Like Birds on a Lawn

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I’ve been thinking, reading, and writing about whales for some time now. And as I make slow, stately, and somewhat distracted progress through my project on the whaler and scientist William Scoresby Jr., I’ve been thinking more about how whales appear to us now, and how they appeared 200 years ago. The obvious difference of course is that, apart from a few dishonourable exceptions, most countries–and most people–now think killing whales is a bad idea. But it is the idea of whales that interests me: how do we look at them, what do we see, and what do they mean to us?

Most whales are of course, very large, and it is this aspect of the whale that dominates our view of them. But there is more than a trace here of an old-fashioned Western view of otherness in which that which is not of us is necessarily mysterious and strange. The whale skeletons in places like the Natural History Museum in London certainly provide a spectacle, and their size, emphasised by their room-filling juxtaposition with the large gallery spaces used to display them, is akin to the marvellous size of a Saturn rocket, or some vast Gothic cathedral. But of course in their context none of these things is large or powerful at all. Saturn rockets may have helped transport a few men to the Moon, but they were sacrificed in so doing; the vastness of a cathedral may hint at the glory of heaven, but it is a weak effort in the face of a divine power that notionally created the universe.

And so it is with whales: in the museum, or more poignantly, stranded on a beach, their bulk is a spectacle, and a logistics problem. But out at sea, perhaps thousands of kilometres from land, they are, if not small, then to scale. The vastness of the whale skeleton, like the surprising girth of a fallen tree, is a puzzle: how can something so large and extraordinary exist alongside us? But here, in their family group, Sperm whales rest at the surface, as ordinary as birds on a lawn.

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Albatross Movie

Back in 2009 I noted a collection of photographs by Chris Jordan showing dead albatross chicks filled with plastic. Back then it was quite shocking to see these birds killed by our waste. But that was nine years ago, and only now is the issue of plastic in the environment becoming a major public issue. Plastic has been around for just over 100 years, but it is only in the last 50 that it has become widely used. It’s worth making the point that of those 50 or so years we have known about the damage plastic is doing to our environment for at least a decade. And yet we throw away more plastic now than ever.

Anyway, Jordan has been working for the past few years on a feature-length film called Albatross, which has been funded by donations, and is available for free to watch via Vimeo, or download in various formats.

Here’s the trailer:

No Zip Wires Over Thirlmere

I don’t often get angry enough to write letters, but I wrote one today to the planners at the Lake District National Park Authority, registering my objection to a proposal to open an “Activity Hub” including eight zip wires, across Thirlmere, in the Lake District. If approved, would damage an important part of one of the most beautiful areas of England.

If you agree, I urge you to sign the petition here:

https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/say-no-to-zip-wires-across-thirlmere

Please also write a letter to the planners. Information about how to do that is here:

https://www.friendsofthelakedistrict.org.uk/Pages/Site/thirlmere/Category/thirlmere-zip-wires

You can send your letter in the form of an email to: thirlmereactivity@lakedistrict.gov.uk

The main part of my own objection letter is below.

My objection is principally that the application is in conflict with both the spirit of the National Park’s foundation, and the statutory purpose of the Lake District National Park Authority, which is to “conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife, and cultural heritage of the Lake District National Park”.

The Lake District National Park has many special qualities, but it is defined by the beauty of its landscape. Although visitors have a wide range of activities available to them in the National Park (including three excellent, low impact zip wire attractions) it is for the landscape that most of them visit: they climb the hills, swim, sail, and paddle the lakes, or just look at the view. These activities are available to almost everyone, and have a universal value. They offer spiritual renewal, and require a personal engagement with the landscape, its wildlife, and its history that are part of the reason for the Park’s existence. Almost all require some level of fitness and adventurousness, but have a manageable impact on the landscape itself.

By contrast, the proposed zip wires and their associated infrastructure will permanently degrade the appearance and tranquility of the Thirlmere valley for everyone, while offering a short thrill ride for a relatively small number of visitors. Riding a zip wire is an almost entirely passive activity, similar to riding a roller coaster at a theme park. It does nothing to enhance the unique and special qualities of the Lake District, but on the contrary reduces it to the level of an Alton Towers or Blackpool Pleasure Beach. It will bring with it traffic, noise, damage to habitats, and will do nothing to foster the idea that the landscape needs to be conserved, looked after, and improved. In this regard it is anathema to everything the National Parks stand for.

In 1935, JB Priestley, wrote “It is still too often assumed that any enterprising fellow after quick profits has a perfect right to destroy a loveliness that is the heritage of the whole community.” I hope that the LDNPA will reject this application, and demonstrate that we have made progress since then.