The 25th of September is World Rivers Day and we are very glad to be able to publish ‘Loss of Habitat’ by Ryan Prout and Mark Stafford, to coincide with the event.
World Rivers Day, founded by Mark Angelo, is a celebration of the world’s waterways, highlighting the many values of our rivers. It took its inspiration from the UN’s Water for Life Decade (2005).
World Rivers Day strives to increase public awareness, and encourages the improved stewardship of all rivers around the world. Globally, rivers face an array of threats. Only through our active involvement can we ensure their health in the years ahead.
The turmoil being experienced by the River Wye, which is part of the subject matter of ‘Loss of Habitat’, connects closely with the remit of World Rivers Day and with the objective of increasing public awareness of threats to our waterways.
In this section from the Q+A between the strip’s creators, the writer of the story discusses how the River Wye became a character in the scenario.
MS: Where did the idea for this story originate?
RP: At Easter I went for a couple of days to Monmouth, to spend some time walking along the Wye. It can be a very peaceful place to be and there are spots along the riverside, like St Peter’s Church, at Dixton, that are a real tonic for the soul. Even here, though, when you look closer, there’s tumult as well as peace. The church is a stone’s throw from the river bank, on level ground, and has been flooded regularly since it was built. The markers inside that record flood levels show the increased frequency of flood events since the 1990s.
I don’t drive and getting to Monmouth means switching from a train to the bus that leaves from Chepstow. While I was waiting for the bus connection, I couldn’t help overhearing a conversation between two women sitting at a right angle from me at the stop. They were both living in temporary accommodation in Chepstow. One had been put up in a hotel; the other was staying in a shelter. It was a very open conversation, so I didn’t feel as if I were eavesdropping.
The younger woman said that she had to move out of her previous home because of a violent partner. She didn’t like where she was staying in Chepstow and her car had been stolen. Her groceries were being pinched from the shared kitchen, as well. She said she wanted to be in Monmouth and mentioned that a building that had been set aside for temporary accommodation there had been flooded and was out of use. The two women offered each other some consolation in that they each had a roof over their heads, and, as the younger one said, she was away from the physical violence, at least.
This is where the dialogue in the strips comes from. As soon as I got to Monmouth I wrote down what I could remember of the conversation. What struck me was that without overhearing the conversation, I wouldn’t have had the first clue that these two people were living in shelters. There are layers of homelessness, from the very visible layer of rough sleeping, to the layer of people who have a place to sleep at night but no permanent address. And still more layers, like the one where people can’t afford to live anywhere remotely close to where they work. They may have an address somewhere but have to couch surf during the week. There are these invisible sorts of quasi-homelessness. A roof over one’s head and a home aren’t the same thing at all. That’s something I wanted to get at with this story. All the other things that can give us a foothold in life, like building relationships and making friends, are much harder to do when you’re constantly moving around and have no place to call your own.
MS: Where does the ‘Loss of Habitat’ title come from?
RP: Ultimately, it stems from a poem by Czech immunologist and writer, Miroslav Holub. In Vanishing Lung Syndrome, which I read in the 1990s, he was caustic about a concern for what he called ‘the psycho-social wellbeing of chickens’ taking precedence over the welfare of human beings. Back then, I was quite persuaded by this. Now I’m more inclined to think that a concern for human welfare can’t so easily be detached from a concern for life and wellbeing, in general, in the sense that all life forms share an integrated eco-system.
I met Mark Jickells while I was walking to Symond’s Yat. He’s developing a website with an overview of the entire length of the Wye. He told me about the environmental degradation of the river. I found out more about this from the Rivercide documentary produced by Franny Armstrong. The film, which includes graphics and research from Cardiff University, shows how the river is becoming inhospitable to plant, animal, and human life as a result of pollution, especially the huge amount of phosphorus flowing into the water from the run off produced by Intensive Poultry Units along its banks. It’s having a devastating effect on the river. The creatures that call it home are, in effect, becoming homeless.
A memorable scene in the film is Angela Jones emerging from a swim in the Wye and describing how much more polluted the water is now. She is an advocate of the river, and someone who has seen the changing conditions in the Wye from the perspective of a wild swimmer familiar with the water quality. The image of a woman emerging from a polluted river isn’t Angela specifically, but references that scene in the film. It suggested a connection between the conversation at the bus stop and the slow death of the river Wye. People, creatures, and life forms in general are experiencing a loss of habitat because of over-exploitation of natural resources and the elevation of profit margins at the expense of everything else.
In an interview about Rivercide, George Monbiot, who presents the film, says that pollution is the physical manifestation of corruption. In a similar sense, I think you could say that homelessness, if not the physical manifestation of corruption, is the material manifestation of a broken human habitat and housing sector. Rivers are turning into waste disposal units; housing is turning into a sump for investments by people who have more money than they know what to do with.
The fact that one of the women I overheard couldn’t live in Monmouth because the refuge where she might otherwise have found shelter had been flooded also suggested the broad impact of environmental breakdown and its displacement of species, including the human species. People who are homeless or who live in temporary and insecure housing, and animal and plant life threatened with extinction by pollution, are all experiencing a similar process that we could call the loss of habitat.
And it’s closer than we think. The notion of the picturesque comes from the Wye Valley. Queen Victoria stayed at the Royal Hotel in Ross-on-Wye to admire the view. Behind the picturesque scenery, though, something else is going on. The Wye is being turned into an agro-industrial drain, and away from the picturesque centres of rural small towns, people are struggling with addiction, insecurity, and homelessness in countryside ghettos that rarely make the news.
The edgy style of your artwork and the counterpoint between the images and the dialogue brilliantly capture, in my humble opinion, the kind of synthesis that I had in mind when thinking about ‘Loss of Habitat’. There’s something both beautiful and devastating about the images that keys into a habitat, people, and other living things, that exist for the moment on the brink.
The psycho-social wellbeing of animals perhaps isn’t as far removed as I used to think it was from the health, happiness, and security of the human species. That epiphany is also, to my mind, really well conveyed in the strip’s final panel.September 20, 2022