Caught by the River

IF YOU ARE GOING TO STEP IN THE HOME OF THE CRAYFISH, PLEASE TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES

1st April 2018

Luxuriate in a special long-read from Abi Andrews – author of The Word For Woman is Wilderness – on crayfish conservation, native and non-native species, and the far-right’s disturbing co-opting of the language of the natural world. 

IF YOU ARE GOING TO STEP IN THE HOME OF THE CRAYFISH, PLEASE TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES

I am back from the city, feeling the hunger of the about-to-be-satiated. It is a feeling that has come on after a period of misplacement without the awareness of exactly what it is that is lacking. A long walk in the forest, the smell of soil, the welcome of loamy ground that absorbs the shock of the foot lovingly, sounds of rattling, hushing, groaning, the shadow dance of light through leaves. A walk in the forest – my forest. Humble but belonging to me because of locality, because of shared history. And, accordingly, should shelter a small part of myself that needs accounting for. I will go into the heart of the forest and take off my shoes. I will stand in the stream and let the cool water flow over. I will take dirt away under my toenails. I will rub the dirt into my skin.

The Wyre Forest, our forest the sign says. We (humans) have named it and because of this it is ours, or our council gifted commons. It has been leant back to us by the landlords, but not exactly. We are not allowed to spend the night in our forest, to take from it, to veer from the path even. But if we haven’t ever, can’t say we experience it wholly, what claim do we have to it over those that live in it? Have we taken our shoes off even? When have we ever been more than a rude visitor?

Enter down the long winding lane, into the carpark. It is a weekday and there is one car. A man approaches it and I feel a flicker of unease. But he is old enough to be outrun; he has a small scrubby dog. This comes as an unformed thought, an instinctual trace. The one and only car claims its owner; the forest is mine to walk alone.

A map marks the disembarkation point for the trails, which finger off like a wheel spool. Around the map are cheerful infographics concerning an adder, a butterfly. There are no other-than-human nemesis here, we eradicated them a long time ago. The old anxiety of the forest is transplanted then, onto stalkers, madmen, thieves. It doesn’t come from anything logical; it is improbable that this quiet recreational wood would be the stage of any catastrophe; but unease has to bubble up somewhere.

It is unlikely I could even succeed in getting lost in here. Friendly coloured posts lace together, to segue me to safety, a wood post fellowship. They reinforce the presence of the benevolent Park Warden. I am one of a long line of invisible school children, fluorescent yellow bibs, small sweaty palms interlaced. I have been pinned a tin-can string.

A trail marker is a tender thing. A trail-clearer is a caretaker and reaffirms the human family. Tender, choking. The trail confirms you as a visitor, a chaperoned tourist. Never out of sight of the all-knowing warden god. Just a voyeur passing through.

But there are moments of connection, like in a foreign market, where sound and smell might cross into your trail and contaminate you, so that for a second you become interlaced with them, the rightly-placed ones. In places on the path the smell binds you. You can smell mushrooms; familiar, gritty, earth-bound, risen, warm.

I come to a laminated sign, stapled to a wooden map post. On it is a picture of a tiny brown lobster, underwater and light-bled. Crayfish. I didn’t know we had any here. The sign reads, please stay out of the watercourse, large numbers of our native White Clawed Crayfish, which are special to this area, are dying. Spores of crayfish plague are very infectious and can easily be transferred by people and animals. 

Crayfish, we only just met and already we have to say goodbye. I stand by the sign that has meanly undone my plans to be welcomed home. If I can’t put my feet in water to assert my place in its order, then I will go to pay my respects to my dead friends. I consult the map, decide to take the long way, continuing through the heart of the forest to meet the old railway. Across the railway, to meet the brook, coalescing where brook meets stream at the old water mill. Says the sign, the sight of a crayfish massacre.

WHITE CLAWED FRIEND

I am looking for signs of you, for signs of water. Neighbour I never knew I was loosing; White-clawed crayfish. In sight from the path there are memories in the folds of the ground, in the chauvinism of the trees, holding the light open, in the abeyance of the forest floor. There are winds and dips where the water should be; are shadows of water.

A pond sliced exactly in half by light and dark. I wonder, can you feel the divide in temperature as you scuttle from the cool dark water to bask in the excited light that dazzles through the glitter-gaps in the pond scum? Are you ecstatic for the flitting vision, the celestial disturbance of silt and leaf litter?

White-clawed crayfish (austropotamobius pallipes). We grew up together, although neither of us ever knew, we had the same rain fall on us. You can live for twelve years. You were common all over Eurasia, had been since the Palaeozoic, but you could be gone from the world in thirty years.

You live in shallow running water hidden beneath rocks, pebbles, debris and tree roots. You are an omnivorous scavenger, eating plant debris and dead creatures, you make the most of the dead. You prefer running water, water that never allows feeling to accumulate or linger, is always rushing on. You sleep by holding onto vegetal anchors so as not to be carried away.

The threat against your quiet life is bought by the American Signal Crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus), a foreign invader that brings with it a plague. In our shared place, this forest you have always known, you might be extinct in the decade, and these more visceral creatures may crawl all over. You are the only native British crayfish species. You abounded in Dowles Brook and its tributaries, until the first crayfish plague outbreak of 1988.

The conservationists are trying to keep you safe (ists, as though a religion, and therefore faith bound). They put barriers in the streams to try to halt the onward march of the American Signal. It is critical that these obstacles are upkept by a benevolent army of protectionists. Otherwise these non-natives will infiltrate, and neither lay people nor predators will notice. The otters and mink that dismember you will dismember them the same. Most humans will continue to dog-walk past your conquered streams, unknowing.

The path runs a hem between the pond and a dead stream, moved into by gleefully gentrifying fern (who mean well). The pond water is artificially kept from its self-willed passageway, is a ghetto neighbourhood. Water is always coming rather than going, so its memory here is not a negation, it is instead a not-yet-filled promise. Sometimes there is an imagined sound, intuited by the shape of the land, its compassionate curve cupping nothing, hopefully.

In places bracken ferns grow head high. They feel prehistoric; erasing. From the ferns, there is the giveaway crunch of a larger body propelling itself through the undergrowth. I startle two doe Dama Dama, crunch crunch, they bob as white tipped ears above the waving fern-fingers with the convex of each leap.

A joyous feeling; chase them! But no, I am a sombre visitor with my hat off. Besides, their privacy is assured by the boundary of the path, it is not proper to disturb my place in their order of things. The gaudiness of celebrity would undo my reverence, and transgress voyeurism, and rudely smash the semblance of beholding.

(They no longer have natural predators; their death will be age, disease, a road accident. Not unlike mine. To disturb them initiates no death-chase; they are mocking up instinctual anxiety too. My trespass would be at worst an insolence)

It is natural to be hunted. Perhaps they crave it, perhaps that is something I am missing too. To be hunted; instinctive; aware; placed. This contouring work is no longer done. The seepage and uncertainty from these missing lines manifests in anxiety. (Perhaps)

Ten paces more; a stag, a pair of disembodied antlers jaggedly cresting the ferns. The hollow tok tok of a woodpecker. The smell of woodsmoke; somebody is conscientiously burning. The loving hands of the warden – interfering, corrupting, reminding, presiding, making-with.

Folds in the forest. Pleats, creases to the understory. Eyes are trained for these folds. Ears almost hear the water that should be running there. I see it as a flicker of silver slither. There is a sense of recognition, rightness. Lost, you can always follow the waterway eventually to people and the familiar; always human settlements have gravitated to water.

And then, there it is. The crayfish graveyard at Dowles Brook. The path brings me into parallel step with it. It is a distance away, down a steep slope to the left of the path. Am I going to veer from the path? At the point I should likely most not? I am longing to go to the water, to dip myself in the precarious world of the crayfish; a desire to touch, taste, and surround myself with its water, to be still and sink myself into its domain.

The wind is compliant to the atmosphere, rushing through the trees in momentous tides. It feels heavy here; as though under the eyes of the anxious conservationists. The weight keeps me drawn back. I won’t go into the water, further along, the path draws nearer to the bank.

Dowles Brook runs through the Wyre forest via several tributaries until it joins the river Severn, which meets the sea somewhere near Bristol. The conservationists are conducting a study on White-clawed crayfish numbers. The last session of the study revealed the lowest numbers in the seven years of studying. Many dead and moribund.

Something happened here.

Many of those alive acting strangely, with disoriented movements. The carcasses were collected and sent to the Environment Agency. The Environment Agency sent the carcasses to the Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science. CEFAS confirmed the presence of crayfish plague in Dowles Brook.

Spores of the plague can live for 22 days on damp clothes. The dead crayfish are eaten by other animals: mink, otters, birds; the contagion can be carried on feathers and on feet.

It is to be hoped that the programme of monitoring surveys is not recording the demise of the White-clawed Crayfish in the Wyre Forest

What keeps the conservationists carrying on? Do they ever ooze with anger at their feeble subjects, feel their fingers turn to vices in desire to crush their brittle small heads between thumb and forefinger – why won’t you stay alive? I am in awe of their unsung heroism, these crayfish crusaders; they are witnesses to incessant miniscule deaths that are entire worlds crumbling.

I stop where I am, hunch, a little away from the bank. I listen to sound of the water shattering like thin glass over the red slabs that make up the overlay of the riverbed. It is a beautiful little kingdom, it instills the pang of injustice for the beautifully oppressed. Shallow water, red sandstone and clay. Lazy, thick slabs stacked in layers. Shimmering water, green from reflecting trees, and cloudy sediment rendering the rocks from sharp angles to dark water.

A conquered country, down to the arrival of the plague carrying American Signal crayfish, the faster, more fecund cousin. More aggressive, tolerant of a wider range of conditions.

foreign invader terrorises english countryside (There, echoes of a familiar narrative)

Feeds voraciously and so reduces other native populations, tipping the balance of the ecosystem. Burrows deeper into banks, causing erosion and increasing flood risks.

they reproduce so quickly! such large families! (Careful now)

A female carries 400 eggs under her tail until spring when they hatch and she carries her babies until they leave her in June. Each can baby can live for 25 years and go on to have babies of its own.

we are the only party to affirm overpopulation, the main cause of which is immigration, as the reason for the destruction of our environment

And there it is. The language of conservation is being co-opted by far right groups across Europe, to justify reducing human numbers by curtailing any immigration. The logic goes that an ecosystem relies on balance and stability. If something upsets the stability, it might collapse. The invasion of a foreign species can upset the harmony and causes a chain reaction, whereby the entire system is negatively affected, sometimes irredeemably so.

there are places where certain species should and shouldn’t be; there is soil in our blood; if everything stays in its right and proper place…see the destruction that has been unleashed on our native crayfish!

DOES THE ERADICATION OF MINK HAVE TO BE PERFECT?

Dispirited, I walk onwards.  A green woodpecker dives into the forest roof, startled from the undergrowth by my reappearance on the path. It is a novel red-green juggernaut through the browns of the wood. It is there and then it is gone, leaving me feeling lucky.

A little further ahead, the path leads down towards the level of the brook. And from nowhere a stream on my right side, crossing my path directly to join the brook, and I have been so taken in by the urgency of containing contamination, of keeping the water free of feet, that I stop walking in shock and confusion like an ant following ants come to face a fallen twig. Where is there for me to go but through this stream that crosses the path? And with the impossibility of containing moving water laid out bare for me, what point is there in treading carefully?

The tragic conservationists are fighting with fists against the fluidity of water, which doesn’t obey paths or borders. They alone take on the hopeless thankless task. Even if their chosen creature gets pulled back from the brink (even if there were a morsel of hope for the White-clawed crayfish) a thousand others will topple. Their lifework can easily be undone, is always in need of upkeep. How many of them quit their work to find solace in pretending?

I follow the path further, I take a wrong turn. Anxiety simmers inside me. I’m not lost, just need to retrace a while. Falling and guide ropes. (And there is a little goodness in all sorts of loss, something asserting the gladness of keeping. A reminder not to let a loss go unfelt, to feel it as a bruise)

I find the way back to the railway line. It is wide, echoing, empty. Clouds come over. I feel uneasy, like being watched. It will get dark soon, and the path back is long. It is not the forest, this unease, it is the looming presence of darkness. It is not being lost, but something of being wrongly found. The things that are creepy are the human markers – why is the beer bottle propped up like that so?

Of the Wyre Forest 37% is semi natural woodland and the rest is plantation, planted with conifer and beech in the last century (the very trees aren’t from here, but they make their home nicely). Conifer have a particular resonance with me and I couldn’t say firmly why. A real forest forest tree, of a wolfy forest, a lost in the forest forest. Tree of the taiga, of stark wilderness. Looking up at them in wasp hot summer, against the pale blue haze of sky. But, they are not indigenous. Mine is an appropriated nostalgia. And then, if they have been in this small area since long before my family moved from nearby towns, are they more indigenous than I am?

If we investigate, how many native neighbours are we left with? During the falling apart of the Balkans once close neighbours became foreign enemies. Just like a human, an alarmed muntjac will scream. Muntjac are feral, introduced from China in the 20th century. They are one of the oldest deer in the world, having been around for 35 million years. That’s 30 million years more than our ancestors.

Mink eat crayfish. They established a British population when they were released from fur farms by well-meaning activists in the sixties. They had filled an ‘acceptable niche’ in our countryside. They were model refugees, cute runaways. Co-opted by the narratives of Brexit, they are now eating too many water voles and competing with the native otter. (Moral dilemma of the individual mink, who deserves a chance at life. Moral dilemma of the mink as number, who disturbs the function of the system.)

they are too many- we can’t take them all! They came as legal immigrants and then overtook!

The native otter was so common it was considered vermin a hundred years ago. In this area they were killed off by carpet factory pollution, dye in the water. The river Stour was once so polluted you could tell what colour they were dying on a given day. If you fell in the water, you would have to go to hospital. But these factories are mostly closed now. Otters have globalisation to thank for their meagre resurgence, because we exported our manufacturing to places of cheap labour. And we admonish those countries for their environmental standards.

In 2001 The Stour was rerouted to make way for a Tesco superstore in the neighbouring town, even though otters (now rare) were found to once again be living in it. Tracks on the canal path near Morrisons, between the box of a frozen hoisin duck pizza and an empty shower gel scented lily and pineapple. Spraints near Bed City.

Across from the glittering confluence I stand by, ancient cattle graze a field drowsily. They are put to graze to stop the coarse grass from growing, to keep the meadows rich with wildflowers. The wildflowers preserve insects, endangered butterflies. But the slurry from the cow pat runs down into the brook, and it pollutes the water, choking out the vulnerable crayfish.

A helping hand; the touch of death. And the uncomfortable truth is we introduced the non-native Signal Crayfish. The demise of native crayfish was dictated by the tastes of Swedes, who buy their flesh; we imported and bred their more lucrative American cousins for trade. They were an attractive commercial species, that then escaped from hatcheries; a frankenstein species.

The native oak grows back from stumps as coppice, is strong for building, burns well, good for charcoal. It is the perfect peasant forest tree. Conifers like oak because they can grow quickly in the light spaces created by coppicing. They were here to please us, but as the value of coppice fell, large areas of coppice have been left to themselves. Both trees are manipulated by the interests of their neighbour humans, are implicated by imperial powers they can’t fathom. These powers reverberate and respond to factors that stretch much further than the borders of countries and the roots of the oaks and conifers.

NATURE AS A PARABLE; NATURE AS MAN’S INCOMPARABLE OTHER

Everything has been on its way since the beginning of life. There is no purity in nature. Nature is parasites and pathogens, coevolution and symbionts. Our own ancestors were once an invasive species, arriving at these isles. There are invasive species that find their niche (there are some migrants deemed more ‘worthy’ than others).  Rather than noticing as invasion, think instead of those who have not yet arrived, of the animals and the trees that aren’t here with us yet.

Nothing stays in some original state forever. Crayfish, of moving water, know this. Everything is trying to find the best place to thrive, always. And migrating someplace only better than the worst place, sometimes. Across the wide deserts and the troubled sea. After all, what good is mourning the misplaced soil of your body, the supplanted gut flora, when your very bones may be blown to pieces?

In the language the far right are co-opting for their ‘environmental’ policies, morals are asserted. In our newspapers the American Signal crayfish is immoral; it cannibalises on its own young. It is larger and more aggressive than the meek and gentle native. They must reiterate the moral superiority of native over invader! What is forgotten from this narrative is that the White-clawed also cannibalises, in order to correct a calcium deficiency.

The moral onus is on the crayfish, but the ‘invader’ is of course doing the only thing it knows how to do; it is enacting survival. We find comfort in simple transferable systems of reason. But nature is not analogous to human behaviour, a garden, a fall, a gradual erasure. They are appropriating a dangerous logic.

If there is a parallel to be found, it is in our onus of responsibility. Global economic disparity is not ‘natural’, it is orchestrated [colonialism, agribusiness, the world bank]. We drew the lines on maps that created nations, even as the continental plates creep underneath them. The invaders this blood and soil rhetoric teaches us to fear are victims of global systems from which we benefit and who suffer, like the crayfish; victims of global markets. What is blood and soil in the mouths colonial nations, who have benefited from the soil and blood of others?

Golden Dawn can rescue abused pets and plant trees and still be neo-fascists. The animals would like to ask us to stop co-opting them to illustrate our nationalisms. There are no borders in nature.

THE FURTIVE CHOSEN OF THE CLANDESTINE ARK

There is a secret plot to save the crayfish. The conservationists will move groups to an area of isolated water bodies, so-called ‘ark sites’. The location of these bodies of water will be kept secret from the public, to prevent the risk of interference and boots of stowaway contagion. The £210,000 project will run for two years only. The crayfish will become ‘native refugees’.

Think of the sad conservationists; it is easy to believe it is best not to ever know, and so never be missing and always be full. To turn away from all of the miniscule catastrophes that are pooling around the world we are building, in facsimile optimism, building walls of contentment against the encroaching flood. This is the more cheerful route but no, we must be responsible for what we have done, redress the balance of the universe somewhat, and ease ourselves a little of the burden of one who harbours a dark and consuming secret. That ecosystems can collapse due to invasive species is no question; this is one of the curses of widespread movement and globalisation. But we instigated it.

We must keep trying to save the drowning victims and send off the dead solemnly. We must shelter the tired crayfish in our cupped hands. We must strive for messy, partial continuance. There will be many losses, and we must mark each one.

If you think about it enough, talk about it enough, draw it enough, you can will it into existence. To draw is to assert the presence of; a quiet reckoning. Or maybe, drawing is forgetting. Because, I am drawing from photographs from the internet. I am drawing and in drawing I put my movements, my body into the drawing, and in doing so I smother the crayfish. I have never seen this animal in the flesh. And I didn’t even know they were there until I knew they were nearly gone.

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Abi Andrews is the author of The Word for Woman is Wilderness, published by Serpent’s Tail and out now. You can follow Abi on Twitter here.