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Cooling off for six hours in a police cell in Esher, Surrey, in 1997, with King Arthur Pendragon taking up residence in the cell next door, I had a moment to reflect on the power of words, language and stories. We had both been arrested at the protest in Canbury Gardens, Kingston– the site of the annual Kingston Green Fair. While he was calmly debating with the duty officer as to whether Excalibur was a sword, or actually a religious artefact and therefore it should accompany him into his cell, I was contemplating my reasons for getting angry about the proposed felling of fifty six Lombardy poplars so that new residents of luxury riverside flats would have a better view of the river.

The protest included veterans from Twyford Down (1991) and Newbury Bypass (1994), much bigger protests than the one taking place in leafy, well-to-do Kingston. The line of poplars weren’t native woodland threatened by road building. They were introduced trees planted in the 1930s for screening of a now-disused power station. To those of us who attended the annual  Green Fair however, and who couldn’t leave jobs to join the big protest camps, they were a symbol of resistance to the destruction of the countryside.

At the time, the emotional stories around the protection of the trees weren’t enough for me, and importantly didn’t influence the people that seemed to matter: developers, councillors, government, the police.  I wanted more. I wanted indisputable scientific fact as to the importance of theses trees. In that police cell I decided to become an ecologist: armed with those facts- the REAL story-I would be unstoppable. Surely no one would argue with the facts! So I studied a foundation science course in my evenings, then a biology “A’ Level and finally I went to University to study ecology. A Masters Degree in Applied Ecology and Conservation followed directly and here I am, armed to the teeth with science on habitat destruction, fragmentation, invasive species and global warming. Yet its not enough. 97% of all scientist agree (Cook et al 2013) that global warming is anthropogenic in origin and causing runaway climate breakdown. The IPBES are reporting what amounts to a 6th mass extinction. Yet  the response, the action taken to address this is woefully inadequate and glacially slow.

I worked in conservation for 15 years and learned that there were however only so many people who would sit up and take action over the facts of biodiversity loss and climate change. Facts are far too abstract for most people. The economist Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow explains that a large part of our decision making processes are fast, automatic emotional, stereotypic, and unconscious. I was beginning to find that telling people the factual story and asking them to change their lives was not working. A way through began to emerge for me by listening to people’s stories and trying to highlight with them where nature mattered; to help them see they were embedded in ‘nature’ not separate from it. Facts provide architecture but it was the stories that made them relevant. In a world beset by problems caused by human population growth and resource use, things cant be just what they are; they become what people see them as.

Choice of words and language are critical to understanding and they can be used to build bridges or erect walls. Late last year, George Monbiot called for a change in the language we use around the environment and climate change, proposing amongst other changes the use of the words climate breakdown instead of climate change to convey the sense of urgency; and that phrase ecosystem services, much hated by non-ecologists, should be instead called life support systems.

Words, in this case the deliberate removal of them from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, prompted Robert Macfarlane, Captain of the  Modern Nature Writing Ship, to collaborate with artist Jackie Morris to create The Lost Words, a tome of poems and art that have captured the hearts and minds of so many people that local fundraising campaigns to buy Lost Words have sprung up in all over Britain . At this time we are also exploring a Lost Words Ontario.

Working for the Wildlife Trusts we sometimes struggled with scientific language as a barrier to popular communication. That dreaded word ecosystem services for one, but also the concept of a Living Landscape– the landscape-level conservation thinking that is the key mission of the Trusts- defied abbreviation to media-friendly comms. When you start to explain it, it becomes two wordy but when asked to reduce it to something the public would understand it becomes something so amorphous as to lose its meaning entirely. Perhaps, I thought, some concepts are just not easily explained with words.

In Savage Gods Kingsnorth, after years of using words to fight for nature, finds himself in a place where words- the Savage Gods- are failing him, and language might be tricking him into believing he no longer has a sense of purpose.

“None of this is real. The Scot’s pine is real it is a being, a presence, the birds are real, the solidity of the earth is real and the words are nothing. Nothing. The words are not alive. The words are not quickened, they do not dance or stagger, they are not inhabited. They are hammered survey stakes, acrylic falsehoods that die in the reality of the place. All humans do is talk. Talk talk talk and out come the sounds and like poetry they change nothing but we talk talk talk anyway and we mistake the sounds for meaning or action and the tree just stands there silently and we just talk.” p31

” Is Language the Trap? The field is full of language. Everything is speaking to everything else, and some of it i can hear and some of it, because of my biology or my cultural inheritance, i am not equipped to. All nature is language- but none of it is written down.” p117

I was introduced to Paul Kingsnorth’s writing by a good friend who recognised in his works something I was going through in my own personal journey. Kingsnorth was an activist at Twyford Down, Solsbury Hill and the M11 link road. He has worked for Greenpeace and then was deputy editor of The Ecologist. In 2001 he had the honour of being named one of Britain’s Top 10 Troublemakers by the New Statesman. He is a writer of books, poetry and articles exploring place, nature and environmental concern. In 2009 he co-founded, with Dougald Hine, the Dark Mountain Project , a network of writers and artists who have all but accepted that social collapse is around the corner and have named themselves witnesses to the event.

I read ‘Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist‘ where in a series of essays Paul explored his growing distance from the world of environmental activism. I recognised the sense of it but I wasn’t yet ready to give up ‘the fight’ as Paul seemed to had done. He had gone deeper into the world of environmental politics and protest than I ever had, however. For me, Canbury Gardens had led to Nuclear Testing and anti-WTO protests but I put my energies completely into deepening my scientific understanding.

Savage Gods finds Paul sense-making with his family from his new home in Ireland. The fire in his belly is cooling, becoming something less consumptive, more like the tributaries of a river finding its way through the land. Without the energy from those fires, he is exploring his seemingly frustrated creativity.

“What does a writer do when his words stop working? I dont know. All I know is I’m churning inside and everything I know is windskipping like brown willow leaves in a winter gale”

The move to Ireland brings reflections on place making and connection. How does a self-proclaimed “wanderer through words and worlds” make the connections with place and land that he once had and still craves. Kingsnorth knows that connection to land is an important part of his or anyone’s sense of self, – a ‘sense of reciprocity between a people and the place they live in,‘ yet he finds it almost impossible to bear once he has them.He escaped from his middle-class upbringing and he found no solidarity with his Oxford peers. Now he has also come to hate idealists like the one he used to be.

“I was born in the rootless suburbs and they have given me a rootless soul. I am not a tree. I am some kind of slinking animal in the hedgerow. I am a seed on the wind. I am water. I am coming to the rocks at the lip of the fall.” p25

This style is echoed later in the book when he quotes the Song of Amergin, the invocation of the spirit of Ireland by the mythological poet-druid of the Milesians. As with the original poem perhaps this is a calling to the spirit of the land for recognition, but not this time for a people, but for one man’s uprooted soul.

Language is perhaps our greatest achievement and, if we all just want to connect, to belong to something, language might well be the tool of our demise. Words are an abstraction of things, they are not those things. Language sets us apart in an observers role and defies belonging which we all simultaneously crave and fear. Belonging brings acceptance and annihilation of individuality in the same moment.

The most Savage Gods though seem to be not words or language but the thoughts behind them. The cognitions that form as we unconsciously filter the information from our environment with our evolutionary-sculpted sensory systems. The world we see is the one we inherited through millennia of interactions between us and our environment. The cruel trick begins with thought: the separation starts before words are formed,  because if  we saw things how they really were we would be seeing flow not form, process not state. Yet words and language are part of the road map for survival; they brought us here to where we are today.

In The Language Instinct Steven Pinker, buidling on the work of Noam Chomsky before him, proposed that the ability to learn language is inherited, that we possess a proto-language or ‘mentalese’ which is the same for every language and forms a grammatical structure on which our learning is mapped. This would suggest a thought-prison of our own making, an inability to escape from thinking outside our own box. Recent insights from  Professor of Linguistics Vyvyan Evans in his book The Language Myth challenge this notion. He argues that thoughts aren’t taking place in an abstract mentalese but are “embodied”, arising directly in and from experience. If this is indeed true, thoughts and the language that arise from them aren’t an abstraction at all, but a direct consequence of interaction with the material world, all be it still through a biological filter. It is impossible as yet for an unaided individual to see gamma radiation or smell the world as richly as a dog would.

Where we are could also be a cul-de-sac. In the science fiction novel ‘Blindsight‘ Peter Watts suggests that this separation from ‘being’ through consciousness could actually be an aberration, an evolutionary dead end.

“Evolution across the universe was nothing but the endless proliferation of automatic, organized complexity, a vast arid Turing machine full of self-replicating machinery forever unaware of its own existence. And we—we were the flukes and the fossils. We were the flightless birds lauding our own mastery over some remote island while serpents and carnivores washed up on our shores.”

Life cannot exist for long separated from itself. I am reminded of a time-lapse model of source-sink dynamics, the sink ‘winking’ out of existence unable to maintain itself in a hostile environment without migration from the source.

Savage Gods reads at first like the notebook for a finished work. Something to be honed and crafted and, well……completed. In my head I often asked Kingsnorth why he felt it necessary to publish these ‘workings out’. But if we suffer from seeing form not flow, here he gives us flow. beautifully. Here he is exploring the trap every being falls into when, rather than just doing, begins to ask themselves why?  The answer, if there is one, may not lie in the book, or the bowl or the basket but in the crafting of the book, bowl or basket. We are possessed by ghosts of the evolutionary process which we mistake for purpose. We have come too far down the line of self-reflection which was only ever meant to be a side show to the greater theme of being.

The book also feels aptly titled because it feels like a prayer offered up for a revelation, for insight into the true reality of things, and for meaning and direction.

Perhaps there is only peace to be made with that reality. Defy those Savage Gods, stop fighting and start doing. We can’t easily do both.

Savage Gods was released in early June in Europe and  is available for pre-order in North America through publishers Two Dollar Radio. I am grateful for them for providing a preview copy.

 

 

 

 

 

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The annual Christmas urban melee for presents is over. Waistlines, expanded to bursting point are now forced into post-indulgence exercise programmes. New presents lie discarded and recycling bins are fit to burst with wrapping paper and packaging. Religious leaders typically bemoan the hijacking of the traditional message of Christmas by commerce in a festival of consumption, but recently I’ve had cause to challenge my thinking. In his book, Sapiens: A Brief Introduction to Mankind, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that we are now nearest to world peace thanks  to the mutual cooperation necessary to satisfy our urge to purchase. Could it be that the this mutually-shared religion of consumption has probably done more for world peace than any of the more formally recognised religions.

Challenging your own viewpoint from time to time is really important. Its very easy to get set in your ways or indeed jump upon the most current wave of thinking without asking yourself what evidence you have for your belief.

I find myself, like many others,  outraged by the destruction our developed and developing nations’ lifestyles are wrecking on habitats and species. There is good evidence that our capitalist-consumer lifestyles are the main driver of the sixth great extinction of earth’s biodiversity, the so-called Anthropecene Defaunation.  Humans haven’t suddenly become environment wreckers through consumption though; we were ever thus. The anthropologist Jared Diamond here states that it is “clear that the first arrival of humans at any oceanic island with no previous human inhabitants has always precipitated a mass extinction in the island biota”. The problem now is a question of scale In 12,000 BCE the human population numbered between 5-10 million. Global population is now over 7 billion and is predicted to hit 11billion by the end of the century.

I thoroughly recommend Sapiens to anyone with an interest in why we are who we are today and what we are becoming- in Harari’s view not Homo sapiens for much longer if biotechnology advances continue on the current pace. There are some  thought-provoking ideas in this book about the evolution of thinking (cooking food allowed the development of bigger brains); about storytelling (myths and stories are essential for allowing larger communities and trusting others who you don’t have a direct relationship or face to face contact with); and  about happiness (why in broad biological terms a C15th peasant is no less happy than a C21st banker- the chemical response to stimulus that makes us happy is the same, even if the things that make us happy have changed).

Some of the most enlightening and challenging chapters for me were about the development of our modern society and in particular the concept of money and credit and how the development of these pillars of the modern world underpin the scientific revolution and the discovery of new worlds.

Harari’s  theory on consumerism is that the relative peace of the modern world is due in large part to shared goals around commerce. We have all come to share, whether we like it or not, the Capitalist-Consumer ‘religious’ outlook and because of this our fellow human being is worth more to us alive than dead- its a nonzero-sumgame; the ability to cooperate brings both parties more gain than  a win-lose landscape of conflict. The ideas are also explored  by Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature and in this TED talk .

One might argue, as George Monbiot does in his recent book Feral (an excerpt from it here) that the collapse of human society into conflict in the past provided biodiversity gains. But recent studies in Africa have shown that conflict poses a serious threat to the environment (Shambaugh et al 2001 The Trampled Grass_ Mitigating the impacts of Conflict on the Environment).

But this attempts to take humanity out of the equation within ecosystems, and I’m not an advocate of this. We have ourselves evolved with every other species on this planet to the place we find ourselves in today. Our consumptive behaviour which is defaunating the globe is no less ‘unnatural’ than the impacts of any other ecosystem engineer. As resources for our own survival are threatened it will necessitate a behaviour change or we risk our own extinction, as Jared Diamond has shown in his book Collapse. What is different is the insight we have into this process; one hopes, perhaps in vain, that our species might have gained enough insight into our role in structuring  the global environment that we have the will to step back from the brink before self-preservation forces us to.

Without the intervention of technology to open up new horizons or exploitation (other worlds/worlds within worlds), resources expire and violent competition begins again. The Guardian Newspaper reported  that US director of national intelligence warned in 2012 that overuse of water  is a source of conflict that could potentially compromise US national security.

The evolution of the behaviour of our species needs to find another story that binds us together in mutual cooperation without exploiting our environment to destruction . There is an argument that mutual cooperation between people and our societies is essential to provide the framework necessary for a more sustainable future. And a globalised world is a perfect tool for rapid dissemination of big ideas.

Undoubtedly the biggest shift needed is a change in consciousness that sees our own survival as part of and not separate from the well-being of other species.  While we have moved over the course of our existence from protectors of the family and the clan we need to extend our circle of concern past the barrier of species to find mutually cooperative links with other organisms and ecosystems.

This post first appeared on Feb 16 with details of how to order the work from NHBS at £399. I was promptly contacted by Georg Muller the author to tell me that neither he nor his publisher had supplied NHBS and certainly not at this price.

If you would like to purchase the book please contact Georg Muller direct for 318 euros = 262 pounds including shipping costs if it is dirket ordered from the author. See website http://www.wallhecke.de.

This is an impressive work that Georg has funded himself. Without visionary and dedicated people like him, works like this would not exist. Worth every penny.

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Europe'sFieldBoundariesAfter 30 years of intense research in over 30  European countries Georg Muller has produced a colossal and comprehensive new work on Field Boundaries across Europe, which highlights the connection between farming methods and their field boundaries.

I was able to leaf through these impressive tomes at a recent Hedgelink Steering Group meeting, two of my colleagues having been sent complimentary copies. The books are so large that Emily bought Volume 1 from Leeds and Rob Volume 2 from Devon! As well as the beloved hedgerow, types include fences, dead hedges and hedge banks and dry stone walls. As well as wonderful colour photographs the 2 volume set has diagrams of construction methods

Professor John Dover, also of Hedgelink has written of Muller’s work

 “Field boundaries are not simply stock control or ownership boundary features, they are human cultural artefacts – and their presence in the landscape is a physical history of human endeavour

If you are feeling charitable and should you wish to purchase a copy for me, well, my gratitude would be as large as Georg Muller’s work.

Muller 2013 Europe’sFieldBoundaries_sample

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