Waterlands to Wonderlands


By Paul Warde

Tunnel Kielder Dam

The "arid" tunnel leading under the dam to the base of the Valve Tower (Photo: Peter Coates)

In travelling up to Kielder Water I traced a direct the path from the beginning to the end of our workshops; from my house, a few miles from the National Trust reserve at Wicken Fen, to what are now the shores of the Upper Tyne Valley. I travelled from the ‘Waterland’ famously evoked in Graham Swift’s novel of that name, to the site of the popular ‘Winter Wonderland’ laid on for the seasonal enjoyment of Tynesiders amid what might be a pastiche of a snowbound landscape on the Canadian Shield, all wooden cabins, looming conifers and the sky in the lake.  And after all, Northumbrian Water is now owned by Canadian pensioners. We missed the loons. Alternatively, with more rocks it might have been Lapland. But the wonderland I was also reminded of was what Hans Dominick, writing about dams in 1922, evoked as being ‘In The wonderland of Technology: Masterpieces and New Achievements that Our Youth Should Know.’ I suspect that nearly all of us felt some of this wonder (what David Nye called parochially ‘the American Technological Sublime’) as we strode through the strangely arid tunnels beneath the lake, or watched the power and exactitude of computer-controlled 21st-century tree-felling in close-up.

When Graham Swift wrote ‘Waterland’ he had, in fact, never encountered the Fens save through a train window. Reflecting on the work, he wondered if he had chosen the Fens as ‘the ideal non-setting, the ideal flat, bare platform for my human drama’. In his eyes, ‘Waterland is set where we’re all set, inside our own heads’. Given that the novel is now viewed more widely as an evocation of the almost timeless properties of a place, Waterland is testament both to the power of the imagination, and the power of the text that seems to link us to the past. Yet the widespread misinterpretation of Swift’s own backstory that he has encountered since writing the novel, the assumption that he was umbilically linked to the Fens, also indicates that stories take place. Our own heads are always somewhere, and like the salmon or the eel, the stories we tell find their way back towards that particular niche from which they seemed to rove out. A non-setting becomes a setting. The wonderland takes its place in history.

In our discussions Petra van Dam expressed some bemusement at the British preoccupation with distinguishing the ‘natural’ and the ‘artificial’. At Kielder she saw a polder, just a polder. I expect British environmental historians could indeed exhaust themselves discussing the naturalness (or not) of polders. In Kielder Polder the water is hemmed in; in the Fens, of course, that really are polders, it is drained out, except at Wicken, where the wetland has to be maintained by pumping water into land now standing proud above the water table. In this regard, Wicken Fen has more kinship with Kielder: they are islands of water, anti-polders. Every polder and anti-polder is a little utopian vision, perhaps, a kind of wonderland that seeks to transcend the time and space that we inherited. In this regard, nature reserves are no different from engineering projects. But every utopia turns out to be in some place; it comes back to the spawning ground. And every scrap of land and stretch of water we see, and give love, hate, character and numbers to, was once somebody else’s wonderland, their leap into the cascade of time.

Thus while we talk a lot about the past of landscapes, and their organic or their designed qualities, what shaped these landscapes, of any kind, has been a certain orientation towards the future. They are the products of what past imaginations made of the clays they found in their hands, whether texts, soils, water, technologies, training, visions, feelings (all with their different qualities and effects), and what elements they expected to shape these into in the henceforth. A quivering sense of anticipation, and perhaps disappointment, resonates through the Fens, Wicken Fen, and Kielder Water and Forest Park. These were the products of certain kinds of anticipatory knowledge and the expertise allied with it. They are both formed of projects and predictions; in the case of the Fens, the age of ‘projecting’ that was the seventeenth-century (in fact viewed with a high degree of contemporary scepticism), great schemes for draining marshes, registering populations, establishing new industries and technological quick-fixes to poverty, idleness and ignorance; all too often hand-in-hand with arrogance, venality, deceit and, in the language of the time, covetousness. But also with a zeal that ingenious and knowledgeable men could restore Eden, could make a better world. With the enormous drains and waterworks the seventeenth-century engineers did indeed propel the Fens towards its modern, angular, intensively-farmed and somewhat desiccated form.

Kielder Forest and Kielder Water equally belong to an age of projection and prediction, especially in the age of ‘technical development’ and the high esteem for technocrats and the white heat of technology in the decades after World War Two. The astonishing rapidity of past-war reconstruction and economic growth was closely bound up with fears of resource exhaustion; the setting up the National Resource Council and the Presidential Material Policy Commission in America; and the reports of the committee on Political and Economic Planning in Britain in the late 1940s and 50s. Water demand was predicted to outstrip the rate of economic growth. The risks of development were highlighted in the massive collection Man’s role in changing the face of the Earth published in 1956; the famous ‘Club of Rome’ report of 1972, albeit a first prominent outing for computer modelling, was the sum rather than the beginning of these fears. This, to some extent, was also the intellectual hinterland of the dambuilders of the 1960s and 1970s, and those who saw the water demand of the north-east racing ahead of capacity to the end of the century. The problems were big and the solutions were envisaged as being big too.

As we know with hindsight, the problems brought about by the solutions were frequently also big. As a reaction, we were told that ‘small is beautiful’ by E.F.Schumacher –  a man who cut his economic teeth working with Keynes and later as a planner for the National Coal Board. By the time Kielder was completed the mega-project was falling out of fashion, whether in engineering discourse, economics, or the rising political mood on both left and right (but by no means everywhere – some still celebrated the London Stock Exchange’s ‘Big bang’ of October 1986, leading to the subsequent market crash of 1987, and subsequent booms and busts). A different kind of anticipation was emerging – perhaps one that did not look, in many cases, too far into the future, and did not base decisions on projections far ahead in time. This shouldn’t, certainly, be confused with the actual proliferation of ‘smallness’ in the economy, which has tended to become ever-more concentrated.

The excellent paper provided by to us by Christine McCullough seems to fit well into this micro age and its scepticism towards the grand narrative and the grand design as the outcome of the grand projection. It belongs to the age of white elephants and unintended consequences. The north-east of England was left with a waterland designed with the projected demand of industry in kind – but as it turned out, that wonderland did not come to be.  Kielder did not perhaps involve the kinds of brutal expropriations and suffering found and continuing with so many mega-dam projects around the world. Indeed, one could conjecture that the local population is rather larger now than it would have been without the forest and the dam. But I find myself in sympathy with Christine’s scepticism. I enjoy the spectacle of dams, but I doubt that I would be very enthusiastic if somebody presented me with an upland valley and asked me whether I wanted it to be ‘drowned’.

Yet now we find ourselves in a new age of anticipatory knowledge and (often highly uncertain) prediction. Our future-orientation is changing again. We are coming to value ‘resilience’, the capacity to withstand shocks and the unanticipated – which itself requires a certain kind of anticipation. Resilience can be ‘small-scale’, avoiding over dependence on big networks and distant expertise and resources. It encourages diversity. But a diverse world is also one that embraces both the big and the small. If we move to a world less preoccupied with short-term efficiency and optimisation, then big spaces and big capacities may yet come back into fashion – even if much of the time they lie redundant. I find myself thinking that the Wicken Vision, expanding the ecological capacity and scale of the Fen reserve, and hoping for a grander scale of freedom from the utilitarian framing of the landscape, has some kind of kinship with the big thinking of engineers and post-war resource planners. Certainly it shares uncertainty about outcome – it is providing capacity in an ongoing process. Understanding this kinship can perhaps help our lines of communication, informed debate, and articulation of needs (including emotional).  Big reservoir capacity may come in useful again (although climate change may make us wetter, it may not distribute the rain where we need it, so storage may be become more of an issue, as with the electricity network). That projects are wiser if strongly grounded in clear evidence of need (build dams only according to demonstrable demand) might seem a good bet now; but a new age of resilience and uncertainty may come to see things differently. Perhaps diversity will require the full colour-range of elephants, as well as a good biodiverse mix of all kinds of species.

Examining the future-orientation of landscapes, and our imaginings of what they might be, is one framework by which we can understand the history and future of places, and how local and global processes, and those at all other scales, become intertwined. Giving credit to the wonderings that shaped the land and water enables a more historically-informed debate on landscape change, and how that landscape is linked to values and stories. We can help demonstrate how certain visions of the future may include or exclude other visions, and other species, or ’segments’ of humanity. We can demonstrate that how far we wish to look ahead is always linked to how far we wish to look back. We discover much in common, a kind of shred language, while never erasing profound differences.



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