Hope in the Overgrowth

Meanwhile, amidst the turmoil and news headlines, there’s another England. Think this is a country bereft of untamed and unchecked wilderness? Think again. But think smaller. Picture a railway embankment, the bulk of it lost under brambles, tall grasses bent and brown with the sun, the track ablaze with flaming pink willowherb. Picture a quiet corner of an otherwise busy university campus, an unmown woodland clearing turned hogweed forest. Each flower-head is a seething metropolis of cumin-seed sized black beetles, visited now and again by bumblebees or fat hoverflies that mimic the bees’ drone and pollen-tangled fur coats.

These are the places that have given me hope this past week. Not nature reserves, with their visitor’s car-parks, rarefied atmosphere and pressure to see something rare or unusual. Not ‘true’ wilderness with its illusion of complete human abandonment. Just peaceful, nothingy spaces, popularly known as edgelands in the annals of contemporary nature writing, dismissed elsewhere as weed patches. Close to our homes yet with a spirit that seems beamed in from another dimension, these tiny oases are in many ways the frontlines of day-to-day nature conservation.

For whilst the prospect of a closely monitored wolf somewhere out there – lurking amongst arguments over the latest conservation fad or buzzword* – might prompt excitement, or fear, isn’t the hogweed patch next door more urgent, more crucial to our everyday wildness? It’s a practical vision, too, or so I like to think. The seeds of hope really are sown in all corners of our countryside, our villages, our towns and cities, insubstantial as they seem. They just need a bit of space and time to grow: even the most perfect wild orchid starts out as nothing more than a speck of dust.


*For effect I sound more dismissive of the rewilding debate than is fair: for thoughtful commentary on what exactly rewilding may or may not be, and why that may not be the right question anyway, see Peter Cooper’s blog. I’m going to return to this subject soon.


We were in rural Hampshire for a family party. Our focus was on chocolate birthday cake, balloons, presents and sparklers. But amidst and around us wildlife provided another sort of icing on the cake, the sweet glaze on an already near-perfect autumn afternoon. Over the hedge in the arable fields beyond, a flock of 50 linnets bounced into view and arranged themselves along a wire. Beyond them drifted the sound of a fieldfare’s half crazed chack-chack-chack. As the sun dipped and we began to think about moving inside, a heavy-winged buzzard lumbered low over the garden towards its roost, letting out a cat-like cry as it passed. A tiny moth spiralled out of the dusk and settled on my hand, antennae alternately waving.

Whilst we waited for a few artificial fireworks to go off, I saw the real thing. A fading yellowish streak of light marked the place in the sky where a piece of space-dust disintegrated. The avian equivalent of shooting stars were passing over too: redwings leaving their high, thin flight calls trailing across the sky behind them. Finally a tawny owl cut through the smoky air, its voice muffled only slightly by increasingly thick fog.

Try to imagine an autumn evening without such everyday nature.  The party games continue, we still gather with friends and family under the light of a million coldly shining stars. But something is different. The air, the trees, the fields, they all seem emptier. Lifeless. With the greatest respect to the animals I’m about to mention, too much conservation talk is wasted on lions and elephants and tigers and pandas and polar bears whilst the bottom falls out of the populations of once-common species here at home. The loss of one of those iconic species would undoubtedly be a tragedy but it wouldn’t cut to the heart, in the same way that the loss of a single loved one is so much harder to bear than the death of thousands in famine, war or natural disaster on the other side of the world.

That’s why last week’s puffin news moved me more than the objectively more alarming stories about wildfires in Indonesia and the Amazon. Puffins: the clowns of Britain’s seabird colonies, the focus of some of my earliest and most memorable expeditions specifically in search of birdlife. For me, Britain without puffins is unthinkable.  The thought of millions of acres of rainforest going up in smoke and countless little-known species being pushed closer to extinction is heart-breaking and alarming. But when it comes to puffins, it’s personal. The same is true for linnets (declining), the winter thrushes (declining) or moths (many species are declining).

The tough question is, what exactly am I doing about it? I type these words and send them off into the ether, I send a few pounds to conservation charities, I hope vaguely that my PhD will amount to something at least vaguely practical or that my teaching work will make the tiniest difference by proxy. Isn’t something more radical required in these troubling times?  I need nature like oxygen, but seem resigned to the point of idleness at the prospect of suffocation. If I barely raise a finger for the nature of home, what can or will I do about the perilous problems overseas, or even for wildlife that is very close to home but hasn’t yet gripped my imagination? It’s hard to imagine that I’ll make a stand for rare mosses, for example, when I do so little for birds or insects. Starting from home isn’t selfish, it’s essential: we stand up first for that which we love. If we – I – can’t even do that, then we will all fail together, and life will be all the poorer for it.

A Vision for Nature: Worlds within Worlds

This coming weekend will see the first conference organised by A Focus On Nature, the network for young nature conservationists in the UK. The title and theme of the gathering – Vision for Nature – is a timely one. In a fast-changing world, we need some idea of what we’re aiming for: to paraphrase an excellent comment on my last blog, “we always need to be questioning what our vision is.” In the run-up to the event, a number of bloggers are tackling the subject. The two pieces I’ve read so far, from Peter Cooper and Ryan Clark, are both excellently written – exactly what I’d expect from alumni of the country’s finest secondary school and university respectively, though by happy coincidence I’m extremely biased on both counts.

What I’m about to say – hastily typed between preparing for a two-week trip abroad and tending to a cat with a dislocated toe – is more of a reaction to their ideas, amongst others, than an attempt to come up with an original vision of my own, but to be honest that’s my preferred style. This is a vision for nature, not mine alone, and I don’t claim ownership of it any more than I’d be comfortable changing the title of this blog to include my name – though I suppose every writer must stoop to self-promotion eventually!

The wild places.

The wild places.

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