Caught by the River

Framing Nature: Conservation and Culture

Tim Dee | 4th October 2020

Tim Dee shares thoughts stirred by the reading of Laurence Rose’s Framing Nature, recently published by the Gritstone authors’ co-op.

Read Laurence Rose’s book; it will be worth your time. It is sad company but that is probably how it should be. What follows doesn’t really qualify as a review but is rather some thoughts prompted by my reading. I am grateful to have been stirred about.  

Framing Nature is most obviously an account of the past and present fortunes of some dozen or so species of British wildlife (insects, birds, mammals). It consolidates these individual stories (wildcat, white-tailed eagle, fox, nightingale, badger, corncrake, otter, skylark, etc.) into a report on the wider prospects for nature in these islands – the stark state of the ark – and it ends with an action plan. Various outfits – government departments, NGOs, campaigning charities – produce comparable updates and bullet-pointed conclusions almost every week. But there is more here than just bad (or mostly bad) bio-news and it is this I want to focus on: the cultural presence (the shimmer or shake into our imaginations) of almost all the species concerned is described by Rose with far more attention (and therefore implied value) than any conventional conservation or natural history narrative would allow. There are poems as well as population statistics and Rose wants the juxtaposition of these to be meaningful and not just decorative; but can it?

The book’s title suggests that there is nature – wildly other, once Edenic, and still at some evolutionary level careless of everything apart from itself – and then there is our framing of it, or the bringing of nature towards us, by human-effected conservation and by the cultural representation of wildlife. This twin-feed reflects Rose’s own double life as a conservationist and a musician. And his book is an autobiography, albeit told in a rather muted register, of decades doubly engaged with nature.    


The red kite returned to lowland Britain is one thing but how is the bird regaining its place in the popular imagination? I was delighted to read a local news report a year or so ago that described children in Oxfordshire playgrounds having to hide their packed lunches from marauding kites. An ambassador to the court of Elizabeth I described the almost identical scene in London four hundred years previously: kites taking bread-and-butter from childrens’ hands. Here, twice over, were kites becoming culture – the animals flying close and being familiar enough to prompt people to think variously and to make something of them.


Music and species-protection legislation, singing and insecticides – Rose’s material is heterogeneous and inevitably, for most of his book, they are kept separate. There are stories of tangles of people and other animals – and they are always good to read (one section exports the domestic themes to India and tigers and leopards) – but there is more strongly a sense, alas, of the draining away of wildlife in Britain and the correspondingly diminished cultural place it occupies. Framing Nature doesn’t say as much about culture now as it says about present day conservation. I don’t think this is entirely the fault of its author. Rather, it is his commitment to telling how things are. Where are the poems about nightingales in England today? They are no more because the nightingale in England is all but no more.   

Here though, contrary to what I’ve just said, is the marvellously vivifying opening of Laurence Rose’s chapter on the otter: 

The word itself is a survivor: follow it upstream to its source. Old Norse otr, from Proto-Germanic otraz, source also of Old English otr or otor, Swedish utter, Danish odder, Dutch otter, Old High German ottar. From Proto-Indo-European udros, “water-creature”, source also of Sanskrit udrah, and thence Hindi ood, Bengali uda, Tamil oṭṭar, and Punjabi ōṭara. And of the Greek hydra “water-serpent” and enydris “otter”; of the Latin lutra, Old Church Slavonic vydra, Lithuanian udra, Old Irish odoirne. From some high, far-away linguistic watershed, the birthplace of countless rivulets that tumble across continents, it always carries a few droplets of the root-wood wed– “water; wet”, more ancient still.

How good are those words! Isn’t that a magnificent poem: a long watery view slinking through time and place?  And when the next sentence begins, ‘From Berwick I caught the bus…’ the nature-writing reader knows they are in for good things. Almost every one of Rose’s pages here are deep sourced (just like the otter etymology) and expertly informed, but also enamoured of their subjects, with every one being locally witnessed, and beautifully placed. Laurence even uses public transport! He’s obviously a good man. You feel him having walked (and bussed) his book over a lifetime of conscientious nature loving. The descriptions of every animal include comparable good stuff.  I thought the chapters on the heroic recovery work on behalf of bush crickets and narrow-headed ants especially good. Ant-loving people have carried ant nests in their arms from one side of a field to another to aid the survival of the species. We need to know these stories.  

Why then do I feel that I must report that this same book comes ultimately across as one of the saddest nature books I’ve read? The news for almost all is bad for sure. Losses and depletions are dire: most species are doing worse than they were and mostly we are to blame. A lot of nature books – all, even? – must sound depressing because that is reality. This one seems darker yet. I think that is the case, first, because Rose has to describe what is in effect his failure as a conservationist. Things would be undoubtedly worse if there had been no RSPB (Rose’s sometime employer) but, despite all the RSPBs and all the Laurence Roses, we are still looking, and more and more, at the end of nature and not its return. Britain’s wildlife is queuing at a crowded A&E unit rather than preparing to leave any convalescent home. The Nightingale Hospitals were well named but we don’t seem to really have the will to make things truly better for Luscinia megarhynchos.  

The book’s sadness comes, secondly, I think because the culture of contemporary British nature seems as hammered as its sources. There isn’t that much that Rose can add to the mix although I have some queries about this. There is though a stirring chapter on the willow tit (‘our fastest declining resident bird’) in Yorkshire that features a meeting with the poet Steve Ely who has written the greatest poems I know on the bird. Both the birds and his words on them have their own furious and fiery agency. The poems are not medicine for bird or birder and they suggest the willow tit is a creature totally itself but also independently strong enough to be taken into a human imagination and there used, as it were, or remade without damage (for CBTR, I discussed his book Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah). Steve Ely’s poems are also the only willow tit poems I am aware of. So who really knows what the willow tit means to the national imagination. Next to nothing must be the answer. Just as the birds are. And, within Rose’s book, the poems are somewhat anomalous: there are few other contemporary non-emergency artworks sourced from the wildlife under scrutiny. There is nothing, for sure, so good as that otter word hoard that Rose made himself from the old ways the animal had of swimming into our heads.  

Most of the great art made from British nature it seems is old art not new. As far as I know, we’ve yet to have good work made on new arrived little egrets or the new identified Caspian gulls. I hope someone will do the reintroduced large blue butterfly. But these creatures are not yet ordinary enough perhaps for poetry or pottery or whatever and might never become so. There were English corncrakes poems when there were English corncrakes (John Clare wrote them, and Andrew Marvell, among others). John Keats’ nightingale was a London street singer not a bird on emergency measures needing special care. Now in our great derangement (Amitav Ghosh’s term) we can only make elegies for lost species or swansongs for life on an ebbing tide. Or we play paramedic, and make poems or songs or pictures or plays, trying to bandage our victims, the mortally injured: the bluebell wood before HS2, the spell to save the Sheffield tree, etc. But no amount of Sam Lee singing the country blues with nightingales can bring the real birds back from the brink. I’m not even sure it can rescue the nightingale as culture-spur. The nightingale is not ordinary enough anymore in Britain. It comes now into our culture on crisis terms. In this territory things are tough for art. Any art lent to a cause often doesn’t last well. And we also, as Keats said, hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us (he wrote his nightingale ode on scraps of paper, half not meaning to write it at all – or so he claimed).  


Animals, as the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss reported, are good to think with. But mostly this requires their commonplace abundance. We might make sense of much of our life by thinking of the lives of other animals. We’ve hardly had an idea without them. They came into the very beginnings of our thought – I say this as a father of a one-year-old instinctive birdwatcher as well as a reader of anthropology and lover of rock art. Ever since we stepped away, in consciousness, from the teeming welter of the spreading continuum of life, one way or another we’ve been describing our separation from the abundance of the rest of nature. We’ve used other animals to find out what sort of animal we are. Much early human culture that we know of is animal based. Some of our earliest decorative marks were scratched on ostrich eggshells. One of the first musical instruments known fashioned the hollow wing bone of a vulture into a flute. Animals are the principal subjects for almost all of the earliest recorded rock painting. Nothing here suggests a short supply or rarity or endangerment.

The rest of nature speaks too: there is surprisingly little vegetation in cave art but our days have been as grass (as the Bible says) for a long time. The cultural appropriation (metaphorical and otherwise) of wild grains alongside their agricultural domestication in the Fertile Crescent (of the Middle East) made for the settled life of humans after millennia on the move. We stopped when we discovered how to grow grains. They taught us about the need for roots. Writing may well have begun at the same time. Some of the earliest surviving writing relates to the counting of harvests. The alphabet may have been lettered in the stars but it was written down on earth. Literally too – on clay tablets, inscribable earth, or on papyrus – the first leaves in our writing life were vegetable leaves. Paper still is, of course. Wood-pulp is sunshine fixed, is nature’s writing, there and always. 

A culture is no better than its woods wrote W.H. Auden in his poem ‘Bucolics’. But the reverse holds too: the woods do better if they signify in culture. Life unknown cannot be life extolled or saved, especially in the anthropocene when we are, tragically, calling all the shots. We continue to need to know nature. And life only discovered at the end of its life, and saluted or apostrophised only as it goes under, makes a grim set of co-ordinates for any culture. Conservation’s recruitment of the arts has not had many great outcomes for either art or species. And it seems we still haven’t understood that a blackbird in a poem is better for everyone – bird, poet and reader – when it isn’t being required to sing of its fate or rattle a tin for funds for its future. Poetry, Zbigniew Herbert said, cannot be an ark to help us survive the flood. It has to be our daily bread, an article of primary need.  

Shall we sing only the blues for the death of the green world? By the rivers of Babylon, things were so bad we hanged our harps upon the willows. To be maximally alive, to be fully present to us, and to have a chance of going on living into the future, any great rooted blossomer (Yeats’ chestnut) has to be known as such and not just as a badge or token of our laying waste of the world. For sure, there are great poems about felled trees: see for example, the fate of the cedar forest in the Epic of Gilgamesh, or Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Binsey Poplars’, Charlotte Mew’s ‘The Trees are Down’, or Christopher Logue’s blistering ‘Urbanal’: 

The slippery piglet, clear across the way,
has had my tree cut down.
He rang a man who rang a man who knew
a big-boned, broad-backed chap, the type of clay
that stood in red in line at Waterloo.
It took eight hours to knock King Boney down,
and more than thirty years to rear my tree;
but only fifteen dental seconds flat
for that, fat, jelly-baby-faced
pornocrat to have it stapped.

But for trees to live and us also, there cannot only be tree-victim poems about our jelly-baby-faced harm. We need Yeats’ ‘Among School Children’, we need Alice Oswald’s ‘A Wood Coming into Leaf’, we need Larkin’s ‘The Trees’, we need Rilke, we need the latest from Kathleen Jamie (in the LRB a few weeks ago), we need the story of Orpheus talking to the trees made new by Denise Levertov, and so on; we probably also need books on how to stack logs Norwegian style and how to lay a fire for a true South African braai. It is all part of the framing that Laurence Rose talks about, all part of our life that (whatever we do) must (please Darwin!) remain in nature.  


Framing Nature is alive to this. But admits little of it. The knowledge it handles is factual rather than emotional or imaginative and it is very dark. It wants to see a future and it wants to suggest better times for all life, and it knows it needs willow tits and Steve Ely’s poems that start from willow tits for such a world to be good, but its author, deeply knowing what he knows, finds it hard to sound convinced that there is a way ahead. Even his action points sound somewhat whispered. His is a cri de coeur voiced sotto voce as its speaker leaves a conversation. You might cry in Rose’s book, not at his conclusions, but when you read about his father hunting lapwing nests in the fens, or the same father remembering, from his childhood, his mother adding the meat of a blackbird that a cat had caught to a stew for a family supper. Things were worse but better in the olden days, life was louder and clearer: there were more birds and there were more poems about them, etc. But now we have banished the lapwings, smashed all their eggs. We have uprooted the woods and have, consequently, deracinated our arts. This great society is going to smash, said W.H. Auden: A small grove massacred to the last ash, / An oak with heart-rot, give away the show…

This, then, is an autobiography of mood rather than events. Rose didn’t fail in his professional life as a conservationist but, cumulatively, we all have all failed as citizens on Earth. Reading his book, we ghost enough of his life between the nature facts on show to feel the sadness of the man infected by this knowledge. He is serious and committed and a broker in truths but I sense him wanting to escape his conservation profession and reach back to whatever first principles set him going or what it was in nature that switched him on. He doesn’t make much noise about this, but the music of the natural world must be that thing. His career at the RSPB ran in parallel with decades of composing and performing.  

There are, though, his notebook entries…the finest writing in the book is here. They have a keen intensity and a musical plangency. If these are truly field-notes, I am amazed – they read as the most worked or composed sections of the book. Try these:

The otter becomes the river, becomes water. It flows, it swirls, eddies, rips, rafts, drifts; it becalms, streams, gyres, abates; it swells, churns, ferments, seethes.

These and other notes, lovable poetic writing, are often somewhat cordoned off from the rest of the text. They are, I suppose, an instance of the framing that Rose wants his book to include. But can they not do more than frame? Wouldn’t we rather have them join and not just surround? Make meaning not just comment. Become. Like the otter in the water. 

Rose pulls back in the end from the drink: a culture of otters or of woods will not alone save either. He retreats to the awful scarred and scarring battlefield of conservation politics. A felled land and a drained land. The trouble is that everyone is losing. People are basically no good. We are by far the worst animals on the planet. Even the greatest advocates for nature have failed. The arguments seem to have been won; the majority want nature but the battles for it are repeatedly lost – collectively we will not make enough of the changes that individually we know to be needed. And there we are, down to almost the last willow tits in Britain, wheezing their final notes on the remains of a slag heap in South Yorkshire, and the musician Laurence Rose, attuned to the birds and feeling his pain for them, who had thought conservation skills and not his ear was the way to work for them, but who now is left to listen to the birds and write of their silencing at our hands, and of the consequent deafening of ourselves.  


Framing Natureis out now and available here, priced £9.95

Tim Dee once caught an eel in County Clare and was so scared of it on his line that he threw breeze-blocks at its writhing form until its eel shape moved no more. He’s been worrying about this ever since he started writing for Caught by the River and is pleased to finally own up to his crime. ‘Greenery’, his most recent book, will appear in paperback next March. Holed up at present in Cape Town with a one-year-old, he’s trying to write a book of three parts: on living in a new place; on scattering his father’s ashes in old places; and on creating a sense of place in his three decade radio career through his addiction to wildtrack – the sound of wind and birdsong and passing cars that says I am here, and we are here, specifically here, right now, here.