The Observer brings a conservation story that strikes a chord — complaints over the plan to let Cuckmere Haven, on the Sussex coast, flood. This is a national story because pictures of the Seven Sisters from Cuckmere are iconic (see above) and because a landowner who is to be inconvenienced is a major figure in publishing, which is the sort of connection that can help a story. It is a news story thanks to the fact that one of the little cottages overlooking the haven from the west is the setting for some of Atonement, which is probably not going to win many (any?) oscars tonight (my suspicion is that it has no real chance in any big category and that the craft stuff it might win for will mostly be taken by Sweeney Todd, though Keira Knightley’s modelling may secure a win in the costumes category; more in this vein below).
The flooding plan would allow the haven to revert to wetlands by ceasing to make efforts to control the ingress of the sea. This will mean that the current rather managed feel of the area will be lost (and that people walking from Eastbourne to Seaford at low tide, as I did a few years ago, will no longer be able to take a short cut by wading across the mouth of the river and so will have to walk a mile or so inland to Exceat and back out, which could, I’ll admit, be a drag). At the same time it will improve the area for wildlife and save a bunch of money.
It will also, according to Nigel Newton of Bloomsbury, who owns one of them, endanger the three Atonement-linked coastguard cottages that stand to the west. They are, frankly, not as pretty in real life as they can be made in photos, but if I owned one I’ll admit that the thought of it being undercut by erosion would not be welcome to me.
That said: you buy cottages on clifftops with certain risks attached. If there weren’t any erosion going on there wouldn’t be a cliff. And I imagine there is some sort of compensation in place (if there weren’t, surely the article would have mentioned it). And there’s a chance the erosion won’t do the cottages in. More generally, the point of conservation is not — or should not be — simply to keep things as they were. Conservation in the current world must also be about maximising potential and managing change. If one is to take seriously the idea that diminishing wetlands are bad for the environment, then saving money by getting one re-established makes a lot of sense; if we do this sort of thing enough maybe Britain’s overpowerful bird-watcher lobby will be more amenable to seeing sense on matters such as the Severn Barrage.
Cuckmere was the way it was, and we have lots of pictures and (if we are lucky) memories to prove it. It will be the way it will be, and we will build up images and memories of the process by which it changes. More than one set of images of the place seems to me to be a plus, not a minus, for those of us lucky enough to see the transition. In some ways I’d love there to be more change. I sometimes feel genuinely, though I’ll admit also absurdly, sorry that I will not live to see another ice age, in part because I would love to see the sea cliffs of the downs from the lowlands that would then be beneath them. He know nothing who only the Holocene knows…
What’s all this got to do with Eating the Sun? Well the South Downs play a role in the book (at some time I’ll get round to posting the chapter they’re in online as a sample). And I’m getting down that way next week for the Brighton Science Festival’s Big Science Sunday, (where Jim Endersby and Richard Fortey are speaking too, as it happens…). But also just because, the more distant I get from having written Eating the Sun, the clearer its central message is to me: processes trump things. Think of energy in terms of flows, not in terms of stocks of fuel. Think of nature the same way. Appreciate places — including peculiarly lovely ones, like Cuckmere — as the intersection of a skein of processes. Expect them to change and appreciate it. Don’t be fatalistic — there’s bad change as well as good. But don’t overvalue the static, even when you love it.
Postscript: after that burst of sunday afternoon preaching, some secular prognostication. In order — No Country For Old Men, Daniel Day Lewis, Julie Christie (though Ellen Page would suit me fine), Javier Bardem, Tilda Swinton (on the basis that the Blanchett vote splits, plus she was amazing), The Coen Brothers, Tony Gilroy or Diablo Cody, Coens again. Deakins for cinematography, and then editing is a tough call. Can it really be the Coens yet again? Personally I’d like to see it go to Christopher Rouse, just for the Waterloo sequnce in the Bourne film. But maybe when I get back from There Will be Blood, which I’m just off to, I’ll be all about Dylan Tichenor. And fingers crossed of course for Kevin O’Connell…
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