'Our Place': A Call For Change

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Intensive agricultural practices, skies devoid of birds, fields with very little insect life – we’ve all read or heard news items talking about the plight facing our countryside.  However, what many of us have little understanding of is just how rapid a decline in wildlife our British landscape is facing.  These are the issues which Mark Cocker seeks to explore and address in his latest book, Our Place – Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before it is Too Late?

As a naturalist and environmental tutor, Cocker’s writing and broadcasting on nature and wildlife have featured across a wealth of national media.  His work spans across the genres of biography, history, literary criticism and memoir including noted titles such as Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet (2014) and Birds and People (2013).  His book, Crow Country, was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2008 and won the New Angle Prize for Literature in 2009.  He has also been The Guardian’s country diarist for almost thirty years.  The release of Our Place this year has seen him explore a topic clearly close to his heart - the fate of British nature since the twentieth century. 

Our Place begins with Cocker’s take on the history of the conservation movement through the exploration of six special places.  From the flatlands of Norfolk to the rugged terrain of Scotland, the book considers the ‘green’ ideas which led to the creation of institutions such as the National Trust and how in turn this has shaped our wild spaces.  Charting the achievements of notable figures such as Victorian visionary (and founder of the National Trust) Octavia Hill and key characters like Max Nicholson, the pioneering environmentalist, ornithologist and founder of the World Wildlife Fund as well as Derek Ratcliffe, one of the most influential naturalists of his generation, Cocker seeks to demonstrate how they helped change the face of conservation.  It is from this that we can begin to understand how and why our landscape looks as it does today.    

This is by no means an easy read for anyone with a love of wildlife and the outdoor, of green spaces and their preservation.  Cocker’s intention is not to mollycoddle, it is to bring awareness.  Our Place is a bold statement on the state of nature in Britain today.  However, running through the narrative is the constant reminder of Cocker’s deep love of the countryside.

We could see the landscape curving away westwards, quivering even at this hour, and ribbons in blue or pastel where plots of reed and marsh entwined.  And far off was the mill.  It was Cley.  I was there.  It was hot.  A love affair had begun.’

We all share this love to varying degrees – that much is true if you look at the membership of the large organisations Cocker details in the book.  Organisations which are dedicated to preserving and protecting vital parts of our national landscape.  However, what Cocker really wants us to think about is how many of us really play our part in keeping that landscape alive and well?  What will it take for our society to affect real change?  Can we achieve this before it is too late?

Replenishing our collective spirit involves our immersion in nature’s unfathomable and obliterating otherness, so that it can purge the travails and toxins of our own making. Nature’s great and irreversible continuities – the passage of the clouds, the turning of the seasons – measure all our smallnesses.  They put things in perspective.  They render us humble.  Nature is the go-to place when life seems too full of self-generated woe.’

Recently I attended an assembly at my daughters’ school where the headmistress talked about words being lost from the Oxford Junior Dictionary.  Words such as otter, kingfisher, conker, acorn – all part of a natural world lexicon that has been ousted to make room for new vocabulary for the modern age like broadband and the phrase ‘cut and paste’. 

It seemed to me that this struck a chord with the very point Our Place is trying to highlight.  If it so easy to erase these words from the dictionary with little notice or outcry, how long might it be before the very embodiments of these words are lost to us forever too?  Perhaps as Cocker emphasises so passionately, we simply aren’t doing enough to preserve our countryside. 

Our Place is a thought-provoking read which highlights the need for more action.  It’s a book which calls for change beyond the ‘kitchen-sink choices’ we all try to make in a bid to think and be more green.  For as Cocker cites in his final pages, if as a nation we are to quote William Blake and describe our landscape as a ‘green and pleasant land’ then we all need to do more.