A Half Mountain

Loss and precarity in the uplands

With the acceleration of climate change the battle of precarity has suddenly and unexpectedly shifted into its endgame.'  In the wake of COP27, James Roberts drives a scenic route down the Elan Valley in Wales into a poisoned landscape that holds the untold stories of a people who once toiled there. 'Its ruins are signposts for the future, its deracinated hills portents for a world being deliberately stripped bare'. The fourth post in our series about land, culture and time.
is a writer and artist based in the Welsh border country. His book, Two Lights - Walking in Landscapes of Loss and Life, will be published in March 2023 by September Publishing.
The road winds through oak woods, beside a stream which tumbles down storeys of layered stone to a circular pool below. I’m entering the undulating plateau of the Cambrian mountains, following a route described by the AA as one of the ten most scenic car journeys in the world. It begins in the Elan Valley, high above its famous reservoirs. The snaking thread of the river can be seen all the way to the top dam because drought has drained the upper reservoir. Sedge, peat, moss, bare rock. There are sheep on the road, wandering slowly, grazing the verge, unconcerned by my approach. The voices coming from the car radio are starting to break up, the signal getting weak as I head downhill. I turn it off, open the windows and listen to the wind.

A squall is approaching from the west, blurring the summits. The road narrows to a single track and descends more steeply. I drive over a narrow bridge where the Elan flows out of the north and pass into the Ystwyth valley which forks west. This is the bleakest place I know. Sedge, peat, moss, bare rock, a high lone buzzard. I stop the car in a passing place and take my camera down to a low cliff overlooking the river where a single dead rowan tree hangs, its limbs bleached. There are no other cars on the road, no machine sounds, just the rush of water and wind. As I sit, waiting for a spear of light, the squall runs along the opposite ridge like a blade, but no rain lands here. A ghost storm in a ghost land. 

I woke up this morning to the news that the COP27 climate change conference negotiations have again ended in a stalemate, another jackpot for petrochemical company executives and shareholders. The hope of limiting climate change to 1.5 C, the ‘safe’ limit touted by climate scientists, is now gone. We are now into a scenario where climate action only means damage limitation, each increment of a degree of warming avoided representing the slight alleviation of catastrophe in vulnerable parts of the world. It will almost certainly affect us here in Wales. The drought that reduced the capacity of the Elan reservoirs to less than 50% this year could, at some point in the future, continue for multiple years. This green land would turn brown, the sour grasses and bracken would dry up, the peat blow away, leaving bare earth and stone, the ghost of a ghost landscape. People in the teeming cities east of here could go thirsty. It’s an easy thing to imagine, just a matter of scaling up what is already here. 

This green land would turn brown, the peat blow away, leaving bare earth and stone, the ghost of a ghost landscape

For me, what stood out from the conference was a comment made by the UN Secretary General who said we are now on ‘a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator’. Also a less publicised, but more frightening, speech made by the CEO of a major oil company, who stated that a world without petrochemicals is unimaginable, the consequences dire. It sounded like a threat. 

It is beyond debate that petrochemical companies need to be shut down, or forced to invest their billions in the circular economy, if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. This includes the companies that extract oil and also those that utilise it, the latter being most of the manufacturing operations on Earth. I was once on the management team of a small company that made stationery, a single-use product. The difficulty of transitioning to circular processes in most industries is talked about very little. It is an incredibly convoluted and vexed process which risks financial oblivion for many businesses. 

On the one hand, truly sustainable materials are hard to find and expensive to acquire. Much of the time materials marketed as sustainable are only slightly preferable, or not preferable at all, to the planet-destroying materials they are designed to replace. On the other hand most consumers are not interested in the inputs and methods used to make the products they buy. Price, convenience and fashion usually make up 90% of a buying decision, people pay little attention to a product’s back-story. A line of greenwash on a website or piece of packaging is enough to assuage most consciences. Strict laws would be needed to catalyse change. A start would be a sustainability audit to take place at the time each business submits its financial accounts, together with a ten-year transition period to achieve a circular process for the company’s products and services. I have no hope at all however that a law like this will ever be put forward by the politicians who are now in power in my country.

Towards the end of my tenure as an employee I was involved in conversations which I could barely get to the end of without screaming. I remember being asked by an executive colleague which country I will move to when the climate emergency hits. She had chosen New Zealand. She sounded quite excited by the prospect, as if she were choosing her next holiday destination. Some people are in the financial position to be speculating in this way. When the crunch comes, the 1% will be able to relocate to safer living zones. The rest of us will have to take what’s coming, to accept the kind of precarity which was part of life for the poor of my grandparents’ generation. We’re perhaps only a few decades from that scenario. If I’m blessed with an average lifespan I’ll be around to witness it. 

Track, Elan Valley ((photo: James Roberts)

As the squall passes, the hill opposite starts to reappear. The stones are shining. There are broken walls half-way to the summit, what looks like the remains of a track, and a ruined house. The clouds part and light comes down in javelins, piercing through the roof and striating the long abandoned fields. There are places like this everywhere in the high hills and mountains all over Europe. Communities have been abandoning the lands of their ancestors for decades. Life became too precarious. These places have been left to amateur photographers like me, or to second homers who will only spend a month a year in their mountain retreats, but who will at least be able to keep the roof on, until the bigger storms come. I often wonder about the people who left their farms. What pressures were they under? They weren’t subject to the enforced relocations of previous centuries, their acts were voluntary, mostly by the children of farmers who wanted a better life elsewhere. What did they think they were going to? What lives were they dreaming of? Historically, their families were the lucky ones. 

The family histories of working-class people are often difficult to trace.  I have only names, places and dates of birth, places and dates of death, occupations: factory workers, miners.

The family histories of working-class people are often difficult to trace. My own is little known beyond my parents and grandparents. Further back I have only names, places and dates of birth, places and dates of death, occupations: factory workers, miners. Few stories have been passed down to me. An uncle died at the Battle of Anzio in the Second World War. A great uncle returned from the war and gave my mother a pair of binoculars which I now own. A fact and an object. There is one story, however, that has been told to me several times, by my father, by uncles, aunts, and several cousins. They told me about my grandfather who was born in Wales, the son of landed gentry who owned a coal mine. He was the black sheep of the family, in the end being banished by his father, and eventually finding his way to Stoke, where he met my grandmother and spent the rest of his life bringing up 12 children in poverty. Despite being poor, my grandfather kept horses, travelled in a pony and trap, rode an Irish hunter. This story seemed to validate us somehow. We were lost heirs, outcast thoroughbreds. 

I spent many hours as a child perusing maps of Wales, looking for the locations of mines and quarries, wondering if they were still in private ownership, looking for traces of the family. There was a place out there in the green mountains, perhaps a whole valley, with our name on it. I was ready to go in search of it, to heal the ancestral wounds, until one day I traced online the births and deaths of that side of the family and discovered that my grandfather had actually been born in a workhouse in Stoke. I don’t know why I felt disappointed.

Working class people are often possessed with a gnawing sense of shame, something only ever hinted at, but present. For me, it comes from having no history, no green place. The story about my lineage, however, is certainly true, though it applies to earlier grandfathers and grandmothers. Almost all families who came to work in the industrial cities were outcasts, far from their homes. Precarity forced them into the mines and factories and precarity made them stay. There are a few other fragments of family stories, just scenes, glints, fade-outs. My mother being scolded by her mother for asking for some butter to put on her bread. My father given the top of a boiled egg as a Christmas treat. Locks on the food cupboards. Cold fireplaces. Holes in the walls. Scenes of precarity, almost comic at first, but frightening as prospects for a future which is certainly going to bring resource shortages. 

As I get back into the car the ruin on the ridge glows and fades like a memory as the light shifts. Where are the families now? In the post-industrial cities to the south, the sprawling suburbs, living in comfortable houses with access to everything civilisation can offer? Perhaps they’ve upsized to bigger land holdings, fertile fields. Or maybe things didn’t work out. Maybe they wish now that half a mountain had been enough for them.

Elan Valley, looking west towards the Ystwyth Valley (photo: James Roberts)

I’m driving west, to the Cwmystwyth lead mine, the bleakest point in this bleakest of lands. The old mine workings are still visible like the wounds made by flesh-eating bacteria. Bare stone piles, black walls, rusting metal, the smashed windows of an old Ford dumped into a crater. The place is a source of national pride, a premier example of mining heritage in a country which once mined more ore than anywhere else. It’s a stop-off point for the travellers journeying along this top ten scenic route on Earth. Today there are a few visitors, kicking stones along the paths at the feet of spoil heaps; staring up at the tumbled buildings; walking the straight lines of old leats that channelled water into the mines; pointing mobile phones, taking picture after picture. Hard to know how to interpret the expressions on their faces. It isn’t awe. The mine had multiple owners during its history, each one investing when the market for ore was about to rise and disinvesting when it crashed; each one employing impoverished workers, men whose circumstances were so precarious they were willing to accept a life expectancy of just over 30 years to come here. The mine owners moved on to other projects, the workers remained, became remains, until the mines closed completely in the late 19th century and their families had to move to other areas, to mine coal, quarry stone, work steel, cloth, clay.

‘No word is more unskilfully used than this with its derivatives. It is used for uncertain in all its senses; but it only means uncertain, as dependent on others …’ The great lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, made this note about the word precarious. It derives from the Latin precarius, which meant depending on favour, obtained by entreaty or prayer. To be in a precarious situation is to be waiting for a decision by others in a position of power – people, gods, or people acting as gods. It applied to the families of the working poor of this country – the precariat – who were wholly dependent on the decisions of those above them in the social order for centuries. The dream of the precariat was to end their precarity. The aim of the powerful was to increase it as it is very good for business. Unionisation and political changes eased the situation for millions in the 20th century, but in recent decades progress has slowed, stopped, and gone into reverse. With the acceleration of climate change the battle of precarity has suddenly and unexpectedly shifted into its endgame. Small communities no longer wait on the whims of land, factory or mine owners. We have scaled the dependency up to its absolute and now billions of us, human and non-human, the whole community of Earth, are subject to the decisions of a few hundred power-brokers, looking on as they continue to ratchet up the risk of calamity to our descendants, while backstage they make plans for their own escape. COP27 concluded without progress on ending fossil fuel extraction. COP28 will be hosted by the UAE, a country whose wealth is wholly dependent on keeping the pumps going. 

I’m standing with my legs straddling a little stream issuing from a rusted gate blocking access to a tunnel which reaches into the mine and the mountain. The water flowing out of it is stained orange. It flows into a steel tray where it pools before going over a narrow lip and cascading downhill into the river. Two decades after the mine was closed a survey here revealed that only seven species existed in this part of the valley, all insects. It took another six decades for fish to return to the river. Even now this section is almost lifeless. Across the river a ridge rises precipitously to a flat summit. Halfway up there are more derelict cottages, a group of them, an abandoned hamlet. I know now why the people left – their land had been poisoned. They had no choice. This tiny valley holds the stories which need to be told. Its ruins are signposts for the future, its deracinated hills portents for a world being deliberately stripped bare. This is what a highway to climate hell looks like. Not all of us think it’s beautiful.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 22 – ARK

Our full-colour Autumn 2022 edition is an ARK carrying a cargo of testimonies, stories and artwork gleaned after the flood

 

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