The flavour of open landfill

– Beddington Farmlands, London, April 2012

We walk a clay-coloured path towards the landfill and stop to listen to the subsong of a whitethroat newly-arrived in the country. It sings from the obscurity of bramble and other scrub, evidently practicing before it’s ready to give its best rendition. We leave it and head for the hill. To the left is a gravel pit blocked by fencing, a hillside of green grass and garbage growing up and out of it on the bank. At times I fail to differentiate the flagging bin liners from the crows and jackdaws which gather in vast numbers, picking through the bits and pieces. On the track there’s a Nike basketball shoe and the Caucasian limb of a Barbie doll, a cassette tape of ‘90s Wimbledon and a plastic water bottle. This has been carried-over by the wind and evidently the landfill is not being contained. And then it touches my face, the sickening flavour of open landfill, like the whiff of pure alcohol. If I’d eaten I’m sure I’d be gagging, I hold my nose and breathe through my mouth.

At the surmount we can see everything – the Crystal Palace ridge, now recolonized by trees after the Great Exhibition’s twilight stay in the heights of south-east London, and Addington Hills in south Croydon, an undulating snapshot of landscape. Down below we can see the crows feeding on the recent landfill, clinging to the fence as a buffeting wind moves across, it’s too cold on the eyes to look through binoculars. The landfill slopes down towards a large pool with islands scattered throughout. It’s manmade, the aim to lure migrating birds like yellow wagtails, one of which passes overhead, and provide habitat for snipe, plovers and terns. The scene is teeming with life, herons at every corner, gulls, ducks, all living amongst one another. From the landfill perimeter garbage has escaped, a stream of multi-coloured items leading to the water where a white swan is preening its wings. I look across the water to the opposite side where a crude tin hut has been constructed by the Beddington Farmlands Bird Group, they’re gathered at the water’s edge, telescopes, cameras and binoculars to hand. Behind them is a feeding station supporting London’s only colony of tree sparrows but they can’t be picked out with the naked eye from up here. On one side of the water you have people who devote their lives to caring for wildlife, and on the other side the waste which so harms ecosystems. And somehow wildlife can live with the crap we don’t want, the plastic, the rotting food and even our stool. But the question remains: can we?

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