Life and death in the suburbs

On fair evenings, my wife and I stroll along the residential streets surrounding our small terraced house in St Albans, a city in the East of England. Selecting from the roads that carry a lighter load of traffic, we vary the route that we take. Every so often we light on a lane that we have overlooked or rediscover a disregarded drive. Whichever route we pick, the greatest pleasure always comes from the tops of cypresses, where song thrushes beckon the dusk by rehearsing phrases from their seemingless inexhaustible repertoire.

And how merciful this birdsong can be. For on some of our walks, a sombreness falls cloak-like. These are the ones on which we pass the signs of a recent murder, or evidence of a slaughter in progress. Invariably, the killer will have left details of their identity, in proud letters on a spotless signboard. The boards say something like Father and Son Driveways or Everyman’s Artifical Lawns. (Murder is perhaps the wrong term for these acts. The ‘landscape architects’, as they are called, are more like assassins: in one sense complicit; in another, just doing a job, merely carrying out a command.)

When we encounter such sites—where beds of flowers have been suffocated under a layer of concrete, or where a mossy, yarrow-rich lawn has been replaced with a lifeless plastic simulacrum—we stop to dip our heads in mourning of what has passed away. Gone is a dusk playground for skittering blackbirds. Lost is a living lamina in which earthworms pulsed with ecstasy at every new drop from the sky. On a hermetically paved driveway there can be no joy.

In these erasures of life, a botanically and structurally diverse front garden, which might be two hundred square yards in size or more, is converted into a single homogenous space for cars to turn and park—a space that is perfectly level and perfectly desolate. Before this, the householders would have needed to reverse their vehicles in and bring them to rest on a much smaller berth, or even park them on the road, a full three paces distant from their property. Now they are spared such inconveniences.

As long as society is making rules for anything, these acts of ecocide should, in my opinion, be outlawed. I admit that this would be only a superficial remedy. For it would address a surface-level symptom of a problem that lies deep under society’s skin: a problem that arises from too strong a feeling of human supremacy and too weak a system of ecological education. Nonetheless, and continuing the medical analogy, some form of cauterization is surely needed here, as is the case with so many other symptoms of the problem. Or, if you prefer a gentler trope—one from the restaurant trade—surely we need to take bad choices off the menu.

At present, though, there are only minor obstacles that stand in the way of death-by-driveway. English planning permission rules stipulate that newly installed impermeable surfaces of any size are acceptable as long as the water runs off into a border, rather than onto the road. And tree preservation orders, while admirable as an idea, may simply not be in place. Or, where they are, they may be circumventable. Moreover, no level of fine can revive the lost majesty of, say, an ancient yew, centuries in the making.

Moreover, no level of fine can revive the lost majesty of, say, an ancient yew, centuries in the making.

I believe that such destruction of life without consequence arises directly from the idea—supported by the human supremacist worldview—that not just land, but also everything that grows, grazes, breathes, or breeds on it, can be owned. The ideation of this probaby dates back at least as far as the earliest generations of human’s agricultural history. And make no mistake: it is an exlusively human notion.

Birds and other animals may defend territories with a drive that approaches possessiveness. And some plants pump out allelopathic chemicals to inhibit the growth of others in their vicinity. But not a single other-than-human organism has the arrogance to claim ownership to anything approaching the degree that is understood by modern human culture.

That is all I can bring myself to say on driveways. Nor do I wish to add anything on plastic lawns: they are simply too awful. But, as it is a fair evening, I will brave the streets again and take another walk with my wife…

This particular stroll is one on which we encounter a sign of hope. It is a sign in a literal sense: a board on a post that has been hammered into someone’s front garden declaring their road to be a ‘hedgehog street’. Here, neighbouring residents are making holes in the bottom of their fences to give the prickly, precipitously declining mammal access into otherwise-sealed-off territory. With intensive agriculture’s onslaught on the wider countryside, urban areas are more important than ever as a potential refuge for hedgehogs.

With intensive agriculture’s onslaught on the wider countryside, urban areas are more important than ever as a potential refuge for hedgehogs.

We pass another house. Hanging from the gate into its front garden there is a box containing home-made packets of wildflower seeds for passers-by to take. This, as a note explains, is to help encourage the planting of a corridor of nectar- and pollen-giving life sources.

At times, it can seem like there are two significant masses within the population moving in opposite directions. One group, the garden-destroyers among them, is busy hating anything wild and unhuman. The other group is defying them and striving to give nature-as-we-know-it a final chance.

As we near home on another of these walks, I brood about my tentative typology and what it means. In previous points in history, such shearing forces within a populace have foreshadowed major conflict. And if the bilious vitriole that is pumped out each day on social media—both that written against the green movement and that inspired by it—were to be taken as a good indicator, then even the most optimistic of commentators would surely have to concede that the streets must run red. Then we pass a house that shatters my typology. Its front garden has been converted to uniform and sterile paving. Yet there are numerous birdfeeders hanging from the windows, and there stands a tree that has been spared from the landscape architecture. It dawns on me then that human supremacy does not make one hate nature.

A farmer might hate a fox who kills the chickens in his coop. A widower might hate the virus that took his wife’s life. But I have never met anyone, not even a politician, who hates nature en masse. (Only a corporation can hate the non-human world.)

But I have never met anyone, not even a politician, who hates nature en masse.

What human supremacy does instead is skew priorities. In the case of driveways, it leads to human convenience outweighing a duty to play one’s part in giving non-human nature a chance.

What all of this leads me to suggest is that, in addition to fighting for strengthened legislation of a cauterizing type, the role of anyone with a deep love for the more-than-human world is to play their part in shifting people’s priorities. And to do this we must nudge their value systems towards the ecocentric. The suggestion of nudging value systems, I grant you, would not rouse an army or even sell a T-shirt, but I believe it is where the heart of our work lies. And if we can do this, we can hope for many evenings to come that will be fair. Fair for blackbirds. Fair for earthworms. Fair for all life.

Read ‘Life and deaf in the suburbs’, by Joe Gray, on the #EarthTongues blog

[Photo by Nate: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.]