Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.
Jacques Yves Cousteau
Jacques is right. Globally, we produce something like 1 billion tonnes of solid waste each year. Of course, we take measures to contain it, but a quick wander along your local beach or equivalent green space after a public holiday will illustrate one thing: as a species we’re messy. Very messy. Despite our better intentions, we have an unfortunate habit of trashing beautiful places.
Cue the emotive picture of a baby seal wallowing in garbage:
Although no one could seriously claim that the inexorable rise of garbage on our planet is a good thing, it would also be wrong to claim the opposite because, much like man, one organism’s trash is another’s treasure.
Change is the currency of this conversation – whether it should be labelled good or bad is perhaps a matter of perspective. But we should leave the wider environmental debate to one side for a moment, and ask a strangely thought-provoking question:
What is it about trash strewn along a beach that affects you?
For me, and I guess for many others, the offence is primarily aesthetic. Funnily, the degree to which it pisses me off correlates pretty well with how wild I feel a place is. I will pick up trash on a mountain top, but not on a city street. In the latter case you could argue that’s because I know the public services will oblige, but I think there’s more to it. Plenty of evidence supports the idea that we gain tangible psychological benefits from green space. Moreover, and surprisingly, the degree to which we benefit correlates with fairly subtle things like biodiversity. Perhaps prettier, wilder places do us more good. Perhaps trash in these places represents a tangible, jarring insertion of us into a place which is very much not us. Perhaps I’ve gone too far.
Regardless, we do tend to gravitate towards these beautiful places and if we don’t make a conscious effort to manage our presence in them we can end up letting our messy selves get the better of us. One such place, Cala Barques in Mallorca, is something of a paradise for a particular kind of climbing; deep water soloing – combining all the things I like best about climbing – unencumbered movement, mental and physical challenge and, of course, lots of (preferably warm) water. At Barques all this comes, or rather came, together in an incredibly beautiful package; here you could camp on the beach or in caves and climb swathes of terracotta limestone above bath-warm, silly-blue water. But last time I visited things were already starting to go a bit west – I remember filling two bags with climbing-specific trash in a little cave just up the coast. This year it looks like the authorities have intervened.
It may not matter how things pan out for Barques now, it could just be too beautiful for its own good. A bit of a paradise lost, at least for me.
Last week I found a lovely little deep water soloing crag on a research trip to Canada. I took a day and climbed some new routes. Places like this make me happy, because the less than ideal elements collude to keep the crowds away – access is difficult, the routes are a little snappy and lichenous and there are loads of biting insects. It is what climbers call an esoteric venue. These places will, on a human time-scale, probably always be ‘as is’. In the right moment they are paradise.
All of which makes me think of Ireland, and how lucky we are here. Lucky that the weather is mostly terrible, lucky that the water is mostly cold, and lucky that the population has barely recovered to pre-famine levels. Some of our best and most frequented crags and places could probably be described as esoteric.
When the sun comes out, as it has in the past wee while, and everyone has that ‘Wow, I live in an amazing place’ vibe it’s interesting to reflect on how that probably wouldn’t be the case if the weather was this good all the time. We’d be fighting the crowds and the trash just to get five toes in the sand.
We are the lucky and accidental custodians of paradise.