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Black Sky Thinking

Nature Is Healing? Our Relationship With The Non-Human In COVID-19
Luke Turner , December 17th, 2020 08:33

Coronavirus has forced us to reexamine our relationship with the non-human, argues Luke Turner as he explores far-right interest in environmentalism and questions of who has access to or rights over our green spaces. This is an extract from Unsound Festival's forthcoming Intermission essay collection

On an evening in the interminable smudge of early lockdown, my eye was caught by a death in the sky. Some ancient instinct had drawn my attention to the moment that a sparrowhawk hit a swift a few metres above my small London garden, the prey's elegant curved wings crumpling to a formless blob in sharp talons. For a moment the impact froze them there against ragged grey clouds, before with a few flaps the hawk carried its prey off across the rooftops, pursued by a screeching flurry of the surviving swift flock. In the same period, I saw buzzards and kites circling in the thermals of the unusually warm May.

When I told people about seeing these once-rare birds in the sky over urban London, some said it must be coronavirus, making space for the animals. This was, after all, not long after social media and news reports alike had been full of sightings of goats in the streets of Llandudno, Wales, and jackals prowling San Francisco, accompanied by posts proclaiming that the virus was somehow 'good' for 'nature'. This eventually ran to its logical conclusion and became the #natureishealing hashtag on Instagram, where thankfully pisstakes of, say, a post-lockdown booze binge, started to appear amidst all the creepily celebratory photographs of landscapes devoid of people. I remained troubled, however, by the ease in which (largely white, middle-class) people felt happy to share their joy at a perceived change in their surroundings thanks to a pandemic that was not only disproportionately killing people of colour and those with disabilities, but also wreaking economic havoc that would put the most vulnerable in society at the greatest risk.

I prefer to attribute the amount of bird activity in the months of lockdown to something obvious — I was simply unable to travel beyond the few streets around my home, and spent time in the garden. In a state of heightened anxiety due to COVID-19, I was more alert, as I took my government-mandated constitutional around the local streets. It was my eyes, not the virus, that had contributed to this explosion of species around me. Exotic creatures on urban streets were the exception, not the norm.

There's no doubt that the recent strange months have led to many of us having a closer engagement with the natural world. Many have seen it as a place of succour and respite, an ancient tree and the cycle of seasons perhaps offering a sense of reassuring permanence in a period of upheaval. Yet this has also shown up a deep inequality in access to natural habitat. I am privileged to live near a London park and to have a small garden, yet couldn't help but feel my sense of lockdown claustrophobia exacerbated by social media posts by rural dwellers exalting the space and mental freedom afforded by views of seas, mountains, rolling fields, and so on. We all live in highly urbanised societies, and millions have no access to any outdoor space at all. Still more feel unwelcome in them.

Identity, landscape and ideas of purity in nature often sit uncomfortably together. It was Nazi minister of food and agriculture Richard Walther Darré who coined the term 'Blood & Soil', connecting the idealised Aryan with a connection to the land. In his brilliant dissection of nationalism, nostalgia and place, On Living In An Old Country, the under-regarded writer and thinker Patrick Wright quotes Sartre, who, in a controversial 1946 essay on anti-semitism in France, explored ideas of 'authentic' connection to the land, and outsiderhood. He wrote that to truly be seen as 'belonging' to a place, "one must know all the neighbours, their parents and grandparents, the surrounding farms, the beeches and oak of the forest; one must know how to work, fish, hunt; one must have made notches in the trees in childhood and have found them enlarged in ripe old age."

Unfortunately, we see something of this in the intolerance towards outsiders frequently found in rural areas. Many of us will have encountered these tales. A friend of Irish descent's parents moved to the countryside in Norfolk, a county to the east of England. They were subjected to a campaign of harassment by locals, who accused them of stealing potatoes from a local farm. In a coastal village where I spent time a few years ago, a Black doctor was effectively hounded out of his practice, and the gay landlords of one of the local pubs ended up leaving after months after receiving homophobic hate mail and dog excrement pushed through the letterbox. My dad's colleague, of Caribbean descent, was offered a free holiday on the English coast. She turned it down, saying that "my people are not welcome there." According to the UK government's latest statistics, police in predominantly rural Dorset were twenty-five times more likely to stop and search Black people than white. In Norfolk, a county defined by its agriculture industry and vast, prairie-like fields, forty-six people of colour were stopped for every three white. The West Mercia police force, covering the most rural area in England, stopped and searched fifty-six people of colour for every three white.

While there has, as yet, been little analysis of these figures, they suggest that a mistrust of outsiders as defined by the colour of their skin is rife in rural England. History sits as deep as tree roots. Zakiya McKenzie was writer-in-residence for Forestry England in 2019. During a panel discussion last autumn, she moved me by discussing how a walk through the ancient woodland of the Forest Of Dean has a resonance for her that it can never have for a white British person. She looks at the trees, and thinks of how when they germinated her ancestors were enslaved. "I love the countryside but I see viewpoints arise that we need to acknowledge before natural spaces in England feel less like wildernesses to some of us," she tells me now. "Old trees always make me think about what might have happened throughout their lifespan, how much they would have seen. Some of the trees I encountered in the forest here were planted at a time when England was thriving through slave and indentured labour. Some of the trees planted from seed that came to England on the same ships. You want to enjoy the space, but even historical detail of harm and inequalities can sometimes upset how you interact with it. It's not the trees' fault, of course, it's the fact that we won't acknowledge it and allow the bad thoughts to pass."

The sense of green space as a front in developing prejudice and tensions over race and identity has only become more acute during the coronavirus crisis, especially after the killing of George Floyd in urban Minneapolis in May. The Black Lives Matter movement's surge in 2020 was in part driven by the case of Amy Cooper, who called the police on a Black birdwatcher in New York's Central Park after he asked her to put her dog on a leash. In the UK on 4th July, seventy members of a far-right group calling themselves Patriotic Alternative (self-described as "A new community-based campaigning group that stands up for the interests of the indigenous people of these islands") climbed 517-metre-high hill Mam Tor to unveil a White Lives Matter banner. Although the banner conveniently concealed the faces of all those involved, the image went viral on social media. It was followed by a tweet simply saying "join us" as the camera panned around the stunning Peak District countryside, as if to say, 'white lives matter, and this is our land'.

Interestingly, Mam Tor is itself a resonant spot in the British argument about who owns the landscape. In 1932, members of the Young Communist League carried out a mass trespass on adjacent hill Kinder Scout, protesting at the lack of access afforded to ordinary people in a country owned by a small number of aristocratic families. The walk caused controversy at the time, but was seen as a pivotal moment in the long march to legal protection of public rights of way.

In the battles around the saving of green spaces in the nineteenth century, class — and specifically, a fear of the working class — was a constant theme. In my book Out Of The Woods, I sought to challenge the idea of nature purely as a place of respite, exploring how our relationship with woodlands and other green spaces was far more complex than the privileged purveyors of twee 'ahhh nature' thinking can admit. The saving of the Forest for the people of London in 1878 was a case in point. Much of what lay behind the conservation movements of the Victorian era was a patrician attitude that saw green space and the countryside as places for the lower orders to improve and civilise themselves. Bylaws imposed on parks and preserved green space frequently forbade mass gatherings for political purposes —there existed a very real establishment concern that preserving large areas of fields and woodlands adjacent to cities might make them focal points of radical activity. On a more base level, the working class communities who already lived in these places and worked as agricultural labourers frequently grew suspicious at the influx of the urban poor into what had previously been remote and sparsely populated areas. For instance, during the nineteenth century, groups of impoverished children were frequently taken out of the London slums to the forest. Locals would follow, washing the road behind them.

I've been concerned, during the lockdown, that some of the attitudes celebrating landscapes empty of people and full of supposedly booming 'nature' start to echo these prejudices. Unfortunately, this has not merely been from racists climbing English hills to unveil (and hide behind) their toxic banners. It's dangerously complacent to assume that anti-human tendencies that can easily slip into racism and other forms of prejudice are the sole preserve of those who sit on the extreme right wing of politics. In March, the XREastMidlands Twitter account posted photographs of fliers that proclaimed "Corona is the cure, humans are the disease" alongside the Extinction Rebellion logo. The post claimed that the "Earth is healing. The air and water is clearing," a sentiment eerily similar to the sort of posts I was seeing from people who presumably would baulk at the idea of proclaiming a tenacious virus a solution to the 'problem' of humans.

After this predictably kicked up a social media storm, XR claimed that the East Midlands group were not actually a part of their organisation and asked Twitter to remove the posts. A non-hierarchical group like Extinction Rebellion is always going to run the risk that undesirables will infiltrate its ranks and start spreading messages that cause it problems. Yet I remain sceptical as to whether the East Midlands group were infiltrators at all — they were followed by other groups and figures from the organisation, and supposed 'proof' held by XR that these were imposters has mysteriously yet to emerge. Indeed, in January this year, XR said that stickers with "Third-World overbreeding destroys the planet" and other racist slogans were the result of far-right infiltrators and the bills were not "official," something that jars slightly, given that in a non-hierarchical organisation surely there is no such thing as "official." And is it not the case that someone can sympathise with the cause of Extinction Rebellion and be a racist? Environmental activists do not have a monopoly on virtue. Indeed, I don't imagine I'm alone in hearing alarm bells tinkle when XR founder Roger Hallam glibly referred to the Holocaust as "just another fuckery in human history."

The bigger issue is not whether or not these XR sticker posters were infiltrators, but the essential vulnerability of environmental movements to far-right, anti-human misanthropy. Ecofascism has a long and unpleasant history, and may be making a resurgence. The 'Blood & Soil' philosophy of Richard Darré, like so many fascist ideologies, was not as comprehensively defeated as we once naïvely thought. In June, news outlets, including The Guardian, reported that in Germany far-right groups were 'infiltrating' environmental movements, describing a poster that accompanied green farming aesthetics with the slogan 'Let's chase the globalists off our acres!' A new environmental magazine, Die Kehre (meaning 'The Turning') published an editorial that read, "[T]he world's population has to be stabilised at a lower level—otherwise we face irreversible ecological collapse." Again, is this a cynical act of 'infiltration' intended to boost the electoral fortunes of the Alternative für Deutschland party, or evidence that environmental organisations, theorists and supporters are not essentially progressive in and of themselves?

Across the border in France, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally (formerly Front National), has said that she wants her country to become the "world's leading ecological civilisation." In this, the French right can find a closed-border, localist environmentalism as handily dovetailing with their anti-global, anti-immigration outlook. In an essay called Ecology and human survival: the project of a new Alliance for life, MEP and National Rally politician Hervé Juvin wrote that environmental collapse was having "horrific consequences on European Nations — from mass migrations across the Mediterranean Sea to new figures of poverty, exclusion and despair at the heart of the European continent." The New York Times quoted Juvin as saying, "Fundamentally, ecology is about people living on a territory, who are attached to it and who make plans for the long term." His words are an uncanny echo of the Sartre quote, above.

There is an argument that might ask who cares what political persuasions are espousing environmental protection when action on the climate is so desperately and urgently needed, and that, when the right is for conservation rather than the destruction wrought by Brazil's leader Jair Bolsonaro, their other political sins can be overlooked. But to excuse one evil in the hope of some positive environmental policies would be dangerous. The climate crisis that is already upon us will disproportionately impact those in the global south. Research suggests that the increase in migration to Europe from the Middle East and Africa already has a climate refugee dimension. We have to be on our guard for any racist, exclusionary thinking creeping into our environmental discourse because a belief that the protection of 'nature' is a separate issue to maintaining the life and dignity of humanity. We are part of 'nature'. So too is coronavirus. The landscapes in which we live belong to us all.

Which leads, finally, to a note of optimism. Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic I've started to see what seems to be a change in attitudes and demographics when it comes to my local area, Epping Forest. In so populous a space, there were never going to be #blessed posts praising how empty everything felt. Instead, there was the thrill of seeing people engage with this strange urban woodland for the first time, realising what an ancient and unusual ecology was just minutes from the front doors of their homes. On my many visits to the forest I saw, in some areas for the first time, many of the diverse communities that live around it represented among the trees and on the expanses of grassland in the south of the forest, where blocks of flats tower over the trees and scrub. The same went for social media, where projects like Black Birders Week and Epping Forest group walks for people of colour, such as Flock Together (a "#BIRDGANG support club combatting the underrepresentation of black, brown & POC in nature") regularly appeared in my feed. A new campaigning group called BLM in the Stix launched an online toolkit specifically designed to show people how to be anti-racist in rural areas. Khady Gueye, a BLM activist who worked on the project and who had organised a protest in the Forest Of Dean, said: "In rural areas like mine, there is this idea that we don't need things like this because there isn't a big ethnic minority population, but there is a lot of covert racism. People need a platform to share their experiences of racism and prejudice in these areas, where you're in a much more extreme minority than in bigger cities, and people who don't really understand need a place to start in trying to engage with and tackle these problems."

If access to green space is no longer a privilege but a right to be enjoyed by all, we start to chip away at the separation between the human and 'nature' that is at the root of environmental destruction and the climate crisis. If instead of being precious or selfish about our desire for solitude in woods and fields, on beaches or mountains, we welcome all who wish to visit, the prejudices born out of unfamiliarity might be undermined. By guarding against supposedly pro-environmental but anti-human thinking in our ecological movements, we mitigate against the risk of ceding ecology to the racists and fascists. Of course, the urgency with which this needs to happen increases day by day.

Over the week of writing this essay, London has sweltered in a heatwave. Temperatures have been in the mid-30s for days, with not a drop of rain. Research published on 12th August revealed that the last decade was the hottest ever recorded, and that global temperatures had increased by 0.39C in just ten years. The air has been dry, full of pollen, polluted. The screeching of the swifts has gradually disappeared from above the chimneys, replaced instead by the whine of jet engines as international travel resumes. The last few birds, pirouetting against the sunset, vanished earlier this week as they headed off on their epic migration to Africa. I hardly noticed them go. Each year now I seem to catch myself offering up an involuntary prayer that this will not be the last year they return.

Unsound's Intermission collection of essays features writing by J.T.Roane, Philip Sherburne, Jennifer Lucy Allan, Moor Mother, Steve Goodman, Jace Clayton and many more and will be published at the start of March 2021. Unsound will also release a connected album of 15 different tracks, including Jlin & SOPHIE, Varg & VTSS, Tim Hecker with Agata Harz & Katarzyna Smoluk, DeForrest Brown, Jr. & James Hoff. You can preorder both from Unsound here