Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Ground Beneath our Feet

The site of the exploratory drilling at Barton Moss is typical greenbelt landscape. Flat and somewhat characterless with small aircraft regularly droning overhead, taking off and leaving from the nearby air strip. I had gone along with the boys and some friends to offer moral support to the protesters living there and to object, physically, to the practice of fracking.

Being here had felt important - I'd been following the protest on Facebook and in the news shared between friends - but I hadn't been there, in the flesh, to try to do something about it. Before children, I'd marched, chanted and sang alongside other activist sorts at Faslane and anti-war rallies and I'd shouted and banged my fists in pubs up and down the land. But recently, I've been a little quiet. When I was little, my mum had taken us along to South Africa house to sing for the release of Nelson Mandela; I didn't really understand what was happening, but there was something about the passion of the gathered crowd that stirred something in me. I wanted my boys to feel what it was like to be among people that really care and want to make a difference, no matter the hardships or the seeming futility of it all.

Fracking is an issue that could potentially affect huge pockets of the population. Despite the claims of the energy companies, there are plenty of reasons for us to be very fearful of allowing such a violent practice to go ahead. In the US, where fracking has gone ahead, there are reports of contaminated water making people unwell; disruption and harm to livestock and wildlife; and increased incidence of seismic activity due to the fracturing of the very land itself. Added to this the risk of methane leaks and other highly undesirable outcomes and it's hard to believe there aren't more of us shouting our objections and demanding a halt to the drilling.

Signs and posters litter the Barton Moss site

Monty was quickly at home

As we wandered up the small lane (and public footpath!) that has been the focus of months of clashes between police and protesters, we gawped like voyeurs at the sagging tents pitched on the muddy verge, finding it hard to believe that people were managing to live here and continue their opposition to fracking with such conviction.  This is the Barton Moss Community Protection camp; a shanty town of crooked tents and communal buildings built from pallets and goodwill. A new community building was erected in the few hours that we were there. A group of  men determinedly worked together in what seemed like complete quiet understanding. I got the sense that it gave them something to do in the dead time between walk-downs, something that felt solid and useful. When it was almost finished, an eagerly welcomed local couple rolled up in their car with a canvas to throw over it and make it weatherproof; they are representative of many local residents who appear to be hugely grateful that the campers are here.

Local woman Pat, proudly supports the camp and the efforts of the protectors - bringing with her on this occasion a huge waxed canvas for the new tea room

The new tea room being built - it seemed to go up in a matter of hours!
Carmen is a protector and regular visitor to the site, she helped us to feel welcomed- thanks Carmen! 

The tenacity and resourcefulness of the campers is remarkable and touching. Some of those on site have been there since November - through the harshness of winter with only banks of straw bales to keep out the worst of the weather. Each morning they gather with visitors, locals and day protestors to try to slow access to the huge trucks carrying out exploratory drilling at the site and each afternoon they delay their leaving. During these daily 'walk-downs' the police - initially the Greater Manchester Police but more regularly now, the Tactical Aid Unit - try to speed up the process by herding the crowd at greater speed down the lane. Many people have been arrested and many people are angry with the seemingly over-enthusiastic policing of the protectors.

There is a sign that declares that this camp is the frontline against fracking - and that is exactly what it feels like. I couldn't help but admire the commitment and resilience of this core group of protesters, who prefer to be called 'protectors'. I wanted to know more of who they are and what their stories were but I got a sense that for them, right now, this was the only story that mattered. We joined them on their afternoon walk-down, the boys and I, holding hands as campers and other protectors emerged from the depths of the dark communal tents and from the edges of the lane. Scattered bodies becoming one mass in front of the line of police and the slowly advancing trucks. There was no unruliness from this crowd - a little weariness, some stubbornness and a good helping of frustration but mostly just peaceful people, trying to register their objection, to resist big business and its continually callous agenda and to fight, in the only way they know how, for the very ground beneath our feet.