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Meeting places

The mood dominating an eroding beach also suits an eroding planet. The theme of the Blything shoreline is of losing one's bearings and giving up one's ground. Paradoxically at this point in space and time we enter a planetary continuum, ongoing over the generations, where change is the only constant. People disappear constantly, along with their homes, artefacts, buildings and spaces. As the tidal time-flow accelerates, visitors come to count the dead; and re-count the missing landmarks. They are scribes of mutability and mutation, memory-shamans, and chroniclers of the tidal scrolls. As the imaginary bell towers tumble they are destined themselves to become less than a neural trace in the world-brain,

Life on this planet is a huge complex web of inter-related forms and functions; a network that tends naturally toward equilibrium but that can easily be deflected into chaos. Here it is plain that the non-living environment is much more than a static backcloth against which the lives of the coastal communities of this small stretch of the Suffolk coastline are played out. The message exposed in the narrow line of advancing pebble hieroglyphs is that a general faith in science and technology to provide panaceas for our environmental problems will not help us here. This coast has been officially abandoned.

The Blything shore is where human nature confronts and is overpowered by physical nature. It is a meeting place between people and a raw environment; a small grim space where for just about three centuries fishermen clung on to become merchants recycling their gains through religion in the hope of generating even more wealth. The men of Dunwich successfully harnessed the 'common good', the most powerful trait of being human, to fight the sea, and their rival communities, and take from nature and create a economic signpost to the modern world of industrialism. But Dunwich is also a place where we have the opportunity to recognise what we owe to nature, not only in ourselves as sentient beings, but also in the world around us. Humans evolved in the company of other creatures, and our identity remains rooted in the natural world. No matter how much we may have become urban dwellers, we continue to rely physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually on the quality and richness of our natural surroundings. As just one creature among many, in the long run, we must live in harmony with the world. Instead of just using it for short-term gain we must learn to be happy within the limits of what we have, rather than in the perpetual increase of desires, and to live in the present rather than in the continual anticipation of the future. This is an old message from thinkers who stood on the edge of the modern world two hundred and fifty years ago. By then, the sea had long extinguished Dunwich as a beacon at the beginnings of capitalism. It is only now, in an age of climate change, that the townfolk's message of a shared sense of common good can be separated from Dunwich as an icon of environmental disaster. The new common good is to forge a sense of value that can replace our obsessive self-interest in consumerism.

At Dunwich, the sea reclaims what it once possessed millions of years ago; a reminder that a time and place framework is essential for our everyday actions. Today, a hundred thousand tonnes of glacial clay between Benacre and Aldringham will be carried off to the south. If today is a typical day on planet Earth, we will lose 116 square miles of rainforest, or about an acre a second. We will lose another 72 square miles to encroaching deserts, as a result of human mismanagement and overpopulation. Today the human population will increase by 250,000. And today we will add 3,000 tons of toxic gases to the atmosphere and 15 million tons of carbon. Tonight the Earth will be a little hotter, its waters more acidic, and its biodiversity more threadbare. What can we do?

In 1336 Petrarch confronted Mount Ventoux’s inaccessible mass of stony soil in order to contemplate the wonders of creation and the human place within it. Like Petrarch we all need meeting places where the forces of nature are impossible to control. For most people, the seashore is the only place that evokes a primeval fear of wilderness, with no assurance that nature will not reclaim neighbouring fields and villages. At Dunwich, where the tide has swept the slate clean, and is moving on, the new shoreline is such a spot for reflecting about what roots we have and how we may move from a firm anchorage of kinship to choose the type of future we want. On this shingle bank we can emerge from the long shadow of the 19th century and voyage to other meeting places where kinship may be bound to nature, conflict and the cosmos to create a personal mindmap for participating in the repair of the planetary damage that industrialism has inflicted.

An additional factor that makes Dunwich work for me is that I have kinship roots in the lost town that go back to the beginning of its written records. In other words its fate is part of my ancestral story.
Everything that humans do and experience revolves around some kind of story where there is a transfer of information to relate a message or convey a meaning. A basic wisdom of meeting places, where natural and social systems come together, is to provide a personal context in which this natural human sense may be fostered. For me, the Dunwich story is about creating a world of stability in which the resources are used equitably by an adequately nourished population that does not poison its own habitat with wastes.

Denis Bellamy, February, 2008

Mindmap