:: Article

Tigers in the DMZ

By Jack Browne.

Humanity and the natural world can often seem like violent adversities, competing for hegemony over space. Most commentators think nature will eventually win that contest. Writing in the first half of the twentieth century, the author Mary Butts warned that nature is a big apathetic hand:

Nature lies like a hand open with the fingers loose for man to run about the palm, dig into the pure flesh and build a palace or a sewer or a desolation of his contrivance. The palm is his earth, the fingers are what he does not see, nor understand that they can move, curve in and grasp him and make the palm a gulf, and all his works no more than a fertiliser for its flesh.

Butts is now best known for her novels, Armed with Madness and Ashe of Rings – writing that, at the peak of her career, won her the admiration of T.S. Eliot and the friendship of Jean Cocteau. The passage above was composed in a now-obscure pamphlet entitled Warning to Hikers, now long out of publication. It is not actually an attack on hiking, per se, so much as a polemic against our anthropocentric conception of space. Completed in 1932, five years before Butts’ death, Warning to Hikers grapples with a paradox of her own formation: that our consciousness of nature has prevented us from experiencing nature authentically. Because urban growth has made us think of nature separately to the city, Butts claims, the countryside has become a thing to consume rather than inhabit – a touristic appendage of towns. True wilderness only exists in the gaps between commercially constructed landscapes, amongst ‘the strangeness of the unharvested’. These spaces go unnoticed by a new intruder in the countryside: the city-bred man. His encounter with nature is polite and urban and benign. ‘Wherever he goes, he brings the town with him,’ Butts writes: ‘He enjoys himself, he does himself good, he is not a part.’

While Butts has a propensity for crude prejudice – she describes the urban working classes as ‘barbarians’ – much of Warning to Hikers anticipates recent trends in the sociology of tourism. One of the most influential writers on the subject is the late John Urry, who applied his theory of the ‘tourist gaze’ to the wilderness in his 1995 book, Consuming Nature. Urry echoes Butts when he talks of an ‘exploitation of land or other resources through seeing nature as separate from society’. This conceptual sundering of nature from the social is a fundamentally commercial process, he contends, and leads to the land’s ‘maximum instrumental appropriation’. For Urry, tourists seek an environment that they believe to be pleasingly isolated from an urban environment, yet their presence actively jeopardises the biodiversity for which they visit; they seek landscapes that match their ideals of what ‘nature’ should look like, and those ideals can’t be achieved without a combination of artificial conservation and fabrication. The condition of natural spaces is therefore tailored to meet our taste: we make nature less natural by wanting to visit it.

If the tourist gaze was a nascent phenomenon when Mary Butts composed Warning to Hikers, it is near ubiquitous now. Where, then, can we find the ‘strangeness of the unharvested’ in the UK today? One answer, odd as it may sound, is within the estates of the Ministry of Defence. The MoD is the country’s third biggest landowner, the leaseholder of almost 2% of the UK’s total land mass – and acres of pristine countryside are within its control. Many of these estates are available to hire as filming locations and settings for extreme sports. To quote the MoD’s website, their assets encompass

more than 45,000 buildings (excluding housing), including barracks, bunkers, naval bases, historic buildings, hangars and warehouses. The rural estate includes areas of outstanding natural beauty such as woods, plains and lakes, many of which are untouched by modern buildings or features.

The MOD charges a commercial rate for the use of its locations in the same way as any other commercial location provider.

Despite these riches, the ecological jewel in the MoD’s portfolio is not available for commercial hire: Porton Down, a secretive research facility north of Salisbury. The 7,000-acre complex was established during the First World War to research, test and refine the latest military technology — chemical weapons. One of its earliest innovations was the ‘M Device’, a highly toxic gas encased in the tip of an exploding shell. Taking the form of sherbet-yellow crystals when in its solid state, as a gas the chemical agent causes persistent vomiting, death in infants and long-term environmental pollution. The First World War ended shortly after its development but the cabinet’s then-Minister for War, Winston Churchill, remained an enthusiast. He campaigned unsuccessfully for the device to be used against rebellious communities in north-west India, writing in a government memo in 1919, ‘I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes’.

Porton Down’s facilities are still in active use and, as we might expect, its weapons research is classified. In the words of Bruce George, the former Chairman of the Commons Defence Committee: ‘It’s too big for us to know, and, secondly, there are many things happening there that I’m not even certain ministers are fully aware of, let alone parliamentarians.’ Several airmen participated in chemical weapon tests at the site in the early 1950s, having been told they were testing cures for the common cold. The soldiers were actually exposed to the nerve gas sarin in sealed chambers and a twenty-year-old airman, Ronald Maddison, died during the experiments. Almost ten years later, in 1961, Porton Down researchers drove a Land Rover through Somerset to Bristol, releasing Zinc Cadmium Sulphide into the environment to simulate germ warfare. They reached central Bristol at lunchtime; the researchers wore protective clothing but the public was not made aware of the experiment.

Because of these controversies, Porton Down has become something of an ersatz Area 51 in the tabloids’ imagination — the location of alleged alien landings, or clandestine cannabis cultivation by the state. The MoD claim that the facility stopped developing new chemical weapons in the 1960s. Today it is said to mainly focus on defensive research against biochemical attacks, and in 2015 it also became the home of a private pharmaceutical firm: Porton Biopharma Limited.

Whatever is going on in its laboratories, wide areas of Porton Down’s large rural site have been untouched for most of the last century. Away from regular human contact the natural ecology is flourishing; it is now the finest example of chalk grassland in the UK, if not Europe. In June 2017, the BBC’s Springwatch television series was offered ‘rare and privileged access’ to the diverse varieties of flora and fauna that have been preserved within its perimeter. The show’s presenter, Iolo Williams, celebrates Porton Down as a ‘paradise’ in the segment that aired, an environmental time capsule. ‘There is wildlife everywhere’, he tells us, because it has ‘been cut off from human interference for 100 years’. Williams introduces us to the endangered duke of burgundy butterfly, with its distinctive checkerboard wings. We are shown hundreds of ant hills on a slope: the subterranean lair of over 30 billion yellow meadow ants. This undulating ‘ant-scape’ looks like a small battlefield once struck by little shells, its craters now grown over with grass. (We aren’t told that chemical explosives were tested on the site for decades, and many remain unexploded beneath the soil.) Above ground, the rare stone-curlew bird can rear its young at ground level because foxes and people without clearance are kept out by the electric fences. Unidentified birds of prey circle in the sky to a rousing musical score. A deer is shown grazing peacefully in front of an MoD warning sign. It reads: ‘Out of bounds to troops’.

‘There is one thing about the Earth, not often noticed’, Butts writes in Warning to Hikers, ‘how quickly, in the friendliest country, the most loved, described, harvested or defiled, the land will become again a no-man’s-land.’ Quarantined sites like Porton Down attract intrigue for this very reason: they help us imagine what the land might look like without us. The flora and fauna are an afterthought for the technicians in Porton Down’s laboratories and, as a result, they thrive in a way they wouldn’t under our direct care and commercialisation. Speaking generally, military conflict is terrible for the environment (human or otherwise), scarring landscapes and contributing to the extinction of numerous species. But outside of the battlefield, the defence sector’s indifference towards nature is often seen to benefit the local wildlife, preserving ecologies that might otherwise have been bleached out by ‘human interference’.

Alongside Porton Down, there are several other examples of plush biodiversity in military spaces and testing sites. Perhaps the most impressive – both in terms of its size and the sheer mystery of what inhabits it – is the Demilitarized Zone (or DMZ) between North and South Korea. A slip of no man’s land that runs across the Korean peninsula, the DMZ serves as a buffer across which the two Korean states can look at each other through binoculars and exchange propaganda through loud-speakers. Only two miles deep, the zone is 160 miles long, and within its borders are mountains, lakes and forest. Military patrols are rare, landmines are common and much of the strip hasn’t seen a human foot since it was annexed in 1953. The DMZ now features the most resplendent biodiversity in the region including, some claim, the critically endangered Siberian tiger. Within the zone, former rice paddies have rapidly dissolved into rich marshland and a medieval capital, Taebong, has been abandoned since the end of the Korean War. The journalist Alan Weisman believes the DMZ is ‘serenely natural’ and writes lyrically about its diverse crane species, some of which are extremely rare:

the new occupants of these lands arrive as dazzling white squadrons of red-crowned cranes that glide over the bulrushes in perfect formation, touching down so lightly that they detonate no land mines… They winter in the DMZ alongside the endangered white-naped cranes…

Weisman’s logic is self-evident: namely, that nature can be seen most clearly where humans cannot go. And it is at its most serene when indifferent to the political violence that facilitates such splendid isolation – to the landmines that do not detonate beneath it.

A similar tone is found in wildlife reports on another, more infamous site: Guantanamo Bay. A 100-year-old US outcrop on hostile Cuban soil, the bay currently serves as a naval base and a centre for detaining, interrogating and torturing suspected terrorists without charge. Guantanamo Bay is considerably smaller than the Korean DMZ – at 45 square miles, it is less than half the size of Plymouth. Nonetheless, isolated from industry and society, its dense forests have effectively gone untouched for a century. The Cuban government does not accept the US’s right to occupy the bay (or cash its annual lease payments) but steep hills and razor fencing seal the site off from the rest of the island. Within those hills is an environment that The Washington Post recently called ‘a de facto wildlife refuge, a haven for rare species.’ While the wildlife inhabiting the Korean DMZ mostly remains a mystery, naturists are often invited to explore Guantanamo and monitor the creatures that dwell on the periphery of the camp. The Post’s article summarises a typical scene in the bay:

Up on the hill, the Caribbean sun bakes down. A curlytail lizard basks on a post. A Cuban pygmy owl perches in a nearby shrub, its breathy calls competing with the muted cracks of rifle shots from a distant target range. Down below sprawls the naval base, a small town on the shore of placid, blue Guantanamo Bay.

Cuban boas, a threatened species elsewhere in Cuba, are abundant, ‘hanging out in old bunkers, tunnels and pipes’ – as are critically endangered iguanas. The coral reef and coastline is the best preserved in the Caribbean, a gold standard for the region, and home to manatees and crocodiles and four species of turtle. The Post is not alone in finding ironic joy in the diversity of Guantanamo Bay’s cloistered ecology; eight years ago, National Geographic also ran a story on wildlife in the bay. They published under a provocative headline, ‘Animals Thrive Behind Razor Wire’.

Guantanamo Bay and the Korean DMZ are confined from the masses for political reasons – but biodiversity can also flourish in environments that are quarantined on health grounds. The best known toxic ecosystem is in Chernobyl, where wild wolves are seven-times more abundant than in any nature reserve in the region. An even more surprising ecology, however, exists in the Bikini Atoll. Located in the west of the Marshall Islands, the Atoll is a necklace of small Pacific islands around a 230-mile-deep lagoon. During the 1940s and 1950s, it was used as the primary nuclear testing site of the US military; a total of twenty-three atomic bombs were exploded on and around the islands. One of these tests produced an explosion 1,100 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The human Bikini Atoll residents were forcefully displaced during the two decades of tests and, despite returning briefly in the 1970s, the flora is still too radioactive for anyone to survive long term. But that is not the case for the non-human residents of the lagoon; research suggests that the atoll’s marine ecology has rebuilt itself with impressive and even opulent resilience. A July 2017 article in the Guardian reported how a team of scientists had

discovered a diverse eco-system of animal life in and around the bomb crater, including coral as big as “cars”, hundreds of schools of fish including tuna, sharks and snapper, and coconut crabs devouring radioactive coconuts on the shore.

As in the Korean DMZ, nature is surprisingly quick to forget about humanity. It is a thought that often thrills us. Of course, equally remarkable ecologies exist in more curated locations – both in nature reserves and the urban environment – and there are pristine mysteries in the ocean’s deepest zones. Yet a febrile fascination surfaces when we encounter nature where it isn’t expected, in our territories and without our intent. It can be exciting to think of wild nature as a force against human purpose, something independent and indifferent that doesn’t need to be kept in a national park for its own protection. This fixation, if we might call it that, is best caricatured by the popular appetite for environmental disaster movies, for the sight of tsunamis over Manhattan streets and wolves roving through empty suburban houses.

Imagining iguanas in Guantanamo Bay or crabs on the Bikini Atoll is appealing because they disprove the idea that nature is a cultivated object. They represent a distortion of the town-nature dichotomy; ecology without human design but seen through human eyes. Butts explains her idea of true nature, or ‘virgin soil’, in similar terms. For her, the wilderness is not just a rural phenomenon. A townhouse that has been ‘pulled down and not rebuilt’ is ideal compost for nature to claim back the land:

if you look between the builders’ boards, you will find a savage wilderness for version of the waste-land, dock and elder and sorrel, a mixed coarseness it is sometimes hard to name separately; not lovely, chiefly alarming. One asks: “How did it get in?”

The unlovely beauty of a crumbling building is beyond the appreciation of modern nature fans, who prefer thatched cottages, though we are told that it hasn’t always been this way. Despite their urban living conditions, Butts says, the Ancient Romans and Babylonians lived in a period of prelapsarian unity with the wilderness because ‘no one had yet discovered nature.’ What’s interesting here is that Butts, of course, is not an ancient Babylonian, and so she is tacitly condemning herself. Like the city-bred man she also has ‘discovered’ nature and the coherency of Warning to Hikers is dependent on her using the term frequently. Her ideas are at odds with her words, which present the wild in an urban semantic frame – so much so that the image of the derelict townhouse is an appropriate metaphor for Butts’ writing itself: a ‘savage wilderness’ within walls. (Tellingly, the etymology of ‘ecology’ is also connected to manmade space. ‘Eco’ derives from the Greek oikos, which means ‘habitation’ and ‘dwelling place’, as we might expect – but also ‘house’.) The language we use to understand the phenomenal world is filtered through urban analogies, and this inability to see nature cleanly can lead to misanthropy and a longing for annihilation. When Butts tells us that nature is a big indifferent hand, poised to squash humanity at any moment, does she hope it will fertilise her flesh too?

Our fears can seem bespoke but they might be narcissistic. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, one of the more unusual monsters in her fictional universe is the boggart. Boggarts are solitary and secretive, lurking in the dark corners of wardrobes and suitcases. Nobody has seen a boggart’s original form because, as soon as one has been apprehended, it transforms into your worst fear. Like the wilderness we remould it when we witness it and we don’t know what it is without us. Violence and destruction – or war, as they appear in their industrialised form – seem to facilitate many of the few circumstances when we feel we can see nature plainly. An environmental apocalypse would represent the apotheosis of this complex, a chance to see humanity’s destructive tendencies reflected in the logic of nature itself. We want to believe that nature is redder in tooth and claw than we are and, by perilously altering the temperature of the planet, we are intent on proving it.

Irrespective of how modern civilisation ends, we can be confident that our waste will last longer than our creations. The US government has long been planning for such an outcome. Over the last fifty years its weapons tests have produced a vast quantity of radioactive material – currently two million cubic feet, and counting. By 2070 this toxic sludge will all be locked deep in salt deposits in the New Mexico desert and left to sink slowly into the earth’s crust. For another 10,000 years at least, though, it will remain close enough to the earth’s surface to be accessed by any society with decent mining capabilities. Should the human species survive long enough, experts believe people will eventually forget about the buried nuclear waste – meaning they could accidentally drag it out into the atmosphere again. The designers of disposal sites are therefore presented with a semiotic problem: how to communicate danger to a future society whose language and culture may be radically different from our own.

An increasingly popular solution to the issue of nuclear semiotics was devised by Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri in 1984. Writing in a paper largely overlooked at the time, the two philosophers reasoned that a new species of cat could be genetically engineered – a ‘ray cat’ that changes skin colour when it approaches a toxic environment. Some of these cats should remain domestic and live alongside humans, they suggest, while others would presumably be habituated around nuclear disposal sites. Sinister myths about these animals would then be fed into art and folklore over the millennia, frightening people away from any location where they saw a cat change colour. It is impossible to prevent future humans from forgetting the true origin of the cats but, because legends have a longer shelf-life than knowledge, the alarm caused by the creatures would be able to outlive the memory of the threat they signify. The ‘ray cats’ would become an authentic cause of fear in the wild, something unrelated and indifferent to us. Quite how colourful cats could survive in the New Mexico desert is unclear. But if we assume they’d be well equipped for life in the wilderness, it is likely that a serenely natural ecology would form around them, away from the eyes of humans and above countless gallons of radioactive waste.

Jack Browne lives in London and is an editor at Hurst Street Press. He has just started tweeting at @JackBrowne.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, September 28th, 2017.