A Pebble for a Feather

Attenborough Nature Reserve is a former gravel quarry that has been restored to provide a range of habitats for wetland birds and other wildlife. In essence an exchange has taken place: A pebble for a feather.
As part of Attenborough’s Heritage Weekend I have made an artwork which uses this exchange as a starting point to ask how nature is valued and how our ideas of value might affect our relationship to the natural world.
Attenborough is a flagship site for Cemex, an aggregate company which has several quarries in Nottinghamshire. When the land was taken over for the quarry in the 1920’s it was open meadow with a few residential properties. In 1966, the site was opened as Attenborough Nature Reserve and restoration work has continued in liaison with the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, who have managed the site ever since. In 2005 a visitor centre was opened with a cafe, shop and educational space for school groups and holiday clubs. The land on which the reserve sits is still owned by Cemex, whose gravel processing plant is operational at the north end of the site and so barges of gravel still travel through the reserve. There are several value systems at play here.
As a nature reserve the site has value in the protection it provides for wildlife, it holds SSSI status (Site of Special Scientific Interest) for its rare species and combination of habitats. For the species that reside here it offers all they need in food, shelter and companionship. The reserve also provides an educational resource, allowing people to get close to and experience wildlife that they might not otherwise get the chance to see. Visitors, be they dog walkers, commuters or birdwatchers, each have their own sense of ownership of the site and find value in their uses of it. Studies have also found that time spend in nature can help with stress, depression and various other health issues. The restorative value of time spent with nature is another important aspect to the reserve; given its proximity to the city it provides green space access to lots of communities and through their outreach programmes, the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust is encouraging even more communities to use the site.
Attenborough also functions within a more commercial economy as well. The cafe and shop bring money to the reserve as well as bringing in visitors who may not have otherwise come. As a charity, the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust must generate enough money to cover the costs of managing the site; this is achieved through fundraising which includes donations and sponsorship from individuals and companies alike. A network of volunteers also helps with events and site management, contributing their time and labour in exchange for whatever value they find in this process.
Though Cemex has finished extracting the gravel from the site, they continue to benefit from the success of the reserve as it serves as a model for their restoration and sustainability policies. This helps to provide a positive face to a process that is often controversial. It may even help to open up new sites for extraction as Attenborough serves as an enticing example of what might be left when the extraction is over. As they still own the land and continue to process on site, the reserve is still firmly a part of Cemex’s economic structure.
In order to approach the complex questions of value at the reserve, I have devised a simple participatory artwork; gold pebbles which have been left around the reserve for people to find can be exchanged for a small gift, a badge featuring a gold feather which asks the question: how do you value nature?
The pebbles are already part of a value exchange: processed, packaged and sold, they have been assigned value (£7.92 for a coverage of 0.4m²), they have then been sprayed gold to signify their difference from other pebbles that might be found on the reserve. These gold pebbles then become a currency, a token that can be exchanged for something else. There are a limited number of gold pebbles, resulting in a scarcity of this resource which potentially increases their value.
When found, the holder of the pebble may choose to keep it or exchange it. They will not know what the alternative is until they come to make the exchange, at which point they must make a value judgement; which is more valuable to them, the gold pebble or the feather badge? Regardless of their decision they will also receive a postcard which poses further questions concerning notions of value in nature and industry.
The aim of this work is to open up conversations around what nature means to us and what roles it plays in our economy. These conversations are important when considering whether the ecological cost of industry is worth the resources obtained, or whether this can be effectively mitigated through offsetting or restoration work. These conversations are also relevant to a national discourse regarding issues such as fracking and the construction of the HS2 railway line. By recognising different systems of value and being aware of these issues the public have the potential to influence industry and policy which often seem to operate solely in monetary terms.
As Cemex begins to wind down activity at Attenborough, the question of what will happen to the land and how this might be passed on to the Wildlife Trust remains. The future of the site may well rest in the value it holds for its visitors; whether that value is found in the recreational activities the site provides or in the conservation of rare species, it is the people who use and love the reserve who can ultimately affect its prospects.

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