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Preston to Mumbai (and Back)

This article was originally published by Arts Everywhere.

By Rebecca Chesney 

My work as a visual artist is concerned with the relationship between humans and nature: how we perceive, romanticize, and translate the landscape, and how politics, ownership, management, and commercial value all influence our surroundings.

I live in Preston in the U.K. and observing nature within the city has inevitably fed into my work and influenced my ideas. With the urban environment constantly changing, through periods of expansion and development, or recession, decline, and neglect I’ve become attracted to noting the resilience of some species.

In 2006, I conducted surveys in Preston to try and discover all the "weed" species in the city (only species that were unplanned and not deliberately planted on landscaped areas were included in the count). I documented over 50 species in gaps in the pavement, gutters, rooftops, chimneys, and on small plots of derelict land. The list includes native, archaeophyte, and neophyte species.

Some can be described as resilient, others as opportunistic invaders, but they’re all surviving in what is seen as an unnatural habitat. Thriving along damp walls and beside leaky drainpipes were some wonderful examples of native ferns: Black Spleenwort, Maidenhair Spleenwort, Wall-Rue, Hartstongue, and Male Fern, for example.

Given that Preston is included in the Doomsday Book of 1086, the earliest surviving public record of the land held by William the Conqueror, it is intriguing to wonder if these species have been here since before that time, and how they have adapted to the challenges posed by an ever-changing "habitat."

Expanding the project further brought the publication, in 2012, of Natura in Minima Maxima: A Map of the Famous City of Preston, Proud Host to Plants of All Nations. I have continued to record plants in Preston; this hand drawn map reveals some of the 70 species documented since the project started in 2006.

It was while on a Gasworks International Fellowship in Mumbai in 2013, where I was researching the relationship between humans and nature in and around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, that I was confronted with a situation where both humans and nature are competing for the same space and where each is surviving because of their resilience in the face of continual pressure.

The park, 104 square kilometers of native southern moist deciduous forest, is home to many rare species of plant and animals, including leopards. However, it is almost entirely surrounded by a massive urban population of approximately 20,000 people per square kilometer (it has been estimated that the population in Mumbai’s metropolitan area in 2013 was more than 20.5 million). During the 1990s, the High Court in Mumbai ruled that, because of the intense pressure on the ecology of the Park from the ever increasing population, all humans should be evicted from the Park. It was estimated that nearly 460,000 people lived in the Park by the mid-90s, but this number included both tribal villagers who had lived in the Park for generations and thousands of illegal encroachers living in self-made shanties.

The problems and conflict triggered from this ruling still resonate today. The land is subject to environmental, political, commercial, and humanitarian issues involving the interests of local authorities, environmentalists, politicians, builders, and land mafia, as well as the thousands of people who still live within the Park boundary.

Relying on the Park for shelter, fuel, and food, the illegal encroachers are some of the poorest in society, with few or no rights, making them very vulnerable. And it’s the plentiful stray dogs associated with these human settlements that have become easy prey for leopards, constituting almost 70 percent of their diet. However, there have been attacks on people living in and around the Park boundary, causing terrible injuries and a number of deaths. Living under the threat of attack from leopards and the threat of eviction from their homes, these communities reveal a resilience and determination to remain. But the authorities in Mumbai are equally determined to protect the wildlife of the Park from the pressure of creeping development, knowing that this unique and incredible habitat could be lost forever if action is not taken.

Living on the boundary of the Park during my stay in Mumbai taught me how complex the situation is—it is not a place of simple, black and white contrasts, but a complicated tapestry intricately woven. Bringing this incredible experience back to the city where I live has given me a new perspective from which to view my surroundings and to consider that, if a balance is to be found where humans and wildlife coexist, we must acknowledge how each situation and circumstance demands a different solution.



Rebecca Chesney is a visual artist based out of Preston, England.

[Photo courtesy of Alan Levine]


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