Monday, 17 April 2017

The Dead Coots Mystery and other stories from the river

Often, when working along the river I have a song running through my head. I prefer to work in a silent environment, but still, I have a song running through my head. This week it's all about early REM and the week started with their song Little America and when that was all played out it moved on to Seven Chinese Brothers. On Monday morning a good friend working for another river NGO emailed me to ask if I'd heard of the seven dead coots in Bromley? And had I specifically been dealing with the oil spill at Glassmill, an old millpond in a valley to the west of the town centre. I hadn't, so I started to. In between trying to track down the substitute Environment Agency Officer, the original had gone on holiday the day after taking the call, while also trying to have a chat with the Thames Water officer, who was actually on site, positioning his absorbent booms and nappies, I got another email from someone 'very concerned' in Bromley, also reporting seven dead coots and an incident involving 'barrels' of oil. It seems that the coot story emanated from the same person who had seemingly pressed the 'send to all' button. So, along with the Chinese brothers, I headed off to Bromley. I was giving a talk to the Friends of the Earth in the evening so I decided to go up there late afternoon to check the coots out. Also ringing in my head were two phone conversations I'd had that afternoon. First, the Thames Water officer who had been on the ground said that a) he thought it was about three litres of oil and b) its source would be impossible to determine as there were many pipes leading up to the outfall into Glassmill. They had pumped out what they could but the culprit, probably doing an oil change in their Corsa, would remain on the run.
Thames Water pontoon & mats, Glassmill 4/4/17
Second phone call was from the Agency. The Agency chap said that they did not attend the Glassmill incident. OK. This means that they did not attend but took a call to their Incident Line (0800 807060), gave it an Incident number and called Thames Water, as it was their infrastructure through which the oil had passed.
People call the EA, and they should more often, when they see anything weird in the river, and oil is weird and shouldn't be there. Anyway, they didn't attend. Which is unsurprising as they are training-up new officers for the area so remain short-handed for the time being.
On arriving at Glassmill I had a walk around the site and noticed a couple of morehens on nests, a Canada goose having a gentle stroll through the island within the pond and a good number of in-channel booms and pads designed to mop up the oil. There was a small amount of surface oil within a backwater, just enough to give off that distinct whiff of fuel, and not much else so the Thames Water estimate had been near to the mark. A couple of lads walked past with skateboards tucked under their arms, they peered into the pond next to me so I asked about the seven dead coots. One said that there had been a moorhen upside-down a week before the oil went in. A woman with a pram suggested I go and talk to Barry at No.2, as he loved birds. I do too so I went and knocked on Barry's door. He answered, clearly mid-meal, and reeled off all the species he'd seen at Glassmill over the last month. He wasn't in the least bit worried about the coots, or the moorhens, on the pond. I left Barry to his dinner and headed off around the surrounding streets to see if I could spot any oil around roadside drains, I couldn't see anything so I jumped back into the van and headed up to the Quaker Meeting House, where I was seeing the Friends of the Earth group. I talked for an hour before a lengthy Q&A session and at no time were coots, or moorhens, mentioned, however, they were very keen to find out if Tideway, who are constructing the Thames Tunnel to take sewage from West to East London, were going to build a biomass energy plant down at Beckton. I couldn't answer this and assured them I would ask Tideway, who come and do river clean-ups with me along the Ravensbourne and generally have a strong connection with Thames21, my employers. My talks to FoE was entitled 'Caddisflies and Car Parts' and was an edited and updated version of last year's presentation 'Mayflies and Mattresses'. This gives some idea of the kinds of things that find their way into the river. I'm working on "Eels and Emulsion Paint' at the moment. A few weeks before the mystery coots I helped out my Thames21 colleagues in a morning's clean up of the foreshore at Purfleet, which is a short hop over the sea wall from Rainham Marshes RSPB bird reserve.
Plastic bottle counting at Purfleet (Daily Mail)
We were highlighting the abundance of plastic that is thrown away and now litters the entire Thames foreshore, this is a campaign that Thames21 is now driving with the support of the Mayor's Office and the EA, whose chairman Emma Howard Boyd joined us in this rubbish clearance. As a measure of just how much plastic was along this 100m stretch we set out a 30m square quadrat and counted over 160 plastic bottles: single-use still and carbonated water, fruit juice and milk cartons. If we had tried to pick up all the tiny pieces of plastic we would have been there all week, as there are now 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the world's oceans, or 46,000 per square kilometer of sea. We had a good deal of help on the day from the RSPB and the whole thing was covered in the Daily Mail.
I suppose I am becoming fixated by what gets thrown in the river, whether it be the Thames or the Ravensbourne in South East London, where I work, because most of my job is to remove it. All along the Ravensbourne, and its tributaries the Pool and the Quaggy, there is a growing band of community activists, park users, individuals and the generally concerned, that help me remove skip-loads of waste every year. We are a team, we are a club and the only requirement needed to join is a passion for cleaner rivers. Some are painters and some are musicians, no doubt with some other tune going through their head, and some are candlestick makers but together we are the river cleaners and we like nothing more than getting filthy, and tea and biscuits. So, nothing died at Glassmill and today I have just the intro to a piece of music, not the whole thing, by Wishbone Ash. Now I know where this comes from and it is my schooldays so I always try and quickly replace it with something that really should be there, like Marquee Moon or anything from Hatful of Hollow. If you fancy a bit of volunteering along the river then follow the above link to Thames21 or help us out during the 3 Rivers Clean Up this summer between June 3rd to the 24th and follow us all @Thames21 and @3RCU - Lawrence

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Nature under Capital as an empty gesture

Perceptions of urban nature in the 21st Century can generally be placed in a dichotomy of 'Them' and 'Us'. Us, we, think that nature is being allowed to go to pot, being polluted and marginalised while the Them, them, use nature as a construct under which capital can thrive, to sell houses or ideas and policies and in doing so they highlight the good and ignore the bad. This is reflected in some of the constant themes that cut across different approaches and analytical frameworks for nature-theory; for example the idea that nature is being polluted, degraded, endangered and lost is widespread, paradoxically, society’s interaction with nature is usually characterised in terms of respect, with a desire to both control and protect nature (Soper 1999). While there may be an accusation that attempts (by Them) to integrate natural themes into development are mere window-dressing or empty gestures (Smith 2008, 21) that conform to the paradigm shift in environmental attitudes during the 20th century, there is a widespread belief also that the impact of nature on development and the community creates a genuine concern for nature’s well-being. The impact on society of uneven development and degradation of landscapes has led to a  debate about stewardship and a general desire to ‘draw the line’ on future destruction of nature. However, the nature that we see and the ideals we envisage for nature’s future are mediated through capital and the production of river regeneration is undertaken within the conditions of development.
Neil Smith
Theoretical explorations of the many ‘natures’ under capital prompted Neil Smith (2008) to suggest that there may be different and contradictory definitions of nature at work simultaneously: there is the idea of an external nature: where nature is separate and outside of humans (nature is defined as that which is not social), but there is also the idea of universal nature where nature is defined as every material thing (including humans and their works): then there is human nature, which contains aspects of deontology and emphasises the unchanging biological character of human behaviour, and internal nature: which captures a sense of our personal feelings, a yearning for or fear of nature. Castree suggests that changing attitudes to society-nature relations, particularly those associated with conservation, rely heavily on ideas of external nature because of their abhorrence of the destructiveness of society, which in turn suggests that a more sympathetic valuation of nature occurs whereby its ‘essential quality’ (2001, P6) is recognised.
These ideas can be usefully explored using the concepts of first and second nature (Fig 11). Society’s internal yearnings for an abundant and unspoilt external nature are captured in the conception of “first nature” (Smith 1984, 2008), that is a pristine, primary nature that is untouched by human activity, the ambiguity here is that while it may appear that this nature is lost to capital there are perceptions that natural processes demonstrate elements of first nature, or wilderness leanings. In contrast, second nature includes all forms of nature that have been transformed by human activity  – agricultural and urban landscapes, a commodified nature where the stuff of the environment is transformed into trade goods and economic resources. Concepts of first, second and even third nature, are not new. Neil Smith’s discussion on first and second nature is based on Karl Marx’s work on nature under capital in the mid 1800s (Pepper 1993). Marx said that first nature gave birth to humankind, which saw the creation of second nature; a nature ‘as part of the natural evolution of society’ (Bookchin 1987). However, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43BC) mentioned first nature (wilderness), second nature (sowing corn etc) and third nature or terza natura (the landscaping of gardens). The artistry of landscaping, it was believed, was capable of demonstrating all three aspects of nature (Dixon Hunt 2000).
Such forms of nature are located within society, whether they're a resource utilised by industry or a landscape viewed from the top of a mountain. Such is the extent of human activity, Smith suggests, that it is now meaningless to try and actually find first nature – even those landscapes such as the poles, the ocean floor or unexplored rainforests have been transformed into potential commodities valued for the resources they might hold and claimed by capitalist states seeking to assert their ownership of resources that might be discovered in the future. As such, if it is agreed therefore that all nature is now socially mediated it places first nature in the realm of a utopian ideal that is unobtainable. According to Pepper (1993, 117), everything is a commodity, even amenity and aesthetic enjoyment, to such an extent that all of first nature has become second nature. But was there ever a time or place when this was not true? Schmidt (1971) argues that in its pre-bourgeois state, nature exhibited first nature tendencies. With regard to ancient indigenous civilisations, nature was not seen as a commodity but as a co-evolutionary partner. Cronon (1996), however, disagrees with this position, stating that consistently through time natural resources, including rivers, have been utilised and valued and this placing of value on an object is commodification whether or not it falls into a capitalist framework. In other words there is nothing distinctly capitalist about the process of transforming first into second nature.
If it is understood that there is no first nature as all nature is socially mediated, then creations of natural space, such as national parks, or in this context river regeneration projects, are appropriations and approximations of perceived first nature. By definition humans can’t create first nature, because first nature is that which is not human. Yet the essence of these projects is that there is a persistent idea that these landscapes refer to first nature. Such an idea, some critics suggest, must therefore be something of a delusion. Smith (2008, p77) states: ‘With the production of nature at a world-scale, nature is progressively produced from within and as part of a so-called second nature. The first nature is deprived of its originality’. Indeed, what is deemed as natural is in fact a social product that is tailored to current human needs and perceptions. As Kate Soper (1999, p56) observes: ‘Much of which ecologists loosely refer to as ‘natural’ is indeed a product of culture, both in the physical sense and in the sense that perceptions of its beauties and value are culturally shaped’. As urban cultures diversify so do perceptions of what nature really is. In the case of urban nature this could be a kingfisher sitting on a shopping trolley in the river (Tomos Brangwyn).
In addition: In ‘Japanese Images of Nature’ 1997 (Thanks Muneezay) Kalland and Asquith state that there is an internal and an external nature and a place in between. A small human dwelling in a forest is ‘in-between’ the outside of nature (urban life) and inside (concepts of wilderness). The spirit world is ‘inside’ and any appropriation of resources by humans from this place must be offset with an offering to their spirits. LBC 2015

Bookchin M 1987: Social ecology versus ‘deep ecology’ a challenge for the ecology movement. The Raven 1(3) 219-50
Castree N 2001: Social Nature: Theory, practice and politics – Introduction. Blackwell. Oxford
Cronon W 1996: Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the human place in nature. Norton. New York.
Pepper D. 1993: Eco-Socialism: From deep ecology to social justice. Routledge. London
Schmidt, Alfred 1971: The concept of nature in Marx. New Left Review Editions. London. Section 106 explained at: – accessed 2/8/2010
Smith N. 2008: Uneven Development. Nature capital and the production of space. Third Edition. University of Geogia Press. Athens, Georgia p 21
Soper, K. 1999 The Politics of Nature; Reflections on Hedonism, Progress and Ecology. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 10/2, pp. 47 – 70

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

3 Rivers Clean Up embraces citizen science in 2015

The 3 Rivers Clean Up is a three-week long intensive annual volunteer campaign to remove rubbish and invasive plant species along the rivers Ravensbourne, Pool and Quaggy in South East London. This year, the seventh of the 3RCU, organisers Thames21will also be testing the quality of the water all over the river catchment from Eltham to Croydon and from Keston to Deptford. Under the guidance of the Environment Agency, and part of the Rivers and Wetlands Community Days Project, participants will be able to test water quality during our events and learn what exactly is in our river water.

The main event is rubbish clearance and invasive plant removal of course, and for that we definitely need lots of help. Bring your family, your friends or just yourself on an urban wilderness adventure this summer and discover the rivers and the nature they support.  Join others so as to improve the habitats for both flowers and animals. Learn about nature, about the quality of water and why it's important and also join in with other associated events such as wildlife habitat management, pond dipping and nature walks, most of which will be suitable for all ages. All events are FREE.

Eva, Chris & Yvona in Ladywell Fields - May 2015
The first events are on Saturday 20th June at Sutcliffe Park 11am to 1pm and Chinbrook Meadows on Sunday 21st of June 11am to 1pm, both along the Quaggy river. We will be conducting a breeding bird survey before all events this year to ensure that we don't disrupt the little ones! Use the contact details at the bottom of the page if you have any questions about any of the activities and please join in, it's great fun and FULL of nature.

Find an event that suits you!
The 3 Rivers Clean Up partnership program has been highly successful in removing and preventing the spread of Himalayan Balsam within the Ravensbourne River catchment. Last year 24 events were delivered by all partners over the three weeks with 300 volunteers tackling litter and invasive species, this amounted to 1250 hours of good effort and enthusiasm. The Ravensbourne has become one of the cleanest river catchments in London with a wide range of plants and animals.

In 2015 why not become part of this amazing show of community strength? Thames21 and the event partners will lead a series of volunteer events from June 20 to July 11 in collaboration with the London Borough of Lewisham, Quaggy Waterways Action Group, Environment Agency, TCV Croydon & Surrey, London Invasive Species Initiative and the Wild Trout Trust.

Contact Lawrence (Thames21) on 07584 172 209 or Jess (LB of Lewisham) on 0208 314 2119
Follow @3RCU and FB '3 Rivers Clean Up 2015'

You can also train with Thames21 to Lead a Waterway Clean Up here

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Dawn Chorus Walk - 17-4-14 Species list

Here is a species list for the Dawn Chorus Walk:
Mistle Thrush
Song Thrush
Chiff Chaff
Collared Dove
Wood Pigeon
House Sparrow
Ring Neck Parakeet
Blue Tit
Great Tit

Carrion Crow
Feral Pigeon
Black Cap
Stock Dove
Grey Wagtail
27 species

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Creative engineering needed to end flood threat

The rays of sunlight streaming through the winter branches on a calm February midweek morning may get you thinking that all is well in the world. The glistening trunks and limbs of the trees, the saturated ground and the dark, brooding and oncoming clouds from the south-west imply a different scenario. The brief warmth turns to cold and a chill wind brings more rain, rain that has been the dominant feature since well before Christmas. The Somerset Levels have been flooded for months while the upper reaches of the Thames, where development is denser, are experiencing incremental water-level rises that have now reached a critical level. The emergency services have been scrambled and now work around the clock in both the Westcountry and the Thames catchment in an exercise of disaster management as opposed to risk-reduction. Did they see it coming? Well, yes, but certainly not this soon. Many climate-change academics say that the weather patterns we are experiencing now were predicted but not expected for 30 years or more. The long-term flooding threat has been seen by the Environment Agency as coming from rising sea levels,  as set out in the Thames2100 plan, and the upper Thames (River Thames Scheme). The Thames Barrier would be rebuilt mid-century and the riverside developments adorning both banks eastward face the installation of an elevated flood-protection wall. The current problems are with the upper catchment areas where, again, development and its hard surfacing increases run-off while changing farming practices have increased ground level saturation. This, with the Somserset Levels in mind, was laid out by environmentalist George Monbiot recently, where Monbiot criticised environment secretary Owen Paterson, from farming stock himself, for advocating the stripping of upland areas of vegetation and opting for a more canalised, culverted and straightened riparian landscape in order to flush water through. My old friend Paul Caudwell, a farmer in Oxfordshire, was prosecuted by the EA for doing just that four years ago. From a London, or Thames, perspective the stripping-out of vegetation was completed 200 years ago and, apart from some soft-engineered retrospective flood alleviation within catchment greenspaces, most of the riparian border landscape has been replaced by hard-surfaced car parks, driveways and shopping malls. In 2009, at the same time that Paul was battling with the EA, I took part in a real-time London flooding exercise with the Fire Service, Police, NHS and councils to detect any gaps in preparedness. Manning the phones, and with real resources at our disposal, we were given scenarios where sea levels, and therefore London flooding, were rising all the time. Borough Councils were busy, within the ficticious scenario, bussing people out of estates, caring for the elderly and infirm; hospitals were at bursting point etc. Now and then a curve-ball would be thrown into the mix like civilian dissorder, looting and fires. It was an all-day exercise and while generally it was successful, there were some Councils that didn't even get involved and refused to pick up the phone. Some of these said that they did not have the manpower, due to cuts, to get involved and some simply said it was too 'pie in the sky' to get involved with. Maybe some of these London Borough Councils will be scrabbling though their flood strategies as the reality is upon us. The problem is solveable but the answer is not to dredge, and return to the hard engineering of the last century, but to introduce create alleviation measures in the upper catchments. The Government must trust the Environment Agency strategists, flood experts and geomorphologists and give them the money to sort it out while politicians cut the rhetoric and take a back seat.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Thomas, Macfarlane, Deakin, Clare, Mabey, Petit & Sinclair

Walking along an old country lane you stop to hear a bird call, and wait to hear it again. You notice the high banks on either side, as you wait, and wonder, how many before you must have trod this path for it to have sunk so into a holloway. The path is wide enough to have taken a carriage but not a mechanised farm vehicle. The banks have grown inward through vegetation and now an earthen layer. Often, I re-live the experience of others where a very long walk is undertaken, one with purpose and possibly commercial, that requires the bedding down for the night under a tree or on a soft bank, Deakin and Macfarlane mention this and used to wild camp regularly together. Clare also, with Sinclair and Petit in his wake. Clare tended to knock on doors to sleep in barns and ask for scraps to eat. Some forage, building up a meal throughout the day's walk and settle down perhaps next to a small fire. In times past such journeys that required a stay under the stars would be out of necessity, now our lives are such that this would be choice. Or, one would think so.
Working and journeying along river banks occasionally I come across camps, tents etc of people that actually live in the woods. It is possible that we are coming full circle and that there is a new breed of transient communties travelling and living off the land. Finding the old paths and ways around, out of necessity. How many camps have you stumbled across while out walking?