Cardiff Bay rolled out in front of me, gold foil under an open sky. The light hummed a deep serene as I walked out on to the boardwalk. I wanted to commune with wild birds. Black-headed gulls preened and feather-shook to forge water diamonds in the early evening glow some distance away. I leaned over the hand rail and a mute swan gazed up in full expectation of food.
Built sturdily for the likes of me in my chemo-altered state of compromise, I was grateful for the access. I was grateful to be alive. Perhaps, to even glimpse a fish or two. On reaching the end of the boardwalk, my trainers bridged slits between the boards and I looked down into a wet, darkness. A thought consumed me… I was only half there, as were the wildlife, floating above the ghosts of a once vibrant natural harbour; a marshy, estuarine floloca.
Like all places, the Bay is layer upon layer of history, ghosts. Ancient Silurian tribal peoples once lived here, then the Romans came with a trading post, fort and vicus. Some 1,600 years of Welsh kingdoms and Christian missions later, the larger part of the City of Cardiff (and, later, Barry just up the coast), grew brick by brick, dock by dock upon the pouring outwards into the world of iron ore and coal from the South Wales Valleys. Pollution almost killed the rivers. Key fuel to the Industrial Revolution, these now irretrievable ores played a huge role in shaping the Anthropocene and the ugliest effects upon our one, shared biosphere.
The Bay was also a place where life poured in, human life, to find work for the industrial shippers, traders and masters. Named Butetown and Tiger Bay, the port community had a wild reputation for violence and vice. But the reality was an early exemplar of successful multi-cultural diversity in Britain, with over fifty migrant communities from all over the world making it their home.
During the 20th Century, waves of globalisation opened up new and cheaper trade routes for the exploitation of primary materials and Tiger Bay began to decay. Docks and canals were filled in. Community suffered. In the 1980s, Conservatives seized an opportunity for Thatcherite growth and property-led investment schemes, under the guise of the “Urban Development Programme”. Recovering mudflats for wading birds were deemed ugly, along with flotsam and jetsam washed up at high tides. A large concrete barrage completed in 1999 upon Royal Assent and at a cost of £220 million prevented two rivers, the Taff and the Ely, from draining freely into the sea. A 500 acre freshwater lake was created. The political Left relented, and the lakeside was opened up to the market, a vast construction site (ongoing), and ‘rebranded’ Cardiff Bay. Tenements were bulldozed, gentrification happened, and little-to-no payment was made to the resident population who had suffered years of neglect. Bring on the yachts with lock gates and gasoil. It was a successful coup by neoliberal powers, then by developers. And, after The Financial Crisis, the banks.
Meanwhile, the boardwalk pokes out into the edge of a designated wetland zone of just some 10 acres within the Bay itself; a tiny local attempt at mitigating economic re-development of a down-beaten dockland and the submerging of estuarine mudflats. Sediments are now brought only by the rivers, rather than washed in and out by the huge tides of the Severn estuary. Some bacteria evident in the Bay emit methane, as often is the case from nutrient rich freshwater lakes. The lake is shallow, and small rises in temperature will mean it emits a disproportional amount into the atmosphere. *
Sluice gates that smell of washing detergent are operated by people in control towers, calculations made by software based on live updates of river flow data. There’s a difficult concrete fish pass for salmonids and eels, monitored by cameras, and rubbish flows down the rivers, especially in spate. About 450 tonnes of it is removed from the Bay per year, but not all can be recovered. No doubt, chemicals and plastics have bled deep into food webs. There are beauties there, surviving and exchanging, to be utterly admired, but 10 acres is almost nothing compared to 500, and insignificant compared to pre-industrial marsh and delta. Sadly, there seems no body nor organisation campaigning to change this, though change it must. **
There are things wrong with our memories and forms of what land and sea ought to be. The modern human ideal cuts me like a slow, blunt knife. It’s the lack of humility, a deranged narcissism, that somehow we know better than any other species, or any other evolved community. Strange, as we call ourselves human, from latin humus earth, from the PIE root dheghom ~ earth or earthly. There’s nothing particularly earthly about what has happened at the mouths of the rivers Ely and Taff.
Perhaps, I should be more forgiving, laying blame instead on layers of human ecoagnosy (Albrecht); an unwittingness or ignorance running deep between life spans. But somewhere, and sometime, watchmen and women who intimately knew what was being lost, must have accepted the loss, by force or for the shine of a coin. Their eyes will have witnessed the waders fly in autumn and never return, the eels swim away and never come back, and absorbed the absence of the beat of the tides and the bounty of brackish spawning grounds.
The boardwalk remains as an offering to me and my kind, an anthropogenic stage, to watch and be watched. Part of its purpose is to keep us separate, we from the other. We are enabled to view without disturbing, and they can live without disturbance. But a hungry swan is still following me for crumbs, and the tufted ducks are avoiding me, way off in the distance. Adjacent water is shallow, warm and clotted with rubbish and rotting bread crusts. Behaviours have changed, in more than just the birds.
At night, the Bay is saturated by light. It bleaches from nearby street lights, high rise flats and a looming five star hotel. Diesel boats and yachts flush through each day, spreading particulates and noise. The water is eutrophic, too heavy in nutrients washed down the rivers from the broken sewers and fields of the lands to the North. It’s mechanically oxygenated at great expense, though the rivers have been improving slowly. Yet, still, life struggles. There’s toxic blue-green algae now, and a heavy burden of invasive zebra mussels. No human is allowed to swim in the water. Dogs are not recommended to swim. But the wildlife here are expected to stay and live well.
Roads, marinas, carparks and high-rise apartment blocks of high-rent paying “air people” as Raban described, are boundaries to all that is real Earth ~ flourishing cycles of nature and life of which we are a part; the generosity in the spirit of symbiosis within the nagorasphere. The Bay isn’t coherent. It’s not a bio-community. There are no longer diverse tides, of sea, dockers nor wildlife. Life exists, yes, but only on the edge. Life needs itself to be in the middle.
The boardwalk is a safe place for people of all abilities to gaze and take photos, without getting stranded, muddy and wet. We employ a few but not all of our senses. We can see afar, feel the weather and hear distant sounds. But an immersive experience, it is not. It’s a place where couples on holiday can stroll of a beautiful evening, retire to the chain restaurants that line Mermaid Key and spend their money.
They are taming us. We are being tamed. Yet, somehow, we still feel gratitude. It’s free, after all. On the boardwalk, we float above the lake made for us. We float above the ghosts; layers of ghosts.
Immersion of all the senses is good. It’s connecting. When we open up the senses there are also risks. But like love, the risk is always worth it. The bio-community must now come first. Bring the ghosts of those buried layers back to healthy life. Bring in the diversity, so we may stand among them, inside them, and they inside us; a mutualistic exchange in the nagorasphere.
My boardwalk ended, and I returned to solid ground ~ a manscaped plaza set before a ridgeline of expensive realty. I imagined, instead, a life here that would have preserved the cultural mix of wild Tiger Bay and Butetown, with an ecological integrity and low carbon living. I imagined immense diversity; fluministic awildians of all species living a good life. I won’t give up hope it will still happen, with a will and a way ~ a welcome to the Symbiocene (Albrecht), here in the Bay.
* Methane being an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
**Cardiff Bay Development Corporation hosts a new RSPB cafe, revenue raising, no doubt, but I am aware of no campaign by the bird charity to increase the wetlands area. There is some pride, it seems, of erecting a designer-tower for swifts, but it’s another man-made structure made of man-made steel set in man-made concrete; a homogenous, cultural import from elsewhere.