Parkgate: a Victorian Sea Front and a Late 20th Century Bird Reserve

Is a bird reserve created by heavy industry  a natural or an unnatural landscape? I grew up in a place called Neston, within a mile from my home there is the old seaside resort of Parkgate. It is on the estuary of the River Dee on the border between northwest England and north Wales. (Directly over the estuary on the Welsh side is the town of Holywell feartured last week.) I took these photographs during the visit earlier this year. I thought that readers will find the elegant Victorian seafront buildings interesting, but would be puzzled as to why they would build it on a marsh? This is an interesting story I think. A hundred years ago this was a thriving seaside resort with a promenade with a wall and railings and stone steps, made out of the local red sandstone, going down to the beach. The estuary here was tidal and the waters came up to the sea wall at high tide and then retreat miles at low tide, revealing a huge expanse of sand. When my family came to live closeby in the 1960s it was still there and Parkgate was known in the wider area for a shop that sells homemade ice cream. There was even a tide-filled seawater swimming pool open to the public. Then gradually the beach began to be overgrown with a natural hybrid grass called spartina. One of the things that allowed this grass to grow was that a steel company, some miles further down the estuary, took the river waters for its industrial processes. In order to do this they change the course of the river and the tides didn't cover the sand as often - only at the very high spring tides, about twice a year.

At first, people were unhappy with this. Here was heavy industry messing with the natural landscape. I can remember as a boy going to lecture about the threat of spartina grass and the speaker asking for volunteers to go and pull it out of the muddy sand and keep the estuary clear. It was a forlorn task and people soon gave up. Then something started to happen. The new wetland terrain that was created started to attract birds and birdwatchers flocked to the area to sea rare waders and shore birds such as Marsh Harriers and Hen Harriers. Now, 40 years later it is an award winning bird reserve that is listed as an area of outstanding natural beauty on the RSPB website.

The steelworks, at Shotton in Wales, has changed hands several times since I was a boy and is now owned by Tata Steel, the Indian steel company. As far as I know its future and so that of the Parkgate Marsh Harriers are secure for the moment. But no company lasts forever and so one wonders, what will the environmentalists do if the steel company were to close? Would they let the river resume its natural course, so submerging the wetlands and destroying the manmade habitat of the birds? Or would they campaign for the preservation of the steel plant for the sake of the birds? For the Christian, there is no such dilemma. Man is as natural as as Marsh Harrier and making steel is a natural activity for man.  So faced with a choice of keeping a manmade environment or one that is less affected by man, I would just choose the one I preferred. I this case, I'm not sure I could make up my mind, although as a boy I always wished that the swimming baths had stayed open. Either way, events will take their course; but should the steel company ever face closure (which I hope is a long way off) if we wanted to save it we would have to face the fact that man is as much part of the ecosystem as the black-tailed godwit. Would the plight of the Meadow Pipin push the Shotton steel plant into the category of being 'too big to fail', along with companies such as Barclay's Bank and Bank of America?... I wonder.

It was a rainy day when I visited, so you'll have to imagine the sunny seaside scene. In case you are interested, the ice cream shop survives to this day. I was only able to download one photograph of the old Parkgate, so I refer to a site, here, that has photographs of these sites in 1939, when it was a seaside resort. Thank you to the Francis Frith collection for the photo above.


Below we have what remains of the old swimming baths.

And just in case anyone makes the trip. The ice cream shop is on the right, below.














Is Shooting Turkeys Natural? I Say Blast Away!

Laws designed to protect the environment, but which favour it by restricting man's natural activity will inevitably lead to the demise of both. This is because man - even modern man - is an essential and natural component of the ecosystem. I recently visited my friend and an old friend of Thomas More College  Fr Roger Boucher on his farm up north of here deep in rural New Hampshire. I have written about his place before - Serving the Common Good in Rural New Hampshire.

Fr Boucher is a retired navy chaplain (he is Commander Boucher) and he lives on a farm on the top of a hill that has wide views (which even the government agrees are wonderful, for it taxes his property at a higher rate because of it) that include the White Mountains and lakes. Part of his income comes from the harvesting of Maine blueberries on his land. A company comes and harvests them and distributes them, and it pays Fr Boucher. The are naturally growing blueberries. They are smaller, but much sweeter than the usual blueberries. If the trees are cleared then the sunlight strikes the ground and the dormant root system of blueberries comes to life and starts to grow.

Fr Boucher has a turkey problem. A family of turkeys can clear a field in a week so he wants to scare them off. The traditional way of dealing with them would be this: shoot a turkey and leave it there. The turkey attracts a fox which will eat it. The arrival of the fox scares off the remaining turkeys so he need not shoot them all to save his blueberries. This buys time for the blueberries to become ripe, the company comes in and harvests them and pays Fr Boucher. The problem is that the law has changed, says Fr Boucher, to reflect the green, environmentally aware attitudes of city and surbanites who have started to buy up local property. He is not allowed to shoot the turkeys. Because the crop is not 'planted' but is already there and so grows without further cultivation, it is considered natural, and therefore natural also for turkeys to eat them. It is considered unnatural therefore for man to seek to stop them doing so by shooting them.

The problem is that while it is true that the blueberries are indigenous and grow naturally, the terrain they need to grow requires the activity of man to create it. Without man clearing the trees they would not grow. For the Christian this is no surprise, for man is natural too and his activity, when well directed, is as much a part of the ecosystem as every other creature's and in fact is the most important part.

When man clears the trees, the blueberries grow, so we have more blueberry bushes. The turkeys get to eat the blueberries. While they do not get all the blueberries they would like, and one dies at the hand of man, they still get more to eat than if there were not blueberry bushes at all.  This means that there are more turkeys as a result of this arrangement. The fox gets to eat a turkey or two that otherwise it wouldn't. So we have more foxes. Because we have more blueberries to harvest Fr Boucher gets his income and it contributes to the livelihoods of those working for the harvesting company. And finally, thousands of people get the chance to eat Maine blueberries and at a lower market price, because there are more blueberries.

If Fr Boucher is stopped from shooting a turkey then there are less blueberries, less turkeys, less foxes, less income for several families and less food for man to eat. Eventually he will be forced to stop the cultivation of the farm, trees will grow back (and we already have plenty of them, look at the photos of the surrounding countryside) and turkeys, blueberries, foxes and several families lose out.

This is a nice example of how a philosophical error leads to very real detrimental effects for man and for animals. At the root of the law stopping Fr Boucher from shooting his turkey (it is on his land), is the assumption that when man shoots a turkey it is unnatural and will be damaging the ecosystem. For the Christian, man is not only an essential element to the ecosystem, but he is also the highest because he has dominion over it. It is natural for man to use his intellect to achieve his aims and this means using tools. Whether it is a stick to beat it with, or a gun to shoot it with, it is natural for him to kill turkeys; if it is in accordance with good stewardship of the environment.

It should be pointed out that man is capable of acting in such a way that is contrary to the idea of good stewardship. The reason that this law and other designed to protect the environment exist is that they are attempts to deal with the destructive potential of man's behaviour. I am assuming that at one point turkeys were in danger of disappearing altogether and the law was a response to this. Furthermore, my guess is that the law makers didn't intend to stop responsible stewardship, such as Fr Bouchers. However, if this is so it does not seem to come into the thinking of those who now enforce such laws such as the government's environmental managements agencies who seem bound by the letter rather than the spirit of it.

The point here is that until the law reflects a true understanding of man's natural place in the environment then it is just about inevitable that the result in an unforeseen consequence that will result in the demise of both man and the environment. If a law works for the environment, but against man, then because man is an essential component of the ecosystem - yes even modern man - the demise of man will lead to the demise of the environment in the end anyway because each needs the other in order to flourish.

I went up to the farm with my colleague at Thomas More College, Dr Tom and his wife Sherri Larson and their four children. And here is the view from the top of the hill with their eldest, Ben Larson, admiring the view.








Wild Flowers in Spain (and Possible Implications for Population Control and the Culture of Death)

During my visit to friends and family in Europe, I spent a a few days in Spain (during the last week of May). My parents have retired there (along with another million Brits). I was lucky in that the time of my visit was just the time when wild flowers are in bloom. I am no plant expert, but I did recognise a lot from my memories of my parents' garden in England when I was growing up. So I asked them if they would help me identify some of the plants and we set off to high meadows to photograph and identify them. Also, I am trying to plant an English style perrenial garden in the farm that will be the new Thomas More College campus in Groton, Massachusetts. (I say 'will be' because we have to raise the money to build. This is not easy in the current economic climate, so please if anyone feels like donating, don't hesitate to contact us!) We have been following the planting scheme of the English garden designer Gertrude Jeckyll. From my first spring of planting here in the US, I recognised that many of the Spanish plants are in American gardens too. The photo above is of a thistle called echinops. We bought three to plant and they look pretty lonely at the moment while we wait for them to flourish and multiply. Here in Spain, there is a whole field of them next to my parents' house just growing wild.

The terrain in this area around Spain is man made. Even the areas where the flowers grow and seem uncultivated would be completely tree covered if they had not been cleared by man. It is dry, shrub filled landscape common in Mediterranean areas called 'maquis'. Very often the flowers flourish most on road or field edges in the areas where the soil has been turned over by human activity but it has not been paved over or planted with crops. A common plant in the maquis terrain is the broom. There are two common varieties here: Spanish broom and genista (French broom) which has smaller flowers, both are bright yellow. The photo below shows some genista growing on the edge of a cultivated olive grove. In the distance you see a ridge of mountains with pass, appearing as a notch cut into it. For our flower hunting expedition we headed for that pass. There is a footpath there on a disused railway line which allowed for great views and a great variety of species.

The fact that the whole terrain is formed by man raises a question in my mind. What is the natural environment for wild flowers? Would these flowers be here at all if it weren't for man? If there were no man affected areas, would there be any terrain for them to grow in? Certainly, the ones I saw don't grow in the areas that are wooded, only on the edges made by man. Perhaps there are some plant experts out there who can answer these points definitively. What I can say is that these flowers are flourishing in those areas affected by man. If this man-affected terrain is the natural environment for wild flowers, and wild flowers are considered part of the natural world (along with the insect life engendered), then we would have to consider man's activity natural too.

Some extreme environmentalists that I have come across tend to assume that man's activity is unnatural and always detrimental to the ecosystem. I'm guessing that there others who object to the activities of modern man, but would consider a pre-industrial revolution, agrarian society (which would still create the landscape for wild flowers) as the natural form of activity for man. The first group would like to see man's effect on the world eliminated altogether, the second vastly reduced.

The reason that this is important to consider is that the degree to which we consider mankind's activity natural or unnatural affects whether or not we consider the the growing human population of the world a good thing or a bad thing. In both the cases cited above, that is if either we consider man's activity necessarily unnatural; or, taking the less extreme position, we consider the work of modern man unnatural and only that of primitive man's activity natural, it makes sense to advocate population reduction in the world. The few examples of modern man there are, the less unnatural behaviour there will be. The next step is to push for population control via the use of contraception and abortion.

The traditional Christian view is different. For the Christian man is the crowning glory of creation and his activity is not only natural but, potentially, the greatest of all life on earth. In fact, to the degree that his work is inspired, man can actually raise the natural world up to something higher, creating something closer to what it ought to be and to what it would have been prior to the Fall. This is not deny that man's activity can be highly destructive also. It depends on how wisely he makes use of his God-given freedom to cultivate the land.

When we have the Christian outlook, the way to deal with polution and mismanagement of the environment, is not to reduce the amount of human activity (by reducing the population), but to seek to transform human activity into something that is in harmony with creation. This is possible (at least partially in this life) only through the Church and this takes us again to the question of cultural transformation and liturical reform. Two connected themes I have spoken about often in this forum.

Anyway, we have now reached the high meadow and start to walk along the path through the notch:

We surveyed the scene, book in hand:

And then we started to look more closely. You can see the red poppies and yellow daisies in the meadow. But as you look at the limestone rock outcrops there are more to be seen, for example wild tyme:

Orchids and wild irises:

 Here is another iris amongst a cluster of flowers of helianthemum, the rock rose, a common plant in the the garden.

In our day out, we did take time step back and enjoy the view of rural Spain from this elevated position.

Where irrigated, the ground is extremely fertile. This part of Andalusia exports fruit and vegetables. The view below is of the area beyond that notch in the ridge. There is a high fertile plain hidden away. The old railway track that we were walking on was built to carry the produce down to the coastline (near Malaga) for distribution. Now the transportation is by road you see trucks driving down the winding road all day during harvest time.

The examples of the flowers shown are as bright and beautiful as the garden varieties. There were many more that I could show, and will perhaps keep for another occasion. Many of these while beautiful in the wild, are not precisely what you would see in the garden, which would be hybrids. This again raises the question of what is more natural, a hybrid developed by man or a wild variety? Anyway, that's one for a future blog post.