This other Eden …

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.

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Dispatches from the edge of the Empire

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Hadrian’s Wall from close to Steel Rigg car park, April 2014.

My wife and mother are on holiday together in Jordan and sent me a progress report from the ruined Roman city of Jerash, complaining about the weather (31 degrees Celsius). In a spontaneous show of empathy with their plight in the south eastern corner of the Roman Empire, I decided to visit the north-western border to make my own observations about the weather (11 degrees, strong westerly winds and occasional squally showers).

Having written about Trentepohlia in the previous post, I was alert to any conspicuous orange patches as I walked along the central part of Hadrian’s Wall yesterday. The location for the pictures below is the famous Sycamore Gap (NY 761 677), which was used as a location in the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, apparently. It was easy to spot the distinctive patches of Trentepohlia, even from 100 metres away. What was particularly intriguing was that I only saw it on the north-facing side of the wall. Fabio Rindi and Mike Guiry found no correlation with compass direction in their study (referenced in previous post), though Table 1 of their paper does seem to suggest a slight preference for north-facing walls in Galway. Presumably the north side of the wall receives less direct sunlight, so provides a slightly less harsh environment for the alga. My observations are, also, a rather dramatic validation of their comment about a preference for “old walls” – this section of Hadrian’s Wall having stood here for about 1900 years.

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Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall (NY 761 677), with patches of Trentepohlia visible on the north side.