Over the coming days and weeks The Clearing will be publishing Lie of the Land, a series of responses to the Referendum exploring what leaving the EU could mean for conservation, wildlife and our relationship with the land. Please add your voice by posting comments below or submitting a longer contribution – either in images or words – to The Clearing editors.
A storm over the dunes of Morfa Harlech on the Welsh coast: sheets of rain flap sideways in gale-force gusts; anything not rooted or concreted down is moving; anything stationary is sandblasted. The wind strikes Harlech – golfers on the royal course and shoppers at the cut-price supermarket alike; it howls around the castle battlements and static caravans; there is violence abroad and jackdaws rise from sycamores to ride it. A purging: the wind is an indifferent lash. It’s tempting to describe this storm as a metaphor for political and economic changes sweeping the country: the nihilism of markets, the fury of the disenfranchised, a tempest carrying all manner of corruptions, toxins and spectres for undoing any tenuous advances in environmental and social justice and dragging in a wave of unmitigated exploitation. Behind the seaward edge of the dunes are wildflowers: restharrow, pyramidal orchid, wild thyme, milkwort – exiles from the meadows of long ago. These grow amongst sea holly, Portland spurge, sea bindweed, marram grass – old salty mariners at the edge. Together they form unique communities based entirely on change. Storms like this are the lifeblood of dunes. We often think proprietarily of the land as defined somewheres stitched into our history, but the dunes have never acquiesced. In this liminal, almost-island, nothing is fixed, nothing settled. There’s a series of photographs taken in exactly the same place in Morfa Harlech dating back to the 1980s that shows how dunes have formed, moved away, come back. These migratory shiftings are a time-lapse of the formation and erosion of the mountains of Snowdonia behind them and a lesson that the Earth is not immutable. It is tempting to describe the storm as a metaphor for the processes of geology and ecology and the land’s responding to the constant changes of Nature over time, as if our own presence is as ephemeral as dune moss. Our evolutionary fear of Nature’s power to answer human existence with violence shapes our civilisation and the lands and waters that support it – gives us castles and supermarkets, golf courses and caravan sites – creates gulfs such as that described by the Gini coefficient where the richest in London versus the poorest in Wales is the same as the Duvaliers versus the rest of Haiti in the 1980s. It shunts us closer to the Extinction. It makes us responsible. Morfa Harlech is a National Nature Reserve, a legal designation of public ownership to preserve a selection of the best wildlife places for their scientific and cultural value that emerged from a post-war reconstruction idealism that also created the NHS and the welfare state. Since then nature conservation has become a trade-off between business, landowning and political interests; pragmatism has become an ideology in itself. However, many conservationists working in what’s left of government agencies and the alternative civil service of environmental NGOs, have a strong belief that EU Nature Directives and other EU processes have brought a very positive influence on nature conservation and environmental protection to Britain. They say the UK is a world leader in conservation monitoring, science and practice. This knowledge gives them hope moving towards the inevitable decoupling from the EU and adaption to changes in the legal context for conservation. They have no alternative but to make the most of it. Others read the bones cast by Brexit and see ruin. The deregulation of environmental protections opens the gate to those fears of Nature’s answering violence: the revenge against bourgeois, expert-ridden conservation; the cynicism levelled at a romantic obsession with countryside and greenspace; the suspicion of an anti-business heresy in Nature worship. Exploitation is not just about wringing profit out of land and sea, it’s an attack on cultural and social values. Conservation is a cultural project that requires, more than ever given climate change and environmental degradation, committed engagement from all quarters of civic life. The dunes of Morfa Harlech are not artefacts, there is no moral equivalent between them and Harlech castle, they are living communities we have a responsibility for and they matter irrespective of their value to people. The storm is with us. Standing in the dunes in the indifferent lash of rain sideways feels like being part of a community; a shift of change; a spiritual and political act; an act of resistance against forces ranged against Nature and the human spirit.
Paul Evans (@DrPaulEvans1) has spent many years as a gardener working in rose nurseries, graveyards, historic gardens in Wales and a botanical garden in New York. He is a writer, broadcaster and award-winning playwright, best known for his ‘Country Diary’ in The Guardian and various natural history programmes and drama-documentaries for BBC Radio 4. He lives in Much Wenlock, Shropshire, with his family.
Maria Nunzia (@Varvera), whose photograph of Morfa Harlech featured above, is an artist and illustrator based in Shropshire.
Read more Lie of the Land articles.