The Beautiful, Toxic Landscape.
Spider webs net the dew, distilling it to clear drops. I could walk the width of this field and scoop up a whole glassful of water. The stubble begins to steam gently as the sun warms it, mist rising in curls and ringlets like the feathery plumes ghosting up from my morning cup of tea.
On the hill, I am above the cloud bank and the Kennet Valley is completely hidden under a wreathing, milky sea. To the north, the Lambourn downs and that other, better known ridgeway rises like a long island. I could be looking out to Mull, or Jura. Aldworth church spire appears as if it were all that remained of a drowned village.
As the day advances, gap winged kites and buzzards circle, moulting single primary feathers on alternate sides, so they are not compromised. I keep my eyes open for feathers on the ground. But as I do, I get an uneasy shock.
A newly drilled field of winter wheat is covered in a blue haze of slug pellets in industrial quantities. On another field, where the pale, chalky tilth is as fine as the topping on an apple crumble, some of the seeds lay on the surface. These are dressed, coated in fungicide or pesticide and do not even look like seeds. They are like tiny, bright sweets; M&M’s, coloured to put the birds off eating them. A friend tells me 20 ingested pellets would kill a pheasant, but just one would finish off a songbird.
Elsewhere, a huge arable field is being sprayed with a pre-emergent preventative, before any green shoots have even breached the soil. It is one of the worst; as the same friend writes ‘staining the flints yellow, the smell lingering for days’. But this is not unusual. This is standard practice. It is what is sold, what is available and what is expected. We plant chemically treated seeds and spray the ground before they even come up; then spray several times more and even, with some crops, spray again to dessicate them before harvest.
As the mist rolls back during the morning, like a silky scarf in a magician’s act, it seems to reveal a different, toxic landscape – fields; county after county, farm after farm, like this. Is this really what we must do to feed ourselves? Is this really what we want?
Applying chemicals to treat a problem is no longer the norm. Instead, systematic pesticides are part of the growing process, insinuated into plant, soil and water, routinely, indiscriminately, across the whole farmed landscape. And from there, they are taken up in high doses by wildflowers, so that even those poison the bees, butterflies and moths, impacting up the food chain on bats, frogs, birds, hedgehogs …
By the afternoon the blue-dark shadows under the small thorns lengthen the whole side of the down. It is beautiful. I try to concentrate on the extraordinary success of beetle banks, wildflower and nectar strips on these big arable fields that were not here six years ago and are elsewhere, too, but I lurch from exhilaration and delight to despair and frustration. A love for this landscape rewards and hurts in equal measure. And I’m all in. What can we do but resist, resist?