On New Year’s Eve 1900, Thomas Hardy, a natural pessimist, wrote a poem hinting at the restorative powers of nature; I think it is worth quoting The Darkling Thrush in full:
I leant upon a coppice gate
When frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolingsThomas Hardy
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
Even in the bleakest landscape, at the darkest time of year, nature can awaken a glimpse of joy. Birdsong will call us out of ourselves, momentarily transporting us to a sense of the other; Hardy’s epiphany is a transient vision, bordering on a spiritual experience, for a man who was a confirmed agnostic. That it comes at a significant transit in the calendar cannot be coincidental, in less than a month Queen Victoria would be dead, ending an era of progress, rural depopulation, industrialisation and religious doubt; all of this happening alongside horrifying poverty and high mortality. After her death, the legacy would be a century torn by world wars, fragmentation, secularisation, globalisation alongside rapid technological invention. Hardy, who was to live until 1928, was right to be sceptical and to confess himself in the dark: who could have predicted the twentieth century?
Last year many people “discovered” nature and there was much talk of the therapeutic quality of the countryside. A proliferation of books appeared, exploring how reconnecting with the natural world is good for mental health and during lockdown bikes were dusted down and oiled, walking boots were polished and dubbed and the Ordnance Survey struggled to keep up with mounting online orders for maps.
Reflecting on this, it is clear that it was not just down to the pandemic, although unprecedented restrictions on our daily lives forced us to re-think how best to spend our time, but 2020, I think, will be seen as a crucial year environmentally. In September David Attenborough’s film Extinction: the Facts was aired to shocked millions; its simple message was that we have to learn to live with nature and not against it. I felt a terrible sadness for several days after watching the programme and I know that many, many others did as well. Not only is the planet being ravaged by disease, we all know that climate change is also driving wild fires across the world, flooding and melting of the ice-cap; all have terrible consequences on natural habitats, which get smaller and smaller as the human population gets so large that living space becomes a contested zone.
I have spent much of 2020 walking in an area that is not more than ten square miles, Ewhurst and its surrounds. I feel extremely lucky and grateful that I have not suffered the privations so many people have had to endure. I have learnt a lot in that time and I have spoken to a wide range of people, drawing on their experience and expertise. Seeing people enjoying the countryside has given me heart and in particular seeing parents taking their children for walks makes me realise that lockdown can mean the young are more likely to have a contact with nature, as they have been deprived of time in the classroom. The growing popularity of Forest Schools is yet another green-shoot; mainly pre-school and early year children spend much of their time outdoors, with imaginative teachers working a curriculum around this. More and more teachers are recognising that children learn more easily in the open air and that there are mental and physical health benefits as well. I hope that this trend spreads, and I think it will as we see that pandemics are accelerated by people being in close contact in confined conditions and living indoors acts as a fuel to viruses. When I come in from a walk I always feel better, somehow cleansed, and this is so whatever the weather.
In some ways my life has come full circle this year. When I was growing up I lived in a village about the same size as Ewhurst, my parents were both ardent lovers of the countryside and this passion must have rubbed off on my brother and me. I think they taught us to look at what was around us all the time and I cannot remember a time when my eyes were not roving the sky, the hedgerow or a water course in the expectation of seeing something interesting. My parents were also book-lovers and from an early age we were given nature books for presents. There were wonderful books for young people to learn from, I loved the Ladybird books and The Observers Books and I avidly collected Brooke Bond Tea cards, carefully pasting them into albums. All these books were beautifully illustrated and I devoured the information in them and always wanted more. My father then would take us to a local bookshop, sadly long gone as have so many, where we would spend our pocket money on natural history books. I was amazed at how many books there were and began buying the Collins New Naturalist books, a series which began after the war and continues to this day. These pioneering books really opened the world of ecology to my eyes, although I don’t think it was ever called that in those days. Certainly the interdependence of different habitats and species was a major theme and I particularly liked learning how mountain terrains gave rise to specific types of plants and also how chalk and limestone would also have its own unique flora.
In my small Primary school we had a nature table and each day children were encouraged to bring in seasonal flowers, bird’s feathers, egg shells, animal bones, tree leaves, and special stones or indeed anything of natural interest that they had found. The teacher led the way in this and would diligently add to the collection herself. I also remember the classroom walls were adorned with Shell Nature posters illustrating different aspects of nature. The paintings were created by top artists such as C.F. Tunnicliffe and Rowland Hilder: I would sit staring at these, transfixed and oblivious to the Maths and English lessons that were being performed around me and in which I had no interest.
My parents also introduced me to museums, both were teachers, so education was important to them. The museum in Haslemere is a gem, quaintly old-fashioned it harks back to the time of Victorian collectors and houses antiquities, geological specimens and natural history. In the sixties you were greeted with a nature table that was changed on a daily basis and always seemed to include local rarities. It has always been in the forefront of environmental education and continues this role today. It also has a mouth-watering library of books on natural history, from which I had to be dragged away.
The other special place we visited was Selborne in Hampshire. This village was the home of the naturalist Gilbert White (1720-1793), who published his Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne in 1789. This amazing book is the result of a lifetime’s observation of nature and really establishes White as the father-figure of amateur natural history. What interested him was the way in which creatures behave in their natural habitats and it is not surprising that he influenced the young Charles Darwin and many other eminent naturalists. He lived much of his life in a house called The Wakes, which is overlooked by the scenic hanger, a chalk ridge that forms a backcloth to Selborne village. White and his brother had a zig-zag path built so that people were given easy access to the beautiful mature beech woods that line the top of the Hanger. White was a great experimenter, growing exotic plants in his garden and making significant discoveries about the natural world. His enquiring spirit infuses his book and was yet another inspiration for me. The Wakes is now a museum dedicated to his life and work; it is also worth mentioning that there is a lovely stained glass window in St Mary’s church, just across the road from the Wakes, commemorating White’s love of nature.
The other museum we visited was on a rather grander scale, the Natural History Museum in Kensington. This world renowned centre of excellence took my breath away when I first went there; the prehistoric dinosaurs are enough to overwhelm any young boy but there was just so much there and in such a majestic building that its impression has always stayed with me.
So where did these experiences lead? Our museum visits made us boys into collectors. My father had a large shed at the bottom of our garden, it was the type of potting shed with a large glass window running along one side. He kindly said we could have this to house the fruits of our collecting; so it was that we started our own museum, which we quickly filled with all sorts. There was a Roe Deer’s skull, fossils galore, a pickled White’s Tree Frog (bought at a natural history fair and which my mother loathed), stuffed alligators, also purchased, we had butterflies and moths pinned in cases (I am very ashamed that I indulged in butterfly collecting in those days but never really stopped to think that it might be wrong) and wild flowers collected and identified locally. We also did experiments mixing concoctions made from the different plants we gathered. Other children in the village enjoyed coming to our shed so I think, even then, we were keen to spread the word about nature.
Our interest also led to writing. Taking a cue from Gilbert White my brother and I would buy exercise books with lovely photographs of birds and plants on their covers at the local post office and write and illustrate our own nature books. I am afraid much of the text was plagiarised from the tea cards or Observers books but it did give us the chance to express our interest and show off our knowledge. There was some good-hearted sibling rivalry, as we would compete to finish our book first, which often led to very rushed and unsatisfactory endings to our opus. My brother was always more interested in the world of reptiles and invertebrates, writing on arcane subjects like Snails of Britain, whilst I kept more to mammals, birds and plants, which remain my first loves to this day.
In my early teen years I went badly off the rails. It is strange looking back and recognising that I became an actor in those times, playing a person that was not me. It saddens me that I wasted my school time, learning nothing and losing touch with things that really mattered to me. After leaving school at the age of fifteen I began to reflect, as I embarked on a soul-destroying job in a supermarket, that maybe I had been foolish. Cutting a long story short, I was given a second chance and went to a college to get some qualifications. Initially I thought I would do sciences but after O Levels I found my college didn’t do Biology A Level and as I had enjoyed Literature I studied this instead. To my amazement my wonderful teacher Catherine Heath suggested I should apply to university: it had always seemed another world to which I had no right of entry and it took a lot of persuading on her part. And so, after A Levels, I set off to study English Literature and then, eventually, came to teach literature.
I always retained my passion for natural history and continued to observe in the way that was second nature to me. When I had time I would read books on the subject, though teaching is a busy job with a work-load of preparatory reading, lesson planning and marking that leaves little time to pursue hobbies. Living in Ewhurst and joining the local environmental group LEAP, I always longed to have time to pursue my interest and explore the local area in more depth. When the village carnival took place every two years LEAP had a stall and I began to collect wild flowers in the local area and devised a quiz for people to identify the different species. It dawned on me that there was a wealth of nature on my doorstep and so when I retired in late 2019 I decided to explore in my spare time and find what made this such a distinctive region.
Of course, at that point, I also planned to do lots of other things; to travel and to spend times with friends and so on. We all know what happened next: words that were never on our lips entered the common repertoire: Covid, pandemic, Coronavirus 19, lockdown. Life changed for all of us and many became isolated from family and friends. Like many others I began taking daily walks and it occurred to me that here was the golden opportunity to study the local flora and fauna and to write about it. I was acutely aware that there were others less fortunate than me who, for various reasons, did not have access to the countryside and this seemed very unfair. I decided that I would write about where I had been and what I had seen with them in mind; as far as I could I would bring the countryside into their homes and, hopefully, entertain them.
There has always been a close link in my mind between the countryside and literature. Many of the greatest writers have been inspired by the natural world and their way of expressing this vision gives fresh insight into our relationship with the world we live in. I have to confess to “seeing” my world through the filter of the writers I love and it is for this reason that I have quoted many poems and prose extracts in order to communicate my own feelings. As a friend of mine said, ‘ever the educator.’ This hitting the nail on the head, as my view of a teacher is somebody who wants to share with others what has meant something to him or her. If one person discovers a poem that they like through me then I feel I have done my job.
My first realisation that wild animals’ lives were fragile was during the terrible winter of 1962-1963, when I was eight years old. To children the deep snow was exciting and we seemed immune to the cold in those days. Despite this I remember the horror of seeing birds, their bodies contorted by ice lying dead on our lawn. I still recall looking at a Song Thrush, lying with its back buried in the snow, its beak opened as it took its last breath and its legs upright and stiff, its plumage besmirched by chilly slush. This is a ghastly image that imprinted itself on my sensitive child’s mind and one that remains for always. Shortly after this Brooke Bond began the series Wildlife in Danger written by Sir Peter Scott, the ornithologist and conservationist. The series brought home to me that animals could die out and that their extinction was largely down to us humans. It was a heavy weight on our shoulders.
1963 saw the publication of Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring which drew stark attention to the devastating effects pesticides were having on the countryside. She wrote in a way that communicated to non-scientists and thereby brought public attention to chemicals like DDT, a chemical used in insect control, which was banned in 1972. When pesticides are employed on farmland in bids to get higher yields there can be unforeseen consequences, which are like a spider’s web. For example, decreasing the insect population upon which many birds and other animals depend for food has an adverse effect on their numbers. Chemicals can also be absorbed into other animal’s bodies, they are rarely species specific, which usually ends in mortality. It was discovered that DDT weakened the shells of bird’s eggs and reduced breeding success. Pollution is an ongoing problem particularly where the source is not contained. Today, farmers spray their fields but the chemicals do not stay within the boundaries of the sprayed area; many chemicals will leach through the soil when rainwater washes it away and it may end up in water courses, polluting the water. As all biosystems are inter-linked with constant movement between them one part polluted leads inevitably to a wider spread of contamination. Once toxic elements enter the food chain, again inevitable, the same is true and poison is passed from one animal to another. I was very pleased when slug pellets were banned last year, as this was a good case of a pesticide entering the food chain via a creature that forms a major part of the diet of several birds and animals and accounted for the decline of thrushes, hedgehogs, toads, lizards, and some beetles.
Despite the monitory message of Rachel Carson’s work there is a sanguine quality in much of her writing and her hope lay in what might be described as a metaphysical belief in mankind’s engagement with the world:
The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.Rachel Carson
Since Carson died a year after her book came out there has been a renaissance in writing about the countryside and nature. As we see the decline in the populations of many once common species and the way in which unique habitats are disappearing many of us feel an urgency to counteract this. Above all we want understand what is happening and television programmes, podcasts on computers, radio broadcasts and books and magazines are clearly ways in which we can all be educated. Many organisations actively encourage conservation and raise funds to protect sensitive ecological sites; we are able to visit these places in the knowledge that they will saved for future generations to enjoy. A plethora of initiatives ranging widely from organic farming to wildlife gardening try to restore conditions in which threatened plants and animals will thrive. On a broader front rewilding has involved nurturing ecosystems and enabling them to develop unhindered by humans and we have seen the re-introduction of rare species into areas from which they had disappeared. This fostering of nature should remind us, as many scientists have acknowledged, that we are the custodians of the planet and not its owner.
The popularity of nature writing in the years since Carson’s book was published has expressed a collective need for wild places. There is understandable distress when ancient woodland is sacrificed to projects like the, in my opinion, misguided HS2 railway link or the proposed nuclear power station at Sizewell, near enough to RSPB Minsmere to endanger the fragile wetland habitat which is home to hundreds of birds. These are high profile projects, with enormous impact but, important as these issues are, it is the slow attrition of our countryside as a whole that we need to be wary of. Each day woodland, heathland, wetland or moorland are being lost to housing developments, road construction or expansion of farmland; often these are not done in a considered way, with a singular failure of planners to utilise “Brownfield” sites or Highways Agencies to consider other than economic routes, as against ones that will avoid valued natural sites. Manchester City Council have pledged to make extensive use of Brownfield sites and to avoid building on “Greenbelt” land and this lead should be followed by other regions.
In Ewhurst houses are being built in unsuitable sites for the mega rich: let no one be in any doubt, the driving motive behind these projects is making money for developers who are not interested in solving the very real problem of providing affordable housing for young people who are unable to get a foothold in the property market. It is sadly a pattern repeated across the country.
One of the things that has struck me about the nature writers is their zeal, their passionate belief in the healing powers of nature. It is interesting that several, Richard Mabey, Robert McFarlane and Horatio Clare to name three, have spoken quite openly about their own mental health problems. Mabey’s Nature Cure describes his nervous breakdown, a terrible illness which numbed him to the world and charts how it was reconnecting with nature that ultimately saved him. In a similar manner McFarlane’s journeys in such books as The Old Ways are made to stave off dark depressions. He is acutely conscious of walking as an entry to our inner being:
Above all, this is a book about people and place; about walking as a reconnoitre inwards, and the subtle ways in which we are shaped by the landscape through which we move.Robert McFarlane
The love of nature sustains us in times of trouble and it is wonderful that we live in an age where we can watch wildlife from all over the world on TV. People in isolation, for whatever reason, can share the countryside on their doorsteps by watching programmes like Springwatch, Countryfile or Britain’s Best Walks which brings nature into their living rooms and are presented by sympathetic and thoughtful narrators. Audience ratings for these and other nature documentaries have rocketed in recent years.
It is in this second-hand manner that many will learn about all the issues that face the countryside and these mediums are a fantastic means to keep people in touch. However, before any of the programmes can be made or books written there has to be good old field work. I said I have come full circle and this year has brought me back to those childhood hobbies and passions in ways that I couldn’t have foreseen. Going out into the field and studying the nature around me has kept me sane; writing about what I have seen has made me more reflective and understanding of the ‘blessed Hope’ that Hardy’s thrush intimates. It has also made clear what Rachel Carson means when she says:
Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.Rachel Carson