Dating from 1993, this draft article by Ted Hughes begins with an account of river pollution and develops into a wider discussion about consumerism and waste.
Hughes's formative experiences of the natural world stem from his childhood, where he grew up freely exploring the moors and valleys around his home in Mexborough, Yorkshire. His powers of observation and astute awareness of animals, nature and environment became cornerstones of Hughes's poetic imagination. Early poetry collections such as The Hawk in the Rain (1957) reveal a writer acutely concerned with the relationship between man and nature. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the 1962 work that examined the effects of agricultural pesticides and is widely regarded as spurring the modern environmental movement, further shaped Hughes’s interest in the subject of ecological destruction.
Later, as captured in the 1983 collection River, Hughes built an intimate knowledge of Devonshire rivers from years spent exploring and fishing. In the 1980s, Hughes witnessed the destruction of this environment by pollution. During this decade and the next he took on the role of activist, carrying out extensive research and taking part in public enquiries.
Hughes’s ecological work was far-ranging, and included an involvement in schemes such as Farms for City Children founded by Clare and Michael Morpurgo. Many of Hughes’s concerns have since become part of mainstream dialogue. As early as the 1950s, living in America, he wrote to his sister Olwyn of food miles and the waste produced by cellophane packaging.
What issues does Hughes address in this article?
'I had known it intimately’, Hughes writes of the River Torridge, local to his home in Devon. The article opens with Hughes’s account of noticing a change to the Torridge in early January, after the end of the winter hibernation period. He is confronted with ‘the shock of litter’ that is no longer an occasional plastic bag but, ‘The whole river, both banks, … festooned with plastic bags + bottles’.
From this initial observation of the polluted river, Hughes moves on to make a more radical connection between environmental destruction and consumerism. Hughes characterises our consumerist appetite as part of an ancient biological drive. The ‘passion for the kill + for carrying the trophy home’ has transformed into the act of buying.
The difference and the problem, Hughes argues, is that in the past this drive revolved around acquiring food to survive. Now it applies to all objects, and as a result produces vast waste. There is a worrying disparity, he argues, between the ‘size of the rubbish-making population, + the smallness of the earth’. The problem is also fed, he suggests, by ‘transient’ ‘big businesses’ uninterested in their environmental impact. Hughes concludes with the choice either to ‘suffocate + perish’, or to find solutions.