Nature writing, John Clare and a case for conserving the everyday

When I speak to conservationists more often than not the conversation will turn to interests in specific species and this will probably include a discussion of their interest in a particularly rare species. A prominent example in my own local area is a project to conserve populations of Fisher’s Estuarine Moth (Gortyna borelii lunata) and Sea Hog’s Fennel (Peucedanum officinale). I agree that conservation of these rare species is important and the work of conservationists to improve populations of these species is vital as a part of the overall conservation project. Rare species can be of great scientific interest, particularly if they are located in isolated pockets that may represent the last remnants of once widespread populations. A loss of any species is a loss to biodiversity, to the gene pool and a potential loss for human medicine, for natural history and culture. However, such preoccupation with the rare and exotic is potentially dangerous if it diverts the public eye from the everyday – the species that we ‘take for granted’. It is true that conservation agencies have limited resources and cannot pour them in to every desired project. Nonetheless, there has been a failure in recent years to place sufficient emphasis on the common species – a failure on the part of natural history writers as much as scientists and conservationists – to encourage a consciousness of the importance of these species amongst the wider public.

These thoughts are far from original and many have discussed the topic before. Richard Mabey has for example written widely of the need to recognise the common and never take it for granted. Mabey is a champion of the writer John Clare, a 19th Century farm labourer and poet, who wrote powerfully of the natural world. Clare’s writing connects with us today at a time of far greater environmental and agricultural turmoil than he himself experienced in the early 1800s. There were of course significant changes to the landscape and to rural practice in the 19th Century but these changes were not as rapid or as profound as those experienced in the British countryside over the past generation. We turn to Clare for romanticism, escape and comfort – searching for solace in his seemingly perfect life. For Clare however his writing was reality as he saw it for himself. The natural world no doubt provided an escape from the drudgery and hard labour on the farm. He was able to express his experiences through poetry:

‘‘I often pulled my hat over my eyes to watch the rising of the lark, or to see the hawk hang in the summer sky and the kite take its circles round the wood. I often lingered a minute on the woodland stile to hear the woodpigeons clapping their wings among the dark oaks. I hunted curious flowers in rapture and muttered thoughts in their praise. I loved the pasture with its rushes and thistles and sheep-tracks. I adored the wild, marshy fen with its solitary heronshaw sweeping alone in its melancholy sky. I wandered the heath in raptures among the rabbit burrows and golden-blossomed furze. I dropped down on a thymy mole-hill or mossy eminence to survey the summer landscape…I marked the various colours in flat, spreading fields, checkered into closes of different-tinctured grain like the colours of a map; the copper-tinted clover in blossom; the sun-tanned green of the ripening hay; the lighter charlock and the sunset imitation of the scarlet headaches; the blue corn-bottles crowding their splendid colours in large sheets over the land and troubling the cornfields with destroying beauty; the different greens of the woodland trees, the dark oak, the paler ash, the mellow lime, the white poplars, peeping above the rest like leafy steeples, the grey willow shining in the sun, as if the morning mist still lingered on its cool green…I observed all this with the same raptures as I have done since. But I knew nothing of poetry. It was felt and not uttered.’’

John Clare, from The Autobiography

Nothing mentioned by Clare in the extract above is particularly ‘exotic’. The joy of poetry (and Clare’s writing especially) is to give the seemingly everyday normality a sense of the exotic; that is to say, it catalyses a subtle interest to become an adoration and a different way of looking at the world. Even the humble woodpigeon which, I must admit, I tend to ignore as a common bird that has colonised most of the places I frequent, is seen by Clare as joyful and inspiring. Clare’s writing reminds me of Thoreau and of course of his contemporaries – the English Romantic poets. The difference as I see it today is that nature writing is dominated by a feeling of loss and a concentration on the negative aspects of what the so called ‘human world’ has done to the so-called ‘natural world’. By returning the focus to the everyday conservationists and nature writers may be able to generate a greater appreciation for the natural world as it would become more accessible and therefore more personal – echoing the approach of Clare.

Nature in its entirety, on the micro and macro scales, has always been confusing – too big and complex to comprehend – which is perhaps why some of us enjoy submerging ourselves in the works of the romantic poets. As part of the age we live in, nature, along with many other realities, has come to be claimed by the intellectuals, the scientists, the conservationists, the institutions. In writing this very article, as a graduate who read environmental history and works for a nature conservation charity, I am part of this phenomenon. It is vital that we understand the natural world more in order to plan for the future. In order to understand it a scientific and ‘expert’ approach is required. However, the negative aspects of this continuing phenomenon have not been sufficiently recognised. By taking the technical approach, nature as something to talk about, to experience and to write about often becomes far less accessible for people broadly. In planning policy it is often the views of ‘expert’ bodies that drive the agenda above the wishes of the everyman and everywoman. These bodies usually have their own agendas which may favour certain species or land management methods over others and these may not be conducive to the key goal, which in my mind should be achieving the wider appreciation of nature. If people are not involved in the process of planning conservation then understanding is not apparent and therefore appreciation cannot come about as a result. Citizen science is making some headway towards this but many other avenues will be required to break down the accessibility front we face. The scientific approach needs to be coupled with the arts, with poetry and with the humanities to engage with more people.

To find another John Clare today is rare. A key flaw in the education system is to compartmentalise the student, and therefore the future professional in to a specific way of thinking. In higher education we should encourage our scientists to be poets, our economists to be artists, our photographers to be naturalists and our historians to study natural science and geography. At the other end of the education system we should look to integrate nature in to the curriculum at every level and provide a more holistic approach to learning that encourages children to look at and experience the natural world as early as possible. Only by taking this approach, appreciating the holistic and the everyday will we be able to start working towards a sustainable conservation policy for posterity.

One thought on “Nature writing, John Clare and a case for conserving the everyday

  1. Excellent article. I love Clare’s autobiographical writing – alas there’s not enough of it.
    Yes, the commonplace, the ordinary. I try to write about it too – the Woodie is an exraordinary bird; it’s completely altered its breeding season to the peak with the grain harvest. Here at Midhurst a daily transect measuring the amount of songs and calls amongst common birds shows this very clearly. There are many other discoveries to be made in the natural soundscape. But the aim is not to impress with what is very simple data gathering – the aim is to show how for example an incredibly ordinary event like the tic call of the robin peaks in autumn like many other alarm calls. As to why, that is for others to guess or maybe the phenomenon is too ordinary? Or, as you suggest we need poets to open our eyes and occasionlly our ears.

    An eye level view of flowering hogweed is a good place to start: it always attracts masses of different insects on a warm day – a kind of terrestrial coral reef. Can I name them – hardly any – that courtesy will have to wait for another day.

    To quote Mabey: ‘the countyrside is not an arena for naturalists…’

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