In this essay for the New Internationalist, Horatio argues that
Environmentalists may be missing out a vital part of the argument
In the main bar of the King’s Arms a glass panel has been placed over one section of wall to display its internal structure. It is of ‘wattle and daub’ – nothing unusual – hazel, ash and willow branches woven between uprights, then plastered over.
Hazel ‘wattles’ from these walls have recently been examined by Dr Rebecca Yahr, a research biologist at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh. Yahr has been making some remarkable discoveries lately. If a 14th century building like the King’s Arms is inhabited continuously – that is to say, if it is kept dry – the lichens which were growing on the hazel wands now embedded in its walls are still readily identifiable, with a microscope and the right person looking down it.
Lichens, of course, are excellent ‘environmental indicators’. Growing mainly on rocks and trees, depending on the atmosphere rather than soil for their nutrients, they are highly sensitive to changes in its composition. It turns out, then, that these buildings kept their own record of pre-industrial England’s air quality.
Which raises some very present-tense questions. References to ‘pre-industrial levels’ of this or that component of our atmosphere are by now part of everyday language. We rarely stop, however, to examine the implications of that phrase – not only scientific but historical, even philosophical. In a place like Downton, such reflections come naturally and have, I think, been neglected thus far in environmental debates, to their detriment.
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