Walking Guide - reflections on the new single…
Here are the lyrics to our new single, Walking Guide…
Walk across the field
Sticking to the wall
Then you’ll find a gate
Left across the bridge
Pull into the town and see
The graves of ancient clans
Spirits of the trees exhale
The cold against their skins
Bear towards the church
By the sighing stream
See the ancient copse
Feel a sense of loss
Harden in the sun somehow
Necessity takes hold
We can only wonder why
We never can let go
Follow down the lane
By the leaning tree
See the spreading mound
Don’t be tempted down
Hide among the reeds which ooze
Their power and decay
You were never meant to see
This breaking of the world
As you move around
Try to understand
Sacred leaves intact
To rub upon the wound
Harden in the sun somehow
Necessity takes hold
We can only wonder why
We never can let go
These words are a kind of parody of the walk guides that are published by the National Trust and other such organisations. Whilst I have no objection to these walks, and certainly not to the work of those organisations, I have often wondered at the type of experience they really encourage us to have. Are we to March around like robots, gazing at monochrome green fields, pretending it is pleasant to admire this perverted doppelgänger of biodiversity? Since much of Britain is now an agricultural desert, working in nature conservation is a great way of ruining any enjoyment of such walks.
Much of our behaviour is related to our environment. In the old semi-natural environment of species-rich grasslands, woodlands and wetlands, the urge must have been to explore independently, not follow someone else’s itinerary.
The song also reflects my feelings from my own experience. In the early 2010’s, I worked in nature conservation in South Wales, and part of my work was leading guided walks. One of the most successful of these included an area with an enormous number of wetland plants such as sun spurge and marsh orchids and cuckoo flower, which supported orange tip butterflies, the eggs of which I managed to find. I had the time to immerse myself in this site in a kind of trance state, learning it’s contours and cast of characters, such as the butterflies, song thrush territories and a woodpecker chick that would never shut up. I felt that my enthusiasm rubbed off on those attending the walk. It was great.
Anyway, the thing is, most of that will be gone now. I’m not sure because I don’t really want to go back, but the funding was withdrawn and the management stopped. Such habitats in Britain rely on grazing, which normally means a conservation organisation working with a farmer. Without this management, the grassland succeeds into scrub. This certainly means no more cuckoo flowers and orchids. The woodpeckers might be OK.
Orchids do not grow just anywhere. They produce an enormous number of seeds in the hope that a few of them will land in soil inhabited by the specific mycorrhizal fungi they need to survive. These fungi often live in association with a variety of species in a mixed habitat, including early successional trees like birch. Ensuring the survival of orchid species in a country like the UK, where many of them are hanging on by a thread, requires extremely careful, targeted work, informed by constant research.
To lose something like this is a tragedy beyond our capacity to comprehend or tolerate. It sends me off into a spiral of grief and nameless animal horror, which is what the song represents.
I have felt this horror ever since I was a child in the 1980’s, which I think was when the idea of mass extinction first entered the public consciousness. I have found the antidote to it in artistic and scientific activities: doing practical conservation work – which ought to always be scientific research as well - writing songs and playing music about it, and teaching children about it and working with them.
I am certain that scientific research and artistic creation spring from the same source. When the biologist Edward O. Wilson talks about the “naturalists trance”, he is describing exactly the same state we have to get into when writing a song or performing music. The light trance state I was in when walking around that site in Wales to prepare for my guided walk was the same state as when I’m composing music and lyrics. It is a state of open awareness, in which we simply notice what we notice and allow ourselves to fully experience it.
Considering they come from the same source, it is a shame that art and science are so often considered to be fundamentally opposed. Both artists and scientists have something important to contribute to our understanding of the multilayered ecological crisis we now find ourselves in. They both offer us ways back to that trance state in which we truly appreciate the living world, and somehow, hope for a vision of a new understanding of our place in the world can emerge.
I have no idea why so many thinkers and activists emphasise climate change more than the loss of biodiversity. It is quite baffling to me. My best guess would be that many people see the earth as a physical system as opposed to a living thing. I am tempted to say that we project onto nature whatever we think is going to look after us. We used to have a god looking after us, so we looked at nature and saw God. Now society provides a system which looks after us and provides our needs, so we look at nature and assume it must be a system too. In the meantime, the Earth is a living thing whether we like it or not! Scientists Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock knew this in the 1970’s, and they called it Gaia.
It is the abundance and variety of life that makes human life – and art and love and joy and discovery – possible.
For the last few years of his life, Edward O. Wilson liked to tell people about what he immodestly called “Wilson’s Law”. This law states that if we try to save the physical world without saving the living world, we will eventually lose both, but on the other hand if we can save the living world, we will automatically save the physical world too.
As well as being more important, the biodiversity angle is also more easily explained and understood, and much easier to do something about! I now work as an outdoor activity leader with the Wildlife Trust, working mainly in schools. I can get children to appreciate the problem – and the solution – by essentially just pointing. I simply point to the school buildings, the areas of cut grass and tarmac, and the small wildlife area we are usually sitting in. Then I ask them to explain why there is an ecological crisis, which they do, eloquently! Then we do something about it. We plant wild flowers, make composters, complete surveys and learn about the natural world.
In his wonderfully written book, At Work in the Ruins, Dougald Hine expresses his disquiet with what he calls “fish tank thinking”. He means the idea that every aspect of the global “system” can be controlled in the same manner as a fish tank. He points out that a river provides a habitat for fish on its own, without all the human interventions necessary in a fish tank, to get the right chemical composition, temperature etc. The problem is that this isn’t strictly true. To the extent that UK rivers provide a habitat for fish, they do it because of a human decision, just like the fish tank. Tighter regulations on agricultural runoff have been a conservation success story in the UK, resulting in healthier habitats and bringing otters back from the brink of extinction. This is the result of a policy decision based on our knowledge of how these living things survive. In other words, rivers do not provide habitat “on their own” any longer. Instead, the do so as a result of careful research, planning, campaigning and policy decisions by humans. In this sense, we’re already in what Hine calls “fish tank world” whether we like it or not! If you doubt this, simply watch as our current Tory government reverses this decision and consider how well river habitats are doing “on their own” with a different set of human decisions. We are the ones in control whether we like it or not.
It seems to me that everything hinges on accepting this responsibility. There is no way back to an imagined primitive state where we don’t need to worry about it. We are too many, and have changed the face of the planet too much. We have to accept and understand our responsibility now, if we are to create some kind of future. This will require a lot of input from science, art, philosophy, psychology and spirituality. We need all the angles. The song is a small contribution to this effort.