New Networks for Nature 2009-2018
A very short and unfinished history - by Jeremy Mynott
Historians of organisations and movements often present them as the steady, systematic working out of some original, clearly defined strategy or vision. It’s rarely like that in fact. Life is usually much untidier and more opportunistic. In our case, the idea for what has become ‘New Networks for Nature’ grew out of various collaborations with artists and others John Fanshawe was organising at BirdLife International in Cambridge. A few of us had met to hear talks by Tim Birkhead and Mark Cocker on major new projects they were working on. The discussions continued, as conversations between friends do, sometimes in pubs and sometimes ‘in the field’; and we sensed a coincidence of interests and opportunity. We shared the conviction that wildlife had a far richer role to play in the human experience than that defined by science or economics alone. So why not bring together a larger group of people to explore the implications of that idea? Between us we had a wide range of contacts among artists, writers, poets, academics, journalists and conservationists who could contribute their own distinctive insights and voices. That might be really interesting.
The idea took fire, and Mark Cocker, in a characteristic burst of creative energy, set about building on some discussions with Paul Jepson at Oxford to organise such a gathering. It duly took place in December 2009, a one-day event in Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment. I still have the list of the 44 participants, which includes several N3 stalwarts like Harriet Mead, Carry Akroyd, Mike Toms and Derek Niemann, plus a heady cocktail of haiku poets (John Barlow), as-yet-unknown authors (Helen Macdonald – how about that for talent-spotting?), photographers (David Tipling), producers (Tim Dee and Stephen Moss), senior conservationists (Andy Clements) and a whole palette of wonderful artists (Anna Kirk-Smith, Nik Pollard, Greg Poole and Bruce Pearson). It gave us all such a buzz that by the first coffee-break we were already saying, ‘Let’s do this again’. Indeed, in the brief programme notes we had already expressed the hope that we might gradually build up a network of sympathetic individuals to share their experiences. The word ‘network’ stuck as a guiding concept and eventually (in 2011) became part of our name.
Before then, though, we held a second meeting at BTO headquarters in Thetford, courtesy of Andy Clements, who was giving us tremendous moral and practical support, even to the point of assigning part of Mike Toms’ time to work with us – both as an organiser and as technical support, which we were already finding necessary as back-up for our PowerPoint presenters. One speaker that year who needed no such help was Richard Mabey, who thinks and speaks in perfect paragraphs, without any artificial aids; two other highlights were the opening address from Mike McCarthy, under the challenging title of ‘The Loss of Nature and the Nature of Loss’, which has remained a continuing theme over the years, and a series of short and refreshing presentations from a group of young students from Oxford.
After this 2010 meeting we quickly recognised, (a) that we had started something really stimulating and worthwhile, and (b) that we needed help to take it any further. A Steering Group was rapidly recruited (no one approached said no) from those who had attended the initial meetings and who represented an extension of our own contacts and interests. So, much emboldened, we planned a larger meeting at a new venue – which, at Carry Akroyd’s suggestion, was the Stamford Arts Centre. Here we launched ourselves in 2011 under the confident title ‘New Networks for Nature’, with the logo you still see (designed by Carry). And we extended the day’s programme with a further half-day at the Church in Helpston, the village of John Clare, from whom several speakers that year took their inspiration. This turned out to be part of an ongoing evolution, as we also extended our themes to include all wildlife (not just birds) and, increasingly, conservation issues with a sharper political edge to them, though as an organisation we have remained politically independent. Indeed, as far as possible, we try to leave all our institutional and other affiliations behind us at the door.
The facilities at Stamford – with a theatre, a large ballroom, an art gallery (and a bar!) – suited us very well and enabled us to expand the event over three days (from 2012) and grow our audience to well over 150; but it also posed new logistical and financial problems. We were all volunteers and we paid no fees or expenses to our contributors either. Had we done so, the initiative would have foundered then and there, since we now had serious room hire and catering costs to cover, which could only be recouped from admission fees. We had no capital and everything was done on a shoe-string (not to mention a wing and a prayer); but in a paradoxical way this actually added (as it still does) to the whole ésprit de corps between organisers, contributors and audience, who all feel engaged in a shared mission and a common pursuit. This effect is emphasised too by the physical intimacy of the theatre space, which encourages audience participation – and indeed networking.
Stamford has remained our home for six more meetings, including this year’s in 2018. The sequence was interrupted only by 2016’s meeting in Cambridge in collaboration with the newly-formed Cambridge Conservation Initiative. That had the great advantage of first-class modern facilities in the David Attenborough Building, a new set of contacts, and a very large potential audience on the door-step. The abiding memory of that meeting is of the passionate and moving address to close the event by the man himself, Sir David Attenborough, even more charismatic in the flesh than in his television persona.
Attenborough is the most famous of a whole line of ‘celebrity’ speakers with whom we have been starting or ending our meetings: Ronnie Blythe, Chris Packham, Richard Mabey, Germaine Greer, Tim Smit and this year Adam Nicolson. They are ‘celebrities’ in quotes, since they have been carefully selected not merely for being famous but for being high-profile individuals genuinely committed to the causes we most care about. The fact that they have given their time to support and enthuse us is a considerable testament to the efforts of the steering group in maintaining the quality and special ethos of our gatherings
There been many other highlights to celebrate. Vivid in my own memory are: the ethereal voice of Hanna Tuulikki – a conduit to the otherness of the natural world; the inspiring performance poetry of Katrina Porteous and Ruth Padel; the working-class memoir of Richard Hines (the boy who trained Kes); the dramatic whale encounters narrated by Philip Hoare; John Aitchison’s sublimely evocative film and accompanying meditation; the sheer depth of knowledge revealed by some of Britain’s leading field naturalists (like Peter Marren, Brett Westwood and Matthew Oates); and Ruth Padel’s heroic chairing of a marine invertebrates session, which she had to prolong with endlessly inventive questions while technicians worked around her on stage to resuscitate the sound-system for the next (musical) session.
We have had our other testing moments too. I had the responsibility of organising the debate on ‘The Value of Nature’ between Tony Juniper and George Monbiot in 2015. Both are hugely in demand, of course, and it was really difficult first making and then maintaining contact with them, with sufficient confidence to include them on the printed programme. In the run-up to the conference I was sending monthly, then weekly, and then – in the last week – daily reminders, desperately craving but not receiving the reassurance of answers. On the day itself, Tony Juniper appeared – to my great relief – about 15 minutes before the scheduled start. No sign of George, though. Five minutes to go, and I was checking the café, the street and the stragglers entering the theatre with growing alarm. One minute to go, my mobile rang. ‘Hello, Jeremy, it’s George. It’s OK. I’m in the Gents preparing my speech …’ The debate itself was perhaps our all-time highlight, both men in superb form, matching argument with argument. As chair, I felt like a Wimbledon umpire watching the crowd swivelling their heads and shifting their support from one to the other as they played out their dramatic rhetorical rallies.
Stamford has been a happy home, but this will be our last event here. We feel we have now outgrown it in some ways and we want to evolve a different model of activity, whereby we replicate, and if possible improve on, what we have achieved here in other locations and with other audiences. There have already been some local spin-offs – like the three successful Borderlands meetings in Northumberland; an Irish version is also being discussed; and we have directly or indirectly inspired some of the regional ‘nature festivals’ that are springing up round England. We have therefore planned our own 2019 and 2020 meetings to take place in York and Norwich, respectively. The SW also beckons in the future, and perhaps Wales or Scotland. Why not?
Our development has from the start been an organic one, making incremental moves as and when our small group of animateurs could see the opportunities and afford the resources of time and cost. The steering group itself has been continuously refreshed over the years – and its average age is currently being much reduced by the latest round of arrivals and departures. We have also now achieved charitable status and have painstakingly built up a small reserve to give us more entrepreneurial freedom to experiment. What has not changed, though, is our central preoccupation with nature – the need to defend and celebrate it as a crucial part of our identity and cultural heritage. We continue to affirm that nature is at the heart of human flourishing and that the distinctive blend of art and science we have encouraged is the best and perhaps only way to appreciate its full richness and complexity. And above all, you – our participating audiences – remain the crucial interactive nodes in the many-patterned networks we have sought to weave and spin over the years.