The zebras of Kidderminster

The following has happened to me quite often in recent years. I check in at a colourless corporate hotel. I drag my feet heavily along a corridor. And I enter my insipidly styled room. Yet, once inside, I find my eye being caught by an item that is conspicuously vibrant—at least in relative terms. The contrast is heightened by this item being located, invariably, next to the usual monochrome bumf. You might know the types of thing: an impenetrable set of remote-control instructions; a long list of astronomical per-item laundry prices; and a short list of microscopic steps towards sustainability that the hotel chain has taken (sufficient, nevertheless, to make it a ‘green leader’).

The item in question is a glossy large-format hardback; its subject matter, the local area. Before saying more about these books, I should note that the travel is for my day job. In this, I rarely have a say in my accommodation—or much at all, for that matter. And I should add that the hotels are in English cities like Leicester and Birmingham. A lazier writer might have implied a mundanity of these places, in the last sentence, by sarcastically replacing ‘English’ with ‘exotic’; but then this, as you will see, would rather undermine the point that I shall attempt to make in this piece.

Back to the hardbacks. The idea of these books—an aim that I cannot fault—is to showcase noteworthy aspects of the region in which the particular hotel is located. And, so, among the assorted images within the grid of crisply shot photos that decorate the cover will be items of local produce, a famous street for shopping, an indicator of the local industry, and a significant building or structure, such as a castle or bridge.

There will also be some non-human life. This, however, is ‘local’ only by residence, and not by origin. Furthermore, the living being depicted is never wild and never free roaming. That is to say, the life form with the honour of being the pictured non-human representative of the region will be a big cat or great ape from a local zoo.

The same, it seems, happens on hotel websites too. I was recently exploring the accommodation options for a trip to Kidderminster—this time with a personal motivation for travel—and I found that the non-human image of choice depicted a zebra, who is an alien resident of a local safari park.

The choice of a zebra, here, should not be taken as implying that the countryside surrounding Kidderminster is depauperate. For only a few miles to the west there is the Wyre Forest National Nature Reserve, which is a particularly important component of one of the largest ancient lowland oakwoods that survives in England. The Wyre Forest—a large part of my desire to visit the area, in fact—is home to many species that could by no means be considered common in England.

To name just a few of these, there is the exquisitely patterned pearl-bordered fritillary, the arrestingly handsome hawfinch (see below), and a breathtakingly attractive beetle known as the scarlet longhorn. A more adventurous selector of pictures for tourist information would also have the lemon slug and strawberry spider—two further local specialties—at his or her disposal.

A hawfinch

Instead, the choice of a zebra for Kidderminster (and big cats and great apes elsewhere) is, I believe, a symptom of one of two things: the modern separation of wild nature from our everyday living; or, worse, the modern ignorance of our non-human neighbours. Not helping matters, as far as draws for tourism go, is that many of the more iconic species that roamed Britain at the dawn of the Bronze Age—wolves, bears, and others—have since been erased from the island. True and distressing though this may be, I feel that there remain many reasons, in wild creatures and natural features, to still take pride in one’s local area.

Many of the more iconic species that roamed Britain at the dawn of the Bronze Age—wolves, bears, and others—have since been erased from the island

I am not sure if the phenomenon that I have described above is a quirk of the English tourism industry or is more geographically universal than that. I do know, however, that modern humans’ loss of contact with, and awareness of, wild non-human life is global in scope. Since the perceived separation, and the fall into ignorance, are both incompatible with ecological citizenship and ecological societies, it follows that their remedy must lie at the heart of any deep solutions to the ecosphere’s woes.

Through radically enhanced school curricula, through hard-working civic organizations, through the actions of dedicated individuals—through all of these things, there can be a large-scale resurgence of natural history, an activity that involves, above all else, paying attention to non-humans as our brothers, sisters, and cousins on this shared home… and to the Earth as our one mother.

In a grand revival of natural history lies a significant proportion of the work that needs to be done if humanity is to awaken to the appalling crisis of life’s erasure—and to the rational and emotional responses that, together, could motivate a counter-rally against the destructive and morally repugnant trajectories of societies and economies: a rally like none that has been witnessed before.

Read ‘The zebras of Kidderminster’, by Joe Gray, on the #EarthTongues blog