Saved by the saplings: developing a physical eco-utopian practice

Saplings on Toboggan Hill, Long Ashton
Saplings on Toboggan Hill, Long Ashton, Bristol, UK, 18 August 2021
Saplings on Toboggan Hill, Long Ashton, Bristol, UK, 18 August 2021

Studying literature can seem like an indoor sport. As an ecocritic, I can spend days thinking about what it means to be an ecological being while only physically interacting with a desk chair and computer. As a utopian scholar it sometimes feels like I’m trying to work out how society could change to avert climate catastrophe IN MY HEAD. Often, the efforts I make to reach out, like starting a blog for instance, result in more time spent in front of a computer. Recently, I’ve realised that as part of my eco-utopian practice I need to get out of my head.

In July 2021 I responded to a call for volunteers to care for saplings planted on a hill known locally as Toboggan Hill. The land, on Fenswood Farm, Long Ashton, is owned by the University of Bristol.

Field in Fenswood Farm, Long Ashton, Bristol

A field in Fenswood Farm, Long Ashton, Bristol, taken on an evening walk, 18 July 2021. The mound in the background is Toboggan Hill. In February 2020 the hill was planted with 1,600 saplings by University of Bristol along with local group Long Ashton Nature, Community & Environment Trust (LANCET).

It’s simple work clearing grass from the base of the new trees to make sure they aren’t being choked. While participating I’ve found out more about the land around where I live. What I’ve learnt is kind of shocking. I’ve glimpsed how this patch of land is connected to the whole web of human activity affecting (and effecting) the climate crisis. But on the positive side, I’m seeing the work that can and is being done locally to tug on those threads of connection, loosen them and rework the land into a healthier place.

Long Ashton -what’s gone wrong?

Long Ashton has the claim to fame of being the place where Ribena was invented. It was developed at the Long Ashton Research Station in the 1930s. I was beyond thrilled to learn this after moving to the village. If my childhood self knew I would grow up to live in the birthplace of Ribena…

For the benefit of those who didn’t have a UK childhood, Ribena is a very sweet blackcurrant cordial. It is high in Vitamin C, which was handy during World War II when we couldn’t get oranges. For decades afterwards it was marketed as healthy and dutifully my Dad and Gran would give it to us when we were poorly. I still turn to a hot Ribena when I get a cold today and have an emergency bottle in the cupboard in case I get COVID-19. There is a low sugar version, which I bought once by mistake and I don’t want to talk about it.

Long Ashton Research Station closed in 2003 and much of the land around it was sold for housing development. The University of Bristol retains Fenswood Farm, land that I understand was gifted to it for research purposes.

While the agricultural land is available as a resource for academics and students, it seems under-utilised as such. In practice the land is used to grow arable crops, which are exported for animal feed. This, and its ‘further development potential’ as noted on the university website, leads me to think it is primarily being treated as a financial asset.

What should we expect of the countryside?

Long Ashton saw a massive increase in desirability in 2021, as the pandemic led people to seek homes outside of the city. While right on the edge of Bristol, it has a lot more space and access to countryside. According to The Sunday Times, it was one of eight postcodes in the UK where average house prices rose by more than £100,000 in a year.

But what is this ‘countryside’ that surrounds the village? By moving here are you any closer to nature? When the fields are dusted with slug pellets and the produce goes to feed industrially farmed animals overseas?

The other side of the village is bordered by a golf course, which is also intensively managed with no doubt widespread use of herbicides and pesticides. What we are surrounded by isn’t ‘nature’ but global commodities on the one side and leisure industries on the other.

I haven’t yet mentioned the climate crisis, but I trust readers can see the current usage of the land around Long Ashton is perpetuating behaviours that have led to the climate and ecological emergencies. We often think of green spaces as a tonic to industrialisation, pollution and our worries about the environment, but any comfort taken here might be misplaced.

Fenswood Farm fields after harvest, 7 September 2021
Fenswood Farm fields after harvest, 7 September 2021

Seeing land as land

LANCET is working to increase biodiversity in Long Ashton. This includes the usual advice to residents to sow bee and butterfly-friendly wildflowers, make a hole in your fence for the hedgehogs and install a bug hotel. But what makes me really excited about their work is they are engaging with the university about the 62 hectares it owns in Long Ashton. The saplings are growing, and the next project is to lease another field to plant a wildflower meadow.

Ultimately, it would be fantastic for the fields around Long Ashton to be supporting a range of wildlife and potentially growing food to be consumed locally – or at least by humans.

I’m glad I made it away from my computer, out of my flat and into a field full of saplings. I feel a little connection to every tree I help, I’m connecting with a group of local people, and noticing the connections between my village and global ecologies and economies. I’m doing physical work, spending time in my body and in my surroundings. The work feels meaningful, necessary and relevant, and makes me feel the same about my academic work. I’m enjoying the way they feed into each other.

Toboggan Hill, Long Ashton, September 2021
Toboggan Hill, 7 September 2021

Misunderstanding
Saved by the sapling
Sapling was growing

Misunderstanding, This Is The Kit