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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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Ever since I was a boy summer has seemed synonymous with flight. Whether a figurative lift coinciding with the end of school when my brother and I would take to our bikes or the fields with equal delight and spend endless, consuming hours exploring whatever was there to be discovered, or an actual journey through air, travelling from our Ontario home on holiday to the northeast of England where we’d lived before my parents emigrated across an ocean. In every sense summer was an airy embrace.

Years later and the hot, burnished months still summon a desire for flight, but never my own. Instead it’s a time for staying still, to let the season spill over and layer the long days with its sheen. To let light cast its spell. In the breathless hours that enfold the Mediterranean siesta I’m drawn to the movements of the few creatures willing to risk the kindling sun.

The flights of butterflies peak with the drowsy heat. They waver over the dry garden grasses, finding flowers or just passing through. Tiny blues like chips of lake ice, the myriad rusty hues of fritillaries, the metallic glaze of the green hairstreak. It’s like sitting in the garden for a matinée, watching a reel of old tinted celluloid unroll.

Seeing a meadow brown riding back and forth about the potatoes, bouncing sideways and at cross-purposes before curling back the way it came, it’s hard to imagine that butterflies were ever intended for flight. Yet some, like the monarch of North America and the painted lady of Europe and Africa are compelled to journey vast distances, migrating like birds during their fragile and short-lived existence. 

To see one in the garden is to sense an urgency, a powerful compulsion that sends brittle creatures across the seas, spanning lands as varied as the many species adorned with wings. Unknowingly, butterflies now act as crucial environmental indicators as well. Due to their short life cycles, food-plant specialisation and intimate reliance of weather and climate, butterflies are sensitive to minor environmental changes. They can be read like a catalogue of possible loss; a place without their presence is rarely a positive thing.

So many of us seek the light: flocking to seasides in summer; lifting as seedlings from the forest floor; basking like seals on stones. But it is equally flight that distills a seasonal essence, a desire to move on, leave things behind, take to the skies. As the naturalist Miriam Rothschild once said: “Butterflies add another dimension to the garden for they are like dream flowers – childhood dreams – which have broken loose from their stalks and escaped into the sunshine.” In the wake of each butterfly’s wings trails a memory, a weightless passage from one moment to the next, a kindred dance in the sun.

Notes from Near and Far will be back sometime around the middle of August. Until then, many thanks for reading and I wish you all an enriching season – whether it’s summer in the north or winter in the south. Happy wanderings…

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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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