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Archive for the ‘Conservation’ Category

Beatrice HarrisonOn May 19th 1924, the BBC made history with its first live broadcast of a wild animal, setting its microphones and sound equipment in the leafy Surrey garden of cellist Beatrice Harrison as she performed a duet with a nightingale. Against all of the expectations of BBC founder Lord Reith at the time, who reluctantly agreed to the idea despite believing the nightingale would be an uncooperative prima donna in its role, the broadcast proved profoundly entrancing, commanding an estimated audience of a million listeners and making Harrison internationally renowned. She was the recipient of 50,000 pieces of fan mail in response to the serenades, some of them addressed simply to The Nightingale Lady. Staying faithful to the precise date and place —even after Harrison eventually moved houses and the nightingales became the sole performers— that day marked the beginning of a yearly broadcast tradition that lasted until 1942 when the Second World War abruptly intervened. On May 19th of that year, as BBC sound engineers were about to go live to an expectant audience with nightingales on the airwaves again, a squadron of RAF planes loomed into the Surrey sky. Comprising 197 Wellington and Lancaster bombers, the squadron was flying east towards Mannheim in Germany on a bombing raid at the height of the war. Realising that a live broadcast of the aircraft could easily compromise the mission if being listened to in Germany, the sound engineers swiftly cut the feed.

Bee orchid

Although that temporary confluence of bombers and nightingales was never aired, an archive recording of the day still exists. On one side of the disc can be heard the drone of the departing aircraft as they pass over the garden, while the other has them returning in the aftermath of the raid, minus the eleven planes that went missing on the mission. Both are woven with singular and soaring song. I know of few more poignant and haunting sounds than those brief minutes when nightingales, singing in search of a mate after their long and arduous journey from Africa, share the spring air with a dense flock of bombers. There is a compressed fragility to it all — a tense, suspended beauty, as if that particular point in time was held momentarily in balance, tilted so easily into oblivion. Above the ecstatic, pulsing songs gathers the murmur of distant aircraft on the horizon. Merely a purr at first, something at the very edge of hearing, the sound rises to an ominous drone until it’s nearly equal to the nightingales in volume, underpinning their songs with a deep and continuous thrum before fading like smoke into the distance. Theirs is a brief and unusual unison, the strange, hypnotic braiding of sentience and machine, a moving threnody to life, struggle and death.

Victorian munitions vaults

That recording, now 74 years old, resonated greatly with me this past June when I joined a group of artists, ecologists, writers, historians and photographers in Kent for a project entitled Reimagining Lost Landscapes. Brought together by a charity called People Need Nature, we’d been asked to explore and reflect upon the former military base of Lodge Hill on the Hoo Peninsula, recording and documenting its cultural and natural aspects while considering its various values, whether historic, environmental or spiritual. Along with eleven other military bases, Lodge Hill is mothballed and being disposed of by the Ministry of Defence as it aligns itself with new strategic realities and financial concerns, shedding some of its extensive portfolio in the process. Currently in the hands of the government’s Homes and Communities Agency and, depending on the outcome of a public inquiry in 2018, potentially slated to be the site of a new town consisting of up to 5,000 houses according to proposals by Medway Council, it’s a large and extraordinary place spread along the ridge of the peninsula and partially nested within a wooded vale. Utilised by the military for a variety of purposes over the decades, Lodge Hill also teems with impressive natural habitats that are inextricably bound up with spaces of human use. So interwoven are they that it’s impossible to untangle them, much like those two strands of sound that coalesce on the recording, a recording that never seemed far away as we explored the base in sharp sunlight and drenching summer rains. As the stronghold of Britain’s dwindling nightingales, Lodge Hill is listed as a protected Site of Special Scientific Interest on their behalf, supporting 1% of the nation’s entire population. And so those few, unrepeatable minutes in a Surrey garden, magnified by time and lent depth by distance, came to embody the place for me, the long-twined histories of nature and war.

Lodge Hill meadowDyer's greenweed

From the moment we began our obligatory safety induction at the gatehouse, the worlds of natural and military history appeared to coincide, like parallel lines running together in the distance. As though a field guide to an unfamiliar country, we were shown through a ring binder of explosive ordnance that could still be potentially encountered on site. We might have been leafing through a book of orchids, waders or wildflowers the way each of the images entranced —the subjects of the photographs as startlingly vivid in their forms and features as their natural history equivalents— but the security guard named a checklist of species that had none of their sensuous appeal: artillery projectile, anti-personnel landmine, area denial sub-munition, air-dropped high explosive. It was a field guide that focussed awareness more than most, revealing the essence of the site’s history right back to its beginning.

Grizzled skipper

Designed as a naval magazine for the storage of munitions in 1870, Lodge Hill brims with the historical signifiers of its times. As an active base for over 130 years, being there is like watching archive film projected onto the landscape, gathered together and sequenced by era. From the grand Victorian vaults of elegant brickwork and arched windows to Britain’s first anti-aircraft battery, built to protect the munitions stores and still standing in ghostly ruins atop a ridge since 1913, the place takes you through successive ages within a matter of steps. There is no forewarning or sign as to what you might discover next. By the time you reach a replica street, screened by dense woodland and scattered with bee orchids and wild bee hives, you’ve arrived in Belfast during the Troubles. By then Lodge Hill had been transferred from the jurisdiction of the Navy to the Army, and this facsimile housing estate, as detailed and convincing as a Hollywood set, was raised to train soldiers in guerrilla tactics, urban warfare and bomb disposal techniques before being stationed in Northern Ireland. The scene is unnervingly authentic down to its smallest touches — the neighbourly back gardens where it’s easy to imagine people chatting across fences over morning tea, the block of public toilets graced with Ladies and Gents signs, and the startling IRA mural of a Republican fighter painted on a wall at one end of the terraced houses. Only a few hundred feet away, or one street over in the scheme of things, the base’s Newry Road, signposted in the same manner as the parallel world that exists outside the base, must have been recast in the 1990s in light of new military priorities and done up with corrugated metal siding and flypostered with fading images of Osama bin Laden and the Ayatollah Khomeini. Conjuring the mirage of a Middle Eastern city for Gulf War training purposes seemed futile amidst the sheeting English rain, the inescapable absurdity of imitating a region of deserts amidst the lush tangle of brambles and wild roses, yet those posters of bin Laden and the Ayatollah, their eyes scrapped away to the silver metal beneath, chilled all the same. Wherever you go in Lodge Hill, you feel as though you’re somewhere else as well.

Osama bin Laden, Lodge Hill

For obvious strategic reasons, military bases have an essential secretiveness about them, a discreetness that wraps them like bark. It’s what lends an element of the surreal to exploring one, where an ominous and unnerving street from conflict-scarred Belfast can sit alongside more commonplace sectors where wall-building and truck-loading are practiced, the utilitarian, but no less essential, aspects of warfare within a training regime. Though heavily invested in their operations as citizens of the nation they’re meant to protect, we know very little of the minutiae that compose a military site. They exist necessarily beyond the public gaze, publicity-shy places cordoned off behind high metal fences and barbed wire, and kept insulated from the larger tides of livelihood and land use that have swept across the countryside. They’re of our world, and yet different – managed in accordance with rules and requirements not reliant on the chemical needs of intensive agriculture or the economic pressures for growth and development. They’re maintained for combat and conflict in their many guises, and sometimes that essential difference in intent inadvertently produces habitats especially conducive to wildlife.

Northern Irish street

Soon after stepping into a sloping meadow beyond the gatehouse, species which are uncommon, or in serious decline, across Britain began appearing as we walked. In bursts of scattered June sunlight, dyer’s greenweed glowed yellow amidst the grasses, increasingly rare grizzled skipper butterflies skimmed the flowers of creeping buttercup and stitchwort, and a brown-banded carder bee was swept up in a net by entomologist Steven Falk, a species that has vanished from most counties and declined by as much as 70-80% since the 1950s. As well as being rich and important repositories of military history, sites with significant cultural value where important aspects of the nation’s military and political past, and in many cases its future, have been forged over a long period of time, active and former bases often exist as islands of diversity in a sea of increasing biological paucity. They’re places that, in more ways than one, remember the past, frequently acting as home to creatures that are being gradually cast out from the countryside. “Scarcer bumblebees speak a lot about landscape quality,” said Steven, holding the carder bee in a plastic tube for us all to see. “They need large amounts of the right flowers from spring until autumn across vast areas, so bumblebees effectively act as barometers of environmental quality.” Steven removed the lid from the tube. “This is as important as a nightingale,” he said, releasing the bee on the wind.

Brown-banded carder bee

From the flower-spun meadow I’d heard a few snatches of far nightingale song followed by silence, the kind of silence that H.E. Bates described in 1936 as the “breathless hushed interval,” but it wasn’t until we’d dropped down through the rippling grasses that we finally heard one up close. It’s a song that’s irrevocably slipping away, like sand in an hourglass. Having “lost 43% of its former range and declined over 90% since the 1960s,” the British Trust for Ornithology believes the nightingale could be extinct in the UK within the next two to three decades. But despite its staggering national decline, Lodge Hill remains home to a significant number of its kind, hosting around 80 pairs, the most to be found in any one place in Britain, partially as a result of the former military management of the land for bomb disposal training. Clear-cuts were mown in parallel lines through scrub where soldiers practiced the craft of defusing, leaving dense thickets to develop between them, unintentionally producing the ideal habitat for nightingales, a suite of dense scrub and clearings, a world of multiple edges where the bird can easily command territory, nest and feed in safety. While the base has emptied of soldiers, the nightingales, for now, remain.

Bomb-defusing zone

Storage bays

There is no wild song in Europe that’s been more revered down the centuries that the nightingale’s, honoured and praised by such poets and philosophers as Keats, Milton and Pliny, and tuned in to by a million people on their wireless sets in 1924 to hear a single bird duet with a cellist, or listened to down phone lines to the living rooms of relatives by those without radios that day. In his book The South Country, Edward Thomas encapsulates this veneration when he writes that nightingale song reminds us that “earth is something more than a human estate, that there are things not human yet of great honour and power in this world.” And yet while much of the country falls increasingly silent of their irrepressible and celebrated refrain, becoming reliant on poems, recordings and stories of the bird instead, as if solely a museum piece rather than a living, breathing creature, here was a place where it still rings as clear as water from the copses and scrub each spring, that spill of rolling, trance-like notes and staccato trills, the swelling and mesmeric spell cast by such a small and physically inconspicuous thing.

Sedum

Republican mural, Lodge Hill

Though we were meant to be considering loss during our time on site, what might vanish if Lodge Hill is to be developed into a town of 5,000 homes, it was the currency of gain that seemed more appropriate to acknowledge. Behind those high fences and walls that have sealed Lodge Hill from public view for over 130 years is a place of singular and unexpected wealth, a mosaic of deserving historical value, natural profusion and remarkable military interest. It’s a reminder of times long gone, but also a place of refuge and resilience in a contemporary sense, harbouring a richness that has often gone missing from other landscapes as a result of agricultural practices and development. And in the case of a remarkable wild bird it’s a place of strange fortuity, where bombs and nightingales are once again entwined, enabling a species to locally thrive amidst its national diminishment. As we explored Lodge Hill I couldn’t help but think of that day in May of 1942, how together the bombers and birds evoke something other than their individual sounds customarily do, those things of “great honour and power in this world.” Instead it’s a hymn to fragility, to all that is insubstantial and unrecoverable about these lives and environments, reminding us of how tenuous everything is. But as those eleven aircraft fell flaming to earth, and explosions tore open the city of Mannheim from the sky, the nightingales continued to sing loyally into the Surrey air for a mate, a world away, yet unmistakeably belonging to it and necessary as well.

This piece was written for People Need Nature after visits to Lodge Hill in Kent in 2015 and 2016. This non-profit organisation celebrates the connections that exist between humans and the natural world, recognising the myriad benefits of our varied relationships to it, and seeking to renew ties where they’ve come undone, frayed or threatened. The fate of Lodge Hill and its rare nightingales, alongside its protected landscape and valuable mosaic of military and historical features, will be decided by a public inquiry in 2018. In the meantime, if you wish to add your voice to the discussion of the future plans for Lodge Hill, Medway Council in Kent has announced a public consultation regarding their proposals for building homes on the site which will close on March 6, 2017. You can send a message through the RSPB’s Lodge Hill e-action, email directly to the Medway Council at futuremedway@medway.gov.uk or by filling in the online form at Medway Council’s own website.

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The Sum of a Place

“They always say the best way to see the Gwent Levels is with a microscope or a helicopter.” I was walking through the stunning June meadows and dense willow copses of Magor Marsh Nature Reserve with Sorrel Jones, a conservation officer for the Gwent Wildlife Trust. The last relic fenland in south-east Wales, Magor Marsh was my first port of call on the protected Levels, and it hadn’t taken long to understand its significance – the place thrummed and buzzed with summer life. “You’ve either got to get right in and go, Look, this is amazing down here, or you’ve got to get up high and see this vast, extraordinary landscape from above,” said Sorrel, carrying her young son on her back as we walked, who kept irrepressibly pointing out cygnets and baby mallards in the water at the edge of the meadows. As much as the thought of experiencing the Levels from on high appealed to me, seeing them as a buzzard or a peregrine might, an ancient, hand-crafted mosaic of fields, villages and grazing marsh riddled by narrow waterways that has been reclaimed from tidal saltmarsh since Roman times, I was fairly sure that my debit card wouldn’t stretch to a twirl in the sky and decided that getting as near as I could was the best way of coming to know this place.

Meadow light

Close up of reen

Damselfly

Besides, that practice of looking attentively and up close at things, whether through the lens of a microscope or simply by getting your hands dirty in search of the rich particularities of a place, has the weight of successful precedence behind it. It’s enabled scientists to establish the extraordinary ecological diversity and vitality of the Gwent Levels, home to an enviable range of species from the totemic otter to the rootless duckweed, Wolffia arrhizal, the world’s smallest flowering plant that’s found nowhere else in Wales, so tiny that you could hold thousands of them in your cupped hands. And it’s a technique that’s allowed archaeologists to painstakingly sift through alluvial silt to reveal boats from the Roman period buried miles inland or the astonishingly preserved Mesolithic footprints of the intertidal zone, the 7,500 year-old steps of adults and children off the coast, as well as those of various wild animals, including the common crane, a bird that until quite recently had been extinct as a breeding species in Britain for over 400 years. It’s a place that comes into clearer focus as you near.

Reen near seawall

Orchid

Afternoon on the seawall

But even at a distance the Levels are mesmeric, beguiling beneath wide, estuary skies. They shape-shift with the weather as you walk them, borrowing the magical sea-light of the Severn Estuary when it’s struck by sun, or turning as dark and dramatic as a storm-tide. By a set of lagoons near the coast, I watched a pair of those magical, rare cranes drop slowly through a bloom of late afternoon sunlight, lowering on vast open wings like they were descending by parachute, the glint of a scarlet crown on each of their graceful heads. For the past year this pair of cranes has been regularly crossing the Severn Estuary from a reintroduction project on the Somerset Levels, restoring the tie of antiquity between their species and the Levels landscape that’s been memorialised by those relic steps beneath the tide. There’s hope that in the future cranes will breed there again, and if they did they would join some of the other charismatic species that dwell on the Levels, such as avocets, little egrets and water voles. The water vole occupies an unenviable position in modern Britain; it’s the nation’s fastest declining wild mammal, its population having nose-dived by as much as 90% since the 1970s. For a period of nine whole years it had gone unseen on the Gwent Levels until a successful reintroduction scheme returned the mammal to its native home in 2012. From those small beginnings at Magor Marsh the water vole has spread over three miles on its own, journeying outwards across its former habitat by reen, like the ripples from a stone dropped suddenly into still water.

Water vole

Common cranes, Gwent Levels

Reen, from the Welsh rhewyn, is the local word for the watery ditches that criss-cross the landscape like arteries, the primary feature of a complex drainage system that was dug over many centuries, and which included a subtle variety of components, from parallel field depressions known as ridge and furrow to shallow surface grooves called grips. On a map of the region the reens appear in bewildering blue numbers, like a dense grid of city streets, carrying water from the uplands and local springs safely out to sea in order to protect the reclaimed land from flooding. And it’s these earthen-banked ducts that set the Gwent Levels apart, making them both culturally and ecologically unique. Sculpted on top of an older Roman landscape of reclamation which was buried by alluvium some 1500 years ago after sea defences failed, the Levels reflect the long and evolving relationship between coastal people and the sea. Most of the present-day reens are medieval in origin, some of them the work of monks who lived and worshipped on the Levels. Such is the uniqueness of the historic, human-shaped landscape, including an evocative line of majestic old sallow trees that are believed to have sprouted from the willow mats laid down by monks attached to Tintern Abbey when crossing a particularly wet field to reach their grange farm near Magor Marsh, that the Gwent Levels are a designated cultural monument in Wales, a Landscape of Outstanding Historic Interest. And like those woven wands of willow that have sprouted into trees, culture and nature are deeply entwined across the landscape, giving rise to the wild diversity of the reens.

Reen 1

Pond weed

Line of willows

I sat in on a reen-dipping session with a class of schoolkids at Magor Marsh run by Kathy Barclay, an inspiring community education officer for the Gwent Wildlife Trust. It’s not only scientists and archaeologists who get up close to things, for it’s also the native and intuitive approach that children take to the natural world when given the opportunity. It’s how they’re able to engage with it so richly and perceptively, responding to creatures and sensations of all shapes and sizes with an equal degree of interest. I watched as the 9 and 10 year-olds scooped water, weeds and a wealth of aquatic creatures from the reen with enviable delight, scrutinising the plastic tubs where they’d sloshed the contents of their nets with rapt fascination. They pored over delicate ramshorn snails, tiny, flickering bloodworms, and the startlingly large beasts that are dragonfly nymphs. Racing back and forth with their dripping nets, hollering to each other about a particular discovery or laughing when someone returned with an arm wreathed in weeds, that small reen of their fascination and focus was nothing less than a world to them, which happens to be scientifically as well as imaginatively true.

Wellies

Reed-dipping

“We have 144 Red Data Book aquatic invertebrate species across the Levels,” Sorrel had said when she handed me a net a couple of days earlier, encouraging me to go dipping for the first time since I was a child. “That’s the diversity and rarity that you’re looking at here, because each reen is subtly different. You get fast ones, slow ones, shaded ones, not so shaded ones, so you have this massive variety of reens which suits a massive variety of invertebrates.” Once I got started, I found it hard to stop, twirling my net through the water in a figure eight as Sorrel had suggested, peering into the tub at the treasure I’d hauled up. Looking closely at them, every single one of those myriad blue lines on the map is wholly unique, supporting a singular cast of aquatic organisms according to the reen’s physical characteristics, as if each waterway were a stage for a different play.

Nymph

Severn Estuary near Goldcliff

In hindsight, though, I wish I could have taken that helicopter ride after all, because there’s no better way of appreciating scale than from height. In recognition of the remarkable ecological richness of those reens, the Gwent Levels are listed as a suite of eight adjoining Sites of Special Scientific Interest, encompassing most of that beautiful, ancient place and supposedly safeguarding it against development. From above I’d have been able to see how that nearly seamless stretch of protected land on both sides of the River Usk reaches all the way to the estuary, a glittering green sweep threaded by living waterways and studded with church spires. And while I was up there, I’d have had a clear view of what 14 miles of motorway would look like when driven like a stake through its secluded heart.

Magor Marsh

Tiny gem

Despite the protective measures in place to preserve them, the Welsh Labour government intends to lay six lanes of concrete and asphalt over the Gwent Levels, building a new section of the M4 to ease rush hour bottlenecks where the current motorway is pinched from three lanes to two in the Brynglass Tunnels north of Newport. Their chosen route -named the Black Route in proposals- would carve open four of those SSSIs and the Special Protection Area of the River Usk, as well as fragmenting the Landscape of Outstanding Historic Interest at a cost of at least one billion pounds to the taxpayer. The M4 relief road would irrevocably alter the unique character and integrity of the Levels, something that even the great flood of the Bristol Channel in 1607 (1606 in the Old Calendar), movingly commemorated by a high-water mark chiselled into the outer wall of the Church of St Thomas the Apostle in the village of Redwick, couldn’t manage, despite the terrible tally of death and destruction that those rising waters wrought.

Redwick Church

Bristol Channel Flood, 1607

The motorway would spell the end of the Levels as an intact repository of cultural and natural wealth. As the study for the characterisation of the Gwent Levels as a historic landscape makes clear, “the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of each part.” Along with the direct loss of habitat beneath the concrete footprint of the motorway, one of the largest single losses of SSSI land anywhere in the UK, the M4 bypass would rupture the essential cohesion of the place, acting as an impermeable barrier to all flightless wildlife, snapping protected habitat like a cracker in two, and isolating wild animal populations on either side of the divide. “It seems ironic,” said Kathy Barclay, “that we’re reintroducing water voles and re-establishing a population that’s going to be cut in half. Nothing’s going to go beyond the motorway.” While little wildlife will travel beyond the looming barrier once construction has begun, it’s likely that the effects of the motorway will seep everywhere, as each of the unique reens is coupled to another, linking up in a vast, interconnected drainage system that takes water southwards to the estuary. Any pollution from the motorway that enters one of the reens –whether from noxious fumes or a hazardous spill- would likely enter them all, carried along like disease in a bloodstream, fouling each of those singular, underwater worlds that the extraordinarily sensitive invertebrates are entirely dependent upon.

Reen near Magor

Harvest time

The Welsh government’s own website admits that during its consultation process it received more comments against the motorway proposal than for it, but dismisses them without a trace of irony as possibly being “the result of interest groups’ initiatives” while simultaneously championing the support they’ve received from corporate business. Even the Federation of Small Businesses in Wales has come out against the project, arguing that there are far better ways of spending such a colossal amount of money to develop the economy of south-east Wales. And despite its so-called need, no one I spoke to was in favour of a motorway across the Levels. Not bikers or birdwatchers, publicans or soldiers. Not even the taxi driver from Newport or the lorry driver from Port Talbot that I imagined might have more sympathy for the development in light of their working lives. Regardless of whether the people I spoke to lived on the Levels or elsewhere in Wales -and many of them regularly used the notorious M4 tunnels- they all articulated the same point of view, a deep concern about the project’s vast cost at a time when local services were being cut and a passionate belief that the place should be preserved as it is, just like it was meant to be, for its wildlife, historical importance and open character.

Severn Estuary

Pollard willows

“It’s hard to believe what these fields once were, and what they still are. When the tide comes in you get a real sense of their history.” I’d stopped for a coffee one afternoon at a café near the village of Goldcliff after seeing Wayne Mumford, the owner, standing on a picnic table while trying to photograph baby starlings in the eaves. “When I think that the Romans and the monks built this area where there’s so much history, and all the life that lives in the reens, I can’t understand why anyone would want to build a motorway through the Levels.” Wayne had shaken his head in the same dismayed way that Lisa Morgan had inside Donnie’s Coffee Shop in Magor where she’d been helping out the day before, though her voice was sharpened with anger and frustration: “I have to drive into Newport about five times a week and does the current motorway bother me? No. If I have to wait a little longer does it bother me? No.” She went back to wiping the countertop before continuing. “The sad thing is that politicians think they can ride roughshod over people and if they take a little bit, generally they’ll take a little bit more and the core of the place will have already been eaten into. And once it’s gone, we can never have it back again.”

Magor Marsh reen

Usk Lighthouse

What’s at stake with the Welsh government’s plan is not solely the unique and irreplaceable environment of the Gwent Levels, but the kind of future we wish to leave as our legacy. Do we honour protective measures for the purpose they were intended, leaving intact those places of natural and cultural significance, places that are necessary for both wildlife and our own well-being, or do we dismiss them as irrelevant, narrowing our focus until it excludes all but a relentless fixation on development at any cost, corroding the wider duty of care we’ve been entrusted with? In 2015 the Welsh government passed the Well-being of Future Generations Act, a bill that explicitly highlights sustainable development as the key to “improving the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales.” When such gems as the Gwent Levels can be sacrificed for the sake of development, it reveals just how empty of meaning the concept of sustainability can be. “We have to think outside the box as it were,” said Kathy Barclay as we sat in the nature reserve office. “We need to think of different solutions. The history of this place, and the cultural aspects of it are irreplaceable, so once you’ve wrecked it it’s gone. It’s absolutely gone.”

Near the seawall

School kids

The Future Generations Act also obliges public bodies “to make sure that when making their decisions they take into account the impact they could have on people living their lives in Wales in the future.” After the schoolkids had finished reen-dipping, I walked back through the meadows towards the classroom with them. They carried a small selection of creatures in glass jars to look at under the microscope, to bring that captivating world beneath the surface of the water into even greater focus. As swallows curled through the dry summer air and dragonflies glittered over the meadow grasses, I asked a number of them what it was that they enjoyed about coming to Magor Marsh and the Gwent Levels. Each and every one of them, spoken to individually, gave me the same two reasons, as though they weren’t answering a question, with a range and diversity of possible responses, but had instead drawn on a well of common sense in kids. Firstly, they adored the wildlife – all the myriad bugs and birds and butterflies that they got close to on each visit, the very things that accord the Levels their celebrated, scientific designations. But secondly, and of greater surprise to me, they all said they loved the peace and quiet there, the silence away from home and school. That silence must be a strange and phantom thing for them: having already recognised its importance in their young lives, they’re witnessing its increasing disappearance from their experience, the same silence that would be lost alongside the wildlife they loved from large parts of the Levels with six lanes of cars, coaches and lorries roaring through it. Another piece of the place chipped away, leaving a lesser sum in its stead.

Poplars

Ragged robin and visitor

In many respects the children that morning had been much like I’d imagined, a group of ordinary boys and girls who were simultaneously excited, noisy, curious, polite, pushing and laughing, and it was clear that this future generation already had an important stake in this present place, a set of emotional and imaginative connections that immeasurably enriched their lives, highlighting the enlightened reasons why landscapes like the Gwent Levels were originally protected. These were the citizens the well-being act was intended for, those who would inherit our decisions, who would grow up in a world diminished by the loss of unique places if we’re to sanction their destruction. As we crossed a bridge over the last reen before reaching the nature reserve classroom, the kids abruptly stopped talking and watched the water instead. That sudden, overwhelming hush of wonder when they saw a water vole swim across the reen could yet be the sound of nature’s future, and hopefully an enduring element of their own.

Water vole watching

Further information regarding the Gwent Levels and the campaign against the M4 motorway bypass can be found on the Gwent Wildlife Trust’s action page as well as at CALM, an alliance of organisations opposed to road-building across the protected landscape. You can write to your Welsh AM with your thoughts regarding the proposal here, while a petition against the motorway can be found here

The Gwent Levels is one of the places that will feature in the book that I’m currently writing, called Irreplaceable. The book will celebrate a range of unique and threatened places that are both significant and essential for wildlife and our own well-being. Whether ancient woodland that’s being lost to make way for service stations or urban allotments being turned into car parks, the book will champion the voices of those who are resisting their loss. Please feel free to use the comment box below to add any places of importance to you that are currently threatened in one way or another, regardless of how large or small they are, no matter how well known or unsung. Thank you.

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A Fragile Blue EdgeWreathed in egret-white waves, the rippled hills of the coast glittered in hot light. The sky was a flawless blue, a near match for the glazed and glistening sea. We walked on warm sand, sinking into the smooth sweep of dunes that were slowly on the move, cartwheeling south with the wind and waves towards Monterey Bay, one of the few active dune fields on the Californian coast. Songbirds called out a new season as our docent led us along a winding track towards Point Año Nuevo, a windswept spur of mudstone about 90 kilometres south of San Francisco. The docent stopped us in a saddle of sand to talk about the single species we’d all come to see. Ravens stitched a black weave across the sky as he spoke.

Dune and Sky

In The Thunder Tree, Robert Michael Pyle asks a question as relevant now as it was when he wrote the book in the early 1990s: “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren.” In the book, Michael Pyle gives voice to an idea he calls the extinction of experience, the cycle of “disaffection and loss that begins with the extinction of hitherto common species, events, and flavours of sensation in our own immediate surrounds.” He takes his childhood in Denver, Colorado as an example: a place where as a boy, and a budding lepidopterist, he came to know and love the natural world while recording an astonishing variety of butterfly species in the city spaces that had held on to the wild. He compares that diverse richness to the impoverished inventory of species which he records later in life after the rampant expansion of the city’s suburbs. Entire species that were common to him as a boy, and provided a way into relationship with the natural world, had completely vanished. As we stood in the hollow of the dunes, listening to the docent describe the fragile history of the species we were about to encounter, I realised that just beyond the ridge, where turkey vultures trailed shadows over the sand, was an animal which for a period of time had been both the condor and wren of Robert Michael Pyle’s analogy: a creature once common to the coast taken to the very edge of extinction, nearly paling into memory.

Ano Nuevo

After nearly two centuries of killing, only a hundred northern elephant seals existed in the entire world by 1922. They were the sole survivors of countless massacres of their kind, when entire sedentary colonies were slaughtered for the oil stored in the animal’s blubber – oil which helped fuel the Gold Rush and rapid expansion of settlement across the American West. Those hundred seals discovered on Guadalupe Island, 150 miles off the coast of Mexico, were declared a protected species by the Mexican government in 1922, a move followed by the United States a few years later. Since then, elephant seal colonies and numbers continue to grow, so that there are around 175,000 – 190,000 present in the world today, all tracing their lineage to a small island in the Pacific, an ancestral relict once common along the coast.

Elephant seal

We rose above the dunes, sharp light scattered like glass across the sea. Although it was the end of the breeding season, a number of elephant seals were still sprawled across the shore. Breeding was first recorded at Año Nuevo in 1961 and this year’s pups lay like plump sausages on the sand, occasionally humping forward with the flap of small, wing-like flippers to bask at a new angle. Mothers raise a single pup each year, fattening it with milk so rich her young will gain 150 kilos of weight in less than a month. When they finally push off from land, the young will run the gauntlet of great white sharks in the strait, the primary reason why only 50-60% of them will survive their first year. Until that race across the strait, they’re settled in sunlight and sand beside a few males and females still lingering at the end of the breeding season.

Island and strait

A male rode in like a king coming ashore. We’d seen him in the distance, bobbing and breaching with a twist of white water until he caught a necessary swell. Even the enormous energy of this ocean couldn’t carry him far. A male will weigh between 1800 and 2300 kg when it arrives at the beginning of the breeding season, losing around 500 kg by its finish. This one seemed stranded between worlds: the buoyant blue gloss of sea and the inflexible gravity of shore. The seal reared up in sudden, lumbering movement, a muscled torque of motion that held it steady on its torso. It was sphinx-like at the edge of the sea, gleaming in spray. The long, pendulous nose of its name was now visible as it heaved forward, a blubbery shuffle that brought it another metre onto shore.

Elephant seal male

Seen here, hauled out and dozing on sand, the elephant seals give little inkling of their oceanic lives and migrations. It is to the sea that they belong, the place where they spend the vast majority of their time, only coming ashore for specific needs. Leaving Año Nuevo after breeding, the females chart a coastal course northwards to Vancouver Island before veering into the deep Pacific, feeding on rays, squid, eels, fish and small sharks. Once far out in the ocean, capable of diving to a depth of 1550 metres and holding their breath for a hundred minutes underwater, they’ll loop southward, boomeranging back to Año Nuevo. The males travel even further, journeying as far north as Alaska where their westward curve follows the sprinkled trail of the Aleutian Islands. They’ll be far closer to Asia than their natal shore when they eventually turn for home, spearing across the deep sea for the Californian coast. As remarkable as these migrations are, long pelagic peregrinations that return them to the precise place of their birthing and breeding, the elephant seals make the journey twice each year: returning not only to breed but also to moult in the summer months before setting off seaward again, following that Pacific sea-path encoded deep in their blood and bones.

Elephant seal 2

The sea-light glittered, caught up in the sway and swell of waves. A few shorebirds hurtled westwards, nicking the rising white crests like skipping stones. The elephant seals basked and rolled at the edge of the water; a dead pup was pecked at by ravens and gulls. There was a strange beauty to being in the presence of such relics – a species descended from a single, remote island. Dependent upon such limited genetic material, there are worries about the future viability of the species and what the evolutionary consequences of descent from that solitary population might be, but for now they flourish on these coastal strands.

Shell midden

As we left the seals to weave back through the dunes, our docent pointed to a slope of sand salted with pale grains. An ancient place in the lee of a ridge, it was a shell midden of the Quiroste people, a group of the Ohlone Indians who had lived here seasonally for 6,000 years – hunting, fishing and gathering abalones and other shellfish from the sea. Like the elephant seals, the Quiroste communities along the coast were part of a living landscape that endured until European contact in the late 1700s decimated their numbers and ways of life. Through forced baptism and settlement in Spanish missions around Santa Cruz, the Quiroste as a people disappeared to nearly nothing. A black oystercatcher whistled from the sea while we stood there, its rising song breaking the spell of sand and shells, leading us back into a day of brilliant, unbroken blue.

Blue beach

Sand

 

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“Where there are borders, there are bridges.” I’d been researching a cross-border eco-tourism project on the Albanian side of the lake when Myrsini Malakou, director of the Society for the Protection of Prespa, suddenly said this during an interview. Her words crystalized for me a vague idea that I’d been carrying around throughout the time I’d spent in the poor village of Zagradec, a village mostly empty of men from spring until the beginning of winter as they sought agricultural labour in Greece. It was a place where the poorly irrigated fields were tilled by donkey and plough, where eerie communist bunkers perched unnervingly in the landscape. It was a village “forgotten even by God” according to one of its residents. And yet amidst the signs of impoverishment a frail hope could be found, a faith that things could change. A few people on both sides of the border were working together, building bridges for the sake of a forgotten place and community. I had the opportunity to watch the project develop, to see what happened and what the future might hold, over the course of a year. And I met a group of women who were trying to change the place where they lived.

I’m delighted to announce that the third of these tales from around the lakes, that resulted from my experiences in the village of Zagradec, has been chosen as the winner of the 2011 Terrain.org Nonfiction Prize. For readers already familiar with Terrain.org you’ll know that it presents a wonderful range of writing and images relating to our place in the world. And if you’re new to the journal, you’re in for a treat! My essay can be found through its permanent link at ‘Faith in a Forgotten Place’ or on the journal’s homepage at www.terrain.org. The piece is accompanied by a slideshow of photographs from Albania and an audio recording of me reading the piece.

Please feel free to add any thoughts, ideas or comments beneath the essay on the Terrain.org site, or any experiences you might wish to share about borders in your own parts of the world. I’d like to say a big thanks to the many people in both countries without whose help this essay wouldn’t have been possible. Hope you enjoy and thanks for taking the time to read!

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To listen to an audio version of ‘The Wonder of Ordinary Places’ click the play button.

Many of the world’s landscapes are lost to us. They’ve vanished from our lives, become extinct. But they’ve disappeared not because of urban sprawl or the pressures of tourist development. They haven’t disappeared due to deforestation or a toxic accumulation of pollutants. Nor have they vanished because of weak legislation or the lack of political will and the funds necessary to secure them. Many of the world’s landscapes are lost to us because they’re invisible. We don’t see them for what they are.

While nations may try to preserve and protect a handful of ecologically significant areas within their borders, the total area these parks and reserves amount to in relation to a country’s land mass is minute. Much of Europe, much of the world perhaps, is actually composed of what could be described as ordinary landscapes. They’re the everyday places, like the fields and hills we pass on the way to work. They’re the areas at the edges of our cities and villages, such as old orchards and weedy wastegrounds. They’re the places we might visit on a summer’s afternoon –a small urban woodland or a pond to picnic beside, perhaps the ordinary shore of a lake.

To describe a landscape as ordinary is to say that it is considered to be common and, on the surface at least, undistinguished. Generally it’s a place that’s not protected in any real sense. It rarely contains any significant cultural monuments, nor is it the focus of international work on habitat preservation or rare species protection. It’s a place that is of little conventional value and often not even particularly aesthetically attractive, being made up of an odd assortment of habitat fragments or existing on the fringes of agriculture and development. But these ordinary landscapes are of extreme importance, not because of their abundance, but because it is where connections with the natural world can most easily and enduringly be made.

Prespa is full of such places. Although Prespa as a whole is seen as extraordinary, there are many less-celebrated landscapes within it. While Lesser Prespa Lake, with its important breeding colonies of rare water birds and its island of rich Byzantine monuments, is rightly regarded as both the ecological and spiritual heart of the lakes basin in Greece, there is an extensive ‘body’ that surrounds it. The Prespa basin is a great mosaic of landscapes that continue to evolve, both naturally and as a result of human activities. These range from the steep surrounding mountains once terraced by hand to agricultural fields only recently claimed from wet meadows. There are dense forests of beech and oak, and stands of old junipers; along with orchards, hedges and river corridors that break up the agricultural plains.

But there is one particular Prespa landscape that I find myself returning to year after year, and season after season: the shore of Great Prespa Lake in Greece. The lakeshore landscape is a recent phenomenon. Although the exact causes are unknown, the water level of the lake has dropped considerably over the last half-century. While the water loss is mourned by many it is only one of a number of transformations taking place along the lakeshore: a progression of new habitats is quietly taking the lake’s place. In essence, the ancient lakebed is rising to the surface. As you approach the coast from the isthmus that separates the two lakes you are in fact passing over a series of old shorelines, each flavoured according to the conditions when it first emerged, and the flora and fauna that subsequently made it home.

These emerging habitats occupy a long, curving ribbon of land adjacent to the shore. There are wide bands of sandy scrubland, dotted with wild roses, brambles and a variety of wildflowers. A dense forest of silver birch and poplars has sprung up towards one end of the shore, where the silver birch reaches its most southern distribution within Europe. Reedbeds spread thickly in places. A long line of willows follows the river to the lake, where an ever-changing estuary remakes itself each day. A seasonal string of clear-water pools lie close to the lake and, in recent years, an extensive marsh system has claimed parts of the shore.

This landscape has come to feel like home to me. What first led me to it, though, was its unprepossessing nature. It was rarely visited and I heard few people speak about it. It appeared to be a landscape of little distinction, an ordinary place. But even ordinary places contain wonders.

When it comes to wonder and the natural world, children are the true specialists. They are particularly open to that state of astonishment that we associate with awe. A child, in the most common of landscapes, is capable, through a combination of intense perception and imagination, of discovering an entire world in the smallest fragment of nature. It might be among wildflowers and weeds at the edge of a scrubby field where an iridescent emerald beetle or the bright flight of a butterfly can hold a child’s attention for several minutes. It could be along a river bank where a child excitedly follows an oak leaf as it travels downstream. It might simply be the prints of an animal, perfectly preserved by snow, that captures a child’s imagination.

What is so remarkable about children’s perception, even more so than its intensity, is that it is characterised by an equality of interest. Everything a child encounters in nature, no matter how small, offers possibility and is therefore equally fascinating. Children make little distinction between major and minor motifs. A feather found on the beach is as wondrous as the creature it belonged to.

As childhood is left behind, adults tend to shed that capacity for curiosity, that spirit that animates the smallest of things. We yearn for greater and faster excitements; we seek larger vistas, grander views. But in a contemporary Western world increasingly obsessed by speed, style and seduction, there is perhaps all the more need to reclaim the ordinary, to celebrate the everyday. Because the ordinary, when perceived in the spirit of curiosity, is actually extraordinary.

The American writer and naturalist, Barry Lopez, once wrote that ‘with the loss of self-consciousness, the landscape opens.” This, I believe, can be understood in two ways. First, when we let go of our constant self-awareness and regain something of a child’s immense curiosity and interest in the world ‘out there,’ the world around us, we become more attuned to its wonders. Leaving something of our self behind, other lives arise in its place. That is when the ordinary transforms into the extraordinary, and a landscape like the shore of Great Prespa Lake becomes something else.

In spring the ponds at the edge of the lake fill up with terrapins sunning themselves on sticks, electric blue damselflies skate through the air above them and millions of tadpoles wriggle past water snakes coiled beneath the surface. The willows along the river resound with the liquid calls of golden orioles and bee-eaters fly overhead like a scattering of gems. At times a dusky red fox will scour the beach in sunlight alongside egrets and herons, all slowly circling each other as though in a dance. But these wonders are perhaps too obvious. They are emotionally fulfilling and difficult to miss; they are bright with beauty and colour and grace.

Barry Lopez’s assertion about landscapes, however, provides a second clue to engaging more deeply with place. To be self-conscious means not only to be aware of one’s own mind and actions, but to be conscious of being observed and therefore embarrassed as a result. Self-consciousness prevents us from doing many things, but in the case of a landscape it can stand in the way of knowing it.

Landscapes are best learned through proximity. Wherever children go, they are tempted to climb trees. They slither through long grasses like snakes, eyeing up insects excitedly from their own height. They make hide-aways in dense shrubs. Children catch frogs in their hands and then slowly open their fingers to reveal them. They collect caterpillars in jars, fascinated by the coming transformation. Children’s inquisitive experience of the natural world is hands-on, intimate and utterly without self-consciousness. They are part of a place, not distinct from it.

When we approach similarly, with a sense of freedom unburdened by embarrassment, we open ourselves to the quieter aspects of a landscape. How the light falls through the willow leaves, passing through them like waves. How bear prints and otter tracks lead us first along the beach and then into their lives. The way tiny, resplendent butterflies gather around a flower. There are the curious sounds of water and reptiles in the marsh. How the wind breathes mysteriously through the reeds, their seeds catching the light as they float above the river. The way the bark of a silver birch feels like ancient paper in our hands. Walk into any pocket of the shoreline landscape and there is a world of new moments unfolding.

All landscapes contain the seeds of astonishment. Whether we let them take root or not is up to us. But if we become aware of the wonders within easy reach, those close at hand and part of our daily experience, then the everyday places that we live amongst become less easy to dismiss. The greatest threat facing many landscapes is their assumed irrelevance. When a place is perceived to hold little of interest or importance then a whole landscape can turn invisible, and be treated accordingly. Though any child will show you there is no such thing as a place without interest.

A landscape deemed irrelevant can be regularly threatened by damaging activities. Along the length of the Great Prespa lakeshore in Greece sand is continually being illegally extracted to make cement, eradicating the fragile ecosystem of wildflowers and grasses. The dumping of household and building waste is common. In recent years, shepherds have moved their flocks into the area on a nearly permanent basis, upsetting the traditional pattern of rotational herding, and the consequent overgrazing, tree felling, erosion of the river banks and random reed and tree burning has greatly disturbed the integrity of the place. There is increasing waste washing ashore from fishing boats and visitors leave behind a great volume of garbage that is not collected by the municipal authorities. Many common landscapes suffer this casual disregard, and Prespa is no different. The old notion of ‘out of sight means out of mind’ seems perfectly suited to our relationship with ordinary places.

To discover wonder in a place is to begin to feel affinity; it offers the possibility of approaching all landscapes with equal interest. Ultimately landscapes can be transformational. As much as the large Prespa lake is changing and making way for something else, to enter that shoreline world in a spirit of curiosity and attentiveness is to allow ourselves to be changed. Each time we engage with a landscape we are offered the opportunity to remake it through awareness, by being open to the extraordinary within it. Even the most common of places can come alive and take root in our inner lives. A single small spark, as children demonstrate so very well, is often all it takes. And when a landscape is no longer invisible but revealed for what it truly is, then that landscape stands a chance of connecting with our lives. If that happens, we are less likely to let it disappear.

In response to the diversity of fascinating comments and thoughts regarding ‘The Fragile Forest’ post I decided to rework a presentation I gave here in Prespa at a conference concerning wetlands and conservation a couple of years ago. I was honoured to be asked to participate among a range of scientists and academics working to preserve wetlands throughout the Mediterranean basin. Coming from southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, the speakers helped me realise over the course of the conference how varied the approaches to conservation must inevitably be to deal with localised issues, traditions and specific, historic relationships to the land. Reflecting the plurality of peoples and places about us, a diversity of preservation and sustainability methods is required, including economic, educational, political and artistic approaches. One particularly inspiring idea that I learned about from Assad Serhal, director of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon, concerns the restoration of the Arabic ‘hima’ system to parts of the Middle East, a traditional form of land use reaching back to the 7th century and aimed at economic well-being along with the protection of biodiversity. For anyone interested in learning more about the ‘hima’ there is an excellent article here together with a gallery of wonderful photographs.  

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The silence is unprecedented for spring, a time of bird song and insect hymns. It’s a silence I’ve never known in this forest in fact, this wild tangle of silver birch and willow, alders, shrubs and reeds. Even in deepest winter the place resounds with a living quiet, a mute but sensed presence. Instead there is the hollow echo of absence.

I have been here before. Not only to this rare and mysterious place along the shores of the lake but amidst the constituents of its devastation: ash, cinders and ignorance. This part of the world has a dark history of fire being used as an economic instrument, a way of clearing the land of trees to get around restrictions on development or for additional, illegal grazing. The fires often shift wildly out of control, having been lit purposefully on days with high winds in order to push the flames as far as possible, and they occasionally lead to vast and devastating conflagrations like some of the fires in the Peloponnese caused by arson a few years ago. The acrid scent of smoke is common throughout the land.

Returning home after a day away we discovered that the silver birch forest hugging the southern shore of Great Prespa Lake had been set ablaze – the orchestrated work of arson. The fire trucks weren’t on alert in April, stowed in the nearest town 50 kilometres of mountain road away. By the time they came over the high, winding pass and descended into the lake basin the parts of the forest still visible through the haze had been burned beyond recognition. A fortunate turn of winds meant the loss was less than it might have been, where it could have spread into the deepest tracts and beyond the border into the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Instead it curled in on itself, giving the fire fighters a chance to douse it. With their work finally finished they confirmed the growing murmur of suspicion: the series of individual fires had been deliberately set.

As I approach the forest the sweet scent of blossom unrolls on a breeze. Beyond the white blooms fizzing with bees a black expanse shoulders out towards the lake. I slide rubber boots up to my knees and tuck my oldest pair of trousers inside them. Then I traipse a trail through ash. It lays in deep reefs, sometimes a foot thick and crisscrossed with charred branches and a few untouched reeds, the accumulated memory of a once-living time. I find myself wondering what organisms surround me, what’s been transformed into a singular and indistinguishable dark thing. The reek of fire pillows up with each step.

Animal tracks pock the ash; a skin of burnt bark has been sloughed off by deer. And everywhere the silence. The tips of trees just greening hold no birds or butterflies; no bees skim what would have been an unfolding forest floor. The silver birches weep sap from their sides, strange red drops that fall when they should be rising at this time of year. Where the bark has been singed it crinkles and peels, a forlorn set of pages being turned. There is a place for fire in the natural order of things – certain ecosystems wouldn’t exist without it – but not in this manner.

The silver birch forest in Prespa is a rare community of trees. Although a common northern species with a reputation for being invasive, the silver birch reaches its most southern distribution here. The elegant white tree wrapped in parchment-like bark clings to the very edge of its range around the lake. Mingling with willow, alder and poplar there are very few forest ecosystems of this composition to be found anywhere else in the country. And its origins are equally unique. For the past half-century the Prespa Lakes have been receding. Though the exact causes remain unknown, this loss has enabled a gain. The progressively exposed shorelines are ideal for damp-loving trees like the silver birch and willow, and this young forest community has emerged in the water’s place. It is an authentic wild wood, a unique and natural expression of trees. Hosting a rich variety of migrating and resident birds and insects, it also harbours an astonishing range of mammals for such a small parcel of land, including bear, badger, wild cat, fox, roe deer, otter and wild boar. A distinguished place within the basin.

The fires were probably set by, or on behalf of, the owners of animal flocks, either to curtail the forest’s expansion or to clear the reeds for grazing. The reeds will return more resolutely, however, bolstered by the nutrients in the ash, and the sandy lakeside land at the edge of the forest is too poor to provide much edible grass. But the fires continue all the same, despite the lack of any benefit. Not long ago a friend watched the process unfold through his telescope while he watched birds from a hill. The herder dipped cotton into oil and brought a lighter down to meet it before tossing it casually into a thicket of dry reeds. He then moved on and performed the process again. Within seconds a series of blazes rode away.

Some years ago I interviewed the director of the NGO concerned with the natural and cultural preservation of the Prespa Lakes, The Society for the Protection of Prespa. As the lakes straddle three countries I was interested in Myrsini Malakou’s thoughts on borders. At some point she shifted the conversation in a way that I hadn’t expected, away from the obviously political towards a line of thought that has as much, if not more, bearing on the future of many shared places: “You can’t say that the national border is more important than any other…There are the borders of interest and activity – the farmer, the fisherman, the environmentalist.” Walking through the burned forest I saw clearly how divisive and exclusive those borders can be.

I feel empty amidst the ash. I’ve experienced the resilience of the natural world before, how unexpectedly riotous it can be in the most fragile of times, but this doesn’t allay the sensation of sadness and loss, my powerless rage. What takes years to become can be undone in a day. What has laced together of its own accord into complex and varied life forms can easily be extinguished. That is the measure of man at his most destructive. The forest will regrow, of that I’m sure. But unless common ground can be found across the differing borders of interest and activity then environmental conflicts will continue. The ecological integrity of the world that sustains us will eventually collapse; it is simply a matter of time.

In ‘The Wild Marsh’ Rick Bass writes of his absorbing love for the Montana wilds where he lives, even when confronted with aspects of its destruction, the dissolution of its biological beauty: “But one of the key components of love is hope – enduring hope – and to let fear replace hope would be a bitter defeat indeed, a kind of failure in its own stead.”

The day is warming towards noon. My throat rasps from inhaling ash and the remains of smoke have left my eyes watery and raw, but amidst the black and feeble desert before me I see a peacock butterfly sunning itself on a singed stick. Its wings open and close slowly, like curtains on a summer breeze. I can find no other colour, no other life in this place drained of light, but it is enough. This small and fragile creature whose life spans days rather than years acts as a lens, a focus for more than it is, and I leave the fire and forest behind determined to do more than merely hope.

To read an earlier post on fire in the region click here.

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Back home in Prespa pelicans are huddling on their nests. From dawn till dusk they criss-cross between the lakes, flying from their fishing waters on the large lake to their breeding grounds on the smaller. Prespa is home to both of Europe’s pelican species, the white and the Dalmatian, and is one of the few places where the two breed alongside one another.

Nesting communally on reed islands, the Prespa population of around 1200 pairs of Dalmatian pelicans is the largest congregation of their kind in the world, making up between 7 to 10 percent of the species’ international numbers. While they began arriving in mid-winter, the white pelicans have only just returned, having made a long migratory journey from Africa’s Great Rift Valley to the Balkans via the Bosphorus. The 500 or so pairs that nest in Prespa are of European significance. The surge in pelican numbers over the last two decades has been a major success story for the Society for the Protection of Prespa, the NGO working to preserve the natural heritage of the region. The pelicans have become the essence of the lakes in summer, rising up from the glimmering waters or coasting overhead on still wings. No matter how often I see them, they continue to amaze me with their grace.

As of this morning oil from the Gulf of Mexico disaster has reached the outer islands of Louisiana. For 18 days straight, since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig 80 km of the coast, oil has poured from the offshore well. Despite the promises of BP, and the slim hope placed in protective booms and a giant underwater funnel lowered over the well, there is little that can be done for the habitats, wildlife, fishing grounds, delicate ecosystems and livelihoods already being affected by the scale of the disaster. The first birds, pelicans and gannets, are coming ashore coated in oil, but more will steadily follow. The unmitigated environmental and economic catastrophe came only weeks after President Obama, to the dismay of many within his own party, pledged to increase the amount of offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The irony, however, was probably lost on the pelicans; they have a troubled history of their own in Louisiana waters.

The brown pelican nested in large numbers on the coast and barrier islands of the southern US state until the 1950s and 60s. Over the course of a decade the number of birds plummeted dramatically, and by 1963 the brown pelican was extinct throughout Louisiana. The cause of the loss was eventually traced to DDT. Used with enthusiasm mid-century throughout the American heartland, the agricultural pesticide made its way to the Louisiana coast in the bodies of small fish after draining into the Mississippi River. The DDT slowly accumulated in the tissues of the pelicans while they fed on the fish in the coastal lagoons until the chemical eventually reduced the hardness of the bird’s eggshells. Each nesting season the brown pelican unintentionally crushed its offspring until the species no longer existed in its native waters.

A change in the pelican’s fortune came with the banning of DDT in the 1970s, a restocking programme and the restoration of habitat on the barrier islands where they bred. Until now the return of the brown pelican has been a story of successful intervention after the great loss effected by human activity. The bird breeds in healthy numbers along the rich, coastal wetlands and outer islands. But, coming at the height of the nesting season, the Gulf of Mexico spill could alter that patient process of restitution. Whether the images of dead pelicans or the devastation of oyster beds and unemployed fishermen will have an impact on the decision to increase offshore drilling is another matter. The relationship we have to place, humans and non-humans alike, is easily disturbed. And the disturbance inevitably results in loss.

Driving home yesterday along the isthmus that divides the two lakes, I watched pelicans grappling with the air. A fierce spring wind had galed over the lakes all day, tufting the waves with white crests. The willows along the water’s edge were curved back like taut bows and lengths of reed were being launched through the air. The pelicans were returning from a day of fishing the big lake, steering into the wild wind in order to cross back to their islands of reed nests. But the wind kept them adrift. They hung suspended in the air, held in place through elemental tension, the opposing push of wind and wing. Their feathers flayed down, lifted, and came down again, but the birds stayed in place. It seemed that nothing would come of their immense struggle, that they would eventually tire and slip away. But knowledge of the nesting ground is magnetic; they wouldn’t easily be dissuaded from home. They held their ground, balanced precariously in mid-air, until a sudden shift in the currents gave them purchase again. Their wings rose and fell, and the pelicans pressed forward. A slight shift in the nature of things had sent them on their way, arrowing towards home.

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