Books are a temporary escape to serve us for when we do not travel. For when we do not discover. Below is an experience with no books whatsoever.
“The beauty in the genome is of course that it’s so small. The human genome is only on the order of a gigabyte of data…which is a tiny little database. If you take the entire living biosphere, that’s the assemblage of 20 million species or so that constitute all the living creatures on the planet, and you have a genome for every species the total is still about one petabyte, that’s a million gigabytes – that’s still very small compared with Google or the Wikipedia and it’s a database that you can easily put in a small room, easily transmit from one place to another. And somehow mother nature manages to create this incredible biosphere, to create this incredibly rich environment of animals and plants with this amazingly small amount of data.”
You have heard it all – conservation, biodiversity, protecting habitats, restoration of ecosystems. All of that in connection to species. And you – you are just one out of millions. We do care for the human being, and in caring for the human being we tend to forget all other beings out there.
Do you know how many species exist? How many species are discovered each year? How many species are lost each month?
1.5 million species have been catalogued to date. How many there are we don’t know yet – somewhere from 2 million to 100 million. We don’t know how many species are endangered, vulnerable and threatened, how many will go extinct. How many have already gone. We simply don’t know. And here we are not referring to a naturally-occurring extinction. We are referring to an extinction caused by us – that one species among millions.
A month ago I made a trip to one of the poorest and the most breathtakingly beautiful parts of Britain – Cornwall. A place in space that a book would not have been able to describe – 420 miles of coastline, a hint of the Mediterranean, hidden landmarks, quaint villages, heather moorland. The mildest climate in all of Britain. And if you like numbers – 43 habitats and 360 species hidden among it all.
While the beauty was always there, be that Minack Theatre, The Lizard or Land’s End there are two places that left a definite mark – one, known among many, the other, known among few. And while the first one, the Eden Project, a former clay pit turned into a visitor attraction promoting sustainability deserves a post on its own I would start with the one less known.
Let me take you to the place where the original idea of Eden was born – Lowarth Helygen, the willow tree garden, better known as the Lost Gardens of Heligan. A botanical garden where every tree and every garden has a story. A place where wild species reign free.
1766 saw the first Northern garden being built in Heligan Manor. By 1907 it was followed by the Flower, Japanese, Sundial and Italian Gardens. Then came the First World War – the shelterbelt trees were cut to support war efforts. Heligan house was first used as a hospital and then as a base for American troops. By the end of the 1980s the gardens were completely derelict. Luckily, in 1990 The Lost Gardens of Heligan were discovered by Tim Smith and John Willis, descendants of the Tremayne family, the family that bought Heligan Manor in 1569.
With the story of a treasure created, lost and found comes much more. What the gardens hold within is just as fascinating. The relatively small piece of land part of the Cornish landscape is rich in biodiversity – the hey meadows, pastures, woodlands and wetlands are all managed using traditional, sustainable methods thus encouraging local wildlife. The gardens have multiple lakes, flower and Italian gardens, sub-tropical ferns in Fern Gulley and Europe’s only remaining pineapple pit. The 70 ancient camellias and 350 colossal rhododendrons found throughout Heligan are also part of the National Collection, a plant heritage scheme which documents, develops and preserves a vast collection of plants for the future.
Cornwall gave us a lot and left so much more for future exploration – the Isle of Scilly; the only city – Truro; Falmouth Docks. On the way out while heading to Devon we skipped all signs of civilization – we passed by surfer beaches, queer little towns in the bushy moorland, Hayle Estuary, the warmest reservoir in mainland England which alone had more than 250 bird species.
On coming back to London I felt like I wanted to do my bit, to be able to feel what was now only a sweet aftertaste of abundance that Lost Gardens of Heligan had given me.
Even amidst the incessant insanity of cities species can thrive – below, above and among us. Even in the urban jungle of London you can discover your small Eden. And there I found it – as a conservation volunteer in the community garden part of Stoke Newington East Reservoir and the East Reservoir itself.
The reservoir which has been closed to the public since its construction in 1833, was derelict and forgotten until a few years ago. And now – after nearly 200 years – it will be open again. With the help of the Big Lottery Fund and the Veolia Environmental Trust London Wildlife Trust is now redeveloping the area into Woodberry Wetlands – an urban wetland reserve, which will and has already created new wildlife habitats for wetland birds including an over-wintering site for the bittern, one of the rarest UK breeding birds.
Glad to have discovered a garden once lost I realise that so much more remains to be seen, discovered, protected, conserved, enhanced and passed on for others to see, discover and experience. You can take life, dissect it, analyse it and throw it. Or you decide to care for it. And if you can’t find another reason, remember, these species feed you, clothe you, protect you and give you pleasure. The least you can do is preserve them.