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3 March 2021updated 29 Jul 2021 7:06am

Growing up in industrial towns, I followed the tracks of animals to seek out small pockets of woodland

Sadly, I realised that these unintended sanctuaries were temporary and would soon fall to the developers.     

By John Burnside

As a child, I lived in a condemned prefab at the edge of a Fife mining town, just far enough from the pithead that our kitchen looked out on a narrow strip of beech woods. It was not at all wild; an elderly couple operated a small poultry farm on part of the ground, while its southern edge hosted the town’s unofficial dump: a pool of old mattresses, rusty machine parts and corroded tins. No idyll, then, but on certain days, when snow covered the land in a thick, white veil, I could go out at first light and find evidence of other lives. I would happily shadow a line of freshly printed bird or animal tracks, sometimes for several yards at a time, until the trail ended, mysteriously, at nothing more than a suspicion of some unseen creature, watching me from a nearby lair, that I was too inept to discover.

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Later, after my family moved to England in search of work, I lived at the edge of another industrial town, where the choice, on leaving the house, was between a townscape soured with the dull aroma of pig iron in one direction and, in the other, what remained of an old country estate, now acquired by developers. Here, going out to play was a story of three distinct regions. The first was a fringe of established housing, mainly populated by irascible humans and rancorous dogs. The second was an ever-shifting construction site that ate away at the last woodland, while the third appeared to be another country, much like the past, where the developments, and people like me, were not to be countenanced.

Out there, I had been given to understand, the real countryside persisted, an England of old that we learned about in history classes and poems – though in truth, give or take a few pockets of native ground that had escaped the agricultural-industrial complex, it was just as lifeless as the steel town at my back.

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It did not take me long to realise that the only place where the real life of the land thrived was in the tracts of “waste land” that lay between town and field, or in those spots that, by some accident, had yet to be developed. It was also clear that these unintended sanctuaries were temporary and would soon fall to the developers. Still, for as long as they lasted, a trail through their snowy undergrowth might lead me to a glimpse of deer, or fox, or some bird that I did not know from the town gardens – and that was something to be thankful for.

“We live our daily lives in a constant exchange with the set of daily appearances surrounding us,” says John Berger in his essay “Why Look at Animals”. “Often they are very familiar, sometimes they are unexpected and new, but… what we habitually see confirms us.” I felt this keenly growing up. The industrial decay of my first pit town home, followed by the jerry-built sprawl of my second, confirmed in me a sense of guilt that was no less keen for being rationally unfounded. And yet, all the while, those tracks in the snow, and the fleeting apprehension of some impending presence in the undergrowth, promised what Berger describes as “another visible order which intersects with ours and has nothing to do with it”.

It was a dichotomy that was hard to bear, one that has haunted me ever since. Yet it is overshadowed now by a new, more desperate dissonance, and a shared unease that haunts another generation of children who are obliged to witness and, so, are habitually confirmed and confined by an environmental carnage that they did not create.

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This article appears in the 03 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Humanity vs the virus