Elsie looks up at me from beside the bin.
She eats the chewing gum and then scuttles to my left leg as we continue to walk. It is cold and the sun is low and bright in the sky and reflecting up off the innumerable smooth pebbles in the concrete road that leads beyond the country park. Elsie’s claws graze the road occasionally as she traverses the grass verge dotted with draincovers and bags of dogshit.
I am glad to reach the railway bridge. Crossing it signals the boundary of my patch. Until this point I pay little attention to my surroundings, just the minimum amount to ensure I’m not struck from behind by a moving car.
The sky is large and pale. A cold blue canvas of scattered clouds that pass frequently between the sun and the narrow footpath.
‘What’s this?’ I throw the stick. Elsie chases it.
Either side of the partially worn trail, the grasses lay strawlike, blown dry of their dew and spiderwebs by the westerly wind. The hue of the embankment is a chaotic sepia of crisped thistles and nettles and fern, with only two poppies remaining beside the iron rails to offer their anaemic display to those who care to look. The wind does not so much gust as persevere, animating the borders and outer branches but silencing the life within them.
Sycamore and horsechestnut leaves fall like stricken butterflies.
This section passes without insight or incident. But I don’t feel sensations of apathy, or indifference. I merely walk, finding a rhythm in which my body can move through the materiality of the world there. I think little, I say nothing. Elsie sniffs and runs on before stopping to sniff and run on again.
At the rusted and overgrown railway bridge, we stop. Elsie slips down into the shallow stream that skirts the embankment with caution but is soon shuffling her paws and lapping up the water at the same time. I take a moment to jot down what I can see in my small notebook. The rounded point of the pencil intersects the marked lines of the pages with each contour of my hand.
Between the reedbed at the edge of the field, and the bridge looming high in the near distance, a heavily shrubbed wedge rises to form what was once a road. On its lee side, a cloud of gnats convulses next to an old hawthorn still in possession, for now at least, of its darkening fruit. Sparrows, finches and tits can be heard from within the dense undergrowth, the brutally stiff thorns that adorn the arching tendrils there as effective as razorwire in keeping people out. A site of exclosure. Not retrofitted with a fence or warning signs but merely an unsavoury prospect for anyone following desire paths. Successfully deterred, Elsie and I walk all the way around the impenetrable wedge and are once again confronted by the wind. To my ears the birds are silenced and we continue to walk.
We follow the tracks to the next bridge and cross the railway. The fields are flat and vast and in them small straight and verdant shoots shimmer white as they lean with each gust.
No heron. No birds of any kind. No sound of insects or voles in the grass. Just wind in this exposed landscape. In all directions, monocultures spread into the far distance, differentiated only by the direction in which they’ve been ploughed and how the light refracts from the shallow furrows that remain. I lead Elsie through the dry nettles to the river to drink, but the drop into the water is much higher than I remembered, and the water itself too deep for me to climb in after her if she is unable to get out. I call to her and she scrambles back up the steep embankment.
For the first time since visiting this area, the steam train passed during my walk. Right at the start. Its locomotive components and iron fittings groaned under an immense weight and power despite lubricated greaseports visible from my vantage point at the signalbox. It pushed three carriages filled with families and trainspotters peering out at this landscape. I’m curious to know what they thought of it.
Elsie and I sit by the river and wait for the train to return. Despite the sound of its distant whistle travelling downwind, we do not see it again. With my legs outstretched on the riverbank and Elsie’s chin resting on my knee, I hunch forward to write more details in my notebook. What strikes me is how little water we have found in an hour of walking. I look out over the fields and try to imagine the relief of this land long ago. There would have been trees and undulations here, and ponds and ditches and stacks of fallen branches collected by no one for firewood.
In such a place, life from the smallest fungi to the largest boar would have been free to move and migrate and fight and die. Genes and shit and behaviour and disease would have spread through this landscape in all directions, indifferent to human perceptions of order. Who then could have imagined such regimented terrain as exists today? Who then could have believed water would be so hard to come by; that so little life could be seen in all these acres; and that the richest habitat encountered by someone seeking diversity would be an overgrown, gradual ascent to a disused railway bridge? The connective pathways between territories have been lost here, and as such, the news of the rate of wildlife decline in England since the 1970s appears shocking but unsurprising.
The temptation to account for all-that-is is strong. Post-enlightenment thought is freighted with the desire to order and improve. Sites of exclosure, proposed by George Monbiot in Feral (2014), demonstrate a different logic. The dense wedge of bramble and hawthorn and rosehip embodies the fecundity of an ecosystem that has been granted some semblance of agency in the materiality of the world, precisely because its slopes that served a purpose in human endeavour no longer do so. Abandoned and indifferent, this elevated outcrop has thrived. It has not been fenced off or isolated in any physical way, but via a social exclusion in which it exists as a liminal zone between the cost of its destruction and the productivity of the land around it. For now, the equations of mass agriculture can concede this impractical remainder, and it is through sites such as these that I continue to find hope that diversity will survive. Every bramble and unharvested blackthorn are to me a site of resistance, through which an emancipatory logic flows: an emancipatory logic of multiplicity and symbiosis sorely missing from the political landscapes of England today. Sites of exclosure can, in their own unpredictable and unquantifiable ways, fight and fight and fight against the monocultures of neoliberal thought, and, right now, that is all we can really hope to do.
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