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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.
I spend every day of my life working as a conservation professional. I am one of the lucky few to have secured a full time position working for a conservation NGO. I consider myself incredibly lucky to be doing a job that I love, and like many of my colleagues I find it impossible to work out where my work life ends and where a personal drive to improve the natural world begins. Many of my weekends and evenings are taken up in talks, practical conservation tasks or thinking about how I could do my job better.
My current role is one I am passionate about, helping develop Living Landscape Projects in Surrey. I am tasked with linking up the jewels in the crown-our valuable statutory nature reserves and local wildlife sites-by enaging with landowners and the public to offer practical advice on habitat managemnet and sources of funding to create coherent ecological networks. In my armory i now have the Lawton Report which has been transposed into Government Policy through the Natural Environment White Paper and the England Biodiversity Strategy to deliver a more coherent ecological framework.
Whilst these new policies exist at the highest level however its difficult to see how they can be delivered faced with the economic turmoil we are currently faced with and the Governments instance on prioritising development through the National Planning Policy Framework, and proposals to challenge EU legislation that protects wildife.
Its my belief that we urgently need more protection for our natural environment. This can only be done however through an open discussion with a fully informed population about the importance of our natural environment, the services that it delivers (look around you and ask yourself what in your life doesn’t derive from a natural process), and an admission that our lifestyle has to change if we want a landscape that is more than just rescued pieces of biodiveristy from an over-exploited farmland. I suspect thats all we really have now anyway.
I propose that a national discussion needs to take place, as important as the decision over a referndum on the EURO a, about the future ecology of our country. We take it for granted to much that services provided by the natural environment-including simpole things like watre resources or havinga place to walk the dig- will always be there and will be free for us to exploit. I would suggest that the tension between a growth economy and the long term provision of even these simple requiremnets are not compatible. The public need to except this at this stage and adapt before the compromise becomes too uncomfortable or it is deemed necessary through legislation.
Don’t let this time pass without adding your voice. we all need to agree on how our furure landscape will look like, and fully infomed make the sacrifices to preserve a functioning ecological network rather than a museum of agricultural practices.
My assumption is that visitors attending nature reserves cause damage and disturbance, no matter how lightly they tread.
So, how much would you pay not to visit one? Would it be enough just to know it was there doing what it does, but better for your absence.
Many of us already pay for the conservation of animals we will never see-polar bears, wolves, the indian purple frog.
Perhaps there is a price to pay for keeping our wild places truly wild- we can’t ever go there. At least not all of us.
Just a thought.
Autumn is the best time to play hide-and-seek: it smudges the edges of the world. The space between the parenthesis of dawn and dusk is barely daylight, more a leaf-strewn, muddy puddle, a tree-bare, bonfire-smoke-poem. The distinction between object and background is confused. A boon to the hider, but a nightmare for the seeker.
We are in Ickworth, Suffolk playing amongst the box hedgerows, standing statue-still behind the massive ancient oaks, yews and conifers, jumping out from hiding places amongst stands of sharp-edged butcher’s broom.
Hide-and-seek with an over-excited three year old, a sleeping toddler suffering with conjunctivitis, sore throat and a stomach upset, and three adults- two of which are showing the first signs of sleep deprivation- could at any time of the year play out like a scene from Alice in Wonderland. In the half-light and fog of a November afternoon, visibility reduced to just beyond the hedgerows, with the trees of a Victorian-designed landscape park like an Amazonian cloudforest, dripping moisture from an earlier spell of rain, we are experiencing something between Gorillas In The Mist and The Shining.
I am with people who have become as close as family to me- my godson and daughter and their parents. I am here as friend but also as the children’s Non-God Godfather. More properly I am Great Bear and Silent Heron Spirit Guide, a leave-over from an entanglement with druidry I never quite shook off. In the Great Legend of Myself I intend them to reach adulthood, as I do my nieces and nephew, full of the joys and wonder of the natural world and free from the damaging influence of organised religion and the shadow of “sin”. Although when my ego is reigned in- easily done since “The Great Legend” is more a self-deprecating illusion than a psychological fortress repelling all comers- I am just aiming to be here for them.
This beautiful family are suffering right now through an unlooked for and untimely darkness falling over them, a close family member diagnosed with cancer. In this case it is not to end well, and sooner rather than later. There is an unspoken wish that at least Christmas might still be a time where the family remains together for one last time. Their bravery and dignity in the face of this heartbreak is inspiring and I am glad if anything I can do helps them with their struggle.
How do you travel through a landscape where a loved one is slowly dying, when you have no way of knowing when they might leave? Is today the last day, or do I have a week? Or maybe a few weeks? Death is inevitable, its timescale is not. To the uninitiated, it can be an event- Mr Rogers at down the road died last week- but to the travellers on the twilight road it’s a process of little losses and there can be no right pathway to travel. You cannot predict when you will be strong and clear, holding everything together for your kids, for your own sanity and when you will absolutely go to pieces at what to some might seem the very smallest of things. Even when your loved one breathes their last, that’s not the end of loss; it’s a permanent change, an adjustment to having loss live with you and become part of you. It may be easier to accept when a person has lived a full life and they succumb through old age, but there is nothing harder to accept than the death of someone before their time. My own family are no strangers with our own tale of bereavement, my cousin having decided the Road and its Burden was not for him, and that the Last Homely House was a much better place to stay. I don’t think I really grasp that he has gone.
No-one should feel bad or guilty about their experiences in this valley of shadow, it’s a road of learning, a rite of passage that can bring wisdom and depth to your soul even as it brings grief and learning. While the pathway may be well trodden this is the first time you find yourself on it- how can you know how it will be? Like a traveller to another continent with alien customs, you may have seen the brochures and spoken to people who have been, but experience is the true gift of the real to the individual- its never exactly the same again.
Working the weave of sorrow and endings into the warp and weft of life, excepting that it can be short and cruel and without sympathy isn’t to be taken lightly. Being able to absorb this truth and not live the rest of your life under the shadow is not a given; it takes time, patience and above all love and support from those around you. Perhaps that any of us can feel joy and wonder again once the Shadow comes to stay is one of the true miracles of life. But people do.
We take it in turns to push the buggy and count, the others fleeing along the muddy path to find hiding places where they can disappear- not be invisible, but take advantage of the softening of all edges to blend their lines and corners into bark and hedge, earth and fog. Our young competitor, Little Bear (“no, I’m a Big Bear!”), not content with ducking behind a bush or tree, feels it necessary to set off in the footsteps of other Great Explorers into the undergrowth, disappearing in the mist much to the amusement of Mum and Dad. But he is soon back when we call, his young mind still not fully sure of the point of the game. Still, one can only guess at his motivations that drive this experience for him and the smile on his face and calls to hide again tell us it’s a just the best time in the world.
Its impossible to imagine life without magical places like these. Ickworth is no wilderness, it bears the hallmarks of anthropogenic planning and management. But from the smallest urban park right up to true wilderness areas of our planet (are there any left I wonder, and do they stop being wilderness once we start to interact with them?), landscape could be the stage on which our life plays are performed. But as every good actor knows the stage and objects on it, and even the space between them, are as important to the story as actions and words- they are elements intrinsic to the shape of our reality. Landscape isn’t a backdrop to our life, as a species we have emerged from the landscape and as people we continue to do so. Animal minds behave like filters, constructing individual reality through interaction with the world around them, selecting out relevant lessons depending on their genes, life history and social situation, and a dose of good old fashioned blind chance. So the landscape we find ourselves in is not just made of a hill, a hedge and pond, but takes on a new interpretation through our interaction with it.
“What we call a mountain is thus in fact a collaboration of the physical forms of the world with the imagination of humans. And the way people behave towards mountains has little or nothing to do with the objects of rock and ice themselves…….the mountains one gazes at, reads about, dreams of and desires are not the mountains one climbs”
Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of The Mind1
This dark afternoon, this moment when the mundane has given way to the monumental and our thoughts are turning towards the polarities of life, is softly interwoven into Ickworth’s grand landscape and for me at least, and perhaps my friends too, it will be difficult not to come back to those themes amongst the reverential oaks and yews. But what I haven’t yet decided is how much I bought with me and how much was inspired by the landscape. How would I have felt that afternoon if Little Bear had been hiding behind waste bins and in shop doorways in the high street? Somewhere between these two scenes there lies the unaccountable value of trees and the spaces between trees (which are the best places to hide), and of the natural world, in human life.
1Macfarlane, Robert (2003) Mountains of The Mind: A History of Fascination. Granta London. ISBN 1-86207-654-5