of the contents of a spilled ink horn. Opened in 1774, the £20,000 required for its construction had been put up by local coal owners. It was soon transporting not only coal but also quarried stone and bringing in iron ore, which was then carted along rails by horses to Low Moor iron works. It was to this boom city that Ruskin was literally drawn. It was on this city; Ruskin focused his welfare plans and energies. Venice was the theory, Bradford the practice. Bradford Council therefore had to put a stop to all such revealing memory especially all memory of the canal that became Ruskin's obsession destroying an organic evolution that makes a thing of beauty out of the irredeemable and with it, why not also give John Ruskin a good smack in the gob? (This preoccupation was a central aspect of his life that has unfortunately been missed out in the recent film Effie Gray where our nephew, the actor Greg Wise (ironically and coincidently) plays Ruskin!! )
Beyond this devastation why clear away all the leftovers of an industrial past so we can pretend it never existed. In short all we ever had here in England were banks and the rising price of residential property. Nice things in fact!! But this industrial detritus, the tyres, the old boilers, the layers of ancient scrap metal and what have you really does mean something. Isn't this need to spirit away, to wash clean as it were merely to satisfy some ridiculous, worn out ideology of what is the only enforcedly natural vista available; a constant replicate chocolate box tin-lid consumerism or, a nature idyll kitsch display to hang on walls for sale in a 99p shop? These tyres, these heaps of deteriorating past industrial 'junk' are also often home to insects and plants. They thrive here. Old boilers etc are homes to families of foxes; all to be culled, all to be destroyed as only a brain dead landscape designer knows how to.
As we said to Bradford Council's bio diversity officer, Anne Heeley in an email: "We specifically begged you to ask the council's subcontractors not to tamper or remove the soil or interfere with the basic topography of the area. Well, you never wrote back or contacted in any way, even though an email address was supplied. Nonetheless we still gave you the benefit of the doubt, thinking you must be doing something positive relating to this request.
More fool us.Your response it appears was to do nothing, the dereliction of your duties as a nature conservation officer resulting in wanton environmental vandalism. What possessed the council to go in for such out and out destruction on the Sustrans route below Briggate in Shipley, West Yorks? The most bio diverse, topographically arresting site in all of Bradford was destroyed at a stroke. The dynamic ecology of this site had been 250 years in the making ever since an army of navvies had first dug the canal back in the 1770s, an aleatory, hands-off process of benign neglect subsequently creating something rich and strange. The garden waste, the minor incidents of fly tipping, the industrial detritus, tyres, moss covered bales of wool etc. even adding to the charm - and evolutionary significance as animals and plants began to adapt to the so called waste which the more insightful would now not hesitate to describe as amongst "the new beauties" of edgelands. We are dealing here with untold layers of loss, which in years to come (if there is any future) will be compared with the draining of the Fens and the Somerset Levels in the 19th century."
However, the bio diversity officer got off the hook by saying the destruction was not in her jurisdiction by claiming the work was nothing more than essential maintenance work and therefore outside a conservation officer's remit. As a Nature Conservation Officer it was well within her powers to do something about it. So what exactly IS within her jurisdiction? Keeping her birdfeeder filed with peanuts perhaps, or buying Sheba this week instead of Purina? For all the good she does she may as well stay in bed and make a phone call every month to see that her pay cheque has been deposited in the bank.
It beggars belief that she could say, "The site is part of a major regeneration project for the Canal Road Corridor, to help the economic prosperity of Bradford and wouldn't have been considered sufficiently important in the overall context of biodiversity to protect it from development." No one excepting ourselves had the remotest clue as to just how bio diverse the site was, the prejudice against industrial dereliction blinding superficial observer to its wonders.
She couldn't care less that many trees were cut down especially elms which were home to a colony of rare White Letter Hairstreak butterflies. In fact she seemed to applaud the destruction saying elm saplings can easily be planted to make up the loss! Well, as far as we know the European wych elm has yet to develop a genetic resistance to the Dutch elm disease and that is the reason wych or English elms are never planted today. Some Asian elms have developed a resistance to the disease but it is not known if Asian elms are a suitable substitute foodplant. We have yet to find any evidence that the White Letter Hairstreak feeds on the Caucasian Elm (there are a fair number of young trees in the Bradford area) which is less subject to attack by ambrosia beetles because its bark is less coruscated than the other two. Besides even if elm saplings were planted it would take at least 30 years for the White Letter Hairstreak to return. This response is just not acceptable and given that the latest data shows that the White Letter Hairstreak is down by 70% because of bad weather in 2012 so her glib comment is not just unacceptable but outrageous . Charles Komanoff of the Natural Resources Defence Council recently said, "We are close to civil war in the environmental movement." A comment like Ms Heeley's shows why.
It's also worth pointing out the way she also cynically jumped on the Health and Safety bandwagon behind which the destruction of nature proceeds apace. This H&S camouflage is everywhere now being deployed to usher-in far ranging ecological wipe out and which have ignited quite high profile protests, even occupations.
BELOW: Briggate 2013, on the Eve of Destruction. (Summer, Autumn & Winter)
AND THEN ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE AS THE DEVELOPMENTAL / COMMODITIZING PROJECT KICKED-IN FOLLOWED BY ECOCIDE........
The disastrous results are now there for all to see. In little more than a couple of days everything was destroyed; the historic topography and the intertwined natural riches all, all gone and the damage irreparable. It was heartbreaking and that it should happen in an age of supposedly rising environmental awareness. Affixed to the Rio Convention there is a "species recovery program" designed to aid the unintended victims of development. But here the destruction was cynical and deliberate and directly counter to the "National Biodiversity Strategy" that requires "this strategy is mainstreamed into the planning and activities of all whose activities can have an impact on biodiversity." Not only should heads role as a consequence, but also people should go to jail if ever justice is served.
Briggate was a place of beauty, a transcendent example of the 'new beauty' even if, to superficial eyes, it was a poisoned, litter strewn, industrially derelict environment and fly tippers des. res. This 'new beauty' always tends to be accompanied by an extraordinary array of wildlife and this site was no exception to the rule. Considering that its topology of haphazard, man-made mounds was the creation of armies of navies who had excavated the canal in the 1770s, there was also something quite awesome about it that for close on 250 years had grown almost organically, nature seizing it (and how!) When the canal closed in 1926, benign neglect created something rich and strange in the continually added to process. A dynamic eco-system if ever there was one – until now.
Above: Ubley Warren lead mines on the Mendips and industrial trefoil mounds, Briggate. These amazing industrial earthworks are incredibly wild life rich, and on that account alone, easily bests any existing land art.
As we have reminded people here, Briggate wasn't just an eyesore to officialdom, but a dangerous health and safety menace to be obliterated. So here we go again forced to dance to the same old tune. On a general level more and more, this is resulting in a growing clash between serious naturalists and the Health and Safety Inspectorate, genuine naturalists quick to point out that if the latter was at all logical it should razor fence off or bulldoze huge stretches of the Somerset Mendips like Ubley Warren an old, tunnelled, lead mining region going back to Roman times because of lead contamination. It seems in defiance of H&S regs, sheep and cattle are still permitted to graze close to the most polluted areas. And then there is the case of Cornwall's background radiation, natural argon gas contributing by far the largest component and which has been held responsible for many a death from cancer. So why not simply cut Cornwall adrift and tow it out in the mid Atlantic where it is then sunk? Or have it declared a no go area, policed with a thuggish border patrol especially selected for the job by Bradford Council officials? Bradford's bureaucratic class is driven by the need to be laughed at, to out-perform the fool and be a byword for inanity. When push comes to shove, it will brutally insist on continuing to be so. But for us who love the place and who have given our all lending a helping hand to its unique array of wildlife life (more so than any other British city), it is not an easy label to live with and we are literally heart broken by the way the city is being bled dry by official myopia. ...Thus we get shit like the notice below placed near a Briggate entrance. LIES UPON LIES. Unsafe! It wasn't even private land!
It goes without saying that the official killers had not the lightest feeling for the genius loci of the place. This would have been at once apparent to the philosophers of the picturesque in the late 18th century, namely Uvedale Price and Gilpin. Instead of imposing their will on the environment in the manner of Capability Brown, they sought to bring out the particular, quirky, features of a place; their temporally 'unorthodox' aesthetic also a timid, largely implied, resistance to the stultifying effects of enclosure on landscape, Brown's sweeping, empty vistas the aristocratic domestication of a 'nature' based on the expulsion of the peasantry from the land. These aristocratic 'improvers' both of 'nature' and the productivity of the land allowed for ornamental flocks of sheep etc but little else beside and, brought up to date, the similarities with the 'enclosing' of the Briggate site are obvious. However what Uvedale Price and Gilpin never mention is the deleterious effect enclosure was having on nature. It took a John Clare to bring this out. Sadly we seem as far as ever from effecting some kind of modern synthesis on these unofficial 'urban commons' left by decades of de-industrialization. Meanwhile, once seized by today's 'improvers', horrible 'nature' monstrosities are born.
Below: All that's left of Briggate now is an aesthetically posed tree care of Sustran's landscape architect's nonsense. Death and destruction MUST RULE and in its place we now have a useless, expensive vanity project, the farcical ecological equivalent of the ridiculous fountains that now 'grace' the City Park and square in central Bradford; the council having to compensate for the grandiose folly of what seemed the eternal big hole in the city centre and so literally spouted nonsense to distract attention.
On top of this we were also supposed to have a neo-romantic stew of formulaic landscaping kitsch – a linear park - replete with meaninglessness, faux, Neolithic megaliths that, in its planned absence, are designed to conjure up nature, transporting us back to a primeval landscape and a time when savage nature really did rule. Ever since that amazing area of natural wonders, Kiveton Park colliery spoil heap in South Yorkshire was destroyed by a grotesque makeover in the early noughties faux Neolithic's has been the usual ingredient of outright destruction. This predictable stock-in-trade is now not all that far removed from the type of rubbish sculptural landscaping we now find around Asda, Tesco and other supermarket chains, a Costa Coffee outlet on the MI near Nottingham also featuring a Neolithic grotesquery on the cafe forecourt. And not forgetting that the colliery makeovers were fully supported by Butterfly Conservation and more tepidly by English Nature even before morphing into in its Defra oriented Natural England mode.
The designers of Shipley's ecologically ruinous 'linear park' wanted to see an ecologically thin country park overlay land once covered by factories. They can envisage nothing else but that and perhaps it comes as news to them there are such things as industrial parks. Though in practice the industrial infrastructure is not allowed to 'rot down' and 'compost' in these public parks, they do say something about how a country regards its industrial past. Unsurprisingly Germany is the world leader followed by France and America, though in fact the concept originates in Mexico, a disused steel mill in Monterrey that had closed down in 1986 reopening as a park as far back as 1988. Chunks of machinery were even put on display. Imagine, if you can, something even half as 'radical' happening in Shipley today. You can't. And so what rules is neither a critical reappraisal of Britain's industrial past (a must, if there is ever to be a genuinely green industrial revolution) nor respect for a free-flowing nature, a horticultural mediocrity burying both. In the forlorn hope this will spur inward investment, this visionless plan has gone through on the nod with fingers crossed no one will notice. And should the general slumber end, well it will all be down to the steel toecap to sort it. Although below we show some photos of these industrial parks elsewhere throughout the world we must finally insist that the very criteria of the park is a bourgeois concept and is in no way a foretaste of the landscape marking the on-set of a real social revolution. These altered, former industrial features no matter how enlightened in comparison to a chronically asphyxiated throw back of a UK are still within the paradigms of top down controlled space prettily dovetailed within a capitalist space where work and leisure are rigidly separated. None of this therefore is about the essential de-commodifying of space and land, a process that can only come about through a successful world revolutionary uprising.
Parks in themselves only reinforce the division of labour, garlanding the division between work and leisure within the capitalist mode of production. They are not (repeat NOT) harbingers of a new form of spatial free activity after the suppression and supercession of work. Increasingly too, these parks are becoming more and more niche venues not only through redesigning neo-industrial displays but extend the notion of childhood adventure playgrounds to the largely liberal professional, fee paying, alternative tourists. Even in the UK there's now play businesses like Bounce Below, a subterranean playground of nets suspended inside a slate cavern in North Wales and in the Lake District there's Tree Trek slung above a forest canopy. In fact scores of venues are opening up everywhere and Go Ape has recently opened its 28th centre in Grizedale Cumbria. Nonetheless for an ossified Bradford all this remains off-limits and unthinkable. However, the final tragedy of our heated intervention could be that we merely awaken these clodhoppers from their antediluvian nonsense.
Below: A photograph of lignite mounds in Germany that is topographically fascinating in itself. In England, once disused they would have been flattened out raised to the ground replaced with an estate agent's landscaping
Below: Germany. Duisberg and morphing industrial dereliction. In Duisberg a steel mill has been integrated into a public park that tries to repurpose existing structures with minimal modification. 3 complete blast furnaces have been preserved, the Cowper stoves of blast furnace 5 are rust free due to a zinc layer added during construction. The cast house of blast furnace 1 has been turned into a multi-purpose hall including a newly added tribune which is used as a movie theatre in the summer. Blast furnace 5, has been turned into an observation platform open to the public featuring information plates for the function of the blast furnaces individual components.
Below: A tankreef for marine life off the Lebanon coast (tankreef)
Below: Drowned subway train carriages off New York Harbour transforming into bio-diverse readymades, i.e. vibrant nature reefs
Alas we return to Bradford..........
Below: The area where the Brown Argus flew..... "DESTROY," shouted Sustrans landscape designer.
Below: The tyres made into something new, rich and strange by an autonomous nature becoming havens for insects and their larvae. Here within the tyre ring resided the wild geranium plants the Brown Argus feeds on.
Below: Empty, empty, empty tyres. KILL, BURN & DESTROY said Bradford Council... and the working stiffs sadly obeyed, desolation upon desolation....
Below: The piled up tyre detritus - all to be thrown away - wrought by the philistine buffoons who thuggishly drove Bradford Council to new heights of stupidity.
Below: Leftover tyres on Canvey Island were once simply recognised as havens for nurturing insect life especially. This also includes a Buglife photo from a few years ago, only in the present day for the tyres to be cleared away along with all the old post Second World War lamp posts as the designer aesthetes' psychosis increasingly strangles all truth to nature. Fortunately the nature conservationists have been unable to remove the great concrete slabs leftover from war time defence. Although Buglife commendably started out as a very combative invertebrate organisation almost 20 years ago it has since settled into run-of-the-mill greenwash mode happily climbing into bed with a now brutally neo-liberal oriented Defra (Dept for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs) and thoroughly approving of Sustrans increasingly corporatist practise.
Shell shocked on seeing the aftermath of the blitzkrieg we sent the following missive to David Hall of Leeds Sustrans (13th of Feb 2013)
"We put it to the dead beats of Bradford Council why clear away all the leftovers of an industrial past like it never existed? Is it because Bradford Council is hooked on a failed economic model that prioritizes commercial and residential development centred around 'retail therapy' and like any junkie can't kick their habit? What do they hope to achieve by getting rid of the industrial detritus, the tyres, the old boilers, the layers of rusting scrap metal, decaying sign boards and what have you? A better nature? Or rather a kitsch nature idyll as advertised on chocolate boxes or the lids of biscuit barrels or to be found hanging on the walls of the 99p shop - an image of nature to be consumed and sold on? It breaks our hearts when we recall how a mere four weeks ago we found the doves foot cranesbill spreading over an abandoned sheet of decaying plywood. All we have now is a photograph which we cannot now look at because it will be like a knife going through us, much as what happens when a person chances on a photo of a dead loved one. And to think we might this summer have witnessed a female Brown Argus probing these very same plants looking for a leaf on which to deposit its eggs. To get footage of this would have been a natural history first. However Bradford Council has made sure no such addition to natural law will ever take place on its territory. These same rotting plywood boards faced with a gaudy plastic veneer, contained numerous ants nests, the laminates, as they separated and decomposed, proving an ideal ant habitat. This surely was a remarkable instance of adaptation and worthy of careful study. But no, Bradford Council in its wisdom thinks otherwise.
Joseph Priestley, the great chemist was born in a Bradford and had his laboratory ransacked by a 'Church and King' mob. Today Bradford Council has taken its sword to an open air laboratory of post industrial evolution. What philistines, what complete and utter philistines! And what about the tyres that have been cleared off the site? In fact they provided some kind of shelter against weather weirding, the birds foot trefoil and cranesbill growing in them protected, to a degree, from the excesses of heat and rain. There was also evidence they were used by the foxes on the site as happened on Canvey Island on the Thames lower reaches. We will now never know just how fruitful this interaction between nature and detritus was thanks to the clean minds in the council".
"The variety of species we encountered in Briggate was astonishing and we are still lacking anything like a comprehensive species inventory covering insects, birds, plants, mammals and fungi. It was like we had entered a postindustrial Eden and when we uncovered the remains of the former Bradford Canal we were struck dumb. (Temporary speechlessness is a reaction to the sensation of the sublime and which has long recognized to be so since the mid 18th century and therefore essentially different from earlier attempts to analyze the sublime in poetic terms like that of Longinus in the 3rd century AD). It was like we had uncovered a postindustrial Chicken Itza and ourselves post-industrial urban explorers treading ground no human had been on for decades. Demands on our time have prevented us from itemizing the wild life. Enough to say it was fringed with an unsuspected profusion of Orange Tip butterflies, in fact more than we have ever seen in our entire life. And so we hurried to see if it was possible to increase numbers by seeding potential sites with the butterfly's food plant, jack-by-the-hedge. We have also cleared the site of bindweed, which was choking nettle growth, the food plant of the threatened Small Tortoiseshell butterfly. Again, much to our amazement, we had found the butterfly in abundance here last year, more so than anywhere else in the Bradford area. We were continually astonished at what we were finding, including the Brown Argus (previously unknown in the Bradford area) and the Brimstone. Every discovery was followed up with a targeted response aimed at increasing the amount of foodplant - in the first instance, Doves Foot Cranesbill in the second, Alder Buckthorn. We purchased 200 saplings of the latter out of our own money, a financial felony worse than the manipulation of the libor rate if elements in Bradford Council are to be believed. So much for PM's Cameron's 'big society! A friend said at the time that she thought it was an idea Cameron would come to regret and that it would turn around to eventually bite his bum, even though the animating principle was more Burke's "little platoons" than that of mutual aid societies and trade unions. Instead of being praised as a laudable, public-spirited endeavor, our selfless voluntary effort has been criminalized. In all truth we were just not prepared for this blackest of reactions and are in a state of something approaching shock.
Before the destruction, we had set laminated A4 size notices in the ground asking for care and consideration to be taken as this was a site of untapped ecological wonders. These were soon disposed of, as were the laminated notices we fixed to trees asking for them not to be cut down. These notices had been wired to a number of wych elm trees and specifically stated they were home to colonies of the rare White Letter Hairstreak which was in danger of going extinct in the 1970s. The response? Cut them down of course, what else? The same fate befell trees where the Purple Hairstreak flies. The same applied to the area where the latest newby was discovered: the Brown Argus. Here a covering of imported earth was unceremoniously thrown over a carpet of rapidly expanding doves foot cranesbill killing the butterfly's food plant off. Adjacent to this was the best Small Tortoiseshell colony in Bradford. A month go we had raked choking bindweed off the young shoots of nettles in the hope it would encourage the overwintering butterflies to lay their eggs on the tender spring leaves after last year's disastrous showing due to the interminable rain. What did the council do? Why chuck a load of soil over the nettles to finish off the colony good and proper! The Small Tortoiseshell has been rapidly declining everywhere throughout the UK over the last few years so to find such an area was in itself a joyous, eventful discovery. Bravo, Bradford Council, one more notch on your belt! The same goes for the Brimstone butterfly which can usually be found on the wing here. What better than to cut its food plant down therefore. Anything for a giggle. Nearby a number of Marbled White butterflies were seen last year. Let's have an even bigger laugh; let's pull their wings off, for Bradford Council is the lord of creation and can do as it pleases. And not forgetting the Orange Tip, the site home to one of the biggest colonies of Orange Tip butterflies in the whole of the UK. Last year we photographed 5 Orange Tips on a single plant of jack-by-the-hedge. We had never witnessed anything remotely like it before.
Below: Alas we never got a photograph so the male and female below is all we have left of this remarkable colony.
And then what about the Woodpeckers both Green and Greater Spotted and the rare flora? The buzzard that would sometime visit at dusk as the rabbits ran like hell? The kingfishers? The Herons? The Goosanders in the industrial gorge? They'd looked good in chip takeaways....."
When Shakespeare coined the term "sea change", shipbuilding was by far Britain's most advanced manufacturing sector in which the rudiments of the factory system were already clearly visible. And yet to Shakespeare, the magical transformations of timber and cloth that came off the end of the Elizabethan assembly lines and slid down the slip way, did not satisfy his imagination - only what nature did to them, and their dead and alive crews, at the bottom of the sea could do that, and which enabled us to see as for the first time, even though eyes had now become corals. And how often were our new eyes delighted by what we found on the Briggate site! Painful though it is to recall, one of our last memories of the "industrial rockery" that formed the end of the former canal basin (this splendid, metamorphosing feature has now been filled in and a deathlike normality imposed upon it) was of finding a mushroom on which a most unusual moss was growing, wrapping it in some kind of mycorrihzal shawl. The vascular tissue was so fine and lifelike; we took it to be organic, a more careful inspection through a magnifying glass, revealing these 'vascular tissues' to be strands of wool!
Below: The mushroom and a beautiful example of Aaron 's rod before destruction
All the more reason for Sustrans to destroy it therefore - despite our protestations. Aaron's rod is a plant of waste ground with a particular liking for railway sidings and industrially derelict sites, like this formerly outstanding one in Briggate. That such a plant with large, fleshy leaves is able to grow, often to a conspicuous size, in arid places is mostly due to the fact it is able to maximise the use of whatever water is available. The upward pointing stem-leaves funnel moisture down over which is eventually absorbed by the roots. The leaves are also covered in wax hairs that formerly would be twisted into candle wicks. Though easily ignited, the sticky hairs also act as a water storage tank, the plant a mass of twinkling rain drops after a shower and briefly resembling an upturned, bio luminescent chandelier- or shimmering spectre from the bygone age of an enchanted nature. The light, silvery grey / green hair covered leaves also reflect the rays of the sun and help prevent desiccation, the hairs having nothing like the heat retentive, body mass of the actual leaves and rapidly able to cool therefore, thus more easily permitting atmospheric moisture to condense as water droplets on the tips of the hairs.
The pandemic of herbicide use has massively reduced the spread of the plant, especially by the side of railway line, the downpour of 'round-up', the bio control equivalent of quantitative easing, which, if turned off, will result in instant catastrophe. Some of the most magnificent growths were to be found around Wakefield Westgate station but, alas, not any more, as their presence obviously posed the severest threat to high-speed trains between Leeds and London, adding intolerable nanoseconds to the journey time. I now regret that I never thought fit to take a photograph, fondly believing the plant to be a permanent resident and I had all the time in the world. However this world of crises within the crises has no time for Aarons Rod and, in the name of sustainability (what else?), will seek to destroy the plant whatever the cost, its very existence, like all defiant 'weeds' a symbol of resistance and a sign capitalism is not working .
The plant is also host to the Mullein Moth. The caterpillar is very visible if close to and, quite by chance, we found one in Briggate. Aaron's rod is poisonous, the caterpillar acquiring its toxicity from the plant. It even looks dodgy and we involuntarily refrained from touching it as if prompted by instinct, the caterpillar's bright, contrasting and forbidding colours a warning to potential predators-though unfortunately that does not include Sustrans. The question of mimicry and warning, aposematic colours arose in the latter half of the 19th century in response to Darwin's theory of natural selection, this extraordinarily fruitful line of inquiry forever associated with the names of Bates, Muller and Poulton, the latter coining the term aposematism in the 1890s. The still tricky problem of warning colours was first raised by Darwin's co-worker, Alfred Russell Wallace, when he questioned Darwin's view that conspicuous colours in species could be explained by sexual selection, Darwin immediately conceding Wallace had a point. in fact he already had his doubts, realising his theory could not explain that contrary of an 'eat me' food advert, the bilious, warning notice carried by some caterpillars that read: "beware, this caterpillar ripple is poisonous".
The insensitive, unthinking elimination of this 'worthless' plant (and moth) in Shipley by so- called ecologists is just one eco crime amongst many more, one unbelievable blow against nature rapidly followed by yet another, even more unbelievable blow. For a while we were overwhelmed by darkness and paralysed by shock. Moreover, research into this particular aspect of natural selection mentioned above would also help instigate a collateral field of inquiry-that into animal minds: if predators avoided contact with, for instance, the caterpillar of the Mullein Moth along the lines of once bitten twice shy, it implied the existence of some kind of memory, conscious discrimination and feeling, a concept Descartes, situated at the beginning of the bourgeois era, astonishingly had no time for. (Marx would point out that "Descartes with his definition of animals as mere machines saw with the eyes of the manufacturing period, while in the eyes of the Middle Ages animals were man's assistants"). Really, it is amazing how a post mortem on this lowly, sadly missed plant could prompt such a wide ranging, speculative flight. And this is the clue to its untimely demise. Because it can do this, as can so much else in a nature that is allowed to become autonomous, it was necessary to get rid of it, the essence of reification being the absence of memory, a point Sustrans and Bradford Council were hell-bent on ramming home. Around 10 plants of Aaron's rod now lie buried beneath several feet of imported spoil which now has been sown with lawn seed, courtesy of BEES (Bradford Educational and Environmental Service). In truth, though, the acronym BUST is more fitting: Bradford Urban Wildlife Swat Team. And, in truth, it would have made more sense if these feather brains had scattered bird seed, for who knows what then might have sprouted? To see nasty bits of homogenous suburban lawn in the process of taking over where once there was an unexamined richness of non conforming, urban wild life is simply heart breaking- but it does show what Bradford ecos, in their unashamed entirety, are all about.
In the gathering shadows of evening, the plants that grew in the basin of the former Bradford Canal would take on an eerie ambiguity like its taxonomic specifics were dissolving, Aaron's Rod once again belonging more to mythology than natural history. One plant in particular grew to over 7ft in 2011, its topmost florescence curving like a lifted forefinger in the twilight and which shook ever so slightly like it was at once both beckoning and admonishing me. At this moment I understood why it was called Aaron 's Rod, the original a shepherd's crook that was imbued with magical properties and, once handed on to Moses, could part the Red Sea. The shepherd's crook that was Aaron's rod also changed into a serpent before an Egyptian pharaoh , the vernacular name appropriately hinting at the plant's toxicity, even as the hairs on the plant's leaves were twisted into candle wick and its crushed leaves also used for treating coughs....... the combination of come on and rejection the plant was imparting in the gloaming also meant I was able, up to a point, to transcend the species barrier and in my new existence as bird/man, experience the lived meaning of aposematism in a way abstract theory could never do.
Prior to impassable rocks being placed across the entrance to the field behind Shipley station, cars that had been stolen would be driven across it at night, and then dumped into the beck after first having been set alight. News would get around and likely lads would assemble on the bank sides to view the wrecks. And over time they would become what a majority of shipwrecks become: a wildlife haven. Silt reefs would build up around these dumped cars as aquatic plants and then land plants began to colonize these beck-change phenomena. There was one in particular from which jack by the hedge was sprouting, and it was a delight to see the Orange Tip butterflies fluttering amongst its garlic scented leaves set against a back drop of a rusting car wheel, the air sliced from time to time by a blue flash as a kingfisher darted past. Now all this has gone, and, for good measure, the largest colony of Orange Tip butterflies we have even encountered completely wiped out by arseholes that would have no problem in describing the devastation they have wreaked as an ecological enriching. Is it any wonder we were sent reeling and still in a state of disbelief?
Below: The car reef
Letter to Sustrans, (23rd April 2013)
Of Red Underwings, Black Poplars, Mulches, Cyber Beings, Nature Poets and Fallen Elms .......................
"The statutory laws (Rio Bio-diversity convention, planning law UK and EU, the Wildlife and Countryside Act) that have been broken on the Briggate site are legion and so extensive that there's no point here in reiterating them. However you might like to comment on the latest development of your wrecking crew: the recent and needless chain saw massacre of venerable 200 year + plus black poplars below Briggate at the side of the Sustrans cycle way that were home to the Red Underwing, a beautiful big moth at the very limits of its range and one of its few Yorkshire sites. We have seen the moth here though were yet to get decent photographs and film footage. "Bradford Nats" (Bradford Naturalists) had also seen it here years ago...and therefore all the more reason to make sure its habitat is destroyed.
"So what is our gripe this time? Well, we are were distressed to see that some venerable Black Poplars on the bankside between the former Bradford Canal and Briggate have been drastically pruned, some felled, and other giants earmarked for execution. The felling and drastic pruning has doubtless been carried out for health and safety reasons, as cyclists will shortly be using the greenway. However they have not been felled because they are diseased but on account of blame and claim culture. We will go into the aging and alleged decay of trees later, Council arboriculturalist knowing they must follow traditional orthodoxy and treat trees as if they were mammals - or face the sack.
The Black Poplars (most likely Populus Betulifolia, also known as the Manchester Poplar on account of its tolerance to pollution) are of great age, the oldest possibly dating back to when the canal was dug in the 1770s. To come across a 250 year old tree is a rare event in this country and on this account alone this magnificent bank of trees should have been respected. Some of the grandest have been daubed with paint which means they are a candidate for felling and probably would already have been laid low was it not for obstructive bastards like ourselves. When it was moved to prune these magnificent giants, the council would formerly leave the branches where they fell and so decay just as nature intended, no matter that to suburban sensibilities it might have looked unsightly. Fallen, rotten timber provides a valuable resource for a wide variety of detrivorous insects, decomposing micro organisms levels rising because of the abundance of decaying plant matter. Of particular interest are the woodborers that chew on living and dead timber and often have very long life cycles, which is unusual for insects that tend to be short-lived creatures. The practice of mulching considerably reduces ecological depth, mulching much of a muchness. And that is why, for the first time ever, the decision was taken by Bradford Council / Sustrans to mulch the fallen timber and spread the wood chippings far and wide, thus helping delouse the place of wood rotters. (The usage of words with fascistoid overtones is deliberate, by the way). But whatever prompted Bradford Council to do so? Why, because that agent of gentrification, Sustrans, and the anemic, lawned nature it esteems, was about to bring a cycle track along here.
Mulching may look like it is returning nutrients to the soil. However appearances often deceive and far from being ecologically responsible, woodchip mulch is ideal for weed suppression. Ask at any garden centre and they will tell you mulches control weeds by preventing new weed seedlings from receiving sunlight. Also bare soil is a perfect place for weed seeds to land, and so the mulch has also been spread across areas not directly under the Black Poplars where jack-by-the-hedge is growing, the Orange Tip butterfly's foodplant. (This site hosts Bradford's biggest colony of Orange Tip and all the more reason to continue with the perverse practice therefore). Mulches also retain moisture in soils and helps keep them cool in hot weather and will keep flowers and flowering bushes in bloom longer. The emphasis here is not upon natural cycles but upon the artificial, the denatured nature of the suburban garden, the floral display of municipal parks and the wearisome acres of tidy roadside verges of pollution tolerant, nature-resistant shrubs that Bradford Council is mad for.
And so, once more, to the felling of 'dangerous' trees. As they get older, trees are infected by wood rotting fungi. However that does not mean they are at the mercy of decay. Trees have no immune system and no wound repair system such as we, and other, animals possess. They do not go to war against bacteria and are able to ward off infection - and continue growing. Old rotting trees that have developed maximum windage, (as a number of the gnarled grandees on the Briggate site have), are often surprisingly resilient, their massive stem and root systems well able to resist gales. Many an old tree weakened by decay was able to withstand the storm of 1987, whilst their younger companions collapsed about them. Yet the lesson has not been learned - or rather the destruction was the lesson and all trees had to be felled, the chainsaw completing the unfinished task of the 1987 hurricane. The RSPB is certainly aware that Network Rail, hiding behind a health and safety mask, has been seized by a tree felling mania. Surveying the epic scale of the destruction on the Briggate site, we can only conclude a similar tree felling psychosis had overtaken Sustrans and the council, the psychological contagion spreading back into Network Rail who also recently went on an illegitimate felling spree behind the Ilkley platform on Shipley station that cannot possibly be justified on health and safety grounds. Since Network Rail, through the auspices of the DoT, is indirectly funding the Sustrans cycle track from Frizinghall to the exit point on Leeds Rd, then perhaps they thought they had bought themselves some 'reputation insurance' by funding the 'ecologically faultless' Sustrans. Like the buying of an indulgence, this earned Network Rail via the DoT the right to go on a wrecking binge with a clear conscience. Surveying the devastation, a cold fear grips the heart, like we are face to face with a meta-psychological turn toward death. Considering how the law has been repeatedly broken, an agent provocateur has been set to work and septuagenarians bullied and prevented from carrying out vital conservation work, then it is reasonable to assume there is something fascistic about the whole affair, reflecting the extreme right wing drift of the times. Basic ecological chemistry is even ignored in this climate of gathering reaction, to whit that trees sequester CO2. Cause and effect have, in all but name, become valueless terms, and what reigns at this watershed moment in human history is a destructive irrationality without precedent passing itself off as quintessential sanity.
It is generally agreed global warming must be stopped and yet everywhere we are expected to live with the insupportable contradiction of trying to reduce demand for fossil fuel at the same time as increasing the supply of it. Likewise the more the need to conserve nature goes up the agenda, the more it is subject to attack, until the impossible becomes fact and killing palmed off as conservation. Sounds familiar? Some speak of cognitive dissonance but that implies we are free to make up our own minds and that we won't be punished for making rational choices. In the place where it really matters, the work place, a reign of terror exists, increased job insecurity and contract work meaning people are afraid to speak up. Best not to think and do as you are told. And so a crazed destruction takes over, id not ego, sanctified by an ever more platitudinous language.
Seeing what we have to say makes not a blind bit of difference (though the word hubris comes to mind, we are aware our opposition may stimulate all concerned to carry out ever more vile acts of destruction, in the hope two wrongs will at last making a right) we may as well conclude by referencing two 'works' on Poplars by William Cowper and Gerard Manley Hopkins. This has been partially prompted by the literary evenings organized around the Save the Nightingales of Lodge Hill campaign. Rather than use the term poems we have italicized 'works' because the plaited phenomena we are describing leads beyond orthodox notions of poetry into practical engagement requiring preparedness to recognize, learn from, respond to and sing a nature that has successfully migrated, against all the odds, into the non-conforming spaces of industrial dereliction. This can be a very threatening experience and stirs up an urge to destroy what we don't understand. This nature is a counter nature, an unwanted, immigrant nature that doesn't fit in. A pogrom of these alien life forms is what is needed to set matters to rights.
Both Cowper's The Poplar Field and Hopkin's Binsey Poplars are about the felling of Poplars so are even more apposite - for instance we immediately note the trunks of the felled trees are still there in Cowper's poem and not instantly milled as on the Briggate site. Cowper's poem was written sometime around 1770, Hopkins' in 1879, over 100 years later. But during that time the integrity of poetry has been fatally undermined, the thisness of things breaking through the inherited forms of poetry. Despite wanting to look away from himself, Cowper sees in nature his double, even felled Poplars an oblique biography. (Perhaps Cowper might have seen in mulch the perfect analogue of an age which increasingly puts humans and nature through the mincing machine). Though Cowper was a Christian (one who eventually was no longer able to pray or enter a church), his religiosity was finally that of the Age of Enlightenment. Not so Hopkins, who gave himself up to a pre-enlightenment spiritual code demanding absolute obedience. And yet nature in Hopkins is allowed to speak for itself and is surprisingly free of oppressive religious symbolism. He knew - and he was the only person in Britain to then do so - that he was at the end of an exhausted tradition, the 'tame and same' of typical poetry and especially the slop of neo romantic nature poetry. He was in search of an objective, tactile language, torturing words into a plasticity, a rebirthing rather than a representation of what he was attempting to describe. The ensuing 'work' was a kind of audiovisual teaching aid and preparation for actual contact with the uniqueness of each living thing, that contact being what really mattered and which used to be so powerfully present on the Briggate site. How this man, who yearned "for the weeds and the wilderness yet", would have loved the place, a place that attracted oddballs and alternatives with a vision from the Windhill council estate, and that was the living embodiment of his ideal of beauty; "All things counter, original, spare, strange, a dazzle, dim, whose beauty is past praise".
Hopkins remonstrates, "Oh if we knew what we do / when we delve or hew - / hack and rack the growing green /even where we mean / to mend her we end her / [our italics] when we delve and hew". This suggests that the 'sanitary' lopping off of branches was already an established practice and becoming something of a health and safety issue, trees increasingly pronounced dangerous because 'weakened' by decay, This procedure, and the deceptive rationalization that accompanies it, was still in its infancy and on nothing like today's ecocidal scale, a cutting-event that is invariably sold as an ecological enhancement, in urban areas, even an "ecological installation", in more aspirational ones like in Holland Park in west London. The wholesale destruction of the Briggate site is a clear example of the incommensurable reasoning of the former. Weather wierding, and its incalculable effect on insect populations to one side, we feel the pronounced decline of the Red Underwing in Central London in the noughties is also a product of the drastic pruning of hybrid black poplars, the moth yet another victim of rapacious, litigation culture. Revealingly the most savagely pollarded trees are in the richest areas, wealth the assassin of all that lives and breathes. The practice of the contracting out of council services and the loss of overall control is something that also needs to be taken into account.
"Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve / strokes of havoc unselve". How lucky for Hopkins that he lived in a mechanically pre-lapsarian age when the time it took to do a job was tortoise-like compared with today. It was the shattering speed of the Briggate makeover that was so traumatic: one minute there the next gone, the changeful ecology of two centuries destroyed in a trice.
The Binsey Poplars could not have been all that old and most likely were Lombardy Poplars, having been planted in a row and different, therefore, to the randomly placed Black Poplars on the Briggate site, the canal owners probably hoping for a quick fix to the problem of soil creep on this steep bankside immediately overlooking the canal. What we have in Binsey Poplars is the slow time of manual tools and so poles apart from the mechanized celerity of today's chain saw, able to clear fell an area in minutes it would have formerly taken many hours to wipe clean. But we know what he means when he writes, "After comers couldn't guess the beauty been". Do you know what it's like to wake suddenly at night and have before you the heart breaking memory of "beauty been"? Can we be blamed for being in mourning? What happened on the Briggate site was a crime against nature. We are not exaggerating when we say we are beside ourselves with rage. Hush it up and denigrate us all you may, the truth will out one day.
Poplars appear only incidentally in the poetry of John Clare alongside other trees such as of Sycamore, Ash, Whitethorn, Larch - AND ELM! A single elm had stood immemorial vigil over his parents' home only to be felled when the common was enclosed. Clare was permanently scarred by it, The Fallen Elm a stark attack upon enclosure with "ruin as its guide". Is it be wondered this poem, which George Monbiot strongly hints should be a trademark symbol of the environmental movement (The Guardian 9th July 2012), should resonate so strongly with us given notices pinned to Wych Elms (Elms that contained colonies of the threatened White Letter Hairstreak) were taken down and the trees cut down in the name of ecological 'improvement' this time. And that is only for starters. How will Monbiot respond? No doubt his initial reaction will be one of disbelief - and, to be fair, whose wouldn't be? Today's Fallen Elm cut down by none other than the environment movement! You must be kidding, is this your idea of a sick joke? The mind boggling incredulity of it all is your greatest asset - but one that won't last forever, given that we don't, as yet, quite live in a police state.
The bigger, wooded commons were especially singled out for all-out attack from the mid 18th century onwards. The effect of enclosure on the landscape (and people) is vividly described by Clare and could be a description of the unselective hoovering up undertaken by today's improvers on the Briggate site: "Inclosure let not a thing remain / it leveled every bush and tree and leveled every hill / and hung the moles for traitors - though the brook is running still it runs a naked brook, cold and chill". Though a walled-in, polluted, industrial stream, the Bradford Beck, in its lower reaches, had an unplanned, post-industrial sylvan feel to it, the Latin sylvanus meaning something like an untamed, natural epiphany, analogous to a wood gone wild. But not anymore, the beck bankside along part of the Briggate site ruthlessly denatured of trees. We former conservationists now become trespassers (Clare experienced much the same) numbly stand on the banks and wonder what else perished with the trees, a few of which were hollow and so like the "pulpits" described by Clare. And what were in these metaphorical pulpits - woodpeckers, owls, bats, nesting places for wild bees and not forgetting other invertebrates like specialised beetles and spiders? The place was a mine of wonder, its trees an understory full of a meaning now lost forever.
Clare inveighed against "selfish interest" but here the economic gain is at one remove (far more so than on the London Olympic site in 2012) and more a question of presentation, the domesticated nature Sustrans and Bradford Council is determined to impose, a sign Bradford is open to business. However the business model that underwrites it has spectacularly failed and with each passing year of disappointment succeeding disappointment, we are left wondering if this Canute-like attack upon nature will become ever more frenzied until finally every blade of grass is under surveillance, that blade's continued existence dependent upon whether it meets failed business criteria or not. That way madness lays, the kind of madness already glimpsed on the Briggate site.
Salaam from the friends of the new commons
Tweedeldum & Tweedeldee
PS: Still it doesn't matter. Good riddance as the damn Red Underwing would have only eaten our clothes! The sad thing is official Bradford ecos are not much above saying that sort of thing."
Plus a later self-critique of the above........
However not to be outdone by the recourse to literature by the nightingales' defenders (especially Mabey) at Lodge Hill, Kent, we too cited in our letter to Sustrans, the two most famous poems in the English language specifically dealing with Poplars: Cowper's The Poplar Field and Hopkins Binsey Poplars. We don't intend paraphrasing our 'opportunist' concession to Eng Lit criticism in the above letter to Sustrans, as it's just too embarrassing for words! Yet a practised eye would immediately see in our discussion of Hopkins, we were hinting at the death of poetry and that what touched us more than spoke to us, was Hopkin's love of the "weeds and the wilderness" and "all things counter, original, spare, strange, adazzle, dim" and that he would have gambled with the foxes in the heaps of tyres on the Briggate site and quivered at the sight of a Common Blue sunning itself on a chucked hubcap, just as we did, words no longer an adequate vehicle when it comes to communicating the intensity of that moment. Of course we knew we were wasting our time trying to awaken the dead souls of Sustrans to the strange beauties of the Briggate site. So why did we ramp up the literary schmaltz? Because no one today wants to be thought a cultural philistine, especially not Sustrans who pile on the agony when it comes to culture. Feel free to murder wildlife at will, but that we in Sustrans should ever be thought cultural philistines? We would rather murder an infant in its cradle,.......or a bat in its roost, or threatened butterflies in their hundreds ........ you name it, we'll kill it in the name of art - and sport.
"Alas, alack Poor Yorick" A requiem...
Above: A Pyralid moth and a Mullein moth which no doubt fed on the destroyed Aaron's rod. Below: Dingy Skipper (Briggate). This rare butterfly colony has now also been vanquished...
Below Left : Grey Wagtail perched above the formerly bird rich Bradford beck in its lower, 'industrial' reaches. It had 'invaded' the territory of a White Throat Dipper, the two species able to cohabit in the friendliest of fashions and even having been known to feed each other's chicks. Grey Wagtail numbers have declined by a staggering 23% between 1995 and 2012 according to the Waterways Breeding Bird Survey and is now an amber list species. Sustrans in 2013 laid waste to beck-side bird habitat with the same enthusiasm as it did outstanding insect habitat. But while the spring shoot of migrating birds in Malta is increasingly the arena of face to face confrontation, Sustrans has got clean away with this epic of natural destruction. In 2013 a naturalist's car was set alight in Malta. In Bradford silence reigns over the unspeakable acts of criminal sabotage against nature. Below Right: A Briggate Ab mariscolare....
Gooodbye and Adieu......