Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Also, He Loved A Tree

In ECOS 28 (1) Martin Spray, the assistant editor and sometime editor, mused at length on what it means to love Nature and the implications for its conservation, in his article 'Also he loved a tree'. You can read it here. This piece prompted an exchange with another of BANC's original thinkers, Barry Larking, which correspondence is reproduced here ...

Dear Martin,

In making the subject of your latest essay in ECOS (1) 'love' you have advanced a characteristically contrarian viewpoint. The essay has several strands of thought but they come together over the 'soul' of conservation. Many of us are concerned that, in concentrating on 'materialist' aims and outcomes, conservation is forgetting why - what is it for? This concern is made particularly clear in the last two paragraphs of your essay, which are in marked contrast to what went before. I note that the penultimate paragraph turns away completely from philosophical musings and towards utilitarian ideas: "we might be more successful". What does success mean here?

What use is love? Or is that the point ... that it has no use? Like a cloud outside my window as I write this, it just is. Obviously I realise that cloud is a product of scientifically understood processes, but its cultural impact on me is greater or stronger - and this came first. However, can anyone blame a conservationist or planner from taking the view that what works is pragmatism and having a plan, not thinking about what words mean? I think I have been there ...

Years ago, in a bad tempered team meeting of professional conservationists, I misquoted (from memory) a line from 'Lapis Lazuli' by W.B. Yeats. Put shortly, in this poem Yeats thinks about futility and human endurance.

"Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce."

I fear it had no effect on our conversation except to confirm the other people around the table that I had 'lost it'. At the time it summed up for me the dilemma at the heart of our dispute. What does it matter what we do, in the grand scheme of things?

And yet, what to do? Without love or something like it ("My heart in hiding/Stirred for a bird"(2)) conservation is dead meat on a slab ... maybe just the slab. Without policies, bureaucrats and planning, the land goes to ruin, species die out. What would conservation be like if it were left to poets?

Best Wishes,

(1) 'Also he loved a tree', ECOS Vol. 28, No. 1, pp 27-40.
(2) From 'The Windhover" by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89)

Dear Barry,

You’ve not only read it, but think that the threads come together ... I’m still not sure about that! You’re right, though, about the ending. I struggled with several versions and the words published are the ones I was least dissatisfied with.

Don’t look for insights into what actually to do to achieve conservation. I am merely trying to encourage people to take a wider view, to keep checking that they are still in touch with base, and to walk on both legs. One is the rational leg, the other is the emotional leg. Both are normally needed for balance ... and action. I certainly don’t think either by itself is sufficient for supporting conservation. The latter tends to be the one neglected and I’m afraid that we still think of conservation predominantly in terms of the former: “a philosophy directed at the manner and timing of resource use”, as someone called it.

I don’t know what ‘success’ means. I mean that I couldn’t say with great confidence in which direction we should head, though I’m extremely uncomfortable where we are now. I probably shouldn’t have used that word. I’ll say, though, that it depends on who asks the question. You say “land goes to ruin, species die out”. Well, it’s in the nature of species to disappear, one way or another, and although the land may be ruined from our viewpoint and for our purposes, I’d hesitate to speak for any other being, let alone for all ‘Nature’!

Taking a resourcist rationale as a basis for action – whether arrogantly, paternalistically or as a duty – takes us (i.e. all beings) towards a danger. Its selectivity denies ‘Nature’ some of the freedom to, as it were, do its own thing in the way it wants ... or, you might say, as the gods intended. It’s a bit much to assume that we know better than Nature how Nature works, yet we persist in acting as though we do.

Taking what I shall call a loving attitude is (isn’t it?) understanding and accepting that we don’t know. By ’we’, I mean people generally but also conservationists collectively. In a way, conservation, or being green, or whatever label you want, is simply acting in that understanding.

Heaven forfend that poets (I’ll assume a wide meaning for that word) should run the job one-leggedly. That would be no improvement on BAPists and sloganizers. Is that a bit harsh to both sides? Misquoting my pragmatic alter ego, perhaps we should try to link these divergent approaches into a genuine partnership, an inclusive forum for sharing views and knowledge, as that might result in a powerful voice for conservation. But Martin must be more optimistic than me: I think he hears one voice and I hear several.

Certainly, a better dialogue is needed urgently. I’d love [sic] to know what other readers made of that issue of ECOS. Should we change its name to EROS - A review of conservation?

Meanwhile ... may poets continue a long history of telling us important things. Back in the Middle Ages, for instance, Anon wrote that A man may a while / Nature beguile / By doctrine and lore * / And yet in the end / Will Nature have wend / There she was before. We should wend that way too, as Spenser warns us in the ‘Faerie Queene’: For he, that once hath missèd the right way, / The further he doth goe, the further he doth stray.

Odd that, if we see ourselves as part of ‘Nature’... but they are only poets’ words! Have I confused you some more?

Best wishes

* We might say ‘theory and acquired knowledge’. Or should that be ’targets and transferable skills’?

Dear Martin,

At once let me say that your suggestion that ECOS be re-named EROS is a winner. BANC might, however, find that they are attracting an odd sort of audience. (But any audience would do ... really? Titles must mean something).

To return to the subject under discussion. There are various examples floating about of the concept of 'love' applied to conservation as outlined in your essay. I feel they come together around the question of sensibility. Sensibility, in an eighteenth century meaning, invokes the concept of holding several motives at once in some kind of balance, reverently. Love is perhaps a close example of this, a complex of emotions and actual effects which, unbridled, cause these same emotions to overpower even rational people. Of course, speaking of the unbridled, the eighteenth century also gave us the Romantics.

The problem is - and the last two paragraphs of your essay seem to say this - the bureaucratic and managerial has pushed these constructs out of sight ... for a reason. Conservation has become, in its daily operation, a matter of policy implementation and organisation, rather than waiting to be swept off one's feet by a contrast or contradiction ("... and he loved a tree"). Managers need to deliver results which can be demonstrated. (Delivery, targets, inputs and outcomes ... Oh! A whole beastly lexicon of terms floats into view!). But could it be any different for practical purposes? One speculates.

Jonathan Miller, doctor of medicine, opera director, writer and sculptor, described how - once upon a time - doctors were encouraged to 'read' their patients by studying their movements and characteristic expressions of speech and gesture, the better to understand them and their reported condition: the physical mediated by the psychological presentation of disorder. This, he lamented, seemed not to occur any more in the training of physicians. Patients are 'things' which might be mended or not. Is a lack of sympathy – or empathy – something which might also apply to professional conservationists in their daily tasks?

Ought we ask budding environmentalists to write about the landscapes of Ruysdael (1), or Thomson's "The Seasons" (2), in the light of current and present questions relating to the environment? (It occurs to me that your students may indeed have been asked to do so - no matter). Maybe an insight into the mainsprings of the music of George Butterworth (3) or Stanford (4)? Is it desirable to produce 'managers' of landscapes for whom landscapes represent more than a set of functional objectives? I think we can agree that it would be.

But again I must ask if we have the right to demand this. Recent floods have underlined how fragile our state is. Without those things we take for granted – electricity, clean water, access – brute old Mother Nature makes life difficult if not unpleasant and, for too many, desperate. Someone has to get their hands dirty for us to have the space to dream. George Gissing in "The Private Papers Of Henry Ryecroft" (5) reminds us, watching women and men weeding a crop field in the rain with old sacks over them to keep the weather off, that only the materially secure have the time and space to wonder at the beauty of Nature. We (as in "I mean people generally but also conservationists collectively"), the inclusive majority, want more or less similar things in our lives, some material, some not. But is the alternative to planned environment a free market in conservation? ("... ‘Nature’ some of the freedom to, as it were, do its own thing in the way it wants"). What would that be like? Let everything do its own thing and just accept the consequences?

In the region where I live Red Squirrels are not uncommon, however, Greys are increasingly sighted and, in the fullness of time if no action is taken, the strong likelihood is that Reds will be replaced across the whole of Great Britain by Grey Squirrels. Will a video record - or a poem - do for coming generations to know these creatures?

Best Wishes,

(1) Salomon van Ruysdael, Dutch landscape artist, (ca.1600 – 1670) www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/ruysdael_salomon_van.html
(2) James Thomson, Scottish playwright and poet (1700 – 1748)
(3) George Butterworth, English composer (1885 – 1916)
(4) Charles Villiers Stanford, Irish composer (1852 –1924)
(5) George Gissing, English writer, (1857 – 1903). "The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft" was published in 1903.

Dear Barry,

You ask “Is it desirable to produce 'managers' of landscapes for whom landscapes represent more than a set of functional objectives?” Well, yes, surely it would be ... but can you say how?

Trying to take a wide view of things, I keep seeing a large part of the situation about which we’re both concerned being associated with the colonising of ‘conservation’ - and much else - by a brand of professionalism. I’m no fan of muddling-through as an approach to action, but equally I have not much faith in progress reports and evaluation criteria and other bits of your ‘beastly lexicon’ as a means of saving the world.

Nor have I a great faith in what we call ‘education’. Gaining of information and training in technique, which is commonly mistaken for education, might make us professionally accredited; it might make us skilled, practical conservers too, but it wouldn’t itself make us conservationists. Isn’t that a matter of why you do what you do? Although one can profess them, surely one can’t ‘professionalize’ beliefs and attitudes and emotions. (Sorry about the sanctimonious tone edging in here.) The institutionalizing of conservation into an accredited community is accompanied by a discrediting of the rest of us. In particular, in the present context, it gives no credit to why many conservationists count themselves as conservationists: because of respect, friendship, love, compassion, awe, fellowship, at-one-ness, belief or gut feeling.

My gut feeling at this moment is that I’m becoming disillusioned (again). Should I be? Am I beginning to describe yet another dichotomy in our society: on the one hand, let’s call them the managers, on the other, let’s call them the lovers? My gut goes on to tell me that that’s how the conservation scene looks - BANC and ECOS included - but that the different parties have as yet hardly begun to consider the possible benefits of coming together to present their points of view for open discussion (BANC and ECOS probably included).

I doubt if there would be two ‘poles’ and a void between. Could we hope that there would be a significant move - to steal your words - towards holding several motives at once in some kind of balance?

However, it’s necessary first to start the discussion.



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