Nature Post-Lockdown II

2/3 The House Martins of Chatworth

This is part of the extraordinary flower-rich cultivated machair in South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, For my money this archipelago is the British landscape that’s most expressive of a creative partnership between its people and nature. Long may it continue so and congratulations to the Hebrideans.

Last month in the first of three blogposts on Nature post-Lockdown I highlighted what I saw as an egregious failure of two environmental agencies to defend the cause of a British bird in parlous decline. It was about the house martins at Chatsworth, whose nesting places were netted.

The owners argued that the birds were a threat to the Grade I listed building – Chatsworth Palace – but especially to the integrity of recently restored statuary on the walls, where the house martins find highly suitable niches to nest. Who could possibly resist the argument that the acid content in the birds’ droppings will dissolve the stone? Of course it will.

But probably not for 500 years! May be longer. By that time winter rain will have done as much damage as any house martin guano. The main point I want to highlight is the privileging of statuary over something alive!

At the heart of this is a deep Western bias, possibly it is a universally human bias (and my illustrations to accompany this blogpost tell their own very specific story about it), towards the importance of the abiotic. To translate this word bluntly, it means dead. The point is powerfully made by the late John Livingston the Canadian environmentalist in an essay entitled The Fallacy of Nature Conservation, where he argued that humans had no way of valuing what he called life process. I cited it in my book Our Place.

This is Cladh Hallan cemetery nr Kilpheder, which really comprises an extension of the coastal machair flora found on South Uist. It is hard to imagine a more beautiful setting for the human dead in our islands. What more fitting tribute to the departed than this glorious carpet of gold?

Livingston wrote:

‘The nearest thing we seem to have is the appreciation of form in music or poetry or dance – form, as opposed to specific content. This, as a kind of process, we understand and appreciate aesthetically. But we have not developed an aesthetic of life process. This is because our culture is essentially abiotic.’

This predilection for material objects over living essence is writ large in western consciousness since the early modern period and it goes hand in glove with the advance of capitalism. One can see an allied version of the same principles being applied in the arguments of the English philosopher John Locke during the seventeenth century.

Locke’s theories of value and property were deployed in the claim that, since native Americans did not till and cultivate the land, they did not technically own the hills, forests and plains where they had lived for 10,000-15,000 years. They had no title of possession. Implicit in this case was the idea that Euro-Americans, seizing and converting to farmland those very same vast territories, were the rightful owners before the court and before God. Nowadays we see it for what it is – a form of licensed banditry.

A similar version of the same ethical posture was embodied in the several thousand enclosure acts that were passed in this country from the eighteenth century to the late nineteenth century. These instruments of law levered about 7 million acres, a tenth of the land surface of these islands, of commonly held moorland and pasture across Britain – used for centuries if not thousands of years by subsistence rural communities – into the estate of the landed classes. The general principle on which it functioned was that the wealthier you were the more land you received. My guess is, though I don’t know the details, that a good many acres helping to fill the coffers of the Cavendish family today in Chatsworth, were acquired by this means.

Yet to mark out the cemetery as a cultural space rather than a part of the ‘wild’ flora of the Uist coastline, someone had strimmed completely all the ‘wildflowers’ and made of it a lawn-like ‘monculture’.

John Livingston’s argument was that our failure to accord value, or sufficient value, to a living world before the rights of ownership and the primacy of material objects would defeat conservation as a cultural and political project. Fundamentally, he was saying that human culture is a dead culture. If you prefer to the use the language of Freud and his concept of the anally retentive infant, it is our ‘shit’ that out-ranks everything when it comes to deciding what’s important.

Before going on to my own arguments just ponder a moment these questions. Say the word civilisation and what comes to mind? Big houses? Architecture? Paintings? Books? Statues? Libraries? Of course. Here’s a more challenging question. Which of these is a cultural landscape: the Lake District or the Flow Country? Finally, are the Serengeti and Yosemite or Yellowstone Parks expressions of nature or culture? Are they perhaps, even, outcomes of civilisation?

The truth is the living and the cultural are completely fused, whether we understand this or not. Livingston is wrong when he claims we have no sense of how nature can be cultural. Gardening is the most obvious example of a blending of the two elements. My guess is that visitors to Chatsworth are appreciative of precisely this interpenetration of human agency and the more-than-human parts of life, when they wander the grounds to the big house.

As substitute for that nasty golden carpet of bird’s-foot trefoil the relatives of the dead had placed at intervals these black marble vases holding beautiful bouquets of plastic roses and tulips! I know which i prefer.

Environmentalism is an expansion of the same understanding that nature is a cultural entity. It is not only cultural of course. The living world is entire unto itself and needs no humans to complete or fulfil its processes. The world will continue very well without us. But once we engage with it – through imagining a wolf, through erecting a blue tit box, by creating a nature reserve, or designating a national park – it becomes both things. It is the challenge of environmentalists to expand and substantiate this idea that nature is among the most important parts of our cultural lives.

We still have not come to recognise the extent to which the living world nourishes all parts of our cultural and living selves. Other organisms blended together in ecosystems sustain our bodies, refresh our minds and spirits, maintain our mental health, they also inspire creativity in all its manifold forms. The living world and the maintenance of it in all its astonishing and limitless diversity, should be at the heart of our highest values.

Covid and the partial suspension of capitalism have, in many ways, highlighted this. Lockdown has brought to the fore the essential place of the natural world. No one denies that capitalism is key to the production of wealth, but let’s not succumb again to its white noise which say it’s all that matters.

Reverting finally to Chatsworth. The presence and breeding of a petite, 19-gm pied mouse-like flying dinosaur with a heritage of 150 million years, made of air-filled bone and collagen-engendered feathers – which has visited this country for hundreds of thousands of years and now makes an annual two-way journey of 10,000 km from African winter quarters that are still largely unknown – these are cultural matters. The birds are a part of the integrity of Chatsworth just as much as stonework. The martins’ nesting on the statuary is absolutely entwined with its meaning.

In Macbeth Shakespeare has Banquo propose (ironically as it turns out) of the spirit at Cawdor House  

No jutty, frieze,

Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird

Hath made her pendent bed and procreant cradle;

Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed

The air is delicate.

My guess is the air is now less delicate at Chatsworth. May its occupants come to rue their decision and free the birds from their wretched nets.