Friday, 6 March 2020

Strangling the Mother: Nausicaa and the River Leen

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is a very raw film. It's a swirling miasma of Miyazaki's ideas and ideals out of which you can spot the core elements of almost all of his later works. The chaos is untamed however, with Miyazaki's technical skill in film direction not keeping up with his deeper ideas. This ends in a film that is captivating and intriguing in its aesthetics and themes, but without the fleshed out characters and strong story that brings together truly great art.

The driving theme of Nausicaa, and Miyazaki's works in general, is the relationship between mankind and the nature; with the world of Nausicaa being a representation of the relationship gone sour. Humanity has become too greedy and has left the Earth in ruins, great swathes of land have desertified, and the soil left so toxic that giant fungal forests have sprung up to feed on the toxic Earth. But we also see that life is possible living within nature, as the people of the wind valley portray. They also harness the power of the Earth, as all must do in order to live, but do so in a symbiotic manner: helping themselves through helping the Earth.

In the town of Nottingham, England runs the mighty Trent river. It's power so great that mankind has still yet to truly control her. A tributary of hers, the River Leen, runs South along the Western wall of Nottingham and into the Trent. The Leen is not such a big river and as such she has been greatly violated at the hands of man, but her place in our myths, both old and new, exceed her girth. I went for a walk along the Leen to follow her path, starting at the mouth.

The Trent and the mouth of the Leen

Instead of flowing freely, the mouth is covered with a sluice gate, used to help with flood prevention. I couldn't quite work out the mechanism behind it but I assume it's for restricting her flow at certain times of the year. The first hundred yards of the walk proved even less fruitful. The river flows under a road, a car park, another road and finally a power substation before I even got a glimpse of it. Here it flows deep in an artificial gorge, again for flood protection.

The first sight of the Leen

Walking up the seldom used footpath, signs of nature's action can still be seen even in this constructed environment. Lining the river is an area of disused wasteland, overgrown with thorn and bracken and now rendered completely inaccessible by foot. If people were to stop holding it back, this entanglement would spread just as the Sea of Corruption does in Nausicaa, both destroying what we have made and healing the earth beneath it. Despite looking like a chaotic mess, this area is far more complex, intricate and hardy that the man-made railings and buildings around it. Man-made systems are inherently unstable and require constant maintenance while natural systems are inherently self-righting and will return to a stable system by itself from almost any situation.

Travelling further up the way we get to the riverside town of Lenton, now a suburb of Nottingham. An important industrial, ecclesiastical and cultural settlement, Lenton in as old as Nottingham itself and has global importance and prestige. First the Leen heads up through an industrial area, disappearing for a while under a modern-style factory. This is the headquarters of Games Workshop, the creators of Warhammer. Standing in front is a collection of giant metallic statues of alien warriors, whose identity I don't have the interest to understand, but a friend of mine tells me this is in fact "Ghal Maraz", the eponymous Warhammer itself.

The Warhammer

Next is a subtle but amazing feat of civil engineering: the Leen is pushed down and underneath a canal, while keeping the flat level of each channel at the same height. As far as I can tell the river is pushed down through a subterranean tunnel while the canal is kept untouched. While this is quite impressive, the impact of having such a tunnel renders the utility of the river itself null. While in times of yore we would use her natural path to carry boats and resources, now we have created our own, more efficient river and discarded the old Leen. However, even if we no longer need her we cannot just get rid of her. We still must accommodate her path since we know that if we dammed her completely the Ghal Maraz of God would be brought down upon Lenton through flood, so although we've strangled our Mother, we cannot kill her.

The tunnel under the canal

Over the canal and into the residential area we now head. And here lies the Lenton Priory, a thousand year old Christian establishment founded by William the Conqueror. The great priory itself was destroyed by King Henry VIII under the Reformation and replaced by a smaller, extant Anglican church of Saint Anthony. There are many ancient tales of the priory, but the most important is that it lays claim to the grave of a Mister Philip Marc: the High Sheriff of Nottingham and nemesis of Robin Hood. Of course it is just a tale, but the area's connection to the tales of Robin Hood are strong and numerous.

The Priory Church of St. Anthony

Now the river flows up through seemingly endless suburbs and estates. It passes through tunnels and ditches, under bridges and buildings, split in two and rejoined. Violated beyond recognition. If Robin of Sherwood did walk along its modern banks he would surely not recognise its form or spirit. But yet it was vital for an array of human triumphs. During the height of British power the biggest factories for both tobacco products and bicycles in the world were built upon it, being Imperial Tobacco and Raleigh bikes. Today it flows through the world-class University of Nottingham, past Wollaton Hall (Wayne Manor in the Dark Knight films) and under countless small to medium businesses that hold the local community and town together such as the Rose & Crown and Johnson Arms pubs, Purple Frog estate agents or John Pye auctioneers. The area has seen better days, and with the fall of British industrialism many a old factory lays abandoned or on demolitionary death row. Here the sea of corruption has seeped in and built quite vast apocalyptic-esque landscapes locked off from the surrounding city.

The former Cussons Cosmetics factory: a common British household brand

As you leave the industrial areas of the city the factories give way to more residential areas like Bulwell or Hucknall. Here the river is not constrained so much and we start to see the harmony between man and nature. Here the streets and buildings are built around the river, rather than moving the river to fit our needs like further downstream. The river is still used by the people, but in a more respectful manner: fishing and feeding the ducks:
Fishing and feeding the ducks in Bulwell

Soon we have left Nottingham metropolitan, a more rural landscape appears with farms and forests. Here we have entered a new stage of human-river relation: one where the river has more power than man. Here the Leen's path is as nature intended, with fields and houses built according to her law. Paths and roads must obey her as they bridge and ford, I had to take longer than optimal routes to give way to her. Eventually I reach Newstead Abbey, a ancient and beautiful ecclesiastical property once home to both the laureate Lord Byron and the mathematician Countess Ada Lovelace. Here the Leen has been dammed to form a great reservoir lake upon which the stately home sits. Here in this romantic holy land I think is a wonderful depiction of the role of man in nature and our place.

A view across the reservoir to Newstead mansion (left) and Newstead Abbey (right)
Close-up of the abbey and the "Romanticist's Window"

Through empathetic stewardship, man is able to build upon nature in a way that is sympathetic to her needs, functional for ours and beautiful for God. The reservoir provides freshwater for the bustling city of Nottingham, while being a haven for waterbirds, fish and flora and fauna of many kinds. A pure conservationist may deride the destruction that creating a reservoir makes, but they fail to appreciate the base right of human survival. If we are part of nature then we have as much of a right to her treasures as any other part, and actions of disruption cannot always be seen as unjust. Such is the religious mindset: we have been given consciousness as gardeners of the world and we must love nature as nature loves us. Just as in Nausicaa, once the valley's woods become infected, the men must burn them down. Not out of selfishness or malice, but out of a mutual need to survive for both their village and the valley. They harness the wind for their power, but ride with it, rather than despite it. Nausicaa fears and trusts the Ohm, but act as their guides if they lose their way. I think this is the core message of Nausicaa, one to be not nature's oppressor or to be oppressed by her, but to act in unison as her guide and protector.

Nausicaa the gardener and Nausicaa the steward

If such matters of utility are met, a strong underlying order can be established upon which for man to truly shine as an aesthetic ape: from the chaotic but ordered natural beauty Newstead came the Romantic movement and the art of programming, and as such from Nausicaa empathy and action comes the saving of the world.

Nausicaa the Messiah

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