“When you break a single strand, you weaken the entire web”. Simon Barnes, On The Marsh*
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By Linda Pentz Gunter
When the Walrus and the Carpenter were “walking close at hand” on Lewis Carroll’s fantastical beach, the predatory pair lured the trusting and abundant oysters from their beds to their own demise. They also:
“…wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
If this were only cleared away,
They said, it would be grand!”
They strolled along the shore in a world where the sun shone at night and where:
“No birds were flying overhead —
There were no birds to fly.”
These wily and unlikely companions of nonsense verse were, in many ways, all too recognizably human, their birdless world thrown out of whack — the one later warned of by Rachel Carson.
The companionable pair’s luring and then devouring of every last oyster was indeed “a dismal thing to do.” But we’ve been doing it, metaphorically, ever since. How much habitat have we cleared away, how many dark nights extinguished by light pollution? How many species have we preyed upon to extinction, how many birds silenced?
Theodor Geisel, under his more familiar pen name, Dr. Seuss, warned of this unfettered environmental destruction in his children’s book, The Lorax, the title character a marvelous environmental champion who “speaks for the trees”. Geisel was angry when he wrote The Lorax and viewed it as his best work — with which many of us might agree. The book warns that our greed-driven destructive behavior will lead to extinctions, to a natural world erased and replaced by choking, smoking towers of pollution and death. And here we are.
Recently, after we published an article on Beyond Nuclear International about the habitat and ecosystem destruction that would be wrought by the construction of new nuclear power plants on the British coastline, a reader wrote in to proclaim that “bucolic will not trump demand for more power.” The argument that “some people like landscapes”, he wrote, trivializes the more serious challenges such as sea-level rise and radioactive contamination.
I understand his sense of urgency. Yet, these don’t seem like either-ors to me. And I do think that “liking landscapes” is desperately important and their enjoyment a growing deprivation. If we have never been outside, walked an ancient wood, felt awed by the delicate silvery curl of lichen on a branch, heard the eerie, commanding call of a hawk or the whispered rustlings of a small mammal scurrying through undergrowth to safe cover, why would we strive to save any of it? Who will be left to care, to “like landscapes” and all that fills them?
So he may be right that it sounds like a trivial obsession. But it ought to matter.
There is plenty of documentation that shows the downsides — even downfalls — of children who rarely see the outdoors and never get into nature. Yet theirs is a generation that will be in a fight-to-the-death to save this planet from spiraling climate chaos. Will they even want to, or will a virtual world experienced from some kind of iBubble be enough?
It’s what the Lorax meant, of course, when he left behind his single caveat, “UNLESS”, on which the now rueful industrialist, the Once-ler, expounds. “Now that you’re here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
Nuclear power is part of that destructive force that needs to be stopped, from the front end of uranium mining to the back end and the careless disposition of waste — whether low-level dumped on lands or into seas, or high-level parked indefinitely and insecurely at reactor sites.
In between, nuclear power discharges radioactive gases and liquids as part of routine reactor operation. And of course, when an accident happens — and it’s always a ‘when’ and never an ‘if’ — it renders the immediate, and sometimes far wider, environment indefinitely unlivable.
And now to The Peregrine. In researching what level of destruction was threatened for the fragile ecology around the proposed new Bradwell reactor in Essex, I was steered toward an old book called The Peregrine. It was written in 1967 by J.A. Baker, who seemingly never wrote anything else and sadly died in his 40s from complications due to rheumatoid arthritis.
But for six months of his life, Baker followed peregrines — and an astounding abundance of other birds — in the fields, woods, marshes and estuaries of England’s east coast. And then he wrote about it, in a vivid and lyrical style virtually unmatched in this genre. His book has been hailed as one of the masterpieces of nature writing. Here’s an excerpt. I defy you to read it and come away uncaring about landscape and wild creatures:
“A wrought-iron starkness of leafless trees stands sharply up along the valley skyline. The cold north air, like a lens of ice, transforms and clarifies. Wet ploughlands are dark as malt, stubbles are bearded with weeds and sodden with water. Gales have taken the last of the leaves. Autumn is thrown down. Winter stands.
“At two o’clock a crackling blackness of jackdaws swept up from stubble and scattered out across the sky with a noise like dominoes being rattled together on a pub table. Woodpigeons and lapwings rose to the south. The peregrine was near, but I could not see it. I went down to the brook and across the fields between the two woods. From stubble and plough I flushed gleanings of skylarks. The sun shone. Trees coloured like tawny gravel on the bed of a clear stream. The oaks of the two woods were maned with spiky gold. A green woodpecker flew from the wet grass and clapped itself to the bole of the tree as though pulled in by a magnet. Above the moss and mustard of its back, the crown of its head shouldered vermilion, like scarlet agaric shining through a dark wood. The high, harsh alarm call came loud and sudden, a breathless squeezed-out sound, meaning ‘hawk sighted.’ In the bare spars of the limes by the bridge, silent fieldfares were watching the sky.”
Much of what Baker observed is already gone. The construction of a new reactor at Bradwell could finish the place off. (Yes, we must recognize the impact of wind power on bird populations. But, unlike the nuclear industry, the wind industry is taking steps to mitigate its harm, and works with, and is supported by, major bird organizations such as the American Bird Conservancy and the Audubon Society.)
Surely the importance of landscapes and all who live in them must be at least in part why we fight to end the use of nuclear power plants? And also because they will contaminate our world forever; because sea-level rise will subsume them at a terrible price for all of us. And because building, operating and decommissioning them involves making and leaving a pervasive and persistent mess the like of which we have not equalled anywhere else.
At the same time, even if we abandon the energy vices of nuclear power and fossil fuels — an urgent necessity — we recognize that we have not solved our destructive ways. Even renewable energy comes with extractive impacts and environmental justice violations. While we struggle to remediate these, we are all too aware that we have left it far too late. We were Once-lers from the beginning, our greed trumping conservation and efficient use of energy. We didn’t listen to the Lorax or hear the Peregrine’s warning call. Instead, we are in a race against time and our own folly. We are in the time of “UNLESS”.
As Simon Barnes writes in On The Marsh. A Year Surrounded by Wildness and Wet, the book we quote in the headline, and in which he describes his family’s purchase of a Norfolk marsh, not so much to own it but to preserve it:
“There is a robustness in connectivity. Our marsh in not an island. It’s part of something bigger. It’s part of the stuff that touches and surrounds us. It’s part of something that covers the nation: a vast and spreading web of places where the wild things are. And every strand depends, at least to an extent, on all the others: when you break a single strand, you weaken the entire web.”
So take a deep walk into nature. Observe closely. Remember why we are doing this. Remind others why they should, too. And keep going.
Headline photo of a peregrine falcon by Jon Nelson/Creative Commons
*On The Marsh. A Year Surrounded by Wildness and Wet, is the new book by nature and sports journalist, Simon Barnes.