The great outdoors

Tarring, hoeing, dyking... it's all in a day's work

In recent months I have spent far too much time sitting in front of my computer.

There are several problems with this situation. One is that there are many, many things I would rather be doing, and most of them involve being outside the house. Another is that it is far too easy to waste time on the computer and this time-wasting just exacerbates the whole situation.

I can’t do anything else until my work is done, and somehow I just can’t seem to get myself in the right gear to do it. So I am stranded with the laptop for yet longer. And because of the bright screen and my chronically bad posture, each day ends with sore eyes and an aching back.

I am aware, of course, that wasting time is just as easy while outside, but time wasted in the open air is never really wasted, and it certainly doesn’t leave you with that hollow feeling that computer-use inevitably produces.

Tarring is not my favourite job. In fact it ranks pretty low on an increasingly lengthy list of current and previous occupations. But it requires being outside (obviously), and interacting with people, which makes it 10 times better than numbing my brain in front of a screen. So I was delighted to be out on the roads at the beginning of the week, getting myself covered in the filthy sticky black stuff.

Filling in potholes is a fairly regular task. It involves, firstly, heating a barrel of tar over an open fire (probably not the textbook method), then rolling it a quarter of a mile down the road, to try and make it as smooth and lump-free as possible. This is often the most entertaining part of the day – chasing after the barrel as it sails merrily down the road towards... well, you never quite know until you get there.

Once that’s done it’s just a case of filling in all the holes in the road with chips (stone, rather than potato) and covering them in tar, poured from an old metal watering can. Simple. Only the intervention of wind, other traffic or lumps in the tar (“turds” is the technical name) can get in the way. Which they do. Often.

At the end of the day I usually have to scrub my hands and face with rough sandpaper and wash my hair in diesel just to return to a normal state of cleanliness.

Thursday was spent rather less messily, mending two large holes in the Hill Dyke – the tall, dry stone wall that separates the northern and southern parts of the isle.

There is an art to dry stone dyking, but, as this was my first attempt at the job, I’m not ashamed to admit that I don’t have it. My skills were more on the level of say, doodling – acceptable in private, but hardly desirable for public display. I enjoyed myself immensely though, so all was well. Between four of us we filled both holes by the end of the afternoon. And with the warm sun beating down, I could hardly think of a better way to spend a day.

Yesterday, feeling guilty about ignoring our garden for so long, I went down to try and tackle some of the weeds that have been making themselves at home there. With a dogged enthusiasm that I have never before felt for the task, I hoed myself almost senseless, filling fishbox after fishbox with weeds. I returned home, six hours later, with my back aching and my eyes sore, and immediately switched on the computer.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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