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Opinion - Matthew Parris

June 04, 2005

We can decide if the forest will grow back over our footprints

Matthew Parris

I HAVE just returned from a melancholy place. The melancholy takes me by surprise — there seems no obvious reason for it. The place is beautiful and, in its way, an ecological success story; but there is no denying the sadness it evokes. Inland from the Spanish Costa Brava, near the foothills of the Pyrenees, is a lovely part of Catalonia seldom visited by tourists. Many of my family live not far away, and the ancient house we are restoring, l’Avenc (about which I have often written for The Times) is perched on a clifftop there. I am finishing a book about l’Avenc and its region, and have been revisiting some of the places I want to describe.

One of these is the hidden valley of the River Ter. This is an area of cliffs, mountains and gorges, heavily wooded, through which a substantial river, whose source is high in the Pyrenees, breaks through to the Mediterranean coastal plain.

I say a “hidden” valley for two reasons. The countryside (known as Les Guilleries) is almost empty of human habitation and, though not far from Barcelona or the seaside hordes, it is little visited. And the river itself, passing through some 20 miles of gorges, has disappeared beneath the waters of two enormous man-made lakes, built in General Franco’s time to drive the turbines of a hydroelectric power scheme. The lakes snake through the mountains, and you can no longer see the river’s old course.

Except at present. Rainfall higher up the river has been poor this year and the remotest of the two lakes, the Pantà de Susqueda, is almost empty. A rare glimpse is possible: of the rocky banks and crooked course of the old river. An atrocious track leads around the folds of the mountainside above the southern bank, and after lurching over stones and gullies for half an hour you find yourself alone above the river.

Really alone. At your back rise the steep slopes of the Montseny mountains. On the other side of the river valley marches a line of 1,000ft cliffs. This valley is five or six miles wide and almost nobody lives there.

It was not always thus. From the Middle Ages until the middle of the last century this was good farmland. The soil washed down the river was fertile, the weather warm, the position sheltered and the crops plentiful. Much of the land was cleared for grazing and planting, and the remaining woods (of evergreen Mediterranean oak) were harvested for timber and charcoal. A proper road ran beside the banks of the river, infinitely busier than the overgrown track clinging to the mountainside which is now our only access — and there were farms, villages, bridges and churches.

From the warm green depths of the upper lake, the Pantà de Sau, now pokes the stone spire of the church of Sant Romà; beneath the water is the old village. And in the middle of the lower Pantà de Susqueda, by what were the banks of the Ter, was a village called Querós. Near by there was a stone bridge over the river: a beautiful high, thin, medieval construction, the Pont de Querós.

It is still there. I have been standing above it. What little water there is in the lake just covers the top of the bridge, and all you can see (as through green glass) is the ghostly outline of its white stone, skeletal under the water.

Much of the village of Querós is out of the lake at present, but the church and houses have collapsed and there are only ruined walls. When the dams were built the government of the day cleared the entire population from the valley, and they were rehoused elsewhere. Most families left the region for good.

Now there is only a wilderness. Even the houses and farms up the hillsides are abandoned, because the arteries of the community ran beside the river, and the heart of every village was by the river too. So everything died, even what was untouched by the lake, and everybody left.

Now the forest has advanced back down the mountainside as the lake advanced up it; and oak, thorn and bramble choke the old, outlying farmsteads. Roofs have collapsed, strangled now by convulvulus and ivy, and nettles and wild flowers hide the ghosts of old tracks.

Wildlife, too, is on the advance. It is warm down there, much warmer than the surrounding mountains. There are butterflies everywhere; the undergrowth is alive with the rustlings of small rodents, there are squirrels and pine martens in the trees, wild boar abound, and last time I was there I saw a big snake. Swallows dart and eagles and vultures wheel overhead. Nature is reclaiming her own, as they say.

Do they? Is that really what they say — “Nature is reclaiming her own”? What a stupid phrase.

“Nature” is not “reclaiming” anything. One group of animals and plants — humans and their crops — have retreated, and another group of animals and plants — rats, weeds, nettles and snakes — have advanced. This is good news for rodents and insects, and bad news for the human communities which once made Les Guilleries their home.

One kind of beauty — the beauty of order, security, human companionship and fruitful harvests — has gone and another kind of beauty — the beauty of solitude, wilderness and tangle — has replaced it. Neither is “Nature”. Or, rather, both are. In the ruin of human domesticity, other domesticities are now to be found: rats too have their nests and snakes their burrows. In the ruin of human cultivation other creatures are sowing other seeds: birds drop their berries, wild goats carry their burrs. Here and there, around the tumbled walls of houses, cherry trees half-smothered by ivy are still trying to bear fruit. There are broken apple trees, unpruned pear trees, figs still trying to survive; but their human sponsors are gone and the new resident mammals care nothing for them.

The melancholy this triggers is complicated. Human beings are my team, and here my team is losing. I can feel that loss, yet at the same time see beauty in the wild lives and livelihoods to which my species is ceding this territory. Ants are builders, organisers, destroyers too, but the ant feels no tenderness for what it destroys, and were I an ant here I should be uncomplicatedly on the winning side. As a human being I am complicated by tenderness for the losers, even where my species wins.

This makes us lords of the Earth. We are the bow, we are the arrow, but we feel for the arrow’s mark. Alone among the species which populate the planet we cannot hurt without feeling hurt, cannot diminish without feeling diminished. This does not separate us from “Nature” but unites us to the whole of it. I am the ant, the deer, the rare orchid, in a way in which those lifeforms are not me, for they cannot know me, feel for me or care for me, as I can for them.

This makes us gods. Aware of our divinity, the right response is not shame or self-loathing because of our power; still less the invention of a metaphysical nonsense called “Nature” before which we should bow or withdraw. It is to acknowledge mastery: acknowledge and embrace it. The Earth is our garden. We can choose what to grow, what to cull, what to foster and what to cut back. We should not pretend to ourselves that to make spaces on our planet for other species is somehow deferring to Nature. It is taking control.

We can decide. We can decide that we want wolves and bears. We can decide we want rainforests and wild places. We can stop the extinction of plants and animals which please us and we choose to keep. We can interfere. Shame in the success of our species, dislike of our own footprint on the planet, is the great blasphemy of the green movement. The sanctuaries that man makes for his competitors are among his footprints: they confirm his primacy. They are his glory, not his shame.