As I have written a lot over the past year about the positive effects of the EU on UK’s environment, I cannot let last week’s triggering of Article 50 – the formal start of the “Brexit” process – go without a mention. This time last year I was on the Great Wall of China, reflecting on borders and migration (see “Reflections from the Great Wall”). As Theresa May’s letter was delivered to Donald Tusk I was, by coincidence, reading another book about boundaries, Rory Stewart’s The Marches. In this book he describes his travels around the borderlands between Scotland and England, but which also draws upon his own travels and experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of central Asia.
A point that he makes more than once in his book is that borders are, in many cases, artificial boundaries which, over time, create the differences that distinguish two cultures. Scotland and England are, in his view, good examples: neither Hadrian’s Wall nor the present national border were placed with any regard for the identities of the people on either side. The only natural cultural boundary, in his view, was that between the highland and lowland Scots, roughly coincident with the Highland Boundary Fault. In the far past, lowland Scottish culture merged seamlessly into northern English culture as you travelled south until, in Medieval times, a more formal border was established. From that point on, individuals on either side of the border looked north or south respectively and, gradually, over time, distinct “Scottish” and “English” identities emerged. Those who inhabit the borderlands become, in turn, pawns that distant political powers used to strengthen their hold on the land and, in turn, destabilise those on the other side.
Being an island, of course, accentuates differences between Britain and the rest of Europe but we only have to look at the differences within this island to recognise the artificiality of this British nationalism. And those stirring speeches that Shakespeare put into the mouth of Henry V? The real events behind those plays was part of a military campaign by the English monarchy to assert their rights over French territory. The Plantagenet kings would have been bemused by the idea of the English Channel representing anything more than a natural obstacle that separated two parts of a single polity. The national identities to which Farage, Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon all appeal are, in other words, relatively recent inventions.
The point of this little essay is to remind ourselves that national identities are far more fluid than the diatribes of our populist politicians are prepared to admit. And this national identity will continue to evolve in the future. Nationalism led Europe to some very dark places in the twentieth century and the impetus for the original European experiment was a desire to learn from lessons of the past in order that they should never be repeated. I do believe that, whatever we think about the bureaucratic Juggernaut that the European Commission has become, the result is a Europe which is slowly transcending historic boundaries.
So what is this post doing in a blog that is supposed to be about natural history and ecology of freshwaters? If ecology is all about how organisms interact with their environment then we need to pull back the focus from the stream or lake to encompass the actions of humans under that broad heading of “environment”. And we cannot consider the direct actions of humans – their immediate impacts on our freshwaters – without also considering the cultural and political spheres which regulate those activities. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU might not seem to be of great relevance to the world of algae which preoccupies most of my posts. Yet again, by reshaping the laws and regulations that determine how we interact with our environment, our withdrawal is of enormous relevance to every body of fresh water in the land.
Normal business will be resumed next time.
*This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,–
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
William Shakespeare, King Richard II, Act 2, Scene 1
The photograph shows Crag Lough from Hadrian’s Wall, near Housesteads, photographed in April 2014.