(All photos sourced from: www.cargocollective.com)
What is it about Borth that attracts geomyths I wonder? There is a brand new one this week, regarding the proposed artistic sculpture by Robert Davies. The new myth takes the form of an online petition.
Petitions are tricky things, they actively seek to condense what can be extremely complex issues, into an easy to understand short account – which is no easy task. The petitioners need to have no position of authority from which to speak and the veracity of the claims made are not necessarily checked before it goes live. In turn, we the recipients, tend to spend very little time analysing the content; succumbing rapidly to the convincingness, or otherwise, of the argument purported. Signing our name to a virtual list doesn’t hold the same level of weight as if a piece of paper were thrust under our nose. We have an immediate, usually emotive, response to the content, click to open, (sometimes) read the blurb below the headline, sign – and get on with our lives, with a faux feeling of having engaged in some form of active dissent.
All sides of this activity are thus vulnerable of falling foul to false information, often innocently, which is possibly what has happened with the Borth tree petition.
General, local, discussion about the proposed sculpture is proving to be fantastically lively and diverse, in the manner in which art is infamous. Such debate is, in my view, healthy because provoking conversation can be useful as means by which to highlight otherwise unconsidered angles. Objections therefore, at the very least, suggest that people are attempting to engage with the concepts concerned – that they care - which is surely preferable to blithe consensus? For this to be effective though, the facts purported need to be correct.
When we sign, or share, things on social media we generally do so in the good faith that it is true. The onus is upon us to think through what we are supporting, to fact check, to question. None of us know everything, thus errors are occasionally inevitable. Well-meaning, passionate, statements can be innocently mistaken.
Some people, however, will blithely repost without examination (just as they may use photographs or other artwork without crediting the source). Others will do so even when they have access to verifying the content, still others will know that the content is false but will repost regardless. Paying attention to who takes their personal authority seriously in this way can be very informative, giving one an ethical heads up on whose voice can be trusted and whose is to be listened to with caution. This applies to everyday individuals just as much as it does to news outlets, councils, councillors, politicians and institutions. We are all accountable.
As a geomythologist of course, my job is to examine delineations between facts and fiction, often historic in context and culturally sensitive, highlighting discrepancies where located - and sadly in the case of the Borth Tree petition, there are quite a few. The questions inherent in the points raised are excellent ones though, which the official website would have done well to have already addressed, thus reducing any potential misunderstandings.
Here is a short appraisal of them (the sentences in bold are quoted directly from the petition, the replies come from an amalgamation of expert sources, the opinions my own):
0. (Opening paragraph) We, the undersigned, are opposed to the proposed plan for a stylised metal tree sculpture on the beach in the submerged forest at Borth, Ceredigion.
The proposed bronze tree sculpture would not be on the beach in the submerged forest. Rather, it would be adjacent to the forest as it is normally exposed. If we're going to object to things being on, or in, the forest as it is not normally exposed, then we have a problem with the entire village.
1. The construction of Tree in the proposed location directly conflicts with the sites Special Landscape Area (SLA1) status that aims to protect and enhance the landscape.
Yes, the submerged forest is within SLA 1 - but it isn’t specifically mentioned in the CCC document from 2010 that outlines the Ceredigion SLA’s, which can be found here (see page 12).
Whether or not it should be mentioned, is perhaps open to a separate discussion.
Page 13 of this document goes on to stress that "research and educational value" are key criteria for this area, which is of course a major focus of the tree project. There would also be no long term negative impact because the construction activity involved would be minimal, including no movement of beach materials, unlike with the current sea defences.
Thus, not only does the project not conflict with the SLA status, it actually conforms to it
2. Safety issues for bathers, surfers, kite surfers, sailors and other water craft. These issues will be exacerbated by the potential entanglement of marine debris in the structure.
The tree would be no more problematic in this way than the existing groynes and beacons.
It is worth nothing at this juncture, that all profiles of the beach are controlled by these artificial structures which were created by Borth's inhabitants and local councils over the last 200 years. They impact on long shore drift all the way to Ynyslas. Without these anthropogenic features, what people think of as being the 'natural landscape' of the submerged forest we know today, would not actually exist. The village would long ago have been overwhelmed by the sea.
3. The site is not accessible for those with limited mobility. The area has no capacity for an increase in parking.
This is an issue with much of the beach – access over the stones to the exposed forest at low tide is difficult for many people. Again, perhaps this is a matter which needs addressing in and of itself, however it bears no relation to the tree per se.
4. The installation works would involve significant and unwarranted damage to the submerged forest, and disruption of the beach due to the use of heavy machinery.
This is simply not the case.
The location of the tree has been carefully mapped such that it would be where the forest is usually protected by at least 0.5m of sand - hence most people don't even realise that it is still there, let alone that it continues all the way underneath and around both the built environment and the bog... a point which the artwork seeks to draw attention to.
Ground testing and construction would have minimal impact, likely no more than that of a standard small test pit (2.5m x 2.5m). No heavily tracked machinery would traverse the beach and even the small patch of peat involved would be preserved through archive and investigation – unlike the recent West Wales Water works behind the village which cut through the forest with no suitable consultation, supervision or recording - and no public objection. Also unlike with the sea defences, which caused a loss of 100’s m2 of forest as well as significantly altering the long-term exposure of the remaining forest and other vulnerable features.
In direct contradiction, because this work would be overseen by specialists for whom the welfare of the forest is paramount, what it would do is involve significant and warranted access to otherwise hidden information about the environment without damage. This could potentially enhance current knowledge in such a way as to inform future protection, which isn't otherwise possible.
Thus, you see how a perfectly plausible argument is actually riddled with misinformation. I trust that scaremongering was not the purpose behind this, rather that concern for the environment was the overriding force. A concern which is, of course, the very narrative that the Borth Tree seeks to represent.
*Disclaimer: These views are all my own, having taken consultation with the specialists involved and upon expert reading of the published material. If I have any of the facts wrong, I apologise and am open to correct corrections. I have no personal investment in this project or local businesses one way or another, my sole interest is in the welfare of the heritage. If Tree happens, then let's make sure it happens safely. If it doesn't happen, then at least it has triggered discussion and hopefully clarified some 'myths' of misinformation about the forest. For me, the debate itself is a perfect example of how people get lost into fiction even when the facts are staring them in the face.*