Covid thoughts: Cornwall’s skyscapes

Impacts of Covid-19 on current and future landscapes

Sarah’s piece on the effect of the Covid19 lockdown on Cairngorms soundscapes had echoes in Cornwall. Here, near the south coast, we still heard the cutting and transporting of silage, and the occasional motorcyclist making their way past, but the chirps and calls, buzzings and rustlings, and rushings of the winds and breezes were for a good length of time not drowned and distorted by the distant roarings of high-flying Airbuses and 747s. Skyscapes in Cornwall also changed in the Covid 19 lockdown weeks. Coinciding with gloriously fine weather was the erasure from our Cornish skies of the constantly evolving palimpsest of criss-crossing white lines of vapour trails or contrails.

Lines cross above lime trees; vapour trails above pre-lockdown Lanhydrock, Cornwall, some sharp, others faint and dissipated, all changing the way we see the sky and place (© Pete Herring)

We saw and experienced for this brief spell glimpses of other times, aspects of landscape as they were before air travel.

We have become accustomed to jet planes scoring sharp new white lines above us, and then jet streams stretching and attenuating those vapour trails, weaving them into linear lacy curtains that humanise our skies as they halve, quarter and further subdivide them. On some sunny days the atmospheric conditions may mean that planes do not leave trails, but we know they will return tomorrow, and we see their flashing green and red lights move purposefully through the night. The sky can seem to be a highway for traffic, and especially so in places more substantially affected by planes than Cornwall; those near busy airports or beneath approaches to them. While the airfleets have been parked up we have seen historic Cornwall (and other parts of Britain and the world) more clearly than for many years. With an emptied sky we can imagine Veryan Bay as essentially prehistoric, with its great Iron Age cliff castle closing off its east side, on the wedge-shaped headland the Dodman.

Skies without trails allow you to imagine prehistoric landscape at Veryan Bay, Cornwall. Late sun falls on the flank of the Dodman, an Iron Age cliff castle (© Pete Herring)

And when looking over Cornwall’s anciently enclosed farmland, its fields marked out with hedges many hundreds of years old, we see again the skies that its medieval farmers saw.

Skies like these looked down on the medieval people who made these farms and laid out these fields, in Veryan, Cornwall (© Pete Herring)

We see medieval skies above Bodmin Moor’s great common grazings and over our small market towns, dreamily Claudeian skies over Georgian parklands, and bracingly breezy Victorian and Edwardian ones over seaside promenades.

The clarity of the sky emphasises the breezy freshness of the landscape and seascape near the front at Portscatho (© Pete Herring)

I have noticed shifts in the horizon in my landscape photographs of this re-newed old Cornwall. Before lockdown my images were filled with land; now I give much more room to the sky. The horizon is in the upper half of 88.2% of the 262 landscape photos taken in December 2019, but is for just 57.6% of 328 photos taken in May 2020. Put another way, the sky dominates the land in only 11.8% of my pre-lockdown photos but does so in 42.4% of those taken in lockdown.

This is far from scientific, and there are numerous other factors at play, but these figures reflect how I looked at the world, including the sky, during lockdown. They make me wonder why I looked at it differently before. Did I cast my gaze down and away from busy or polluted skies? I certainly appreciated the wholeness and coherence of places in Cornwall during lockdown, and I still look at the sky more now that the planes are gradually returning.

All this made me ask a question that many have posed before. Who owns the sky? It seems, at first, a common resource shared by all, the reservoir of the air we breathe, the bringer of the light, warmth, weather and fresh water that sustain us, and a vital overarching and illuminating element in the landscape we appreciate and enjoy.

As Elinor Ostrom showed, commons, or ‘common-pool resources’, involve rights and responsibilities and require mechanisms to manage and where necessary to police both.

Rights that we might expect in relation to the sky include enjoyment of the shared skyscape as well as an expectation of clean air to breathe and reasonable use of the water that falls from it. These rights then guide the responsibilities of those who actively use the sky, whether as a medium through which to fly, from microlights to airliners, or as a dump for the exhaust material from a range of activities, from heating a house and driving a car, or from industry or, again, from those aircraft, and our ocean-going vessels. 

While no-one ‘owns’ the sky, that need for mechanisms to manage its users’ rights and responsibilities, including securing the safety of human and other life has led to acceptance that the sky effectively ‘belongs’ to states. Richard Walker in 2019: ‘for the last hundred years or so – as long as aircraft have been an important part of economies – governments have claimed ownership of the airspace above our heads.’ He adds: ‘Individuals or corporations may own land and use it as they see fit, but the sky belongs to the state.’

Professor Susan Oosthuizen confirms (in conversation) that the sky is therefore not one of Elinor Ostrom’s commons, which usually involve rights and responsibilities regarding restricted resources, like a defined area of shared grazing land, held by a limited number of individuals and managed by rules or customs monitored and enforced by a body backed up by a recognised authority. But the sky and its products (air, rainwater, beauty, etc) being essentially without boundaries do form a public resource.

As members of the public we all share responsibility for the state of the sky, as well as rights to its enjoyment. While it is states who control traffic through airspace, for obvious safety reasons, and enact and enforce laws to control pollution or manage access to water and the like, we all take individual decisions that affect its form. We can heedlessly contribute to its pollution, or we can carefully minimise that and press others to do the same. And we can employ numerous democratic processes to ensure that the legislation in place to minimise pollution and other disturbance works well.

Shortly after I told Sarah I might contribute a note on changes to Cornwall’s skyscapes, the Guardian newspaper published in its Review a strikingly beautiful photograph of the view across central London, apparently taken from a high building, probably the BT Tower.

Many will know the land in that photo. It runs SE from Marylebone and includes Senate House, the British Museum and Centre Point, then the greenery of Bloomsbury and the heat of Holborn, and on to the tall towers of the City, and Canary Wharf beyond, with Greenwich and south-east London to their right, and the Shard breaking the slightly undulating horizon of the Sussex and Kent downlands.

The photo was the lead illustration in an article collecting the lockdown views of a number of writers: What I’ve learned from lockdown (Guardian Review13 June 2020, 6-11). All reassessed values, worries and interests, and all were inclusive, forward-looking, optimistic and demanding: we need to tackle racism and inequality, avoid condescending to children, appreciate better and more humbly the richness and resilience of nature. What struck me about the Guardian’s photograph (Dynasoar/Getty Images) was its clarity of light; it seemed that London’s sky had been rinsed clean.

View from the Shard 2015 (© Pete Herring)

My own photo taken from the elevated viewing gallery in the Shard in 2015, above, by chance looked back north-westwards to the BT tower, the Guardian’s view in reverse. But the distant edges of London were then obscured by airborne pollution, the cause of an estimated 9,400 deaths in London every year. Lockdown saw pollution levels fall significantly.

As well as being cleaner, one might imagine that for just a few weeks London was also a capital city with relatively little air traffic above it; less pollution of course, but also less aircraft noise and fewer aerial distractions. Londoners, struggling with the restrictions and horrors that came with the pandemic, may have also enjoyed the coherence of its historic urban landscape, its streets, squares and riversides as much as we did the rural, urban and maritime landscape of Cornwall.

Air traffic is increasing again after lockdown and with the UK’s economy needing to sustain over sixty million people activity levels will grow, and most people have been looking forward to working, moving, playing, and exploring again. But this is a moment when the direction of our future and the nature of that growth are being determined and to some extend decided. Should we and government do as much as possible to enable individuals and communities to continue to enjoy skyscape and landscape, ancient and modern, as well as maintain and increase the cleanliness of the sky?

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