It takes a lot to make me leave my local habitat in mid-November, but this year I was lured across the flatlands to attend the New Networks for Nature conference in Stamford.
The multi-disciplinary forum brings together writers, scientists and creative people of all kinds to share their responses to the natural world. Now in its fifth year, the two-and-a-half-day gathering showcased an astonishing diversity of thought and creativity. It was nothing short of pioneering.
Richard Mabey cited cutting edge research which suggests that plants can learn. ‘This is where scientists and poets are going to have to conceive of kinds of intelligence that aren’t mediated by brains and nervous systems,’ he said. Connoisseurs of the unintentional comedy of the publishing world will appreciate his revelation that Collins initially rejected the title of his best-selling ‘Food For Free’. It was, they felt, ungrammatical and would soon sound out-of-date. They proposed instead: ‘The Edible Plants of Hedgerow Bottoms’. Arf! Arf!
A panel discussion of campaigners, academics and a senior government official generated a lively debate about whether it is right to think of nature as ‘natural capital’. Does it further the cause of conservation to make arguments in terms of economics, or is it another, disastrous example of humans hijacking the natural world for their own purposes?
Richard Kerridge gave us a darkly comic account of wrestling with a ball of copulating toads from his memoir about his lifelong love of reptiles; Helen MacDonald read an extract from her prize-winning memoir about training a goshawk while grieving for her father.
A clutch of Guardian Country Diarists talked affectionately, with former section editor Celia Locks, about the craft of writing a nature column for a national newspaper. ‘You can’t make a career out of £100 a fortnight, but I’ve come very close,’ said Mark Cocker ruefully. The panel circled the fact that—as writing that is neither news-based nor protected by powerful interest groups—the 350-word slot is perennially under threat, despite its doting readership. For Paul Evans, writing the column was ‘an act of resistance against those forces that would destroy it’.
In other sessions, we learnt about sonograms of birdsong—it made me want to do a GCSE in physics—and heard live compositions based on the slowed-down songs of various birds. Finally, as the dark stole over the south Midlands, poet Katrina Porteous performed a cosmic lullaby about the coming-into-being of the universe.
The conference’s official theme was ‘scale’, but it was equally concerned with the human relationship to the natural world. Tim Dee was eloquent about the importance of allowing nature to be Other, and Mabey insistent that plants had their own agenda. Throughout there was a pervasive concern about conservation.
Yet despite the plurality of the proceedings, an interesting occlusion played out over the course of the conference. It was triggered a word that popped up now and then, usually in the form of an observation that it wasn’t being talked about. What about the spiritual imperative in conservation, asked one delegate. Wasn’t the notion of stewardship—a feature of all major religions—important here?
The responses from the members of the nature capital panel were revealing. Zoologist Bill Sutherland quickly declared himself an atheist, although he admitted that arguments for conservation were too scientific and failed to take into account what places meant to people. Judith Vickery of the RSPB agreed that campaigners were ‘missing a trick’ by not including spiritual leaders. Gemma Harper of DEFRA cannily said that government should use all the public’s motivations to gain support for its policies. Possibly out of existential despair, Tom Tew of the Environment Bank declined to comment.
Richard Mabey got really quite grumpy about it all, even when he wasn’t being asked about spirituality. Declaring himself resolutely ‘matterist’, he replied to a question about Rupert Sheldrake‘s concept of ‘field’ by saying that words such as spirituality were ‘a substitute for thought and feeling’. It was a response that sat oddly with the attention to the emotional and psychological, including the experience of transcendence, that characterises his work.
In a private conversation later, I heard that the conference organisers were considering including a session on the spiritual in the future, but safely disguised under the word ‘metaphysics’.
The whole issue struck me as symptomatic of the split between science and religion that has beset western thinking since the Enlightenment. Before that, ‘natural philosophers’ were both scientists and thinkers who automatically included metaphysical questions in their study of the world around them; the separation of ‘knowledge’ from ‘meaning’ simply didn’t arise. Gilbert White was a vicar!
And today, outside the west, most human responses to nature are bound up with the spiritual traditions of their place and shaped by the particularities of its landscape, climate and history. To ignore this aspect of existence is to discount something essential in human experience.
To me, it seems that the current occlusion of the spiritual lies at the heart of the cultural disconnect New Networks is trying to address. It is, as one delegate remarked, the elephant in the room. But I wonder whether, in its reluctance to address the spiritual, the nature world isn’t getting its knickers in a twist unnecessarily. For it’s not a choice between one way of thinking or the other, between being otherworldly and here-and-now. In her talk about the nineteenth-century nature writer Richard Jefferies, Rosamond Richardson demonstrated how both responses are possible. She highlighted how Jefferies saw the divine in the everyday, —’transcendence in immanence’—and then talked, in very concrete terms, about the properties of various plants. You can, to put it in Richard Mabey’s terms, be both matterist and spiritual.
Of course, as psychologist of religion William James pointed out, not everyone has a religious sensibility or, to put it another way, wants to use the language of the sacred. But it seems to me that regardless of whether we put our response to nature in terms of engagement with, knowledge, passion or spirituality, we’re using different languages to talk about the same thing. And it would be a pity to exclude one of those languages from the conversation.