Changing Nature: New Networks for Nature 2017

 

This was a stunning year with a very fertile theme.

It was exhilarating to see many new younger participants, and everyone talking to each other in a room movingly framed by Carry Akroyd’s exhibition of lithographs, Found in the Fields. Carry’s art brought lines from John Clare’s poems into evocative glimpses of landscape; and we were lucky enough to experience it in a building John Clare himself would have known. 

The programme was designed to interrogate the concept of change. It embraced earth, water and air. Moving from history and science to music, sculpture, poetry, drama and film, it kept reminding us that New Networks is a true partnership of art and science; and that though scientia means “knowledge,” and comes from the Latin “to know,” it incorporates the present participle of that verb. Science, like art, is not just “knowing”, but a continuous “coming to know.” We are always learning. Over two and a half days we explored ways in which Nature is changing around us, and how we are changing not just our perceptions of nature but nature itself: both the transitive and intransitive aspects of “change”. 

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Precepts from the first natural philosophers, the presocratics, that “everything flows” and “you can’t step into the same river twice,” seemed to accompany us from the start. Using palaeo-history and the fossil record, Michael Benton gave us a deep-time perspective on the current crisis of extinction. Posing a question which maybe echoes in all our work - How do you look at nature you can’t see? – he reminded us of the moral and perceptual shock of the 1820s, when the implications of fossils and dinosaurs began to infiltrate public understanding of our past, leading up to the publication of the first volume of Lyell’s Principles of Geology in 1830: that the world had changed, was changing, and is always in flux. 

I found especially exciting ways of seeing nature through new eyes, with new perspectives not just on the changing oceans but on their inhabitants.

Unknown aspects of orca behaviour, for example, thrillingly described by Philip Hoare. Staying with water, I also loved the contribution of Jack Perks, famous for photographing freshwater fish, who talked intimately of learning what colour the water is where salmon lie and begged us all to go jump in a river.

The important and disturbing New Networks Debate on farming was another highlight. The Q and A after it could have lasted all weekend: the audience’s own mix of expertise and experience (reminding us, among other problems, that thanks to pesticides, 76 per cent of insects have been lost even from nature reserves in Germany) gave voice to multiple local angles on the crucial global problem of agriculture’s relation to conservation. I once heard the zoologist George Schaller say that the problems of conservation are universal but the solutions are always local, and farmers have to be part of both the local and universal solutions to conservation. We heard from three farmers, all trying in different ways to farm as environmentally sensitively as possible. They showed us how hard it is to do that: and that the farming community is no monolithic enemy of conservation but contains multiple – listening - voices. One said, “I’d love to go organic but I’d go bust in a year.” Another described how difficult he found meetings of the Farmers’ Union; and why. A third, Michael Astor, bases his management of a woodland, 1,200 acres of heavy land arable farming, and a herd of beef cattle, on sustainability and environmental enhancement for wildlife; he chairs a group which includes farmers and conservation bodies to connect local wildlife hot spots. He argued that the two real forces for change in agriculture are law and the market; and that the core problem is a growing population’s demand for cheap food. The percentage spent on food in the average family used (if I remember the figures right) to be 22 per cent. It is now 13, far lower than in France. “If I stood by the till at Sainsbury’s and asked everyone if they’d pay another 1% to save wildlife and the countryside, they’d tell me to shut up and go home.” 

Other highlights, for me, were new ways of changing people’s engagement with nature.

Heather Hunt opened my eyes to the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change, based on ancient Islamic teachings. After retiring from work as an NHS psychologist, Heather bought, restored and now manages an ancient woodland, opening it up to wonderfully diverse groups of people to explore and experience nature. The 15-year-old environmentalist activist Mya-Rose Craig targets inequalities among UK children in their access to natural environments. Due to socio-economic deprivation, ethnicity and the perception that nature and countryside are white and elitist concerns, BAME children are very cut off from nature: Mya-Rose described ways of addressing the barriers that prevent them accessing it: her wonderfully  successful camps for young naturalists and minority ethnic teenagers, her Race Equality in Nature LinkedIn Group and her Black2Nature project which works with conservation organisations to increase BAME people’s access to and understanding of nature. She said you can engage anyone with nature if you do it the right way. You just have to look at it through their eyes. You can make nature cool for inner city BAME teenagers by relating it to their own interests. Compare a peregrine’s flight to the top speed of a Ferrari and all wild birds suddenly get everyone’s attention. 

Which all reinforced a lovely film of young people talking about nature. “I like nature because it’s always changing… Because there’s something new everyday …   Because nature is what we need to survive.” One eager boy reminded me of Charles Darwin’s portrait of himself aged ten, collecting beetles. “Look,” he said excitedly, holding out a morsel of jet black. “I think it’s a bit of a juvenile rhinoceros beetle.” 

Then there was the art. 

“Everything comes to us from nature,” said Cézanne. “We exist through it; nothing else is worth remembering.” This year’s painting, sculpture, story-telling, poetry, art, film, and music reminded us how art can change and deepen our perceptions of nature. As the poet Katrina Porteous reminded us, “change” means both evolution and revolution. I loved Harriet Meade describing how a sculptor can evolve new ways of seeing nature by immersing herself in new habitats: in reed beds, for example, or underwater. The story-teller Dafydd Davies-Hughes told a rivetting tale, resonant with new ways of knowing, of the birth of the prophet-bard Taliessin. We heard wonderful digeridoo playing from Mike Edwards - I’ve never seen or heard digeridoos so beguilingly in action before. The audience was awe-struck by the completely extraordinary throat music from Sam Lee, famous for singing with nightingales. Playwright Steve Waters presented a scene from his play The Contingency Plan, in which a government emergency meeting, rippling with undercurrents of personal tension, eventually decides to ignore the flood risk from climate change. In the following Q and A, Steve explained that his Chief Scientist, who counsels against doing anything at all, “was not a villain - he just wanted to cover his back.” A poignant representation of human blindness and bungling. Finally, Mike Edwards and Sam Lee led an unforgettable singing session at the end.

Kant, in his Critique of the Power of Judgement, says that nature’s “inner unknowable purpose” gives us the basis of understanding how aesthetic judgements, which are subjective but also claim to be universal, can be true. A good work of art embodies nature’s unknowable purpose, giving us an experience which everyone can admire: “Nature gives the rule to art.” More than I can possibly cover in a few paragraphs, this year’s programme seemed to embody that insight.   

Ruth Padel, December 2017

 
Mary Colwell