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Andrew Darke


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Wildness and the Severn Bore

Having come down here from Yorkshire, I experience this landscape as a softer place, more dominated by humans. In my part of West Yorkshire, the Holmfirth area where I lived between the ages of 2 – 35, the surrounding moors were always a powerful presence. They are a more elemental place where one can be renewed by the uncluttered spaciousness. Besides their benign aspect the moors are also high, exposed and challenging and potentially a dangerous semi-wild place. The variability of climate and their remoteness demands a respect. Being ‘on the tops’ in a heavy mist is a frightening experience when, if you are without map or compass, your only option is to follow a watercourse which may deliver you into one of any number of different valleys… finding a watercourse might not be that easy as you dip down into boggy cuts and slog up out of them on a miles wide plateau…walking even a semblance of a straight line, an impossibility…

Living where I do now in Yorkley in the Forest of Dean, I only have to cross the lane at the top of our field and go over the stile to see far down the Severn Estuary. I have only slowly realised that this view is a crucial part of the quality of this particular place. Not only is there a glorious piece of space stretching across the 12 miles or so to the Cotswolds and 20 miles out towards the sea, but I feel the estuary as a piece of wilderness. Yes, it is bridged a couple of times and that does do some sort of damage to its wildness, but it is still itself. It’s untrammelled. It’s not interfered with. It’s an unavoidable elemental presence and power. It is akin to the presence and power of the moors.

I’m fascinated by the commonplace of the twice daily going and returning of the waters so tightly entwined, (and how is that possible with such a thing as water?) with the commonplace and uncommonplace of the bore. It is, for us Severnsiders, a commonplace, but for countless riverside dwellers elsewhere a little known, strange phenomenon. And again, I’m fascinated by the twice daily reversal of the waters of the river (and what would that do to my navigation off the moors…?). The occasional big bores, although predicted in their timing for years to come, remain, in the precise actuality of their coming, sublimely unpredictable. The best we can manage is that it will arrive about half an hour either side of the predicted time and I still don’t know why the big bores only occur mornings and evenings; why not in the middle of the day sometimes?

Seeing the bore, I become connected to a geological timescale entirely outside my daily life. I imagine this extraordinary, ordinary phenomenon back through aeons. The wave travelling up the estuary unseen by human eyes, carving out the mudstones, the pennants and the purple sandstones, grinding and reducing them to the fine particles that now colour the water so all pervasively. I cup my hands to my ears the better to hear a first faint hissing in the distance, narrow my eyes, the first human eyes to see the coming of the wave, and wonder what manner of godly sign this can be. A curlew calls.

Now, if I go to see the Bore in the morning, I know it will be ruined by the tedious surfers, or worse, by the even more tedious, farting jetskiers noisily breaking wind and wave with their ‘look at me’ display… but their antics cease by dusk…

I am alone to feel the power of the wave,

only half seen in the dim light.

Am I close enough to feel the full power,

or am I too close? Might it get me?

A sliver of fear and adrenalin stabs

– two animals in the half-light.

Regaining equilibrium, I need to pay full attention inwardly,

attending to resonances within.

Outwardly I need to focus eye and ear on the waveform turmoil

and feel the flow of fresher salt air across my skin.

I am absorbed, there is a through flow – me and it – it and me

– my human animal is at large, out in the world with the other animals.

I want the beach and the rocks to myself, the mountain and ridge,

lusting for clean, direct, untrammelled, unmediated pouring in

of what it’s really like out there

– animals, elements, sky, world, moon, sun, universe.

These powerful experiences are a crucial part of being human. They need to be freely available everywhere. They are part of the bedrock of understanding where and what we are in the world and yet the pressures of development ensure that there are fewer and fewer of them. I am desolate at the thought of how gathering renewable energy in the estuary downstream might destroy the Bore. We propose huge new damaging infrastructures across estuaries and on moors, the very places where those powerful elemental experiences are, and we haven’t even insulated all our buildings properly. A new barrage or a new windfarm is just business as usual. The choices we make must be those with least impact, we must re-invent ourselves or carry on speeding up the destruction of ourselves and the biosphere. We cannot afford, we cannot afford yet another piece of wilderness lost from this crowded island.

The great problem with the Copenhagen Conference is that, as is so often the case, people are not being told the full story. It is simple enough – global warming is not a linear phenomenon that can be turned up or down like a volume control. If we did smoothly proceed to 80 or 90% less carbon output by 2050, warming would probably still continue for hundreds of years. There is simply not enough information and understanding of how the atmosphere works to make accurate predictions. All of the International Panel on Climate Change’s predictions, since it started making them, are gradually being proved wrong and all of them are proving too conservative. Immense change looks to be inevitable.

So, this being the case, why do I even bother to calculate my carbon footprint?

Well – I find the idea of having a lighter footprint on the world extremely compelling. It really, really matters to me that I don’t leave carbonised jackbooted prints on the world – a barefooted imprint in the sand, washed away by the next tide feels better. So – I currently have a one third of average carbon footprint and I shall be carbon neutral within five years.

Ever since, as a child, I watched the smoke going up the chimney and thought it would be a bit choking for a bird sitting on the chimney pot, and ever since as a young teenager, I watched in disbelief the system for returning used bottles being dismantled, I have felt that humans were behaving badly towards the planet. Our knowledge and our increased power over other life forms have placed a duty of care upon us; but much of human society is stampeding up a consumer cul de sac and the forces driving consumerism are huge and within us all.

Ghandi said “we must be the change we want to see in the world.”

Part of that change is to recognise and value the power and significances of wild places and experiences of wilderness.

A talk delivered by Andrew Darke at Speakers Corner, Arnolfini, Bristol as part of its 100 days to The Climate Change Conference programme.

© Andrew Darke

October 2009

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