The Welsh Uplands: George Monbiot,'woolly maggots', and hydro-thoughts
Fri 29 Jan 2016 00:03:29 | 3 comments
George Monbiot's Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea and Human Life is a book that gets under the skin. It's a lyrical call to rewild pockets of the world, for the sake of biodiversity, animals, ourselves, or perhaps just for the hell of it, so that we can stop thinking about climate change for a minute. Feral takes us to many parts of the world: including Kenya, Slovenia, Utah and Wales, as well as to exciting, imaginary versions of the future. It infects with a contagious desire to feel alive in the natural world, rather than half-dead in colourless monoculture. It reminds us of everything that we already knew, deep down, but had forgotten. Or at least, the spell it casts is so potent that this is what we'll claim later.
I have just revisited the book in my temporary home in the canyonlands of Utah, where each morning I see a pattern of fresh animal tracks in the snow, bringing to attention a whole other secret- almost parallel- life of wild creatures, most active at night. I'm a planning to visit Yellowstone National Park, where Monbiot describes the heartwarming tale of the re-introduction of wolves; this is as magical as a children's story. Everything seems possible.
Feral has, perhaps inevitably, been controversial back at home in Wales, and there are elements in the book that trouble me. I read it first after walking in Pumlumon last summer with Jane Lloyd Francis (a local community artist, and farm manager), and Dr Liz Lewis-Reddy (from Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust). There was quite a contrast between their feelings for the landscape of Mid Wales, their collaborative approach to improving it and Monbiot's account. There is much that is worth untangling in this, that is relevant to the themes in the Hydrocitizenship research project: ecological and hydro-citizenship, power and ownership, communities and social change. It is natural perhaps to try to situate the objectives and methods of a community-engagement project like Hydrocitizenship, and it's locally-embedded artists, against the 'big thinking' on impressive display in Feral.
As part of a greater, sweeping polemic, the chapter, 'Greening the Desert' walks us through Monbiot's Pumlumon- a dead place. It is the very antithesis of the wilderness that the author successfully entices us to crave. He is so convincing about the unremitting horror of Pumlumon, I might not even believe that I'd been to the same site, unless I had photographs to prove it. His account of walking there is uncompromisingly negative, and haunting too. It's a landscape that he finds 'dismal, dismaying'. Outside East Anglia, he has 'never seen a British landscape as devoid of life as the plateau some local people call the Cambrian Desert'. He evokes a grey, cold and barren place where hardly a bird is seen or heard, and which could be the 'set of a post-apocalyptic film'. I am now almost embarrassed to admit that I loved walking in the area.
Pumlumon. Photo: Sara Penrhyn Jones, July 30th, 2015
Monbiot looks with the eyes of an ecologist and zoologist and sees what isn't there; this includes trees, shrubs, people, wildlife and biodiversity. What he sees in Pumlumon is absence; a land so empty that it appears 'poisoned', punctuated only by the main culprits for this- sheep. He begins to suggest other villains too ('Farmers began to colonise the hills...'). The lack of wildlife damages his psyche; he needs the hills to be humming with life, or he is less alive himself. The barren landscape of Mid Wales make him slump, depressed on a rock, wanting to weep and almost losing the will to live. He conveys personal and political anger towards this landscape, as well as grief for what it might have been. He glares at the view with hostility, and refuses to see a single good thing in it.
When Monbiot writes, grudgingly, that some people 'claim to love' this landscape, or 'say they find it beautiful' (my italics), he is also implying that such people don't know what they're saying; affection for this landscape is delusional. Love for it would never be legitimate in a world with the right values, for a person in tune with the wild, and thus their true selves.
Pumlumon. Photo: Sara Penrhyn Jones, July 30th, 2015
After reading this particular chapter, anyone visiting or re-visiting Pumlumon, or any part of the Cambrian Mountains (physically or imaginatively) may well view it through a different lens. He has offered us, not green-tinted, but rather corrective glasses that force us to see the world as we should. I feel ambivalent about the way that Pumlumon has now been 'ruined' for me. The author has an ability to radically change the way that we see, feel and experience our own landscapes. Perhaps I'm naturally vulnerable to this superpower; I do fundamentally accept that our sense of beauty should be affected by our knowledge, political awareness, and ethical sensibilities. Although I find myself feeling a little resentful, and perhaps a somewhat sheepish (!), I'm willing to be educated nonetheless.
These photographs below depict my current view, outside Salt Lake City in Utah. The light on the hills is constantly-changing, revealing new contours at different times of the day. After photographing and enjoying this view for some time, I realised that the orange light in the photograph is actually highlighting one of the world's largest copper mines, Bingham Canyon Mine, and that it is the second most polluting mine in the whole of the US. Some of it's terrible environmental effects are discussed here.
Bingham Canyon Mine. Photo: Sara Penrhyn Jones, October 15th, 2015
Does knowing this change the way that I see the landscape? Yes, sometimes, knowing the facts really does change what we see, physically.
Similarly, as a child I would have found it magical to look out at the spectacle of over twenty lit trees, outside my house all winter (belonging to just two luxury homes nearby). In my current state of fear about climate change, and abhorrence of the excessive consumerism that is partly to blame (and often culturally accepted- even celebrated- in the US), the trees are garish and a little malevolent. Without wishing to go on too much of a tangent, I would argue that the most interesting art often explores ambivalent feelings towards a subject. People do find themselves fascinated by, and attracted to ruined landscapes (in all senses), and this may even be an essential coping strategy in our slowly dying world. Not everything is black and white, thank God.
Christmas in Emigration Canyon, Utah. Photo: Sara Penrhyn Jones, January 02, 2016
Monbiot's accomplishment is that he manages, through hypnotic argument, to force us to see and feel his own vision of heaven and hell in the landscape. He also has the power (based on talent and position in the world) to communicate his own representation of the Welsh landscape far and wide, Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this has angered many in Wales.
Reviewing Feral, Philip Hoare stated in The Telegraph:
'George Monbiot hates sheep. With a passion. He’s not that keen on Welsh farmers, either.'
The first part of this assertion is undoubtedly true. Monbiot openly (and bravely!) declares his hatred for sheep in the chapter 'Shipwrecked', and blames them for the fact that Wales has only one-third of the forest cover of the rest of Europe. At the same time, he is aware of how culturally unacceptable such a perspective might be in Wales. He adds humorously that it is 'a little short of blasphemy', to dislike sheep in Wales, considering that they have 'full diplomatic immunity'. (You can read more about Monbiot's views on sheep here).
Monbiot's 'Woolly Maggots'/'The White Plague', or John Muir's 'Hooved Locusts',
Photo: Martin Padget, June 13th, 2010
The second part of Philip Hoare's assertion, that the author dislikes farmers themselves, seems unfair, as Monbiot is careful to categorically state in his book that rewilding 'should only happen with the consent and enthusiasm of those who work on the land'. In the chapter 'The Hushings', Mobiot writes a beautiful account of meeting the 'brilliant young man', Dafydd Morris-Jones, a farmer and translator, and his mother Delyth. He admits to being thrown off his own intellectual track, temporarily, and acknowledges the obvious conundrum. Monbiot gives voice to Dafydd, quoting his concerns about rewilding, and it's connotation of 'cleansing':
'I’m not against something new, not by any means, but it should be a progression from what you’ve got, not wiping the slate clean. With blanket rewilding you lose your unwritten history, your sense of self and your sense of place. It’s like book-burning. Books aren’t written about people like us. If you eradicate the evidence of our presence on the land, if you undermine the core economies that support the Welsh-speaking population in the language’s heartland, you write us out of the story. We’ve got nothing else.'
However, in this particular geographical area, Monbiot claims that long-distance farmers dominate. They drive in on Range Rovers, and are 'piggybacking on the moral capital' of people like Dafydd Morris-Jones and Delyth. (No statistics are provided to verify this assertion). Whilst various misguided subsidies and political policies are blamed too, farmers in general are hardly presented as good ecological citizens; rather they compulsively 'tidy up' hedgerow for no apparent reason, kill wildlife by destroying habitats, and poison watercourses with sheep-dip, fertilisers and other toxic substances. They also actively write themselves out of the landscape by burning ancient trees and replacing dry-stone walls with wire fences. According to the author, they form only a tiny fraction of the population overall in Wales, even in rural areas, and have disproportionate- even undue- influence.
In this article Monbiot states:
'A farmer can graze his land to the roots, run his sheep in the woods, grub up the last lone trees, poison the rivers with sheep dip and still get his money. Some of the farms close to where I lived in mid-Wales do all of those things and never have their grants stopped. But one thing he is not allowed to do is what these rules call "land abandonment", and what I call rewilding.'
It's worth considering what is absent in Feral itself. Monbiot talks to very few people with a direct, intimate, and historical connection to the agricultural life of Mid Wales. Whilst he is respectful of the knowledge and skill of hill farmers like Dafydd, there is no suggestion that these farmers serve a useful societal role; they do not produce much food; and if they are stewards of the land at all, then they are poor ones. En-masse, they operate at an economic loss, and the 'good' ones are wasted in their identities as sheep-farmers. There is no championing of individual native farmers' practice, local conservation or environmental organisations, or anything positive that they may have achieved, environmentally or otherwise. (The no-doubt wonderful Ritchie Tassell is not really presented as a local, and the prediction given to him by local farmers prove to be incorrect). There is no celebration of agricultural life, or much exploration of its intertwining with contemporary culture and language, to accompany the sincere sympathy for it's harsh conditions. If we accept the claim that there are very few farmers in Wales, proportionally, and even fewer with integrity (like Dafydd and Delyth, who have a 'legitimate' claim to the land,) then we might mentally join the dots laid out for us; such losses of identity become acceptable collateral damage in a hypothetical rewilding project.
'Dear Mick Jagger...', Film still/ Artist: Ffion Jones.Ffion is a farmer and artist living in Mid-Wales, who provides insight into the world of farming through her creative work. She has been commissioned by Cymerau/Hydrocitizenshipto capture aspects of local farmers' relationship with water.If the hills are empty of wildlife and humans, then apparently no useful knowledge thrives in such infertile soil either. Local or national organisations and agencies like The Cambrian Mountain Society or the Countryside Council for Wales are mostly quoted to make a point for his own argument, which Monbiot does powerfully (but they are usually wrong, and he is right). Even whilst sensitive about not offending individuals in the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust, there is no doubt that his account of the organisation is damning.
Perhaps I'm too soft (even soft in the head), because who could reasonably argue against necessary public debate about the priorities of organisations or charities charged with protecting our natural environment (connected to our wellbeing in every way)? Readers may or may not agree with the opinions that the Monbiot is entitled to express, but it certainly raises questions about the legacy that a book like Feral may leave in the communities left behind. I imagine committed individuals who are left angered and even humiliated by the public and one-sided nature of the criticism. These people, their networks and knowledge are in themselves a precious resource which should not be squandered.
To be fair, Feral is not meant as a policy document or a draft bill, but a call on us to think differently. Monbiot never claims to be a community development officer and you can't ask an apple tree to produce pears. The whole book is a creative work, with its own momentum and flow; it is like a gushing river carrying us along, that would perhaps be diminished by allowing itself to flow into many distracting slipstreams of debate along the way. Feral is also the deep expression of the author's own passion and politics, allowing himself to run with possibility of a different world. Places in Wales are just one part of this epic exploration.
'Tilting at Windmills', Artist: Jess Allen, Film still: Sara Penrhyn Jones/Jess Allen.Jess is a walking artist, dancer and environmentalist. Her solitary walking through the landscapes of Mid-Wales andHereford brings her into contact with locals, on their own territory. These gentle exchanges form an essential part ofher work. Jess Allen has been commissioned by Hydrocitizenship/Cymerau to create 'Water Treatment Walks',described by Allen as a 'rural, relational walking performance to collect perceptions, memories and stories aboutwhere our potable water comes from'.
Embodying green frames for seeing landscape (and everything) is surely essential in our current state of ecological crisis. Yet doing so sustainably means working with existing communities, their values, and way of life, and Monbiot acknowledges as much. At the same time, Feral seems to be striving to shock- and woo- us out of complacency, in order to urgently recalibrate our values. Monbiot perhaps justifies this in the book when he refers to Gramsci's concept of cultural hegemony, which he suggests is an 'agricultural hegemony' in Wales: the ideas that bolster the establishment are universalised, and presented as neutral and incontestable. In one sense, Monbiot's poetic nuking of what we think we know in Wales is a slash-and-burn approach to cultural change. He is using a rhetorical crow-bar to forcibly adjust our baseline for what we perceive as a normal state of affairs. He seems willing to forego goodwill from the agricultural community in Wales in the process, numerically insignificant as he claims it to be.
Photo/Artist: Ffion Jones
Some criticism of Monbiot's stance has suggested that he doesn't have the right to his views, as an outsider in Wales. Nick Fenwick from the Farmer's Union of Wales, suggested that he doesn't fully respect the context that he is writing about in Wales; that there may be people with an older, historical, cultural and linguistic connection to the place whose needs must come first. He detects 'the distinct aura of plain old fashioned English colonialism' in the idea of rewinding, and accuses Monbiot of 'gun-boat diplomacy'.
This raises fundamental questions about ownership, rights and responsibilities. Whose land is this? When Fenwick depicts the 'English ex-pat community, busying themselves with sorting out the world's problems, usually starting on their own doorsteps', he is also working with the stereotype of the incomer busy-body, the green fundamentalist, who has no legitimate role to play in local environmental problems. Yet, clearly, the interactions of land, air and water connect and affect us all, and also cross national, cultural, linguistic and political boundaries in every imaginable way. We must also acknowledge that people do move fluidly through places, and can be intimately attached to, and invested in, places that neither they or their parents grew up in. Ecological citizenship requires us to care for and expand our sense of the local; to act for communities near and remote, human and non-human, now and in the future.
Flooded Caravan Park, Aberystwyth, Video-still: Sara Penrhyn Jones,
June 12th 2012
It is clear that the management of the uplands in Wales and elsewhere is an issue that we all have a stake in, even if we don't know it. This is particularly evident after recent storms in the UK, costly in every sense. Holding more water in the uplands, slowing its flow through farmland, and accepting that some land must be flooded would reduce the damage to built infrastructure and housing. This is explored by Monbiot in the Guardian (Jan 2016), as part of a withering attack on the Secretary of Sate for the Environment, Liz Truss. His argument seems more than reasonable:
'Reducing the likelihood of devastating floods means considering a river’s catchment as a whole, rather than treating different sections of it as isolated components. It means retaining water in the hills (where most of the rain falls) for as long as possible, by allowing trees to grow and bogs to form.'
He is concerned that Truss' intention to give more autonomy to farmers, local groups and internal drainage boards will exacerbate an already dismal situation:
'The autonomy of internal drainage boards has long been recognised as part of the problem: dominated by local landowners, they tend to be narrowly focused on getting water off farmland as quickly as possible. They are responsible for much of the embankment, canalisation and dredging that speeds rivers into people’s homes.'
(Monbiot also writes here about incompetence and poor water management decisions happening on a local level.)
It is important to keep an open mind. It may be that trying to instigate slower, smaller but sustainable change at local level may simply take too long for us to retain a viable planet, that can support any community at all. It is possible that local empowerment actually produces negative effects on the environment, as unpalatable or counterintuitive as this idea may be. Perhaps we need gung-ho, top-down environmental policies (which will in turn change the culture, rather than the other way around).
Yet my instinct (shaped as it is by my gender, Welsh-speaker status, and experience of working in educational and participatory ways) always leads me to think that must make time to listen to locals. Engagement must be a two-way process; where everyone believes that there is something they can learn, as well as teach. Change has to happen collectively, with real 'buy in' from those involved. Part of this is truly appreciating how others relate to their landscape as part of their identity, culture and livelihood, and perceiving this as a starting point for, rather than obstacle to, desired change.
'Aberystwyth Nos Da', Artist: Jane Lloyd Francis with Charmian Saville.Photo: Keith Morris. Jane explains that her physical relationship with the landscapes ofMid-Wales was formed growing up on a farm: "I was just interested in imposingthese rather indifferent forms on the landscape..."
For some of those working on the ground in places like mid-Wales, to build relationships between the farming community and various agencies, Monbiot's writings have made their work more difficult. One farmer, worried about climate-change and trying to implement positive environmental changes, said to me, with a sigh: 'he always sounds so angry with us'. A member of a local environmental organisation, which has invested a great deal of time in working with farmers said wryly: 'it's easier to start a fire than to put it out.'
Jane Lloyd Francis. Photo: Sara Penrhyn Jones, July 30 2015. Jane has been commissioned by Cymerau/Hydrocitizenship to work on her project: 'Ar Lan y Leri' with collaborator Gwilym Morus-Baird: 'The river will be our inspiration as we meet and engage with individuals and communities along the river bank'.Farm manager and community artist Jane Lloyd Francis (above) has worked with Dr Liz Lewis-Reddy from the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust to make the changes that she can on her own farm. This has included planting hedgerows near the bog on her land, to help to soak up the water, and slow the run-off of water downstream, into the Dyfi. She thinks very deeply about the global environmental crisis, and is very rooted in, and attuned to the local landscape and community, which are entwined as part of the same attachment. The changes that she has made have inspired neighbouring landowners too. I fear that casting all landowners as nasty enviro-villains will demoralise community members like this, and preclude sustainable, positive change.
I will write separately about what I learnt about the very same Pumlumon area by talking to Liz and Jane. I feel conflicted; there is a need for some people to blast through established ideas and norms with courage, vision and eloquence. Yet there are quieter people, disproportionately women (I dare to conjecture!), who do something positive every time they cross an ideological or cultural bridge with grace, drink bad tea from chipped mugs, smile, and work hard and humbly on a community level. They do this for years, and usually without accolade. These same individuals often 'learn the language' in the most profound sense, whilst also underestimating their own intelligence and knowledge; they are also my (unsung) environmental heroes.