Chapter Severn – The Mouth – Deus Ex Machina

The Prince of Wales Bridge spans the Severn Estuary, viewed from Beachley; the Wye’s mouth to the right of shot. Photo by me.


♒︎      Deus ex machina      ♒︎


All feels pulled taught in the expansiveness of this place, as if the shores, the Dumbles, Sharpness, Saniger, Guscar, Mathern Oase, Northwick Oase, Portland Grounds, Goldcliff, Gordano Round, Stert Flats, Lavernock Point, are stretched in a myriad of directions by human ambition. There is a harshness about that and it is difficult. Folded up and inwards, down and outwards, the estuary is adulterated by human fear; often the thing that drives that ambition; to have money and to succeed, and not be poor and to have failed.

Fear has become my own greatest fear. The anxiety of those fears destroying me has sat with me for a very long time, a toxic little friend. Sometimes I feel I’d be lost without her pinchy grip on my jugular veins or kidneys. Despite the breath-crunching suffering it causes, I know that fear is also a vital emotion driving ecological processes. In predator/prey relationships, this intense emotion keeps the death tolls in check and encourages growth via avoidance. There are moments of dispersal, life and death decisions shaped by distress, such as perturbation, the anxiety of parenting, the dread of dehydration. Fear is a dynamic force, particularly as it infects an entire human culture or a Nation. The flow of it is complex and non-linear, encircling in more obvious traits crossing over with hatred, insecurity, and control—racism, homophobia, domestic violence, murder, war—but also the forms of habits and careers that can be pernicious and Earth destroying. As for a fear of death itself, we don’t know for sure whether other life forms experience it, but I’m going to hazard an easy guess—yes. Humans evolved fear largely shaped by predators and foe (we can observe it in our limbic fight or flight responses) but in modern life, where many of the predators are now wiped out, we cultivate it in order to justify our vestigial biochemical responses. Humans have substituted the predators with many things, not least a fear of not having cash, cashcards, cheques. These are the things that buy us food, clothes and shelter; the bread and butter of the banking sector, but the grand exploiters are ever-present, seizing opportunity, reaching through the media, advertising, and marketing bureaus, and dwelling at the very edges of the Law.

Deus ex machina, Latin for ‘god from the machine,’ is a term derived from ancient Greek theatre. In tragedy and sometimes in comedy, to miraculously resolve a dramatic plot corner or catastrophe, actors who played gods were carried onto the stage using some kind of machine. The machine could be either a winch, like a crane, to lower bodies from above, or some kind of lift to bring them up into vision through a trapdoor. Playwrights like Aeschylus and Euripides fashioned them as devices to wow, to draw a crowd, to evoke a feeling of awe and moral surrender to the idea of some greater power. And men still do it, with their grand openings of giant bridges and launches of ships and Space rockets, except this time the power is more honest and blunt ~ a self-aggrandisement of the human money-chain, domination of land, air, sea, and now space, the techno-brain, Western capital power labelled as “investment” and engineering prowess. There’s no masking anymore, no suspended disbelief. First, there must be the desire for something spectacular to resolve our plot corner or catastrophe – humans have been wired to find exhilaration in novelty—and these men meet that demand. They exploit for their own agendas, political expediency and money—it is usually both. Exquisitely controlled, it’s an assertion of the power that was once the domain of the gods, and we are all still buying in. But it’s a plot flaw, a device to replace the real work needed for life’s genuine resolutions, not least the peaceful and loving alignment of human life within all living systems. To do it often means overcoming many of our fears. Deus ex machina side-steps the need. It’s is an easy “out,” distracting when doom looms closer, where the long haul to resolution is seemingly short-circuited. There will always be a price to pay after the curtain call, and it’s usually borne by the vulnerable and voiceless.

Capital: what started as a headcount of steer has transcended into an extinction event. In a currency-based economy, we all need money. How do we get it? Most of our energy is now directed towards it. And quite spectacularly, one of our most common fears emerges – poverty. Poverty is almost a complete loss of control, a subservience to survival. Basic needs are unmet, and reliance on the goodwill of others is the only way to get through. I’ve been through it myself in sharp shocks, but the enduring poverty of an entire lifetime is something I can only imagine. In early human civilisations (around 10000 BC), once a few chieftains cottoned-on that commodity and later representative money can hold much power over creditors (Graeber), there unleashed a beast of finding new ways to accumulate it. Money can buy war, land, water, soils, families. It buys motorways and bridges. It destroys and pollutes fragile bodies and communities of flowing bodies. It can grow itself in the form of interest, or as collateral given in advance on bricks and mortar. It can earn an income in working for the machine of making money, and in dividends from consumptive companies and in their burning of energy.

In a currency economy, those with money strive to protect it, for the fear of losing it. Those without it, well, this shapes things. It manifests loss, ill-health, and despair. Poverty is traumatic, and an enemy of the biosphere because it calls for desperate measures. Fear of poverty is perhaps its truer enemy; power and physical structures built around the promises of its avoidance. In reality, these are structures organised by an elite are where trust and ecologies break down to dust. We can try to distribute money fairly, but the lure of the shiny heap of gold—or the digital bank account or cryptocurrencies, properties, vehicles, and infrastructures— keeps setting the planet up for a fall.

Production of objects for sale in exchange for capital means waste. It’s all discarded here, hidden in the estuary, flushed out from the land where human fears to the north, east, and south gather in suspension and dissolution, along with heavy metals, plastics, oil and anthropogenic chemicals, to travel out to sea and be buried. What lives and their lovers pay the toll? Scarce creatures who cling to ephemeral subtidal sandbanks—snails, worms, shrimps, and bivalves—violently displaced by dredging barges; the rare twaite shad, along with millions of other organisms, sucked into intake pipes of Oldbury Nuclear Power Station and spat out like rubbish, birds drowned in slicks of oil drifting out of Portberry Dock… and all those at the end of a gun barrel. There is some good from Capitalism, but for another system that might have also produced the same things. There is even creativity and innovation in widening market niches, and in breakthroughs in medical science and global communication, depending on the moralities of the leadership of the organisations. But it has also incubated a culture where the wolves of Wall Street are idols, where the richest 1% own 45% of the world’s entire wealth, and where debt, poverty and trauma are taken for granted as a human cost. Global-inequality, catastrophic biospheric change (the ultimate cost), the Capitalist extremes and the neoliberal power with a vice-like grip on governments and economies. Capitalism cannot fix what Capitalism wrought. The effects of this truly invasive alien body here in this tidal rip ~ poverty and the fear of it ~ are not so visible but they are ingrained.

Here at Beachley, at the mouth of the Wye, where the heavy tides bulge and shrink with lightning speed around the peninsula to the Severn Estuary, the second-highest tidal range on Planet Earth, you’ll also find The First Battalion The Rifles, just returned from Afghanistan. I hear them firing their practice rounds over land evicted from its community of villagers, trees and wilder paddocks over one hundred years ago and never returned, a war requisition to build a shipyard that never produced a ship. The failed National Shipyard trio included Chepstow just across the Wye, and Portberry, now one of Britain’s biggest hubs for the international trade in cars.

As a species (disparities aside just for one moment), we produce engines to run machines that do the heavy work, like we produce guns to do the worst of our bidding when we feel threatened or seek to control. What’s more, a new movement has squeezed through the gaps, one to give accent to “progress” – an industrial aesthetic validation for new materials forged from engineered combinations of the old. It began with early Modernism and still goes, perhaps heralded no less by architects Richard and Su Rogers and their ‘honest’ mechanical, inside-out building, the Pompidou Centre, Paris. Juxtaposed is to recall a false nostalgia, a falstalgia, would we so easily fall into the trap of the “picturesque,” especially in relation to rivers since Gilpin published his “Observations on the River Wye.” Those mellow tones still play widely with our ideas of what is framed and beautiful.  Smoothed by an artist’s brush or the slow shutter speed of a camera, don’t fall for this either; imprints upon our shortbread tin minds and enamelled paradise gardens. This is not what life is.

Spread over these overworked British Isles, then exported through the brutalities of Colonialism, our ancestors have enslaved ecologies to a point that they are subservient to the whole human experiment and in a plummeting order of worth. If individual wild lives were valued as a social class, they would be the third or the fourth, or perhaps even lower. There is no real levelling, apart from those who might grant them membership of the Human Club with similar Rights under the jurisdiction of the higher justice of the Courts of the land. This is the prevalence of our dominion. It really is extreme. Would valuing them with personhood belittle their identity-in-difference, their better sense of wisdom and beauty through vast interconnectedness, the spectrum of their senses, some of which we’ll never fully comprehend? Are they as themselves never enough? Or will our culture always take pride in the conquests, so there’s little choice but to label them as persons if we want to save their lives?

Meanwhile, the intense manicuring, agricultural maximisation, and giant road and rail stuper-structures also tap into our species-vanity, jets and rockets selling the idea of winning and losing. Fear of failure still lurks powerfully in the shape and skin of the land and water, and the causes and effects that bring about an intrusion into the flow, then several intrusions, and finally a broken ecological flow dwindling to dust or flood. It is the same human fear that builds power among the many and discards the vulnerable, oppresses old ways of knowing, and breaks the spirit leaving the biosphere in a hyper-tide of trauma.

Like a passenger plane crashed into the jungle, or a ship sunk in the ocean, the trauma is here right now in the estuary, perhaps overrun by roots and holdfasts and tendrils, a reef-like sanctuary of sorts for the animals that live in the shadows. But the wreckage is also a poison, with its paints and oils; an unwarranted picturesque artwork, bleeding its mythology into an ancient ecology. These are the sunken coal barges, the car ferries, the timber ships, The Brunswick, Ramses II, The BP Explorer, and a Victorian railway bridge demolished by deathly collisions in a place that is so turbulent and dangerous, yet full of life and those trying to love, even under a slick of oil. At the same time, this is also a place where old bones and magnificent auroch horns still dwell, trapped with split oak planks and mussel middens of long-dead ancestors. Even the footprints of Mesolithic human children still just appear at the lowest tides, real and tangible to those lives where murk is the ticket to life. Up here on the bridge, we don’t have to face any of it. We can cruise along at speed thinking about our busy lives and where we are going today, glimpsing the sparkle of the setting sun on the horizon, unaware, unconcerned, of what lies beneath. As if 14 metres of tidal rip, and all the junk and the heavy metals drained from the land—Cd, Cr, Ni, Zn and Pb—have no bearing on us and our daily lives. Enter, giant burnished silver bristle worms, filamented, glowing white heat in the sub-mud, articulating their armour in little, sudden jerks. Lead sabellaria worms the size of cranes harden to each rising tide, sucking in plastic, spitting out fire. Nickel prawns the size of men pop up from the vast trap doors to dance for bronze two-ton gobies; automaton puppets. The separation from reality—that suspended disbelief—becomes horrific, and the “jumpers”, by whatever turmoil tears through their minds, make an assumption that stepping from the bridge is the end of it. Broken bodies, broken minds, the troll of this bridge is in the myths of industrial Capitalism.