When I walked out of my flat yesterday, I saw a wounded pigeon at the entrance to the lil gated community I live in in Brixton. The bird was twitching on the ground, I think the half-broken wing it raised feebly was healthier than the second tucked under its weight. Days before, someone had defecated at this same spot. My flatmate who is American and more than a tad superstitious thought it was a coincidence too much and considered dowsing the place, our flat, the gated area, the whole lot with holy water. I encouraged him, "Protection is better than cure; Do that shit" was my response. As we came and went throughout the day, we watched the bird raise its feeble wing. Another resident we bumped into at the gate suggested we call the company who clean the grounds to come and deal with it, she too was unsettled by the bird but could not bring herself to touch it. As dusk neared, we returned and found the bird gone. We wondered if someone had cleared it up but as we searched, found it had crawled to the dark shady part where the hedge meets the brick-work, where it could die in peace. My flatmate and I commended this. "A noble beast" we thought. "Seeking an honourable death" we thought. "Saving its savage carcass from the eyes of the living" we thought.
A month before, I had traveled to Devon to work with Beaford Arts on a theatre project. Devon is an astonishing, interesting place. It is take-your-breath-away beautiful. There are beaches just miles away from farms. For it's vegetation and wildlife, it is protected by the government, who, for this and many other nuanced reasons, want to know the price of every piece of it. Under the title Eco System Services, the attempt is to figure out how much a piece of land is worth, and what it does. Does it feed animals? Does it soak up rain water? Does it grow food? Is it a natural flood defence? What does that mean in monetary terms? My job was to speak with farmers, conservationists, climate change experts, locals and try to articulate how one might go about putting a price on everything. It was a job of listening, of conversations that were heart breaking, overwhelming, passionate and multilayered. When it came to writing, I didn't know where to start, but an idea crystallised after I met a farmer, his wife and two sons.
They told stories and anecdotes to illustrate how complicated a process it would be, the vast holes in such system, how there are some aspects of the land that simply cannot be valued, that are (by that definition) priceless. He refereed to us as townies, and he and his colleagues as country folk. He did not like townies. As a black african I'm used to prejudice, I found it refreshing, dare I say thrilling, to be prejudiced because of where I lived rather than the colour of my skin. As we talked and I asked the right questions, he began to relax and slowly 'you townies' became 'those townies'. We 'othered' them so we could point and laugh. I have no guilt about this because the stories he gave to illustrate his point were water tight.
For instance, He spoke about us townies buying up country farms as second homes, going for 'countryside walks' through farm and grazing land. When they go walking, he said, they see maybe a wounded bull or a cow, think we are negligent farmers, report us to the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) who ask to do something about it. Two things we can do, one, let the animal alone for two-three weeks which is how long it takes to heal or two, kill it. As a bull what would you want? Us farmers know that's how long it takes and want to give the geezer a chance, but townies don't... they interfere, complain that the animal is suffering and we'll have to do something about it. Same thing with carrion they see on the land. Flies feast on the corpses, crows, wild foxes, mink; it is incredibly rich fertiliser which goes back into the soil. It's the circle of life, he said, but townies see this, call Defra and we have to clean it up because it makes them uncomfortable. Everything dies. Everything.
Back in London, a month later, the same 'townie' I pointed at and laughed back then, is same townie who shook at the sight of dying bird, is he who stares back from the mirror, is me. There are questions I've asked since. How far have we urban dwellers strayed from the natural order of things? Do the circles we build in urban environments ignore the ultimate definite end? Is it a circle then? The conversations I had left me feeling that we should let country folk deal with country issues and let townie folk deal with townie issues, but of course it isn't that simple. The play I wrote is called Marsh Orchids & Concrete, a two-hander where a communications manager from London meets a farmer from Devon. I tried to demonstrate the complication of intersection, that we inhabit the same land, that policies cross boarders, farmers feed cities, decisions in westminster ruffle leaves, that we are invested in our natural world, how despite the naive, can't-stand-a-dying-bird urban spirit in me, this brick city boy still yearns for fields.