The Getting of Natural History: Guest blog by Mark Fisher

It’s a pleasure to post a guest blog written by Dr. Mark Fisher, Honorary Research Fellow at the Wildland Research Institute, University of Leeds.

Mark writes a fascinating blog called Self Willed Land. 

The post, which was first published on the People Need Nature website,  arises from a discussion between Mark and I, over a number of months and emails.

The Getting of Natural History

“Freighted with Dogma”. New Forest heathland and Ponies. Photo By Troxx – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=829480

Though not usually given to philosophic analyses, I have found the work of some philosophers immensely helpful in understanding the joys I find in wild nature, and how I understand my emotional reaction to it. Thus, as Iris Murdoch would have it, giving deliberate attention to nature can unself us by being a distraction that clears our minds of selfish care. American philosopher Holmes Roltson considers that aesthetic experience of nature can be as motivational in safeguarding wild nature as moral and ethical considerations if it is founded on natural history, with us emplacing ourselves fittingly within wild nature to observe it. But how do you found that aesthetic on natural history? When I discussed this with Miles, his question was whether an interest in natural history is a pre-requisite to developing a deeper aesthetic appreciation of nature? Would needing to know the names of things actually get in the way of a deeper aesthetic appreciation, as if the cognitive urge for knowledge masks our emotional (even spiritual) relationship with nature? This is how I set out to answer Miles.

When I was thinking about that getting of natural history, I had visions of a schoolboy aged Chris Packham or George Peterken in mind, both of whom had the backdrop of the New Forest for their naturalist enthusiasm and project space. To me, the New Forest was for family outings, avoiding the flies and horses, and then later for Boy Scout and Duke of Edinburgh scheme hikes, as well as drunken teenage camping weekends. Now I view the New Forest with deep suspicion as a cultural model of land use that is too freighted with dogma.

With hindsight, I look back at my biology master at secondary school as being a classic 1960s example of the nature conservation dogma that prevails today, of killing wild nature. I don’t think he ever got used to teaching “Nuffield biology” at O level. He took great delight in de-fleshing cat heads to get a clean skull. The random bit of voluntary conservation work I undertook with him (it could have been on Butser Hill) was cutting down scrub (perhaps laurel) drilling the stumps and then pouring in poison. You can still see this done more crudely today on nearby Old Winchester Hill where dogwood is just sprayed with herbicide.

So, no, I didn’t learn the names of things when growing up, nor catalogue or classify, measure, stick pins in or tear off wings. But I did know what wood was the best for campfires (ash, and then beech) the years as a Wolf Cub and then a scout spent in local woodland campsites learning woodcraft. Learning plant names and identification came much later after a failed career in science. Walking was our pleasure, and why we moved up to Yorkshire to get better walking, and then walking became the means to find wildflowers (Diana is a lapsed botanist). I can happily read a guide to wild flowers last thing at night in bed. That it became woodland walking, and thus turning full circle, was because of wildflower walking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2001, and where I did use a notebook. It was the wildflower walking there that within a few short years got me into walking North American wilderness.

I don’t think I ever suffered anything like “nature-deficit disorder” until the penny dropped about the pathology underlying land use here. Apparently, the “eco-anxiety” it engenders in me is a “psycho-terratic syndrome” attributable to the degraded state of my physical surroundings, or at least that it is what “ecopsychologists” may say. My “ecotherapy” is thus to seek out and walk the wilder places where ever I am, tapping into my “ecological unconscious”. OK – the last bit is tongue in cheek, as a parody of the “wilderness” schools/therapy that you may find in Scotland, but the first bit is correct. The lack of wildness in Britain is my “nature-deficit disorder”. I am moved by the spirit of wildland, but I don’t think that’s about a spirituality in me, it’s more about the freedoms I feel in wildland.

I guess what I have been doing in the preceding paragraphs is storytelling, another form of “ecotherapy” perhaps, and something I probably have an over capacity in. I can give quick examples of the benefit of knowing plant names, other than for our own personal satisfaction: a harebell in the Colorado Front Range was called a bluebell by a local, the confusion being solved by us both knowing what its Latin name was (Campanula rotundifolia); and yes I have been walking woodland with a Swede in the Lesser Caucasus mountains in Georgia and being able to talk about wildflowers by using the Latin names when common names were useless between us. We started talking to a couple of women out from Denver for a day’s walk in Eagles Nest wilderness and, when they expressed amazement at how a couple of Brits had ended up there, we explained that we were making our way through a book of wildflower walks that we had picked up at Denver botanical garden. They walked with us as we pointed out the flowers that we saw. They turned back before us, but when we got back to the trailhead, we found that they had left a note on our windscreen saying how much they had appreciated learning from us. It was a similar story on an organised levada walk on Madeira, the mountain and ridge walks that follow alongside micro-canals that bring water down from the hills. Diana and I would be very quick to point out though that group size is critical in these situations. You can miss so much in a crowd because your attention is taken away, and you certainly won’t see any critters.

I think we will always want to know the name of a wildflower, but we are certainly not driven to know the names of all the other things we find in wild nature, such as the fungi and lichens in our local ancient woodlands, and where we have trouble differentiating ferns. We have only just found out that what looks like a beautiful pink coral or aquatic lichen that we see in shallow pools on exposed rock ledges at low tide on the N. Yorkshire coast is actually a rock encrusting seaweed. The undersides of large boulders on these rock platforms have colonies of bright yellow and pale green breadcrumb sponges. The spreading mass of sponge is punctuated with pores, small holes through which sea water enters into inner cavities where food particles are filtered out, making these an unlikely invertebrate animal, in the same way that the encrusting corallines are unlikely aquatic plants. I guess it’s more a process of absorption now than study when we walk wild places like these wave-cut platforms, but the joy and fun is in seeing it, the colours of the rock, the seaweeds and the other forms of life.

Miles and I know that we have taken different paths to nature; that we have different notions of what nature can be; but our perceptions of nature must be based on some sort of commonality, or it would not have the emotional or spiritual traction that it does have on us. Can that commonality be transferred; is it a universal property? It is these and other like tasks that Miles has set himself with People Need Nature, and which are very much of their time.

 

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About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
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