The following was written as a viewpoint for the local newspaper: Newsquest (Midlands South) Ltd, 12/1/2012, and was published in a necessarily less academic character than any peer reviewed research would need to be. This short opinion pertains to a busy road junction changing from a roundabout to traffic lights, not obviously a target for eco-critical analysis one might think. However, urban environmental planning issues surrounding road infrastructure are usually framed from a perspective of the quantitative. Consequently such issues are typically approached independently of the human context, leading to the condition of (the) environment being treated as separate and objective.
In the view of this I propose that a mode of dialogue must be produced, engendering a communicative action, that has the potential to link a variety of participants from Art, Philosophy and Science to further knowledge of the part human cultural engagement with environment can play in resolving environmental issues. There is a potential here for the significance of human interaction with place and the cultural significance of nature to be weighed on the scales of a revised outlook that may provide a challenge to accepted contexts of power, politics and ultimately how we construct and express notions of ‘the environment’ in the future. My argument is that if we are to usefully raise awareness of environmental issues and in particular human cultural engagement with place, we must first re-negotiate the prevalent dialectic of nature-as-self versus nature-as-object to answer the developers’ perennial question: “what good is it?” when defending the ethical rights of the planet. In my view we are a force of nature and any worthwhile ecology must include us without being essentially anthropocentric; but I don’t go as far as some the opponents of a ‘scientific’ view who argue the right of the planet over the interests of humanity.
The lost Habitat of Burnt Tree Island
Burnt Tree Island, Shell Corner, The Lost City, The Black Country – these adopted place names seem redolent of the luminous coast of some exotic land, full with intrigue and mystery. Simultaneously ugly and beautiful, these informal names and the places to which they refer belong to us and our Black Country Lexicon, – often as buoyant surrogates. As in the Dudley borough and especially in the more populated and industrial parts, we become only too aware of our landlocked situation. We become more firmly attached through the time we spend traversing and circulating and to my mind our shared locale maintains all the allure of the distant cities and pleasure spots. (Londoners will finally recognise this!) That these curiously named places exist and are communicated through a shared commonality, itself tinged with a romance and eloquence one would find any-place the inhabitants have a fondness for, must bear testimony to the wryly optimistic Black Country sense of humour.
Now that the work is done, and Burnt Tree has lost its island status, have we lost something as well? Certainly The Tracy family have found a new thunderbird hangar in the re-muddled ‘Gateway’ Tesco superstore but the rest of us now stare blankly into the void of the ‘interchange’ in the agonising between of the lights, like serfs paying tribute to some surly tyrant, who might just live in that castle…intermittently…obediently, every so often if you’re not quick enough to make it across in time.
The beauty of a traffic ‘island’ is in its simplicity: it has only one rule – give way to traffic from the right, and every transaction that follows is one of negotiation between drivers and environment, sometimes skilfully done, sometimes not-so-skilful, but mostly performed with an implicit understanding of speed and distance, similar to an ice rink where a complex, dance-like, social contract is measured out. In short a site where a bargain between people meets at the junction of place. At Burnt Tree the move to traffic lights has brought with it a change of ideology: The delicate play of exchange between people, even in cars, becomes a standard of humanity but the humanity has now been removed from our exchanges and the freedom of choice from our negotiations. Does that change benefit our shared culture and its ties to place?
Burnt Tree Junction is a site now emptied of humanity, free from choice. The planners and our representatives, in their infinite wisdom have traded our freedom away, lessened the trust placed in our hands and replaced our ability to think for ourselves with a set of rules set down by machines – and I thought it was us, famously, who were in charge of those. If we are serious about a Dudley City epitomising our culture and identity, surely we should look at ways of strengthening relationships between each other and landscape, and celebrating the way our funny vernacular is linked to this place. We have the opportunity to be urbane and not simply urban.
©Philip Potter 2012
Newsquest (Midlands South) Ltd, 12/1/2012, retitled by the editor: ‘Rise of the machines robs us of our history’
Copyright Express and Star, Picture 2 by Jonathan Hipkiss
Road works have finished at the Burnt Tree Island to turn it into a traffic light junction… View from the Dudley side of the junction