The Secret Network of Nature – Peter Wohlleben

In The Secret Network of Nature by Peter Wohlleben the close connections that exist between flora and fauna are explored and several unexpected relationships reveal the delicate balance which maintains vulnerable ecosystems. Wohlleben stresses that nature works on cause and effect, however the earths ecosystems are too complex for us to ever easily map out simple rules to ensure the balance is never interrupted. It is therefore difficult for us to imagine today some of the long-term effects and disruption being created through the anthropocentric control of nature. 

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is entitled ‘Salmon in the Trees’ and here Wohlleben explains the relationship between salmon, bears and trees.  He states that along the Pacific Coast of North America black and brown bears catch salmon as they journey back upstream in preparation to spawn. The bears catch the salmon but will discard the carcass if they are no longer carrying much body fat, ensuring a tasty meal for other animals in the area.  The head and bones of the salmon often get left to rot amongst the vegetation and this subsequently fertilises the soil.  This results in extremely high levels of nitrogen being distributed which has the effect of speeding up the growth of the Sitka spruce in particular which grows nearby.  It has been reported that more than 80 per cent of the nitrogen that is found in the trees can be traced back to fish.

In Europe, where we no longer have salmon swimming in abundance in rivers, it is difficult to ascertain what effect their absence has had as we are unable to test trees for nitrogen levels because as Wohlleben states, since the Middle Ages, forests have either been cut down or “so heavily exploited that all the ancient trees have disappeared”.  It is a sad but surprising fact that in Germany forests which are commercially managed have no tree older than eighty.  

Alongside other fascinating relationships examining ‘Why Deer Taste Bad to Trees, ‘Is the Bark Beetle All Bad?’, and ‘How Earthworms Control Wild Boar’, Wohlleben addresses many of the myths which surround biodiversity.  In particular the idea that if we manage to save one particular animal or plant we are doing a good thing for the environment, the effect this then has on the survival of several other species is often ignored.  Wohlleben highlights the fact that in Germany alone there are 71,500 known species, meaning we can never know how many will be destroyed by the anthropocentric decision to alter the environment to ensure the survival of one.

The Secret Network of Nature is an accessible, illuminating, factual account of how anthropocentric management of the environment can interrupt the balance of life.  The notion of cause and effect  reminds me of the 1952 Science Fiction short story ‘A Sound of Thunder’ by Ray Bradbury. Set in 2055 the protagonist Eckles pays a lot of money to return to the past to hunt a Tyrannosaurus Rex.  Eckles and his fellow hunters are given strict instructions to remain on the path and only shoot when instructed so they do not cause any damage in the past that will have consequences in the future but, panicked at the sight of the T-rex Eckles runs into the forest straying from the path. On their arrival back in 2055 subtle changes have taken place which indicate something must have gone wrong.  On examining his shoe, it becomes clear that Eckles has crushed a butterfly when he deviated from the path.  The story concludes on a sound of thunder resonating from the past highlighting the damage caused by anthropocentric actions.  Wohlleben’s book is a sound of thunder in the Anthropocene, our current actions will and do have far reaching consequences; but understanding the ‘network of nature’ may help us stick to the path and ensure the balance of these relationships.

The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd

Composed during the Second World War but not published until 1977, The Living Mountain  by Nan Shepherd expresses the authors adoration and devotion to walking, exploring and understanding the Cairngorm Mountains of north-east Scotland.  Rich in Romantic language and imagery, Shepherd shares her encounters upon the mountain, often revealing snippets of a world that invokes faerie; crystal clear lochs, skies of blue and sloping mountains adorned with a pallet of purple, green and yellow.  But as expected of faerie land, danger lurks below the surface and the mountain demands respect, blowing arctic winds, snow and ice, disorientating fog and dizzying drops upon visitors who do not look, listen or understand.  Shepherd’s chapters range from discussing the inanimate, ‘The Plateau’, ‘The Recesses’, and ‘The Group’, to what she refers to as ‘the elementals’, water, light and air, to the plant life upon the mountain and the human senses and ‘Being’.  The mountain, and Shepherd are both at their most vibrant and alive in the recollections that invoke the sublime.

In the second chapter, ‘The Recesses’, Shepherd admits that when first climbing she “made always for the summits, and would not take time to explore the recesses”, until one September day when she was guided to “Coire on Lochain”.  Shepherd describes her awe at discovering the Loch which hitherto had been hidden from sight.  Recounting with pure joy and emotion Shepherd describes how this hidden place assaults the senses and corrodes the human understanding of time, “as altering the position of one’s head, a different kind of world may be made to appear”. From her newly acquired knowledge of place upon the mountain Shepherd explains she only then “began to understand that haste can do nothing with these hills”.  It is impossible not to feel the overwhelming emotions of Shepherd in that recollection, of being out of time at the realisation that the mountain is timeless in a human sense of keeping time, and that despite ceaselessly looking, she had “hardly begun to see”.

Shepherd tells a further story of the recesses upon the mountain featuring a visit to Loch Avon that sits at an altitude of 2300 feet.  On a crisp, clear July morning she began to ascend with a companion Cain Gorm and having reached their destination by midday, encouraged by the clear, cool water they stripped and bathed.  Shepherd recounts that the clarity of the water was greater than looking through air and the true expanse of the Loch was only revealed as they began to wade into it, but their march was halted by the revelation of a shelf that plunged down to what was the true bottom of the Loch.  Communicating in silence the companions made their way to the safety of the shore and Shepherd recalls her “spirit was as naked as my body”.  These moments of wonder, awe, beauty and tranquillity, contrasted with the perils that are a constant potentiality is a reminder to the reader that nature is harsh, it is violent, and it is unforgiving.

With regards to the Anthropocene, The Living Mountain is a beautiful reminder that nature is alive, a dominant force, and irreverent to human time, purpose and agenda.  Shepherd alludes to the element of exclusivity in accessing and appreciating the mountain, an exclusivity that could potentially help appreciate, respect and understand the natural world within the environmental crisis we are currently within.

Rewild Yourself – Simon Barnes

The notion of ‘rewilding’ is fast becoming a widespread reaction to the emerging narrative of the Anthropocene. The purpose, according to is “the restoration of ecosystems where nature can take care of itself … Rewilding encourages a balance between people and the rest of nature where each can thrive”.  It is an acknowledgment that nature is powerful; capable of renewal, regrowth, and replenishment.  On a large scale, rewilding must be the concern of government, councils and organisations which are able to implement policy and prevent vast amounts of natural land becoming covered in concrete, chemicals or sites of deforestation.  One idea already proposed is that of ‘Half-Earth’, the simple idea that the environment would be able to repair itself if half of the earth’s surface was allocated primarily for the benefit of other species.  This proposal has gained traction following a mass-scale forest restoration which has seen 43 countries committed to restoring 292m hectares of degraded land to forest.  On a smaller scale, the individual can become involved with rewilding by making a few small changes to their perspective and by making a little effort.

In Rewild Yourself  by Simon Barnes there are 23 spellbinding ways to make nature more visible, and I would suggest that through making nature more visible, what will likely follow is a respect, delight, sense of wonder and desire to protect, preserve and restore the natural world within your own environment.

One of the delights of Barnes book is that each spell begins with an introduction from a work of fiction which transports the reader to another world; Lucy walking arm in arm with the faun through Narnia, gills appearing on Harry in the Goblet of Fire, the Marauders Map revealing secrets in the Prisoner of Azkaban  and darkness being made visible in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  These allusions to another world are both to prepare the reader and remind them that the spells will reveal a new world to the caster, and they must be ready to look again, change perspective, make an effort and enjoy what they newly discover.

The spells themselves are a mix of practicality, honing our human senses and enriching our reading material.  In a spell entitled ‘Magic Trousers’, Barnes conveys the world which will become revealed by simply investing in a pair of water proof trousers.  He attests that what these trousers will do “is break down some of the barriers between being inside and being outside”, they will effectively allow greater time to be spent out of doors resulting in a closer interaction with nature.  In ‘Regaining your lost sense’ Barnes highlights how we culturally privilege sight over any other sense, and if we take time to hone our listening skills, which have become dulled through a constant barrage of urban noise, a new and exciting sound will prick our ears, grab our attention and transport us to a land of birdsong.  In ‘The Magicians Library’, Barnes lists his top ten books which will help the reader in their summoning of nature.  These are not just books to aid the reader in identifying trees, plants, insects and animals, they are about evolution, butterflies, whales and Mowgli, living intimately in the jungle, a human in balance with their environment.

As a response to the Anthropocene, rewilding is an activity all can become involved in and Rewild Yourself is a gentle introduction in how to transport yourself into a world of magic and awe which is closer than imagined.  The spells summon nature, draw it closer and make visible that which is often hidden amongst the white noise of our increasingly urban lives.

The Lost Words and the Power of Nature

On the evening of the 23 November I had the privilege and the pleasure of attending ‘Sobell House Hospice presents Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’ at The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford.  Macfarlane and Morris have become involved with the hospice through their joint venture The Lost Words and the evening celebrated the connection, solace and hope nature provides as families navigate heart breaking diagnosis, grief and, ultimately loss.

Macfarlane and Morris were hosted by Dr Rachel Clarke who offers palliative care at the hospice and who conveyed beautifully the importance and power of nature through her personal experience of losing her father.  Dr Clarke also spoke of the kindness and selfless actions of Macfarlane who had sent her father a pebble from an arctic expedition after she had contacted him via social media and asked for a signed book to boost his spirits; a kindness that was repeated in stories told by members of the audience, many of whom had been sent natural objects by Macfarlane in times of personal crisis. The trio were accompanied onstage by a patient from the hospice with a terminal diagnosis, a daughter revealing her mother’s own version of The Lost Words and a husband who had lost a wife.  I will not repeat their stories here, they are not mine to tell, and I could never do them the justice they deserve, but I will tell a story of my own.

In June 2014 my dad suffered an aortic aneurysm.  I will refrain from repeating the gory details but after a ten per-cent chance of survival, an eight hour operation, over twenty pints of blood, a blood clot in his leg, weeks in intensive care followed by weeks learning to stand and walk again, an ileostomy two years later, reduced feeling in his feet and legs we are able to say he is here.  And it is not until now that I have realised and appreciated that nature played a role in his recovery.  Dad has never been a fell walker, a mountain basher or a rambler, but he has always taken great enjoyment in walking his dogs in the surrounding countryside where my parents live.  Whilst in hospital one of his biggest concerns was his cocker spaniel Bruce; Who would walk him? Where was he being walked? Would he ever be able to walk him again?  He would take Bruce out for hours along the riverbanks watching the partridges, pheasants and hawks, carrying his camera to show us all later what he had found.  He would sit on the bank as Bruce ran in and out of farmer’s fields sniffing and chasing the birds from their hiding places. When he was in hospital he would tell me stories of when he was younger in Kent, scrumping apples, picking hops, looking after a fox cub.  I see now he has always had an affinity with nature; enjoyed it, took pleasure in being surrounded by it and had a desire to get back within it, an affinity I am not sure he himself has recognised.  His walks may be shorter now, less adventurous and more about socialising, but being outdoors is revitalising, hopeful and is the essence of being alive.

Following that evening in Oxford and thinking about my dad I have begun to  revisit The Lost Words and can now appreciate it for more than keeping language alive; it is about all kinds of loss and carries within it hope.  As one gentleman said on the night “nature carries the joy of life”; and as the spells from the book are read aloud, that joy becomes recast.

Where Poppies Blow – John Lewis-Stempel

Where Poppies Blow by John Lewis-Stempel tells the story of the British soldiers enduring relationship with the natural world. Retold through a mixture of the soldier’s own words taken from diaries, letters to loved ones, and their own poetry, Lewis-Stempel creates an emotional and compelling narrative of the men, animals and landscape that served and inspired during the First World War.

The first chapter, ‘For King and Countryside’, recounts numerous soldier’s personal reasons for enlisting, all linked in their own way to the unfailing desire to protect and preserve the English countryside for the generations to come.  One of the most poignant aspects that emerges from several personal accounts is the age of the men; as expected most are young, teenagers and early twenties, their lives still ahead of them, but many are in their thirties or early forties and therefore had no statutory obligation to fight.  On being asked why he had volunteered, the thirty-six-year-old poet Edward Thomas scooped up a handful of the earth and replied, “Literally for this”.  The British landscape also gave comfort to the soldiers when the outlook, metaphorically and literally looked bleak.  Recounting the beauty, tranquillity and life of the countryside at home served as a tonic to the “destruction of nature on the Western Front”.

Sandwiched between the chapters of Where Poppies Blow, Lewis-Stempel has interjected an ‘Interstice’, providing a short space for extra material. From a comprehensive list of ‘Birds of the Battlefield, Western Front 1914-18’, to ‘The Statistics of Disease’,  this is a space for indisputable facts but more importantly to hear in the soldier’s poetry the passion, pride, empathy and sympathy they show towards their animal comrades.

The chapters which focus on animals, the birds, horses, dogs and cats that served alongside the soldiers, became their friends and alleviated the boredom of war exhibit a longing for home and a sadness for innocent casualties of war.  In the chapter about ‘All the Lovely Horses’, the numerical facts regarding the mere amount of horses and mules used and lost throughout the war are staggering.  At the beginning of the war in August 1914 the British Army had “25,000 horses and mules”, and throughout procured more from home and several other countries including America, Spain and India.  The soldiers recount in their diaries and poems of the suffering endured by these beautiful animals, but also of their bravery and companionship, and how whenever possible they would alleviate their suffering when they fell from shell fire, disease or hunger.  It was to the skies though that the soldiers looked to alleviate the tedium of war. The myriad of birds which sang, flew and nested across the stretch of no man’s land gave respite, comfort and hope when often there was not much to be found.  As one Scottish miner who enlisted told his local newspaper, “If it weren’t for the birds, what a hell it would be”.

In the Preface Lewis-Stempel states that we “have become de-natured and uber-urban”; we forget too easily the price that has been paid for our freedom to enjoy, experience and exploit the natural world.  As we mark the hundred-year anniversary of the First World War, Where Poppies Blow is a poignant, emotional and stark reminder that nature is worth protecting and fighting for.

The Hidden Life of Trees – Peter Wohlleben

Trees are a necessary and important part of our ecology, they provide us with oxygen whilst storing carbon, provide habitats for wildlife and bear fruit, fuel and shelter. But aside from all these anthropocentric benefits, trees are involved in a community of their own, creating a network of friendship and sustainability.  Just over two decades ago the ecologist Suzanne Simard discovered that trees were effectively communicating with one another.  Through a web of tightly bound infrastructures below the surface of the soil, trees form connections with fungi to exchange nutrients, warn one another of an impending threat and give life to friends who have been mercilessly axed down. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben provides an intimate and illuminating peek into the community of trees in the forest he manages in the Eifel mountains in Germany.

To speak of friendship amongst trees appears romantic, the mere application of anthropocentrism to give human qualities to a non-human entity, but Wohlleben describes the relationship between the trees in his forest as a friendship of survival; the forest as a whole is only strong when all the trees work together.  Through reciting an anecdote of stumbling upon an ancient tree stump within the forest displaying signs of life, despite being felled four or five hundred years ago, Wohlleben concludes that this stump was “getting assistance from neighboring trees, specifically from their roots” (3).  Scientists have discovered these nutrients are exchanged from either a fungal network which exists around the tips of the roots or from the roots themselves becoming interconnected.  This however does not happen by mere accident or circumstance of roots bumping into each other and becoming connected, trees have the ability to distinguish their own roots from those of other species, they therefore choose which trees they connect with and support.  This means that “forests are superorganisms with interconnections” (3) and the trees rely on one another for survival.  Through working together in friendship, they create an ecosystem which can sustain the forest and it is within this environment that they can live to be very old, but it is dependent on the community remaining “intact no matter what” (4).

The notion of friendship to create a sustainable ecosystem is reiterated by Wohlleben when he speaks of the chaos which is created within the forest when humans attempt to assist trees by creating more space for them through culling others.  In a harrowing tale he recounts a time in his early years as a forester when he was tasked with the job of having “young trees girdled” (17).  The process involves stripping the bark 3 feet wide and removing it around the trunk to basically kill the tree.  Wohlleben speaks with raw emotion and regret at these past actions describing them as ‘brutal’ as “death comes slowly” (17); thanks however to the underground network, many of these trees survived, receiving nutrients from their neighbours.

This idea of friendship and support at work within a forest community is not only relevant to humans because forests work as fantastic natural vacuums of carbon, benefitting our predicament within the Anthropocene; they also provide a model of co-operation and communication.  As the narrative of the Anthropocene continues, humans can gain insights into natural networks and learn from how they create an ecosystem which nourishes all the participants.  Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees is more than an insight into an underground network, it is a model of sustainability and survival.


The Lone Tree and Me

The lone tree which stands on the northern end of Buttermere is an iconic part of the northern Lake District.  Whether it be blue summer skies, frosty winter mornings or a crisp autumnal day, it is a scene worthy of leaving behind a warm bed, driving miles to capture or waiting for the perfect light as the sun begins to drop behind the waiting mountains.  This scene epitomises for many the Lake District; tranquillity, nature, beauty, awe and wonder.  But as I spend more time exploring the lakes, fells, mountains and woods alongside conducting my thesis research learning more about the environment and the Anthropocene, I find I am contemplating my place within this environment and the impact I am having.  This post therefore is pure contemplation, an attempt to think through my thoughts and find a resolution.

I took this picture in July; I had wanted to take some shots of the tree for a while but when we visited a few months earlier the path which passes the tree had been closed to walkers to give the local wildlife breeding opportunities.  Reflecting on this picture now, I cannot help but think about the impact I have potentially had on the environment.  I drove and parked at the side of the road in Buttermere alongside numerous other visitors and trod the path which snakes around the lake, and although they are superbly maintained I am aware of the necessity of them due to the popularity of the area.  I also took my dog Noah, who was under control at all times but still insists on trying to make friends with every sheep, cow, goat and chicken that crosses his path, and as lovely as I think he is, his drive to befriend the local wildlife could have caused distress, thereby creating an impact.  Looking further into the photograph I have also climbed Haystacks, the mountain to the right distinguished by the familiar outline which made it Wainwright’s favourite summit. I have also driven up and down Honistor Pass countless times to the slate mine which is situated beside Fleetwith Pike, which stands out in the middle of the scene.

So, within this contemplation regarding my environmental impact, what am I suggesting? That the lone tree should never be visited, no mountain paths should be walked, no more photos should be taken and shared, no more roads cycled or driven? Of course not; the lakes, the mountains, the fells, the woods should be enjoyed, explored and celebrated, but I cannot be ignorant of my impact either.  Do I have any answers? Not really; all I know is I am more aware of my actions; I try to pick up stray rubbish now on the mountains, I keep to the paths and I try to avoid contact with the wildlife.  I, like endless others enjoy visiting places such as the lone tree, it makes me reflect, re-centre, contemplate and imagine. The images I take home with me help remind me of this and to be mindful of trying to look after places such as Buttermere, for other people to enjoy but also because it should exist regardless of any benefit to humans.  I think this is a topic I will return to often as I do not think there is a solution, only a reconciliation of how to enjoy the natural world with as little impact as possible.

A Peoples Manifesto for Wildlife

On Saturday 22 September London was host to ‘The Peoples Walk for Wildlife’ organised by the naturalist and broadcaster Chris Packham to highlight the desperate state of British wildlife and the dwindling numbers of many species that are now perilously close to extinction.  The walk was attended by around 10,000 people from across Britain who braved the damp conditions to march the streets of London to a soundtrack of birdsong Packham had encouraged walkers to download and play through their mobile phones to penetrate the hustle and bustle of the urban environment.  Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the walk but wanted to get involved someway so I am going to share some brief thoughts here about the importance of the document which was created to accompany the event and was delivered to Downing Street at its culmination.

As a document, A Peoples Manifesto for Wildlife is as beautiful as it is informative; designed and illustrated by Harry Woodgate it is a colourful, fun but also poignant portrayal of British wildlife depicting many of the human issues which are effecting the sustainability and habitats of numerous species.  From the outset Packham states that this document is controversial and political, demanding that funding should be provided and protected from any party politics to ensure conservation and environmental care.  Packham declares immediately that it is no longer enough to merely say ‘we care’, he calls for ‘informed action’ and takes issue with the language surrounding the treatment and disappearance of so many species, he says we must not speak of ‘a loss of 97% of our Hedgehogs’, they have not vanished in mysterious circumstances or been misplaced, they have been destroyed.

The manifesto continues by presenting a set of short essays and proposals by eighteen ‘contributing ministers’ all of whom are from different fields and backgrounds but provide insight into a particular situation and ten ‘proposals’ to begin to amend the issue.  Dr Robert Macfarlane writes for the ‘Ministry of Natural Culture and Education’ passionately arguing that a change in culture will derive from a change in education. In his proposals he asks for Section 78 of The Education Act be rewritten ‘to place nature at the centre of the state curriculum from nursery to secondary school’, making nature an educational fundamental in a period where children are experiencing and engaging less with nature and living increasingly urbanised lives.  Macfarlane also asks that teacher-training programmes ‘train primary and secondary school teachers in outdoor learning’, which would ensure that these essential engagements with nature are not mere after thoughts or add-ons to the teaching day, but are planned, informed and enthusiastic encounters that stay with children and young adults in the same way as maths and reading do.

The solicitor Carol Day represents the ‘Ministry of Wildlife Law’ highlighting that because humans are currently pushing the planet beyond safe limits there is an urgent need for a ‘strong legal basis to halt biodiversity loss and achieve improved animal welfare’.  In the proposals section Day suggests that there needs to be a new Environment Act which is similar to the Human Rights Act and at its core ensures everyone and nature ‘has the legal right to live in an environment adequate to their health and well-being’, potentially tackling issues relating to fuel emissions and other substances we allow industry to emit into the atmosphere.

These brief snippets of what the manifesto contains demonstrate the importance of its creation arguably now more than ever as we begin to navigate the devastating consequences of human actions towards the natural world which has pushed us into the Anthropocene.  Many of the proposals are directed at government policy but as individuals we can begin to implement them into our own daily lives through thought and action and encourage others to do the same to try and conserve the wildlife which remains.


Language in the Anthropocene

As the narrative of the Anthropocene emerges and I become more immersed in the literature it is evident that an accompanying lexicon is essential to discuss, debate and imagine within this new epoch.  The language of the Anthropocene is a subject I will return to often, but it has occupied my attention lately as I consider whether I am using the correct terms within my PhD thesis, for example, should people be referred to as ‘humans’ or as is becoming popular the ‘anthropos’?  It is unquestionably an exciting time to be researching in a discipline that is steadily keeping pace with the evolving environmental crisis, but it has made me aware and mindful of the rich and diverse language becoming increasingly ubiquitous reflecting this geological transition, and the need for it to encourage engagement, education and imagination.

Through discovering the words which create the language of the Anthropocene I have become aware of the ones I have never known.  I am currently reading several texts about woods, forests and trees and shamefully realise I have never known the proper names for numerous trees or the birds which inhabit them, an ignorance I am now trying to amend.  This has led me to ponder about our current era being the time of the sixth great extinction period and contemplate the hundreds of words for species of flora and fauna that I will never know because they are gone and no longer spoken of, a whole world of language lost and eventually forgotten.  It is essential we care for words because at their core they give substance to a thing, an idea, an object.  Words have power to convey meaning, action and remembrance.

In 2007 the Oxford Junior Dictionary decided to replace a number of words relating to the natural world with more twenty-first century friendly ones.  Out was almond, blackberry and crocus, in was analogue, block graph and celebrity.  In protest twenty-eight authors appealed to the Oxford University Press to reconsider this decision but the changes remained.  In 2017 the children’s book The Lost Words was published to care for these terms and ensure they nourished a generation of children who are living increasingly urban and static lives. Written by Robert Macfarlane and beautifully illustrated by Jackie MorrisThe Lost Words is a collection of acrostic poems designed to be read aloud by children (and I hope adults) as ‘spells’ to invoke the spirit of the natural world and reclaim the words which have so carelessly been discarded.

All the spells for me conjure wonderful memories of a childhood spent playing in gardens, parks and woods but they also open the door to new encounters with nature previously unexperienced.  Reading aloud ‘Newt’, ‘Starling’ or ‘Wren’ can be startling to the ear and the tongue as it gives life to the unfamiliar familiar.  My favourite spell is ‘Conker’, we had several large conker trees near our house as children and we would spend hours collecting, polishing and swapping them with friends.  The beauty of this spell for me though is in the contrast made between humans and nature. It begins with a simple request, ‘Cabinet-maker, could you craft me a conker?’, the reply is negative, so the speaker turns next to the king, ‘could you command me a conker?’, again impossible, so the speaker approaches the engineer, ‘surely you could design me a conker?’, once more the reply to this is ‘unimaginable’.  The spell concludes that only ‘one thing can conjure conker – and that thing is tree’.  The message is clear, humans cannot replicate what nature creates.

Language within the Anthropocene is important to understanding and navigating the developing environmental crisis, but we must care for the words we have in order to care for what they conjure up.  Replacing natural words with material ones reflects the anthropocentric priority and privilege which has contributed to the current crisis and it is through literature like The Lost Words that language will thrive and introduce children, and many adults to a world which may have otherwise remained lost to them.

The Wood – John Lewis-Stempel

In an article published in 2011 entitled ‘The Anthropocene: From Global change to Planetary Stewardship’, Will Steffan et al outline the notion of ‘planetary stewardship’ as an alternative to geo-engineering in response to anthropogenic damage to the natural world. The idea is centred around “global governance’ (755) as a way of controlling pollution such as fuel emissions in the hope of reducing the effects of climate change and other anthropogenic damage like biodiversity loss.  The focus on ‘stewardship’ is an interesting one as the word is loaded with various meanings and connotations.  The dictionary defines ‘stewardship’ as “the job of supervising or taking care of something” which can be interpreted in many different ways. There are also Biblical connotations associated with the word which originate from passages in Genesis which speak of human ‘dominion’ over the earth, and these passages have often been used to justify the exploitation of the natural world.  Interpretations of what ‘dominion’ constitutes have waxed and waned, but there is an agreement it means a ‘stewardship’ where humans do not have ‘dominion’ over God’s creation but act as a steward, a care-taker.  I consider ‘stewardship’ in terms of a response to the Anthropocene an apt description of the commitment, safe-guarding and maintenance humans should export to the natural world as opposed to the taking, pillaging or exploiting which has contributed to the environmental crisis.

An excellent example of stewardship can be found in The Wood by John Lewis-Stempel, which is essentially a diary from December-November of the last year the author managed and farmed Cockshutt wood in Herefordshire. On first entering the wood at the beginning of December you could be mistaken for thinking you were traversing a portal into fantasy land such is the rich description of the world which awaits on the other side of the stile.  The first entry carries the reader down a path passing ‘sweet chestnut’, ‘giant beech’ and ‘one giant sycamore’; just a glimpse of the diversity waiting inside the wood.  The descriptions throughout are affectionate and warm towards all the flora and fauna that inhabit the woodland.  Throughout December alone the reader is introduced to a myriad of residents who have a home in Cockshutt, from Old Brown, the tawny owl who keeps watch as day slips to night, to the pheasants, pigs, foxes, badgers and woodcocks, Lewis-Stempel describes them all with their own idiosyncrasies and personality.

Interspersed with the everyday life of the wood Lewis-Stempel intertwines the history of how woods across England have been shaped by Stone Age people, the Celts, the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons.  The lexicon of the wood is also drip fed to the reader through intermissions explaining the differences between a wood and a forest, a dingle, a coppice, a hagg, a plantation and a spinney or through the poetry of Emily Dickinson or John Clare, a recipe for hazelnut and mushroom pate or a seventeenth century May song, all enriching the world we entered over the stile.

The Wood is much more than a diary of one man’s last year at work within the wood, it is a love letter to the place, the trees, the animals, the winter mist and the summer sun, it is an appreciation of life and death, the cycle of nature and the ability for renewal.  Nature writing like The Wood is important as we navigate the Anthropocene as it cultivates a relationship with the natural world which is reciprocal, not exploitative, to me, it is stewardship.