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Art on the Edge of the Abyss.

Crumbling Assets

In November 2005, Peter Boggis was forbidden to continue piling up a sacrificial rubble and soil cliff in front of his rapidly diminishing property at Easton Bavents to the north of Southwold in Suffolk. 

To some he is the local hero who refused to let himself be bullied by government agencies and who incidentally prevented the Southwold Marshes becoming inundated by storm tides. To those same government agencies he is the thorn in the flesh that has muddied the water and muddled the issue of coastal protection in a way that is considered both counter productive and unsustainable.

A quiet and very English struggle is going on along the length of the East Anglian Coast: it is between the state as represented by the Environment Agency1 and English Nature2 taking the high ground of geodiversity and landscape integrity, against a community who find themselves obliged to accept the loss of considerable areas of land to the effects of climatic and isostatic change, whilst apparently total protection is granted to foolish urban development on river floodplains.

It is no mean operation that Peter Boggis has set up: through shrewd interpretation of landfill regulations, there have been an average of ninety lorries a day dumping spoil along his cliff front, whilst 40,000 tons per annum have been sacrificed to the effects of coastal erosion. The work is a kilometre long deep brown intrusion along a yellow, sandy cliff; in another context, and by comparison with the poured asphalt works3 of the sculptor Robert Smithson4; it is an audacious, if unintentionally dramatic, achievement. This is only interesting in that the justification for stopping the work is one mightily close to another aesthetic; that of the picturesque, wild and unsullied. It is in the nature of cliffs that they should erode, indeed, to safeguard the integrity of the landscape character, allow scope for research and guarantee that the processes of erosion and accretion continue it is essential to keep them in a state of perpetual disintegration.

To this end English Nature have extended a current SSSI5 designation to the cliffs and foreshore at Easton Bavents, effectively bringing the works to a halt. Set against this, there is something compelling and admirable in the Sisyphean labour of piling up earth for it to be continually washed away. Its summary prohibition and the failure to forge a stewardship agreement, offends the integrity of a community, hardened by centuries of fighting and acquiescing to the North Sea.

DEFRA6 has established a point system whereby it is able to calculate the relative merits of protecting one threatened area over another. For all of the right reasons this has been set up to guarantee transparency and even-handedness, but also for the right reasons, it is bound to favour the built environment, where avoidable human loss through flooding or erosion would be unacceptable. The rural, or predominantly agricultural community finds it difficult to enter the equation where common ground lies only in the source of the threat rather than the nature of the loss. Informed by the European Habitats Directive and crucially outside of the range of the political spotlight, it is considered a peripheral affair best left to those advisory bodies that know best.

This is a territory where English Nature is arbiter; judgements based upon issues of biodiversity and geodiversity lead to the conclusion that inaction is best practice as a local application of a global strategy; too bad if you happen to live there. Sadly it is naïve to expect to have a say in the protection of your property especially, if by good fortune, it happens to enjoy a protective designation such as an SSSI. If you decide to take the initiative on the assumption that it is a fundamental human right, you may well find yourself up against the full weight of European Law. In these situations the heavy hand of eco-bureaucracy does little to endear itself to a public bemused by arcane decision making processes, configured in a context remote to where they are applied.

Since the Industrial Revolution the interface between a cultural understanding of land and how it is managed on behalf of the people, has always been a problematic affair. Although the greater amount of land in Britain may yet be under private ownership, government, through the medium of its agencies has adopted the role of arbiter for access and management, developing a specialist code that is impenetrable to few but the initiates. This is not a helpful state of affairs considering the imminent need for the community, in the widest sense, to acknowledge its responsibilities as stakeholder in the environment and become an informed participant. This cannot happen when the decision making process is carried out by another more highly specialised community, behind closed doors.

Recently I met representatives of English Nature and the Environment Agency to discuss the feasibility of renewing a section of our local river wall. The intentions of this project are to protect a salt marsh threatened by tidal erosion and reinstate a landing facility from the river, for public access to the coastal network of footpaths. At face value, this is a worthy enough proposal and although I was expecting to have to argue our case carefully, I was surprised at how closely the debit and credit of environmental benefits were interrogated. Whilst without doubt this is correct procedure and any higher authority would have looked approvingly over our shoulders, it leads to the conclusion that the safest route for any authority is to agree to nothing. To do otherwise is a matter of individual interpretation of the guidelines, which opens up the potential of personal liability. The tenor of our meeting was benign and the outcome a restrained enjoinder that, rather than saving a saltmarsh from avoidable loss, it could have a detrimental effect upon integrity of the foreshore and therefore may not be advisable. Even-handedness and heavy handedness are close relations in the consultative process where the strategy is to keep a prescriptive approach but avoid appearing unduly patronising. Effectively, homegrown initiatives are discouraged on the basis that they may not be scientifically enough informed; an alternative strategy could be to adopt this as a starting point and to foster enthusiasm in a way that confirms the principle of partnerships. There is otherwise a risk that the myth or story that attaches people to place may be subverted by a higher imperative, intolerant of voices that are different in kind. The forces of conservation can become evangelical and, like any other rigorous belief system, have little latitude and lack the capacity to reflect.

Any river exerts a magnetic pull on those people who live with it; flowing through their psyche, the potential for transfiguration should never be underestimated. I wonder for how many people, their first introduction to the melancholy of an East Anglian tideway was Thomas Crabbe’s exiled Peter Grimes on the mudbanks of the River Alde. Certainly my first encounter with a muddy Suffolk estuary was tantalisingly familiar because I had already experienced it as a primary school child in deepest Somerset.

“When tides were neap, and, in the sultry day,

Through the tall bounding mud-banks made their way,

Which on each side rose swelling, and below

The dark warm flood ran silently and slow;”7

For a landscape to be understood it must first be imagined. The writer and field biologist, Barry Lopez uses the expression “the landscape of the mind” by which he means that a landscape and how it is perceived by those who live within it, is a reciprocal affair. In his book “Arctic Dreams”, he argues compellingly for the need to have recourse to the indigenous community when seeking to interpret unfamiliar territory8.

Any intention to apply an environmental analysis to a particular landscape would do well to have accommodated at the outset, a sense of place from those whose place it happens to be. It cannot be configured solely in mechanical terms; we may know it through experience as much as through empirical models. The “picturesque” as a means of visualising landscape, may well have outlived its usefulness, prompting the need to take a fresh look and recognise another kind of poetry of place that will serve better in relation to future challenges. This may not be cast in such a heroic mould, but serves as a reminder that the future is bound to changes in nature driven largely by our own behaviour.

As a matter of cultural habit we have invested in the promise of the scientific community to ensure the stability of our natural environment. However, in doing so we not only absolve ourselves from individual responsibility but also consent to a strictly functionalist model for landscape. For most of us, our relationship with land is embedded in cultural memory, all that is necessary is to cross national boundaries even in such narrow confines as Europe, to realise that people inhabit it in different ways and it is not easy to differentiate between effects of cultural memory and politics. You could say that the land is the stuff of dreams, and that if we are so foolish as to allow the right to dream to be hijacked, the care of the environment will become no more than a rational process and the act of caring, a political decision subject to availability of funds.

In public life there is an ambiguity over the status of landscape in Britain, undervalued as a component of the national economy, but still considered a green and pleasant land at the service of a largely urban sensibility. For other nations the sense of emotional attachment endures as fundamental to their national identity. This is something I became aware of when working in Norway; its landscape inspires a fierce attachment but imposes severe constraints. It forces travellers to divert around winter snows and then put up with wet stormy journeys. It chimes with native hardiness and is a symbol of independence especially resonant for a nation that only emerged from Danish control at the beginning of the last century. 

An artist, who provided particularly vivid testimony to a national identity, happened to have spent most of his professional life living in Dresden; this was Johan Christian Dahl. Born in Bergen in 1843, he was educated in Copenhagen and eventually moved to Dresden, where he fell under the spell of Casper David Friedrich; from whom he absorbed a preoccupation with the sublime. It intrigues me that an artist from the mountains and the sea could only exercise his birthright through a cosmopolitan aesthetic gleaned from a highly industrialised environment far from home. It is even more fascinating that in-absentia his work became iconic. Only by being a voluntary exile could he realise the full symbolic potential of his native landscape.

An artist, who provided particularly vivid testimony to a national identity, happened to have spent most of his professional life living in Dresden; this was Johan Christian Dahl. Born in Bergen in 1843, he was educated in Copenhagen and eventually moved to Dresden, where he fell under the spell of Casper David Friedrich; from whom he absorbed a preoccupation with the sublime. It intrigues me that an artist from the mountains and the sea could only exercise his birthright through a cosmopolitan aesthetic gleaned from a highly industrialised environment far from home. It is even more fascinating that in-absentia his work became iconic. Only by being a voluntary exile could he realise the full symbolic potential of his native landscape.

A single birch tree on a precipice, preternaturally lit, bends to the full force of one of those katabatic storms typical of the fjord lands, that without warning, tumble down the mountain, foundering ships and flattening everything in the valley below. “Birch in a Storm” bears the hallmark of that celebration of romantic landscape, ubiquitous through European nations intent upon expansion. Just as the new Americans used the reinvestment in landscape as a vehicle to articulate their great excuse, “manifest destiny”, for the Norwegians it was the means through which they could capture an inherent desire to bond anthropomorphically with their land. It is a matter of conjecture that a way of visualising what hitherto had only been imagined is a necessary precursor in the growth of national self-awareness. However without the potential for art to act as mediator, it is difficult to imagine a more satisfactory starting point for an interface between nature and culture.

Our national talent for procrastination has become a symptom of the absence of a coherent vision of landscape, perhaps this is because we have become conditioned to it being configured politically and continually tinkered with, but perhaps it has always been thus. On our coastline there is a collision course of unquestionable threat and institutional paralysis that generates deeply unsatisfactory solutions. I have been looking at East Lane in Suffolk, another place that teeters on the edge of England. Here the tendency for soft cliffs to retreat has been delayed by the presence of a wartime concrete fort, with the effect of interrupting the normal cycle of erosion and accretion of sediment. East Lane is a track running from the village of Bawdsey to the sea, where there is the fort and a tiny settlement, comprising a bungalow with a belvedere, a defiant red and ultramarine corrugated iron Edwardian villa and a massive Martello Tower. Tower “W” is one of a chain of defences, erected in a hurry along the East Coast to forestall the threat of the Napoleonic invasion that never happened. Now it is truly threatened, but this time by falling victim to the North Sea which at last is poised to outflank the concrete fort. One would expect a philosophic acceptance of the inevitability of this state of affairs; the sight of plumbing sticking out from the side of a retreating cliff is too common to be poignant. But this is without reckoning with the determination and sheer bloody-mindedness of the owner of the tower and local landowners who are dead set against allowing nature, abetted in their view by a disinterested government, wash their property away.

Badgered to do something, but unable to justify major engineering works, one temporary solution to the problem is to import resilience; shiploads of granite, quarried in Norway, have been used the length of the East Anglian coast to break up the energy of storm driven waves and to protect vulnerable areas from excessive loss through erosion. As a response to the righteous indignation of the local community at the absence of an affordable plan, this “rock armour” has been used to shield the cliffs, but despite its bulk, it is a holding action and could be interpreted as no more than an extravagant display of good will. The soft cliff is certain to subside behind the weight of the stone and the sea to outflank it at the point where the protection stops in an effect picturesquely known as “terminal groyne stress”. It is debatable that transferable strength will ever consistently be the right solution for an essentially mobile coastline; obdurate it may be, but in due course the cliff will carry on retreating and the rock become an encumbrance on the beach.

Norwegian rock, just as the concrete bunker system and Martello Tower, is a symbol of permanence; it represents decisive action, and defies transience. There is a fundamental difference over how threatened landscapes are perceived, candid scientific opinion cannot be entertained unless it is able to carry with it a constituency in the thrall of an ingrained and subjective grasp of what landscape should be. If government agencies do not acknowledge this, they will meet nothing but intransigence in their pursuit of equitable solutions to impossible problems.

I have traced the source of the rock armour used at East Lane to Larvik in Southern Norway. It is a by-product of the extraction of fine granites known as “dimension stone”  for cladding and other architectural applications. In order to ensure that it is free from faults or a tendency to develop seams, the stone is not blasted but is carefully split and cut out using diamond saws. This process creates colossal waste in the form of massive regular blocks, which, because of the production methods, are particularly stable and therefore suitable for coastal defence purposes. As a waste product this cannot be indefinitely stockpiled and consequently is available at little more than the price dictated by the logistics of handling and the cost of transportation. Changing weather patterns and the threat to our coast are a gift to the quarry operators and perhaps it sheds light on the relative preparedness in this country to use rock armour for emergency works.

On the west coast of Norway, north of Bergen, in an area known as Sunnfjord (healthy fjord), there is a small village that I have considered a spirit home since 1970’s. Here I first became attuned to the relationship between landscape and the stories that animate it. Stark cliffs drop straight to the sea and carry on down to unimaginable depths, impossible to find with a fishing line. These are echoey places where the splash of an oar sends up flocks of crows and the odd heron. Spikes jammed into crevices support networks of wires where streams enter the fjord and salmon gather; illicit netting has always taken place here. In just such a place a deepwater dock has been built for ships to load rock. Originally this was of the “rock armour” variety but the venture failed and the site became moribund until another far more valuable substance was detected. “Rutile” is the crystalline form of titanium oxide and although it has value as a gemstone, the commercial value lies in its high reflective properties, there are a huge number of applications where this is desirable, it is the sun bloc component in the cosmetics industry, it is the base for white paint including artist’s titanium white, it is used in the heat protective coating for spacecraft and in nanotechnology.

Originally set up as a quarrying operation on a local basis, corporations such as Conoco and Dupont became interested after it became clear that there could be more at stake. It was never going to be a simple matter to extract the mineral and so eventually the rights were sold to a Norwegian mining company. Although in principle this is a good strategic diversification of national mineral interests, the local community were outraged and considered it no more than an exercise in corporate violation. No matter that it only exists in memory that the fjord was once alive to early morning banter from boat to boat as one lucky individual reels the cod in hand over hand, whilst another’s line lies slack; the fear is real, the threads of the story are unravelling. Solvency for any community lies in the viability of markets beyond its control, challenging its sense of pride and hard-won independence. This is worldwide, where commodity is identified, a market created, the local economy boosted, but the effect in human terms is disorientation and a sense of loss.

The plans are yet to be developed and environmental impact studies completed, but it has already been established that the silicate Eclogite and its derivative Rutile, are extremely stable and are not essentially pollutants. However the major impediment is that only 4% of the material extracted will be of any value, the rest will be waste, which depending upon the methods used, could be massive boulders and/or vast amounts of a gluey paste. Acceptable methods of disposal must be agreed before any operation can be considered: dumping in the fjord has been mooted for the paste derived from the separation process, but for the stone, despite prior experience, export as ballast or rock armour for coastal defence is most desirable. The prognosis is unclear and the community uneasy; it is not only the prospect of a noisy and messy industry on its doorstep but also the fear that if there is to be blasting, it might destabilise a neighbouring cliff face that already has a whopping great fault in it. Should this fail; it could cause a wave large enough to wipe all of the wooden houses from the waterfront.

This essay was originally written for PLOT, a Middlesex University Research Publication coordinated by Dr Nicky Coutts, 2009

2 English Nature: The agency responsible for advising government upon the welfare of the natural environment, including stable habitat for flora and fauna, biodiversity and geodiversity. In 2006, in the course of researching and writing this essay English Nature was subsumed into “Natural England” a new agency with a wider remit.

5 “Site of Special Scientific Interest”: created as a result of the “National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, 1949. Notification to the planning authorities of “areas of land of special interest by reason of its flora, fauna, geological or physiological features” This is intended as a protection against inappropriate development or farming practice.

7 In 1810, George Crabbe published “The Borough”, a long poem about Aldeburgh, Suffolk, of which “Peter Grimes” forms a part. practice. .

8 Barry Lopez, “Arctic Dreams, imagination and desire in a Northern Landscape”. Macmillan 1986.

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where artists, technologists and communities gather to inspire Acts of Genius
where artists, technologists and communities gather to inspire Acts of Genius

Sprygg is a Gildedsplinters project
© 2020 Gildedsplinters All rights reserved