a climate of change*

As a child I would visit North Devon every summer – it is my mother’s family home.

The sun would shine. It would rain. Some years were hot, some cold, some windy and some still. I knew no different. Whatever the weather we would visit the beach, play in the surf (if there was any), go rock-pooling, fish for mackerel from the rocks and cook them over a driftwood fire. We would prod strange jellyfish that had been swept ashore by unusually warm water. Early mornings we would watch for kingfishers from the back bedroom window. Afternoons we might walk the windswept craggy coastline, play ‘soldiers’ in the sprawling prickly dunes or simply sit awestruck and content at the vast expanses of sand and sea. Evenings we would fill the narrow enamel bath with soft hot water, and sand, and then sleep deeply, full of beef dripping chips and cream cakes.

north devon, 1966-75 (ward family archives)north devon family holidays, 1966-75 (ward archive)

Other days we would trudge the pungent market town, past the sheepskin factory, through the cattle market and old family hardware store – then a toyshop, now a florists – wearing unfashionably long, semi-waterproof raincoats and hand-me-down wellies, steadily absorbing the story of the place – the oldest borough in England, situated at the confluence of two rivers, one big, one small, flowing down from the surrounding hills. The region’s wealth was founded on rich mineral deposits, on wool and fertile soils, on fishing and more recently tourism – enough to sustain a reasonable population. Its character and my memories were certainly enough to sustain my excited anticipation until the next year’s family visit.

Without doubt things have changed since then. There are more cars and more roads. The animals and their smells have left town, driven out by foot and mouth, so I’m told. There are pollution controls and cleaner beaches. Homogenized industrial estates and supermarkets sit where potteries founded on local clay beds once stood. Where there were deep mines belching sulphurous smelting gases, and lime kilns offering hot carbon monoxide baths for the poor, are now 300ft wind turbines and row upon row of solar panels; old railways lines are now well-maintained cycle ways. Where forest and moor and bog and meadow teamed with life, now larger and larger fields and smaller hedges. Hillsides divided into manageable sections for our own convenience. Life limited by what we now allow.

time passes (p ward 1996-2013) time passes (p ward 1996-2013)

But the point of this story is not to bemoan the loss of some idyllic past, to wallow nostalgically in the golden years and my own happy childhood, nor to curse ‘progress’. Everything is relative – the future, the past and our perception of what may be good and wholesome, what is right and wrong, what is fitting. As I grew I learnt and appreciated more about the flora and fauna and the forces of nature that have shaped and continue to shape this place, ourselves and the wider world upon which we depend. I fostered experience and specialized in my chosen vocation, gaining knowledge and perspective. I became better informed to live in this ever-changing world. I started to recognize and accept my place  – I thought.

However, despite such well founded education, I still struggle to decide what is for the best, to decipher and discriminate between the host of messages bandied about the airwaves regarding the environment and our actions within it – to weed out the NIMBYs from the vested interests, from the power-crazy, from the ill informed, from those seeking an identity or security amongst others, and from those who genuinely seek to act for the good of all – for what is my ‘backyard’ is inextricably linked to another’s and to the ‘backyard’ that is the whole world in all its diverse and dynamic beauty. It is all too easy to point the finger, to place blame at the feet of another individual or public or commercial body for what may seem a turn for the worse in the world, for another step towards global meltdown. Indeed it is often hard to know who to believe, to determine how much our own observations are influenced by another, and by our own mutating sense of self.

On the face of it what do we really see? What is actually happening and therefore how might we proceed? What voice do we listen to? Is it reason or science or intuition? Is it the delicate murmur of conscience or the booming declarations of some otherworldly God? May we examine each situation in its own right, for its own merits and its own nature, within our own limited awareness, taking everything into account? Or is it possible to listen to Nature to find our answers, to sense the wind and whispers of ocean, river, air and earth, to hear the birds and beasts, the flowers and trees and make an honest evaluation?

When I look at the world and myself within it, here in North Devon – the home of my mother’s family – what do I see?

The sun shines and the rain falls. Sometimes it is hot, sometimes cold, sometimes windy and sometimes still in varying degrees – this is the Atlantic seaboard of Europe after all. What else would I expect? Whatever the weather I visit the beach, play in the surf (if there is any), go rock-pooling; I fish for mackerel from the rocks and cook them over a driftwood fire; I prod alien jellyfish that have been swept ashore by unusually warm water. Early mornings I watch for kingfishers from the back bedroom window. Afternoons I walk the massive craggy coastline, watch birds in the sprawling prickly dunes or simply sit awestruck and content at the vast expanses of sand and sea. Evenings I fill the narrow enamel bath with soft hot water, and sand, and eventually sleep deeply, full of good food and cream cakes, knowing that things are changing as they always have and always will, and grateful for the privilege of being part of it all.

climate, north devon (p ward 2013)+bw barnstaple/bideford bay (p ward 2013)

© Peter Ward 2013

* This short essay was written some time ago for the North Devon Biosphere Reserve B10 writing competition to celebrate 10 years of UNESCO Biosphere Status in the region (http://www.northdevonb10.org.uk/writing-competition.html). Unfortunately it did not get acknowledged for a prize but I hope it captures some of the dilemmas facing those of us trying to make responsible decisions relating to to the environment in these trying times… 

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