Because the land, the country, is such a focus of horticulture, there are important moments when its extraordinary fetishisation has connected it with movements of the extreme right: rhetorically, to simplify, the land becomes the fatherland.
George McKay, Radical Gardening
I live in north-west London. Sitting in the living room or at the kitchen table, I’ll hear the tell-tale screech. Then they appear; a rapid flash of brilliant green darting over the rooftops on their way to Harlesden or Kilburn. Green parakeets. Every day I see a flock screeching over the houses of Willesden Green. When I walk to my local parks, Gladstone or Roundwood, there they are: sitting pretty on the bare winter branches, vulgar colour in a grey world.
Couples, young children, old people with dogs and sticks – all presumably Londoners who must have seen them before – stop to coo at the birds. A flash of the exotic on Dollis Hill! A taste of the tropics in dreary off-season London. They are beautiful birds, but I can’t help but feel there’s something not quite right.
As someone with an interest in ornithology, I find it hard to get enthused about the parakeets. I like the story about Jimi Hendrix supposedly setting them loose in swinging London, but I’m all too aware that they are not native to the climates of northern Europe, and that brings the risk of real damage. Sometimes I walk through Gladstone Park and all I see are parakeets, everywhere, and a few grey squirrels hopping amongst the leaf litter. There are suggestions that the parakeets force out native species. This strikes me as a terrible thing.
I mentioned this once to a left-wing writer friend of mine, whose opinions I respect a great deal, and was met with an unexpected response. This talk of native and non-native was akin, he said, to the kind of rhetoric doled out by anti-immigration groups such as the EDL and UKIP. As someone who considers themselves firmly entrenched on the left of the political spectrum, I was appalled that my concern for the natural world could be construed as being in any way right-wing. I pointed out to him that animals are not humans, that ecosystems are not mere reflections of human society, and that this was not a case merely of the ever-changing dynamics of any functioning healthy ecosystem. I accused him of anthropomorphism, of anthropocentrism, of anthropo-something at least.
I have never seen a wild red squirrel in Britain; the first I ever saw was darting between the trees on a Finnish archipelago.
“The parakeets,” I said, “are a clear sign of human intervention (or more accurately a cock-up) and potentially just as damaging to native species as chopping down hedgerows or damming a river.”
“But aren’t humans natural?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, “but with an ability to alter and disrupt their environments like no other species.”
“So what counts as native?”
It was a good question. And on what kind of timeline was I operating on? I’m fully aware, for example, that grey squirrels are North American introductions that forced the native red squirrel out much of its original habitat. One story suggests a typically eccentric Victorian gent let a pair loose in Richmond Park and things got a bit out of hand. I have never seen a wild red squirrel in Britain; the first I ever saw, in the summer of 2014, was darting between the trees above a cabin on a Finnish archipelago. This makes me sad. I miss something that is no longer there, that was not there even when I was a child. I have a yearning for something I never had. Am I being a deluded romantic, or are these feelings a real phenomenon felt by many? Even if we lack the language to describe it?
Grey squirrels are not the only ones; other species that many would consider a natural part of the British landscape are, technically, non-native. The pheasant, with its brilliant metallic plumage darting from a roadside verge, is not native. Possibly a Roman introduction, it’s been around for so long no one has any real problem with it. The same goes with hares, rabbits, fallow deer, rats and even the house mouse. If you know where to look in Britain, you can find wild red-necked wallabies and Chinese muntjac deer; obviously non-native but animals I find, hypocritically, fascinating and enjoyable.
There are, however, a number of non-native species that have been incredibly damaging to the ecosystems they upset. These include Canadian mink, North American signal crayfish (anglers in Scotland have been asked to kill them on sight), Japanese knotweed and rhododendron ponticum, to name but a few. There are certain tragedies attached to some of these, and absurdity to others. The mink were escapees from fur farms (the last closed in 1993 and the practice made illegal in 2003). In a rather depressing bit of irony, they were also released into the wild by well-meaning animal rights activists who almost certainly didn’t anticipate that they were solving one problem by creating another. The mink feed on ground-nesting birds, water voles and other species that have had no chance to adapt to such a predator. It’s a farcical tale.
In West Hampstead, I’ve watched knotweed consume railway embankments before desperate diggers are sent in to clear away the infected soil. As they do so, grey squirrels dart among the fag butts and faded crisp packets and parakeets swoop over the station. For the writer of fiction, this is great material, but it’s a sorry sight nonetheless. The knotweed was a Victorian import, brought over here to furnish ornamental gardens – another example of a damaging species being imported to appease human aesthetic pleasures. But people care perhaps a little more about the knotweed; here’s a plant invading the cities, that can punch through brick and concrete and desecrate that most sacred of British obsessions – the price of your property. Knotweed can cost the unlucky tens of thousands and render you ineligible for a mortgage.
Above all these examples, however, it is perhaps rabbits – so quaint and unassuming – that provide the most interesting insight into the mythic psychological landscape of the UK. In Richard Adams’ 1972 mega-hit Watership Down, and the subsequent film adaptation, rabbits are an integral part of natural Britain, under threat from diggers and myxamotosis. Only, of course, they’re not. Depending on how far back you want to take things, they have as little ‘right’ to be here as knotweed, mink or signal crayfish. Nonetheless, the film cemented the rabbits’ right to belong – melancholy intonations from John Hurt, Richard Briers and Nigel Hawthorne making the rabbits as English as, well, John Hurt, Richard Briers and Nigel Hawthorne.
Watership Down also provides an unexpected, but important, bridge into the murky world of far-left and far-right subcultures, and their accompanying ideas of what is natural, of purity, of what (and who) is native to the land, and what is not. The Brighton band Fall of Efrafa, active between 2005-2009, created a trilogy of records based on the mythology and ‘Lapine’ language of Adams’ novel. Coming from deep within the world of anarcho-punk, crust, animal rights and veganism, the records are a raging attack on dictatorial systems, on organised religion, and mankind’s destructive practises. I can guarantee that Fall of Efrafa would frown on mink-fur farms and streams emptied of life by marauding crayfish.
Far-right and far-left ideologies have a lot more in common than either may care to admit. Their roots are tangled, and they spring from the same fertile soil.
In short, it’s all pretty typical stuff for a far-left punk band. But filtered through the mythology of Watership Down, their music provide a crucial point of contact between the romantic dreams of rural England and the far-left politics of the many eco-conscious people belonging to various underground subcultures (including those well-meaning mink releasers). The fact that Adams himself, despite also writing pro-animal rights novels such as The Plague Dogs, holds fairly conservative ideals, only complicates the picture. I always wonder if he was aware, and if so what he thought, of a bunch of D-beat post-metal crusties interpreting his work in this way. And I wonder what Fall of Efrafa made, if they knew, of the fact that the rabbits themselves that adorn their LP covers in twisted demonic form are in fact an invasive species; a sign, however insignificant, of humanity’s interference with the natural world. And then I think: does it even matter?
Far-right and far-left/anarchist ideologies have a lot more in common than either may care to admit. Their roots are tangled, and they spring from the same fertile soil. Both express desires for wilderness, yearning for a return to whatever they deem as man’s ‘natural’ state. They both have, in very different ways, ideas of purity and what is natural that overlap and contradict each other as much as they form any sort of coherent ideology. They both have ideas of a kind of prelapsarian Albion, before the polluting effects of modernity arrived. The saying goes, “scratch a hippy and find a fascist”, but flip that around and it works equally as well.
The Kočevje region of Slovenia is 95% forest – rich in biodiversity and home to European bison, bears, wolves and more. Yet, 150 years ago, just 30% was forested. So what happened? In Feral, specifically the chapter ‘The Beast Within (Or How Not to Rewild)’, George Monbiot shows some of the human tragedies that have led to environmental recovery. The Slovenian revolutions of 1848 ended feudalism, Monbiot explains, while a simultaneous influx of cheap wool from New Zealand undercut the European farming industry. By the end of the nineteenth century, most farmers of the region had sold up and moved to the cities or emigrated to America. An old way of life vanished, and the forests began to grow back.
The barren lands of Kočevje were never recolonised. Clearly, an environmentalist’s delight can also be a humanitarian disaster.
This was accelerated by the depression of the 1930s, but it was the events of the 1940s that really shaped the region – the Germans of Yugoslavia were suffering discrimination, and many joined German nationalist movements that allied themselves with the Nazis. After the German invasion of 1941, the people of south-western Slovenia – most of whom were ethnic German – were forcibly relocated to the Germany to preserve their ‘ethnic purity’. Many different ethnic and religious groups committed atrocities. There were expulsions and mass murder. It’s estimated nearly a million people died as a result of the Nazi invasion. Then after Nazism was defeated, Marshall Tito’s government found an easy scapegoat in the remaining ethnic Germans and they were expelled, murdered or interned. Monbiot writes:
The barren lands of Kočevje, whose population had been relocated and dispersed first by the Nazis then by the socialist government and the Red Army, were never recolonised. When the farms were abandoned and the pastures no longer grazed by sheep and goats, the seed which rained into them from the neighbouring woods was allowed to sprout once more. The land has been repopulated by trees.
Clearly, an environmentalist’s delight can also be a humanitarian disaster.
I spent a large amount of my twenties within the underground punk culture of London. There were many late-night discussions in dimly lit rooms about the benefits of an animal-free diet, reiterations that the police were bastards and, perhaps obviously, that the world was pretty unfair.
It was during this period that I learned a lot about the alternative histories of the UK, from hunt saboteurs to the Diggers, from the ALF to the free festival movement. It was here I started to see the real intersections of Britain’s variegated tribes – how hippies bled into punks bed into skinheads, and how these people could, and do, absorb the ideas about place put forward by the British psychogeographers (the clearest evidence for this link is Laura Oldfield Ford’s essential, heavily punk-influenced, Savage Messiah) and even landscape writers like the decidedly un-punk rock Robert MacFarlane.
I have recently embraced, with great enthusiasm, the ideas of rewilding put forward in Monbiot’s excellent Feral. But the path that brought me here began with the music of alternative Britain. This music, though the number of songs that referenced them, led me to investigate in detail the specifics of the road protests in the UK during the 1990s (something Monbiot himself was involved in), and I became engrossed with the tales of Solsbury Hill, Twyford Down and Claremont Road. This led to me onto the works of George McKay, especially his account of British underground culture, Senseless Acts of Beauty and the more recent Radical Gardening which provides an excellent analysis of politicised approaches to horticulture, and the very notion of ‘the land’ itself.
Look at some of the actual ideologies held by punk, anarchist and hippy subcultures and you find a number of worrying ideas about what is natural. The brand of veganism espoused by modern-day anarchos is a good place to start: it’s characterised by an obsession with cutting out the unnatural, keeping body and soul pure, and rejecting our wasteful and damaging consumer culture. Which all sounds noble and admirable, but the problem remains: is it even possible to say what mankind’s natural state was? Did it ever exist? What do we even mean when we use this word ‘natural’?
In North America, especially, certain offshoots from the worlds of punk and hardcore have taken ideas of what is natural to unpleasant extremes. The hardline subculture, itself a branch of the straight-edge scene that began in Washington DC, is one of the most worrying manifestations of what I can only see as a kind of right-wing ecology. Hardline is a deep ecology movement, opposed to LGBT rights issues, birth control, and in fact any sexual activity not for the purpose of procreation. It suggests there is a natural order for human beings, with women most certainly in their place. It also contains the tenets of straight-edge: i.e. vegan, no smoking, no drinking, no drugs, and, of course, no fun. The scene threw up bands with names like Vegan Reich (and later Vegan Jihad), which suggests how badly wrong these ideas can go.
Shortly after the publication of Feral, Steven Poole wrote an article in the Guardian entitled, “Is our love of nature writing bourgeois escapism?” In it, Poole levels some of the same accusations against Monbiot about his attitudes to sheep as I received regarding my anti-parakeet agenda. Poole writes:
“Invasive species,” Monbiot complains, “challenge attempts to defend a unique and distinctive fauna and flora” – just as anti-immigration demagogues claim that foreigners will destroy a unique and distinctive British culture. “Certain animals and plants,” Monbiot warns us, even “have characteristics that allow them to invade” – what, like Panzers and U-boats? – “and colonise many parts of the world.” Thus each ecosystem is conceived as a little Westphalian nation state, vulnerable to assault by expansionist outsiders.
Poole proceeds to raise the spectre of anthropocentrism – perhaps even the idea that Monbiot’s pro-rewilding stance stems, essentially, from selfish human motivations.
What irks Monbiot about the insatiable hunger for lebensraum of “invasive species” is, finally, just that they will make everything duller to the eyes of naturalist aesthetes.
The suggestion is that us eco-fascists only resent these “immigrants” for polluting the aesthetics of “our” natural world. It’s a simplistic point, but with a shred of truth.
The real danger comes when one culture or ethnicity believes that they and only they are ‘of the land’, and that therefore other groups are somehow unnatural. Perhaps Poole invokes the spectre of Nazism unfairly here (it always strikes me as a cheap shot), but, as we have seen, these ideas can play a part in the debates that rage about who belongs to the land and who does not. Monbiot himself admits that, despite the scientific evidence in favour of reintroducing once-native species back into the wild, there is an anthropocentric urge at play here. The world would be more exciting, for us, if the wolf were let loose back into the highlands. The wolf itself is indifferent.
Contemporary Britain is dominated by UKIP-related headlines, constant fear-mongering about immigration and polluting ‘alien’ cultures. I do see how the rhetoric of invasive animal and plant species runs uncomfortably close to this. But there is still a line that separates the two. It comes down to whether or not we see ourselves, humanity, as part of nature. Are we ‘natural’? If we accept that we are different from the natural world, then the analogy fails – humans are separate from nature and must be discussed differently. We cannot use the word ‘natural’ when discussing ourselves. But if we are somehow part of the natural environments we live in, then ideas such as those spouted by the anti-immigration groups gain traction. This is not speculation; we can see it happening with our own eyes. We may even feel it ourselves.
UKIP and the Conservative party claim to represent a country I have no real knowledge of. Their ideal Britain seems to be The Shire from Lord of the Rings, with all the nasty working-class orcs and dark people from ‘the east’ disrupting afternoon tea. Yet, apparently, they have some of the same views as people like Monbiot (and myself?). The thought is hard to face.
Paul Kingsnorth’s 2014 novel The Wake tells the story of a band of Anglo-Saxon guerrillas waging a doomed war against the Norman invaders of 1066. The novel raises interesting questions about how we may perceive ‘the land’ in Britain, who it’s for, and some of these ideas of purity.
In a short explanation of the book’s historical context, Kingsnorth – an activist and founder of The Dark Mountain Project – explains the imposition of a non-native feudalism that came to be known as the Norman Yoke:
Historians today tend to sniff at the old radical idea of the ‘Norman Yoke’. History, like any academic discipline, has its fashions. In my view the Yoke was very real, and echoes of it can still be found today.
Later, we’re given a stark reminder of who owns what in England:
…the effects of Guillaume’s invasion are still with us. In 21st-century England, 70% of the land is still owned by less than 1% of the population; the second most unequal rate of land ownership in the world, after Brazil.
This is by no mean a nationalist novel; its class-rage and the lament of a culture effectively being wiped out through force are strong. The implications are that the Normans and their ancestors (who still own much of ‘our’ land today) do not belong. Or did not belong. Do they now?
When the protagonist, Buccmaster of Holland, proclaims, “Thu moste be triewe that is all there is“, the question that springs to mind is: true to what?
Here we have the defender of England, adhering to an ideal of purity, of truth and integrity – values that both left and right believe they hold. And maybe they both do; therein lies the problem.
How can we balance such conflicting ideologies? Fixed ideas as to what is natural, and who belongs, can be very damaging. Yet not acknowledging what makes a functioning ecosystem work, and ignoring scientific evidence to appeal to the interests of a minority group of landowners, can be just as destructive. Instead, we need to shed our false ideas of what is natural, and accept the anthropocentricity of our views – however much we may wish to deny it. We need to accept this anthropocentricity as a fact and make it a part of our argument, rather than fighting it, and we need to agree that, however much good reintroducing an animal like the lynx would be on an environmental level, wouldn’t it also be thrilling?
We are part of the natural world, but we can intervene. That may be our blessing and our curse.
We are part of the natural world, but we as a species are unique in that we have the ability to be aware of how we fit into things. We can intervene. That may be our blessing and our curse – to live with the duality that we are somehow both natural and unnatural.
I will admit my human interest – I’d be happier knowing I lived in a country where beavers swam in the rivers and far north, a few lynx and wolves padded through the recovering woods of the highlands. I’d like the crayfish infestations to be controlled, and I’d like to see species other than green parakeets flocking over my street.
Some mistakes of the past can be put right; the effects of invasive species can be negated, and long-absent species that were once part of Britain’s natural world can be reintroduced. I don’t advocate causing human suffering for the sake of giving nature a leg-up back to where it may once have been; but I do believe there is a way to mediate between the needs of those with competing interests for the land, to instil what’s left of nature with a bit more diversity, and the knock-on effect from that, excitement.
Then it’s a case of seeing what happens when we allow this ambiguity in.
And perhaps I’ll just have to learn to live with the parakeets.
Part of The Learned Pig’s Clean Unclean editorial season, March-May 2015.
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