Kineocology: The Butterflies of Industrial Dereliction

A preamble or slight addition...

     Some of the following films, or rather parts of films, were initially shown at a biodiversity conference in Bradford, Yorkshire on April 8th 2006. Although the occasion was far too quick - some of the films would take an hour to view - the response was heartening. Moreover, in a rudimentary way we were able to realise some of the aims of the project outlined in the kind of 'manifesto' below whereby the films are treated as an on-going background  around which discussion is focussed  thus overcoming the asphyxiating role of  one-way lecture form. Two-way communication is essential for intelligent argument to take place. In no time questions were being voiced from the auditorium. However where this is not possible  some of the films will need add-on versions with voiceovers especially if they are for delivery to various groups to view  - hopefully rank 'n' file eco-groups - which have yet to appear if indeed the times are again a-changin'. 

      Suffice to say we were able to put across - well a little - some of the essential ideas contained in the films which are not only confined to Lepidoptera, or indeed 'nature' in a narrow sense of the term, but confront a greater totality of problems especially urbanism, contemporary chemical pollution and so-called antisocial behaviour - all of which impinge on the central theme of these films: the butterflies of industrial dereliction. 

      To take one such place recorded in these films which is soon to become landfill there was no way we could avoid the question of antisocial behaviour when discussing the fate of an old colony of Ringlets. Like so many other similar places Woodhall Quarry in Bradford inevitably became a wild venue for bikers giving rise to telling contradictions. On the one hand from being much more friendly and considerate in the 1990s', bikers have become very aggressive reflecting the increasing dominance of images derived from a must have consumerism (mobiles, trainers MP3 players etc.) broadly related to the sales pitch of gangsta rap taking at their face value neoliberal slogans like 50 Cent's 'what's yours is mine' (which could be that of a pension fund manager) and 'I run these streets' even if they are an un-worked quarry, spoil heap or disused factory. 

        On the other hand butterflies which thrive in habitats as sparse in vegetation as desert fringes like the Grayling, Dingy Skipper and Wall have found a surprising new home in the large swathes of industrial dereliction in the north of England the consequence of free market de-industrialisation which has swept Europe and the Americas. In the south of England, traditionally the smooth, superficially more nature friendly landscape of finance capital now spreading across the entire country lead by real estate and the credit mechanism, these butterflies are massively dying out. Loss of habitat is only marginally responsible. It is actually due we believe to invasive 'demon' grasses responding to a massive increase in nitrates in the atmosphere and ground from I kilo per hectare 150 years ago to 45kilos today. But the real culprits are car exhausts and gas fired central heating. Despite adding to the nitrates in the atmosphere, rough riders are the best 'anti-industrial nitrate' defoliators around, keeping the ground bare of grass and dramatically increasing the life chances of these butterflies.

           But try communicating with these guys or just saying 'hi'. For the lives of the idiot children of advertising are ruled by omnipotent media images they are unable to distance themselves from and question. Sheer nastiness guarantees ease of control as the police move in and not a voice is raised in the bikers' defence. Yet if they had not been so short-termist, mirroring the neo-liberal society that nourished them, they could have made common cause with naturalists and local people who felt that what has now become the uplifting man-made geological feature of Woodhall Quarry belonged to them and others to enjoy. The stupidity of the bikers and others like them merely plays into the hands of the developers and the state's repressive legislation, further limiting general rights and freedom of access. Paradoxically though these youths have been granted more rights than at any other time in history (but not the responsibility that goes with them) in the long term they are being progressively stripped of all rights, a fact they will find out on their first day at work. Had they been able to make common cause with others in the first instance it would have proved much harder to push through the second, which would have been to the general good yet again.


And now for the general blurb handed out before viewing the films...

      The films on show here are part of an on-going process of research into Lepidoptera in West and South Yorkshire with a particular emphasis on  the Bradford area. They are films that are essentially still in the making  and will alter over time. Though far from empty of meaning they have a beginning, middle and end only in the conventional sense and our aim throughout has been to distance ourselves from narrative film.

      Typical nature films such as are shown on TV - and with increasing regularity at peak viewing times - are weighed down with all manner of arcane literary devices which get in the way of our understanding of and appreciation of nature and actually harms conservation efforts. Not only that, they are invariably accompanied by intrusive  symphonic tone poems meant to heighten mood and add a dramatic flourish to the wildlife action taking place, with each film ending with a finale to round-off this piece of natural theatre in which nature is edited to imitate art on a scale unknown hitherto because the technical means and funding were lacking until now. And like theatre we are free to get up and leave once the show is over. But the show must go on and art increasingly becomes a substitute for life even presiding over the death of life. And if you think such statements are extravagant and incomprehensible just take a look at the surprising, and welcome, criticism David Attenborough's 'Planet Earth' has provoked.

     Though in a manner of speaking natural history films have become a lucrative spin-off of musical theatre and the performing arts, it would be downright perverse not to acknowledge their, at times, marvellous technical accomplishments. (See for example the aerial shots secured with the heli-gimble on 'Planet Earth' or the hydraulic lens used in insect photography operated by levers such as one finds on the consoles of 'cherry pickers' used to install and mend overhead street lighting etc.) 

      This cutting edge photography that these technical gizmos deliver is way beyond our means. On the other hand we believe our approach has more potential than that of (e.g.) the Oxford Natural History Film Unit whose productions have for some time provided the yardstick against which all other attempts at wildlife film making must be judged. To say our efforts are 'amateur' whilst those of the Oxford crew are 'professional' is to miss the point. Breakthroughs in digital technology, in film making programs, camcorders and computing power means it is now possible to challenge the big boys i.e. the entire apparatus of institutionalised film making to the point that 'amateur' film making is now perceived as a threat by the big institutions. This could be one of the reasons Attenborough adds an explanatory technical coda to his recent films: we can only marvel at and never hope to match the results achievable with this innovatory camera technology. Discouraged we give up before we even start, forgetting that in our apparent weakness lays our strength. 

         Once encouraged to go behind the scenes we begin to get an idea of the number of people involved and the scale of the funding which runs into millions of pounds. Hence it should come as no surprise that natural history film units are extremely solicitous of their natural history commodities which retail at anything upward of £70. (Ever tried borrowing them through the library service?). The Oxford Natural History Film Unit and Co. are first and foremost natural history show business units in which no business no show is the cardinal rule. 

        From the outset we have insisted on anti copyright and anyone is free to copy our films. A number of consequences follow on from this basic tenet. We have attempted as much as possible to concentrate, in the same person, skill in the handling of a camera, a limited mastery of digital film making programs like Pinnacle Studio 10 and high-end Premiere Pro,  and a knowledge of natural history which in turn calls for a continually broadening knowledge of related disciplines and, crucially, the socio-economic background - all rippling out in ever widening circles towards totality. As such our approach is a direct challenge to the division of labour, specifically that which prevails in enterprises  like the Oxford Natural History Film Unit, or BBC/Discovery Channel. Here everyone has their allotted role whether as accountants, fund raisers, camera technicians, naturalists, service crews, dubbing editors, digital editors, sound engineers, script writers, composers, the BBC Concert Orchestra, colourists (or rose tinted spectacularists), service crews etc right up to the high profile milord of a presenter. Ruled by a formula set by naturalist presenters and editors ever mindful of corporate interests (the BBC and other national and international sky channels), it is a production line in which  individual initiative and opinion counts for damn all. 

         All this is part of the old world we wish to be rid of. In our left-handed unexpert films, the reverse of cinematic demarcation in all its forms, we have endeavoured to keep ambient sound whether it is that of chiff-chaffs, aircraft or machinery. However it is more than just the signature of verite, like camera shake and fuzzy shots that eventually come into focus, self-consciously employed by a threatened mainstream media: we just happened to have a camcorder with us when we stumbled upon important finds like the Brown Argus in Forge Lane between Horbury and Wakefield, in the Healey Mills Marshalling Yards and on the banks of The Cut in Castleford. They are a genuine record of an unrepeatable moment that more than compensates for their technical shortcomings. We did not arrive on the site (site and not scene note well) with a film crew, lighting equipment and itinerant snack bar parked close by, having been informed of the whereabouts of the insects well beforehand. Because of this much of the footage is historic footage and irreplaceable, the mere possession of a camera at that particular moment counting for more than the entire contents of a film studio. This is where we have the edge over outfits like the Oxford Natural History Film Unit. 

          Voiceovers are limited to making brief points where the film does not speak for itself. The same goes for the scrolled script. These closely observed montaged sequences should be viewed in conjunction with a series of pamphlets we've produced over the last few years mainly dealing with specific butterfly species in South and West Yorkshire. Some of the films are quite short between 15 to 20 minutes whilst others are an hour long. On occasion they border on tedium with for example 10 to 15 minute sequences of mating Green Hairstreaks or Dingy Skippers. We thought it important to string out these sequences a/ because on prime time TV a few seconds at best would be devoted to a mating pair and b/ repeated viewings may reveal something we were unaware of especially if the mating ritual is not viewed in isolation but consecutively with other mating sequences. This cinematic reductio ad absurdum is totally at odds with the all pervading shush of cinematic narratives  and one more likely therefore to encourage dialogue with an otherwise passive audience who may well begin to make their own observations as  they would if viewing mating pairs in the wild. This could considerably add to the meaning of whatever is there on the screen. In this way the audience then ceases to be an audience and  begins to interact with, and reconstruct, what ever's on display. It is if you like 'furniture music' in a different key and certainly far less ambiguous than Satie's original musique d'ameublement where listeners were encouraged to pay no attention to the music and continue chatting. This debunking of art lends itself to the cheap objection that Satie's gesture was merely an anticipation of muzak whereas we believe it was a factor in our decision to retain ambient sound. We were likewise mindful Dziga Vertov had turned up the volume on one of his films in the Soviet Union during the late 1930s so that the sound of leaves stirring in the wind filled the auditorium, much to the bewilderment of the audience and Stalinist hacks.           

          In fact our approach essentially goes back almost to the origin of film making, to people like Vertov, his brother Boris Kaufmann and Flaherty all of whom were implacably opposed to the  theatricalisation of film. Flaherty had sold distribution rights to Pathe and taken money from Gaumont. Yet he never once used actors and remained implacably opposed to Hollywood as a betrayal of the true use of film. However not one of them foresaw a time when theatricalisation in all its forms beginning with the cute narrative crudities of Disney nature films would take over the representation of the natural world to such pernicious effect. 

          Nonetheless these films are also personal statements that crept up on us unawares and may only speak to us. It was in West Yorkshire at the age of ten in 1953 that we first awoke to the life of butterflies and moths. Perhaps it was an assertion of our rights as children as against parents and school for the interest was sparked by a chance encounter with other children of our own age in an abandoned quarry near Wakefield. Like everyone else living in West Yorkshire at that time we were surrounded by mills, coal furnaces, factory chimneys and the constant hiss and clank of steam engines. And yet somehow butterflies and moths were able to thrive on  this hostile terrain to a quite remarkable degree, a fact that is still insufficiently appreciated. And the imaginative possibilities of childhood became inextricably linked to the sight of butterflies on waste ground around factories, on the banks of railway cuttings and sidings, or moths flying in their hundreds around the arc lamps (which are still there) of Healey Mills Marshalling Yards. Our overall theme 'the butterflies of industrial dereliction' is also a desire on our behalf to recapture those childhood moments of unmatched intensity. In addition to showing butterflies in environments where even ten years ago they were absent from, these films are also the record of a personal quest that goes from the threshold of old age back into childhood.

          There is also an attempt to highlight the stark differences between nature's century and a half re-conquest of former industrial sites that were amongst the biggest in the world - sites like that of Hollybank Bluff, Shibden Head and Oats Royd where the bell pits and sunken shafts of the northern perimeter of the Silkstone coal seam were all but abandoned by 1850 as the deep mines of the Barnsley seam began to dominate coal production and railways were laid along valley floors to carry the coal like that which ran at the foot of Hollybank Bluff between Halifax and Queensbury. Compare this with the indecent haste and utter insensitivity of the 'green' makeovers of pit spoil heaps following the wholesale pit closure program of 1993 which have only succeeded in destroying much local wild life. Industrial dereliction today will not be granted the stay of execution and longevity it enjoyed in the 19th Century and there is an elegiac quality to the struggle of a Green Hairstreak to avoid drowning during a downpour as it crawls across a tin hoarding advertising kitchen fittings and which has been thrown down a ravine maybe by a disgruntled customer or more likely by young kids aggressively larking about (for this was opposite the once notorious 'Ridings' school on the outskirts of Halifax that had the honour of topping the failing schools list). Photographing Green Hairstreaks on this natural amphitheatre formed by Hollybank Bluff and Oats Royd the shrieks of school kids a mile away on the opposite side would echo around us creating an incidental soundtrack it would be folly to blank out. On another occasion Dingy Skippers are  to be seen alighting on a huge abandoned tyre in what was once a siding just down from Penistone station. Later on another lands close by a soggy, crumpled porno magazine: for this is the unadorned truth of detritus somewhere between poetic abandonment and noxious fly-tipping but still better for wild life (and us) than the surrounding impoverished greenery and new build homes. But in the case of the Dodworth spoil heap elegy, has turned into epitaph without  hope of resurrection for at the sad heart of elegy there always lies the possibility of revival in some form or other. The Dingy Skippers that we see disporting on plastic shopping bags are no more for a four lane M1 feeder road has now ripped right through their former playground.

           What is the aim of these films? We would like to think they may eventually form part of a far more widespread contestation that will fight for the conservation of these delicate, beautiful insects and so doing fight for the cause of humanity before the only choice left is suicide or dying of preventable unnatural causes. 

Provisionally the films are as follows:

  Five mating pairs of Green Hairstreak in the Bradford area during the spring of 2005: A film notable for long mating sequences in the Prince of Wales Park, Eldwick, Shibden Head and Holly Bank Bluff, Queensbury. The mating pairs on Shiden Head and Hollybank Bluff because of their location high up above the surrounding countryside and urban sprawl enabled us to establish a depth of field not possible in the others.The ones photographed in the Prince of Wales Park are significant on account of how they interact with light which has the marked effect of producing significant colour changes. These changes involve less saturated variations of the primary colours of red, green and blue that together make up white light. They also happen to be the colours of the bilberry plant coming into bloom and the young leaves (particularly oak) the butterflies perch on with their reddish tints produced by protective cyanoanthins. Viewing the sequences we also noted how light scatters and bends and that a reddish tinge from a neighbouring bilberry flower would be reflected on a Green Hairstreak wing. Was this an example of chromatic aberration, the fact that light refracts at different angles through a lens and which plagued the great optical instrument makers of the past like Newton and Hooke for the refracting telescope is the forerunner of today's telephoto lenses? Or does it happen in reality, that is one we can observe with our naked eye? It is this kind of dilemma that would have delighted the creator of Kino-Eye, Dziga Vertov proving his point that film must always strive to be far more than eye candy. Tracking the Green Hairstreak as it came into the Bradford area from 1997 we became very conscious of how chameleon-like the butterfly is - in fact the most changeable of all British butterflies - one moment very visible the next almost impossible to make out especially when in the north set against bilberry, its foodplant of choice. We have yet to capture this movement on film demonstrating the potential for research that exists for anyone armed with patience and a camcorder.  
Turbulent Weather Green Hairstreaks throughout the Bradford Area. How Green Hairstreaks survive in often-atrocious weather conditions such as gales and heavy rain.. (See the pamphlets: A Photographic Essay on Green Hairstreaks set in a Wintry landscape in West Yorks 2002-3 and The Green Hairstreak colonises the Bradford Metropolitan District. May 2001). 
Incoming Ringlets in the Bradford Area: This is partially a film about a failed attempt to save Woodhall Quarry near Eccleshill and Fagley, Bradford from development. In this quarry a probable ancient pre-industrial Ringlet colony was found in 2003. These old colonies tend to be very variable and also lighter in colour. In this film the old and new (the invaders from the south), the lighter and the darker, the variable and less variable are to be found together. We believe that around the quarry and down to the Aire two gene pools have met head-on, merged and multiplied. As the butterfly spreads into the Shipley/Bingley area the 'partial arete' is tending to become the dominant form. Obviously there is great scope for camcorder-led research in the future. (See the pamphlet: The Ringlet: Old and New Friends in the Bradford Area. Late 2005). 
The Brown Argus in the Calder Valley:  This film documents the actual moment of discovery of singleton Brown Argus and then colonies of the butterfly around Horbury and the Dewsbury approaches in West Yorkshire. It also for good measure includes footage of the Brown Argus on the Dinnington former colliery spoil heap near Sheffield and alongside The Cut in Castleford, West Yorks. Something of a technical experiment the film also includes a sound track of Ken Coyler, Meade Lux Lewis, Vivaldi, L'Apres midi d'un faune to Celeste Blues - music we loved as kids in the first two and last instance. We agonised over introducing a musical accompaniment then decided it was OK because our awakening interest in butterflies and blues and jazz coincided, the one quite possible influencing the other in a way we are only just beginning to be aware of. There was something defiant about this conjoined interest because in neither case was it encouraged by that central agent of socialization for children and young adults, the school. The 78 vinyl record collection that fell into our hands from a former G1 uncle in America was, we now realize, remarkable. For formal daring, nothing we had heard up to that point could possible equal Red Nelson's 'Streamline Train' which stretched the vocal cords and harmonic scale  beyond what was then considered to be singing. We sometimes would dream we were in the Mississippi Delta as a giant sun refracting the dust and grime of the industrial atmosphere until it was blood red sank behind the rooftops while we picked dozens of Elephant Hawk caterpillars off the tops of Rose Bay Willow Herb stems. 
The Hunting of the Grayling: This is probably the most contentious film as it deals with the discovery of a large colony of rare Grayling butterflies on the forbidden terrain of the aforementioned Healey Mills. Like the Brown Argus Entracte this film again lingers over the amazing topography of the yards the arc lights, broken rails, levers, dollies, modified bow and string bridges which we once also played amongst as kids. Once more, whatever the technical defects, these shots of the Grayling in an industrial setting are probably unique and anyone who feels they can do better are welcome to try, not forgetting of course that if caught they face a £1000 fine.

           Our eventual aim is to save these yards from development. The overbearing bluster of the local EWS management maybe is predicated on the fact these yards are built on a legal basis as infirm as their actual foundation on common marshland - hence the continual problem of subsidence in the central sunken section where all the fun is to be had and which occupies by far the largest area. The date of seizure, probably by the war dept. was around 1914 and the yards originally were created to help the 1914/1918 war effort. In fact our most abiding childhood memory of Healey Mills is of 'War Dogs', powerfully built steam locomotives which won the freight war during World War Two belching clouds of smoke as they puffed through the yards pulling wagon loads of coal.

           Early maps show that the yards were criss-crossed by footpaths (no doubt ancient footpaths and still recognised as such in common law) and even ten years ago there was a level crossing which ran right across the yard parallel to Horbury Bridge. The crossing has since been taken up. We get the impression EWS is anxious to keep this knowledge under lock and key. Seeing the yards are a magnet for railway enthusiasts might it not be possible to forge an alliance with this bunch of interesting individuals with the aim of keeping the yards exactly as they are?  

            We fervently hope we will be able to get many more shots of the Grayling in the yards though neither of us relishes the thought of a stretch in jail, (we have already received one formal warning!). It is imperative some sort of inclusive survey of the fauna and flora is carried out promptly for there can be no doubting it is one of the best - certainly most unusual - unrecognised wild life sites in Yorkshire. 

Various short films on the plight of newly discovered Yorkshire Dingy Skipper colonies: We first announced this plight in two pamphlets: 'A brief survey of Dingy skipper colonies on old colony spoil heaps in Yorkshire. Found to be lost - Summer 2003 - and 'A very incomplete report on various threatened/semi-destroyed Dingy Skipper colonies on disused colliery sites and railway sidings in South and West Yorkshire. 2004-late 2005). These films have been for the moment  sub-divided into: 1/ The Dingy Skipper at Woolley, Dodworth a & Frickley colleries. 2/ The Dingy Skipper at Dinnington, Kiveton and Waleswood and finally, The Penistone railway station Dingies ' the one film in a  complete enough state to be shown on this occasion. These short films are the only existing  records of on-going slaughter by  developments, urban and parkland, that over a number of years have  brought about the virtual extinction of these butterflies in these localities.

   These movies have been produced alongside a series of slide-show films complete with  titling and occasional commentary pasted over still shots of different species of butterflies and moths photographed over the last ten years or so in their respective localities.


              Finally we would like to point out we see the crises that is tearing the hearts out and wings off of butterflies and moths - specifically here in South and West Yorkshire - as part and parcel of a terrifying and possibly final ecological collapse now beginning to engulf us everywhere. No one is immune from it and can possibly hope to escape it and affects the totality of our lives. All this is gone into  in much greater depth in the website: which also contains in full the above mentioned pamphlets.

                                                                             (David & Stuart Wise. Spring 2006)   

Anyone wishing to see these films should contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it." target="_blank">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.