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Dialogue - issue #3

Beyond the Fence

Words by Jonny Keen
Illustration by Piotr Depta-Kleśta

Brownfield sites are generally seen as ugly, industry-befouled waste land. But they form unique habitats that support a range of wildlife.

There’s a secret world beyond the fence. It’s hidden in the gap between the chain link and the concrete, where people seldom look. If they did, all they’d see would be a patch of waste land strewn with weeds: an empty, barren place. It would be better, they might think, if luxury flats or a new shopping centre was built here. Years ago, before the fence rose, there was movement here, industry. But the only life here was illusory. Noxious smoke danced into the sky and a writhing mass of unknowable sludge crept into the rivers. When the factories, mills, and warehouses closed, that life faded and died.

Wrecking crews came with their sledgehammers and cranes. The bricks crumbled to dust and a new kind of life emerged from the rubble. The soil, riddled with a mosaic of clay, brick dust and assorted industrial spoil is nearly barren. But where the thickets of crabgrass, dandelions, and nettles cannot thrive, rarer, more sensitive flowers spring into being. Under a blanket of brick dust, wildflowers emerge from the clay, vanguards of the living revolution. Behind barbed wire fences and ‘no trespassing’ signs they are protected from hands that pluck and boots that stomp. After the flowers come the winged insects: bees, wasps, moths.

They are free to go about their business, buzzing around the flower cornucopia, embryonic meadow, gathering nectar among fallen roof slates. In the remnants of the structures where only human industry thrived before, new homes are made. Foxes slink under the fence, curl up under overturned water butts. Rats skitter between the pillars of long forgotten structures and birds hunt for worms among the ruins of this temple to a forgotten industrial deity. In the furrows carved out by JCB tracks, aquatic creatures frolic in the brackish water, emerging to feast on the insects that thrive on the muddy banks. As winter reaches its end, newts wrap their eggs in leaves and grasses and submerge them, tiny gifts to the world.

When they burst open, the scrape becomes a nursery, teeming with semi-translucent larvae. These fragile children with their paper skin and egg yolk eyes are safe in their nursery. In the long grass that grows high around the perimeter, grass snakes and lizards lounge in the shade, emerging here and there to swallow some rodent as it goes foraging in the nettles. The grasses, stinging leaves and scraggly bushes knot together forming a canopy, a micro-forest where fangs flash and eyes glint, a memory of dark woods where the predator was king, now metres away from pavement, street lights and convenience stores. Occasionally, noise can be heard from the street outside. But it is a world away. It has no impact on the life here. Until the day the noise becomes a din. The ponds are filled in. The burrows smashed. Those sparse meadows of rare and exquisite wildflowers broken. Fresh concrete is laid down. The wild is banished.

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