I’m thrilled that Springwatch is back on our screens. During the three-week outside broadcast, hidden cameras bring the secret life of the creatures around us right into our living rooms, providing the nation with a rare opportunity to watch live TV together.
The popularity of the programme – now in its tenth year, having spawned the sibling broadcasts of Autumnwatch and Winterwatch – is testament to a love of nature which is specifically British. This national personality trait struck a French friend visiting London for the first time most forcibly. She’d come back on the bus, the journey through suburbia having revealed to her amazement that ‘everyone has his own little plot’ to find me pottering in the garden or watching a wildlife programme. She concluded that I, who she’d considered a globe-trotting journalist, was homey, and that the British as a whole were ‘a bit obsessed’ with nature.
It’s a fair assessment; in fact, it’s tempting to see the love of nature as the new national religion which, in the face of declining institutional religion, fulfills our need for contact with a reality greater than ourselves. In the course of research for a forthcoming book on Britain’s evolving spirituality, I explored the rise of neo-paganism, which now appears as a religious denomination in the national census. I found modern Druidry – arguably the only religion other than Christianity native to this island – to be quietly thriving, a gentle spirituality which stresses the importance of place and history, expressed through a blend of ritual, study and practical skills.
My research also took in the secular love of nature, drawing me to the modern counterparts of Gilbert White, the eighteenth-century parson who recorded the natural life of his Selborne parish in extraordinary detail. White was effectively the first British naturalist, inaugurating a tradition of patient observation which saw plants and animal behaviour in their own context. The Christian God didn’t really come into it: White was pioneering a botanical, zoological understanding of the world which has become one of the main ways in which we modern humans can express our biophilia.
Coming on the cusp of the industrial revolution, the naturalism inaugurated by White came just as our forebears were losing their connection with the land; in modern Britain, few of us have any real dependence on animals or prolonged exposure to the wild. And yet we are finding new ways of connecting with nature.
Perhaps the most common way is through our gardens which, as private recreational spaces, are relatively recent creations. They allow ordinary people to quietly pursue a relationship with the natural world that can be adapted to different temperaments, expressing itself through aesthetic creativity, physical labour or contact with wildlife.
My own suburban garden has brought me into a relationship with nature that I never imagined was possible while growing up in the country. Its proximity to other gardens and allotments and relative distance from houses make it a natural habitat for the ‘adaptive wildlife’ which has come to our cities in the last century or so. I’ve had the privilege of part-fostering a wild fox and, like over half the adults in Britain who the RSPB estimates feed the birds, see and hear a range of woodland songsters every day.
So, broadly understood not as institutional theism but another chapter in the British search for meaning, I think nature-worship makes a fine faith. Like the formal religion it replaces, reverence – or if you prefer a cooler word, respect for nature – is a broad church, encompassing the scientificism of the naturalists, the political passion of the eco-warriors and the overt spirituality of the neo-pagans. Quintessentially British, it can be understated to the point you can pretend you don’t really care. And – perhaps most British of all – it’s a religion you can practise while watching the telly.