A few summers ago, I was standing on a coal spoil in South Wales, overlooking the derelict structure of the Cwm Coking Works. I was there with Liam Olds, a young entomologist who specialises in the insect life of former collieries. ‘People see these places as eyesores,’ he said, ‘but they’re so much more than that. For animals, they’re a kind of shelter — a refuge from monoculture farms, conifer plantations and fragmented habitats. They’re important ecosystems in their own right. It just takes some time before you begin to see them.’
‘How do you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?’ Meno asked Socrates. It is also a question for our times. Without any of our interference, and without any of our planning, some of the landscapes we call wastelands have become difficult paradises. They are places where life is learning to thrive again, but they are difficult because they do not conform to our ideas of what healthy landscapes might look like. The miners who scooped coal from deep inside the Welsh earth brought other things to the surface, among them clay, shale, sandstone, and ironstone. The materials were piled up in the most haphazard ways, first in little hillocks, and later, as the mining continued, into landscape-defining hills. Limestone mixed with shale, sandstone was thrown up alongside clay, and the stratigraphy of the earth, which had been gradually laid down over millions of years, and which ran in large folds and faults beneath us, came to be mixed in the strangest proportions.
What followed was bizarre, wild, unpredictable. The spoil heaps formed complex topographies of their own, characterised by varying gradients and aspects, and because the spoils were composed of different materials, with different pH levels and soil structures, they provided the underlying substrate for different landscapes to emerge. During my tour of the spoils, I saw more distinctive habitats in two hours than I usually do over a day of walking. There were bilberry-filled heaths next to wildflower meadows; patches of open, free-draining ground next to bristling reed beds; woodlands next to boggy marshes; and, on the other side of the spoils, what Liam called ‘inland sand dunes’, habitats usually formed by wind, but which emerged here under less natural conditions.
The habitats were home to a bewildering diversity of plants. On some slopes we found carline thistles, which thrive in calcareous soils, and the low-lying fields were filled with undergroves of bird’s-foot-trefoil and kidney vetch. Nearby we found southern marsh orchids, a plant of damp alkaline meadows, and, half a mile away, round-leaved wintergreens, a plant that typically grows on coastal dunes. And interspersed among these plants were a variety of moss and lichen species, including greasewort, Clay Earth-moss, Olive Beard-moss, and Whorled Tufa-moss. ‘The soil here is nutrient-poor’, Liam explained, ‘which is why these plants are here. They thrive in the stressed ground conditions left behind by the spoils. In fact, the more stressed the ground is, the more flowers they seem to produce.’
With the greenery came the insects. There were dingy skippers and graylings, mottled grasshoppers and meadow grasshoppers, dozens of bee species, as well as dragonflies the size of my hand. And, amongst this heady mix, there were the parasites: specialist hoverflies that preyed on a particular kind of ant, flies that preyed on beetles and moths, and a wasp that preyed on certain miner bees. (Later in the day, as Liam pointed out a miner bee’s burrow, the wasp he was talking about appeared right on cue, a yellow flash in the air.) Some of the creatures recorded here are common to Britain, others are nationally scarce. Others still are new to science, including a millipede Liam’s friend found on the Maerdy colliery spoil, duly named the ‘Maerdy monster’. And here they all were, the rare and the abundant, sharing the strange commonlands of the spoils. Since 2015, Liam has found more than 900 invertebrate species on the coal tips, but there are many more surveys to conduct, and he suspects his list will grow substantially in the years to come.
‘too ugly to care for…’
No-one knew these spoils would be so accommodating to wild life. Inadvertently, the impoverished landscapes left behind by mining generated pockets of richness. Wildflowers that could no longer be found on intensive farmland began appearing here, followed by beetles and bees, moths and butterflies. Some of these abandoned collieries are among the most successful rewilding projects that have taken place in Britain, although they have never been seen or described as such. People find them too ugly to care for, and today hundreds of spoil tips are threatened by reclamation projects, including proposals to ‘green’ the spoils. Liam shudders at the misnomer. He wants them recognised as sites of special scientific interest.
Some of the places we have spoiled will never heal again, at least in our lifetimes. The barn swallows of Chernobyl continue to be born with strange malformations — misshapen beaks, bent tail feathers, crippled toes — while open-cast mines in Appalachia have completely terraformed the geology of the earth. But if many landscapes are in need of healing, there are also those places that have found their way back to health, although not in ways we intended or planned. They rebuke us with their strength, but also educate us with their presence, reminding us of the vitality that can sometimes emerge from damaged places. We should celebrate them, too, not in order to excuse destruction, or to uncritically celebrate nature’s ‘resilience’, but to appreciate what happens when we stand to one side. The Latin term relinquere gives us the adjective ‘derelict’, a word for forsaken and abandoned things, and it also gives us the verb ‘relinquish’, to give up or desist from. Not all derelictions are bad, and some of our plundered places can come good again. We do not necessarily have to withdraw from these places, but rather inhabit them more skilfully and on different terms. Liam has taken up a family tradition — both his grandfather and great-grandfather were coal miners — but he works the land in a very different way now, noticing rather than extracting, and standing aside rather than digging down.
Michael Malay is a Lecturer in English Literature and Environmental Humanities
at the University of Bristol
As part of a remarkable project to record lives on a single British street, documentary photographer Martin Stott has been capturing images from the age of coronavirus as it unfolds in a very local context. Here, Alexandra Harris chooses a small selection, and recommends a visit to Martin’s website where you can see the full series.
All images are © Martin Stott.
A cobbled kerb-side, with the usual detritus of twigs and wrappers and cigarette ends caught between the cracks, and, blown here or thrown here, a very 2020 kind of cast-off: latex gloves, still holding the mould of whoever wore them, still rolled at the cuff where they were peeled off. I’m tempted to say there’s something ghostly in the image, but Martin Stott tends to steer refreshingly clear of hauntings and freighted symbols. He likes bright daylight in which we can see how things are.
Martin has been photographing places and communities since the 1970s. His images of the co-operative movement, of people in Mao’s China, and of Bhopal in the wake of the 1984 disaster, are all now valued for the social and cultural histories they tell, as well as for their distinctive qualities of openness, clarity, and keen watching. Martin photographs things so ordinary you hardly noticed they were there and bothers with every nuance of detail in a humble setting. He lavishes attention on pavements and dog-eared notices; in his portraits, people often look straight at the camera – there’s no pretence: they are having their pictures taken – but they are surrounded by the intricate business of their lives.
In recent years, Martin has focused on what is to be found within a few metres of his own front door. That door opens onto Divinity Road in East Oxford, a long street of Victorian houses just off the busy and super-diverse Cowley Road. Martin has lived here for more than thirty years, and has been active in community-building initiatives throughout that time. When the lockdown came, Martin went out with his camera. Many of his subjects will seem very familiar. Chalked pavements, children’s rainbows, unreadable eyes behind a visor: these are the visual language of 2020, passing across our screens each day. But here is one particular street, part of the global story but not exactly the same as anywhere else and containing multitudes within it. In the tradition of Mass Observation, the pictures tell us something of what is shared while revealing a wealth of idiosyncrasies. Each arrangement of window posters is individual. Each household is in its own lockdown. The relations between inside and outside, private and public, are being renegotiated.
How much can we tell about the street? We can sense the Thursday night atmosphere: families emerging from behind privet hedges or peering between the parallel-parked cars to see each other. The lockdown has made some neighbours more visible and part of the community; others have disappeared. Someone has needed the paramedics’ stretcher. There’s a party spirit further down towards the Cowley Road: housemates are making the best of things with an outdoor drink, though the flat roof of the Co-op isn’t anyone’s ideal terrace. Another group stands ready with new turf and spades: they are clearly embarking on a garden together. In fact they are medical students working at the sharp end of the pandemic through long hours up at the hospital. Their new lawn will give them a place to relax during the difficult months ahead.
The images of gutters and kerbs remind me of the sculptures made by the Boyle Family when they focussed in on certain squares of ground and made faithful reproductions of them in fibreglass and mixed media to hang in a gallery. They made us look at the pavement markings and the texture of tarmac. But any similarity here points up a contrast. The Boyle Family aimed for objectivity; they went to places they didn’t know and examined them like scientists. Martin has been trying to know this street for thirty years. He’s poised between objective recorder and long-term neighbour. He’s photographing ‘his’ place, with a curiosity and attention that comes from loving it. But he knows the street is always changing and that neighbourhoods are best not taken for granted.
Associate Professor in English, University of Southampton
My research explores how writing practices can inform our understanding of place. In the Leverhulme-funded project StoryPlaces, I worked with creative writers and colleagues in Electronics and Computer Science on a location-based authoring tool, running writing projects in Crystal Palace, Southampton Docks, and the Bournemouth Natural Science Society. In my teaching, I encourage students to read and write poetry in specific spaces, from secondary classrooms (‘Creative Writing in Schools), to city farms (‘Animal Forms: Poetry and the Non-Human’), to abandoned military hospitals (‘Writing Place’).
As a poetry editor and critic, I am drawn to poets who attend to the particular squelch of the earth beneath them, from Stevie Smith, the poet of flat coastlands and rainy suburban parks, to F.T. Prince, the South-African born poet whose works take in urban graffiti in Rome, Keatsian walking country, and the vast expanses of the veldt.
Publications include Stevie Smith and Authorship (OUP, 2010), The Collected Poems and Drawings of Stevie Smith (Faber, 2015), and Reading F.T. Prince (LUP, 2017).
My new project explores the places and practices of mentoring in modern British poetry, from the university seminar room to the local park bench.
Hermione Lee reflects on the particular qualities and settings of J.L. Carr’s classic novel
“No book evokes so well as this the long vistas of that high ridge of North Yorkshire between Thirsk and Sutton Bank”
Joseph Lloyd Carr (1912-1994), better known as Jim, was a writer of laconic English humour, quiet precision, deep moral feeling, close knowledge of landscapes, buildings and history, and an interest in the heroism of obscure, unsuccessful, unprivileged people. Between 1963 and 1992 he wrote eight short novels. He was also a teacher and headmaster, a writer for children, an antiquarian, and an idiosyncratic publisher of pocket books, under the sign of the Quince Tree Press. His friend and admirer Penelope Fitzgerald said of him: “Carr is by no means a lavish writer, but he has the magic touch to re-enter the imagined past”.
His masterpiece, A Month in the Country, won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1980, was short-listed for the Booker and was made into a film. Carr, an obstinate man, didn’t care that it was already Turgenev’s title – besides, the novella has a Turgenevian mood to it. It’s a story full of sadness and nostalgia, told by a shell-shocked war-veteran, Tom Birkin. In the “marvellous summer” of 1920, he has come, a wrecked survivor, with no money and a failed marriage, to a remote Yorkshire village, in order to uncover a huge medieval Day of Judgement painting on the wall of the village church, the work of an unknown medieval artist who increasingly infiltrates his mind. Down below, another war-veteran with a secret history, Mr Moon, is excavating a 14th century grave outside the church. They are “two of a kind”, both quietly dedicated to their specialised work, and both beneficiaries of the late old lady of the decaying manor-house, whose shrewd eye still seems to be overlooking their work. An obstructive, stiff-necked vicar, his fragile, beautiful wife, and the friendly, level-headed Yorkshire villagers (source of Carr’s typical humane, low-key comedy), become Birkin’s whole world that summer.
It is a war-novel set in peace-time, full of the horror and unspeakable fear of war-memories, which can’t be spoken about. It’s a love story of great poignancy about a missed chance, and it’s a memory of an irrecoverable past, of “blue remembered hills” that can’t be found again. “If I’d stayed there”, the sad narrator asks himself, “would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never, we must snatch at happiness as it flies”.
Above all, the novel is filled to the brim with a particular English place and time. Carr said he drew the village and its setting from his childhood in the North Riding, the church from Northamptonshire (where he spent most of his adult life), the churchyard from Norfolk and the vicarage from London: “All’s grist that comes to the mill”. Oxgodby, the name of the village, certainly echoes “Osgodby”, a village near where he went to school. And the novel brings us a vanished English country life in deep sunshine – haymaking, sleeping outdoors, Sunday School, rabbit pies, scythes, “ditches and roadside deep in grass, poppies, cuckoo pint, trees heavy with leaf, orchards bulging over hedge briars”. No book evokes so well as this the long vistas of that high ridge of North Yorkshire between Thirsk and Sutton Bank. “Day after day, mist rose from the meadow as the sky lightened and hedges, barns and woods took shape until, at last, the long curving back of the hills lifted away from the Plain. It was a sort of stage-magic – “Now you don’t see; indeed, there is nothing to see. Now look!” Day after day it was like that….” “As it lightened, a vast and magnificent landscape unfolded. I turned away; it was immensely satisfying.”
Hermione Lee was president of Wolfson College, Oxford from 2008 to 2017 and founding director of the Oxford Centre for Life Writing. Her books include Edith Wharton (2006), Penelope Fitzgerald (2013), and Tom Stoppard (2020).
Monday Conversation, 30 November 2020, with Lauren Working and Lucy Powell.
Still life paintings from the seventeenth century present sumptuous arrangements of fruit, flowers, vegetables, silverware, and often animals or birds as well. They may be ‘still’, displayed for our visual enjoyment, but the subjects have been gathered from around the world. These pictures tell stories of travel, colonialism, displacement, power, and desire.
Our two speakers took us on an imaginative transcultural journey, bringing questions of locality, placelessness, and globalism to bear on scenes of feasting and beauty.
“We get tulips with pumpkins, maize with English strawberries, peonies with chillies…”
Lauren Working (Postdoctoral Fellow on the TIDE project, University of Oxford) gave a dazzling visual tour of the genre’s excesses and extremes, pausing in the queasy hinterlands between plenty and too much. Bringing an historian’s expertise to paintings by Dutch and English artists, she explored the tastes, networks, and trade routes, the invisible maps and webs of connection, that lie behind the shining objects assembled before us.
Lucy Powell (Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Oxford) looked closely at paintings of exotic birds by Jakob Bogdani, showing how closely they relate to still life and how much they have to tell us about cultures of collecting and displaying species brought to Britain from across the globe.
Our short clips will give you a taste, and a recording of the whole session is available below.
Professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture, Oxford University
New worlds are never new. Places carry memory, and they are seen through layers of memories, both personal and communal. From Renaissance imaginings of Carthage, forever haunted by Virgil’s Dido, to the sixteenth century Portuguese-dominated port-city of Goa in western India, paying attention to place opens up new windows into the ways in which human beings negotiated their sense of wonder and strangeness, belonging and betweenness.
As the director of the European Research Council-funded ‘Travel, Transculturality, and Identity in England, 1550-1700’ (TIDE) project (www.tideproject.uk), I am particularly interested in the latter – about imagining home and exile in an age defined by human mobility, both voluntary and forced, and about the debates that raged around it, often articulated in terms of who belonged to a place and who did not.
‘Jus soli’, ‘right of soil,’ was literally a way of legally defining birthright and identity by tracing one’s roots to a place. But I am also interested in the close links between place and memory that lie deep in the ways of thinking in this period, in the ways a traveller was expected to take notes about a new place, for instance, translating geographical and cultural places into textual spaces. Working on Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, Voyages, and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589; expanded 1598–1600) and on travel writing in general (Cambridge History of Travel Writing, co-edited with Tim Youngs, 2019), have allowed me to explore some of the varied ways in which that has shaped the English imagination from the sixteenth century to the present day.
Allison Adler Kroll
TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities), Environmental Humanities Group, University of Oxford
I have spent much of my career writing about heritage culture and landscape conservation. My first doctorate is in nineteenth- and twentieth-century English literature, and my thesis traced the literary history of heritage institutions, including the National Trust, in England from their imaginative foundations in the early nineteenth century to their rise as an industry in the twentieth century and beyond. My current book project, Moments of Vision: Lightscapes, European Nature Writing, and Modern Identity, is an environmental humanities study that places modern English writing about nature in a European context. The focus is on lightscapes and vision in relation to modern identity and the localisms through which that identity often emerged within a secularising culture. I explore the quality of luminosity in the work of Woolf, Proust, Valery, Auden, and von Arnim (among others), as well as in that of modern ‘nature writers’, especially in terms of how light shapes our perception of individual landscapes. I am also currently completing work on a history thesis which revolves around the relationship between royal, imperial, and aristocratic landscapes and the circulation of ideas about landscape in Britain and France, 1760-1818.
I co-organise the TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities) Environmental Humanities programme, a network of academics who write about the environment, conservation professionals, and environmentally-engaged artists. Our programme collaborates with a number of heritage and conservation organisations, including the National Trust, the RSPB, the Woodland Trust, and Historic Royal Palaces.
Sustainability campaigner, photographer, local champion, Oxford
I have worked on sustainable development and regeneration issues in my career in local government, having graduated from Oxford in geography and LSE in town and country planning. I am now a writer and photographer documenting the granular and quotidian characteristics of small spaces and the people who live in them – particularly in east Oxford, where I have lived for the past 40 years. My book The Cowley Road Cookbook: culinary tales and recipes from Oxford’s most eclectic street (Signal Books, 2015) documents the social and cultural history of one street through food, from the twelfth century to the present day. I blog as ‘Lord Muck’ in a fairly light-hearted manner on gardening, growing, cooking, composting and other aspects of our interaction with the natural world.
I have explored William Morris’s experience of, response to, and continuing impact on Iceland in ‘What came we forth for to see that our hearts are so hot with desire: Morris and Iceland’ in The Routledge Companion to William Morris (ed. Florence Boos; Routledge, 2021).
I have been working since mid-2018 on a project to record every household on the street I have lived on for the past 33 years, in the Divinity Road Photo Project. The street is very long, very diverse and very transient, and has been identified as the street with the widest range of household incomes in England. The COVID-19 pandemic has reframed and refocussed the project in a context where our understanding of neighbourhoods has become ever more important.
“Divinity Road has been identified as the street with the widest range of household incomes in England”
Explore Martin’s Work
Alexandra Harris got together with Professor Kate McLoughlin, who is researching the history of silence, to think about texts that seemed particularly meaningful in the first weeks of lockdown and isolation.
They recorded four short podcasts: on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23, DH Lawrence’s ‘Silence’, a moment of pause in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, and William Cowper’s defence of quiet home life in The Task.
Podcast 4, on William Cowper, is especially concerned with place. Cowper rarely travelled far from home, and much of his poetry considers what might be gained by attending seriously to domestic life and local surroundings.
The text discussed by Kate and Alex is from Book 3 of The Task:
How various his employments, whom the world
Calls idle, and who justly in return
Esteems that busy world an idler, too!
Friends, books, a garden, and perhaps his pen,
Delightful industry enjoyed at home,
And nature in her cultivated trim
Dressed to his taste, inviting him abroad—
Can he want occupation who has these?
Will he be idle who has much to enjoy?
Me, therefore, studious of laborious ease,
Not slothful; happy to deceive the time,
Not waste it; and aware that human life
Is but a loan to be repaid with use,
When He shall call His debtors to account,
From whom are all our blessings; business finds
Even here: while sedulous I seek to improve,
At least neglect not, or leave unemployed,
The mind He gave me; driving it, though slack
Too oft, and much impeded in its work
By causes not to be divulged in vain,
To its just point—the service of mankind.
He that attends to his interior self,
That has a heart and keeps it; has a mind
That hungers and supplies it; and who seeks
A social, not a dissipated life,
Has business; feels himself engaged to achieve
No unimportant, though a silent task.
A life all turbulence and noise may seem,
To him that leads it, wise and to be praised;
But wisdom is a pearl with most success
Sought in still water, and beneath clear skies.
Fiona Stafford (Oxford, 2010)
Recommended by Alexandra Harris
One of the many remarkable things that happened towards the end of the eighteenth century was that local feeling and the life of particular places became great literary subjects. You wouldn’t expect to find a Jacobean poet writing about the River Duddon (unless perhaps it was a symbol of national prosperity), but of Wordsworth you would expect nothing less. Paying close attention to the changing cultural status of local particularity, Stafford asks how and why this came about, and how Romantic writers, poem by poem, made places matter.