Walk on the wild side

Britain’s countryside is in a bad way, even by the standards of fraught global ecologies, but overly sentimental and spiritual interpretations of its plight detract from the urgency.

The Summit of Dodd Fell overlooking Bassenthwaite in the Lake District.
The Summit of Dodd Fell overlooking Bassenthwaite in the Lake District. Credit: David Forster / Alamy Stock Photo

Wild Service: Why Nature Needs You, Jon Moses and Nick Hayes (Eds.), Bloomsbury, £20

Wild Service purports to be from ‘the pioneers of the Right to Roam campaign’ (a bold claim given that both the campaign and the term have been in existence since at least the 1920s, if not the 1870s), but this is not primarily – indeed, it is barely at all – a book about the laws of land access and trespass. Rather, it is something in the nature of a collaborative manifesto aimed at effecting a ‘reconnection to the land’ in British society. Only part of this has to do with where people are allowed to go; the rest concerns what they do – and how they think, feel, engage, respond – when they get there.

The authors – writers, campaigners, artists in various disciplines – identify a crisis, a sickness, not only in the living countryside but in us. We have gone wrong. We have lost our path. Wild Service seeks to restore ‘the pillars of our traditional relationship with nature’, to ‘return nature to the very heart of society’.

There is, inevitably, something very between-the-wars about all this. It’s ‘back to the land’, rebooted. The primary differences are in the vocabulary – it’s hard to guess what John Middleton Murry or H.J. Massingham might have thought if you asked them to queer a binary, as we are instructed to do in one of the essays in Wild Service – and, more significantly, in the prevailing attitude to farming. In the 1930s and 1940s, from the pacifist-socialist idyll of Frating Hall Farm to Henry Williamson’s ‘Norfolk Farm’ at Stiffkey, the farm, the farmer and farming life were fundamental units of rural life; here, they are mostly inconveniences, if not enemies.

The barrister and self-appointed river guardian Paul Powesland seems horrified by the very idea of agriculture, when a meadow adjoining his own land is ploughed, or rather ‘sliced open by the plough… pulverised into a dead nothingness at the whim of an owner in search of cash crops’. The farmer – sorry, owner – is an agent of destruction. They are not to be trusted. Without rights of access to agricultural land, argues Guy Shrubsole, how can we the people be sure that the farmers are not up to mischief? He meets ‘Dave’, who once ‘discovered that a farm tenant on a council-owned farm was shooting game despite having no licence to do so’. When he reported it to the council, they took action. ‘It took us trespassing to get the evidence,’ he recounts.

There are echoes of ‘back to the land’ in the diagnosis as well as in the cure. Before people can be set right, they must be told why they are wrong, and so they are, at colourful length, in Emma Linford’s essay ‘Education’ (‘Re-education’ might have been a better title). They trudge ‘a blinkered straight line of performative status-bagging’, living ‘a life of domestication’, ‘bounded by walls and concrete’, part of a ‘constellation of straitjacketed identities, adrift in a physiological, psychological and spiritual crisis’. It’s bold to set out by so flagrantly insulting the reader, but then this stuff is not really aimed at the reader, but at the reader’s atavistic better self, the Eloi within the Morlock, that ancestral inner Briton who knows the feel of the soil and the cycle of the seasons, who doesn’t need a smartphone or a TV, who delights in fairy lore and knows all the old folksongs – or ‘songdreamings’, as the musician Sam Lee here calls the ecstatic state of music-making in nature: ‘Songdreaming reveals… half-imagined thoroughfares bubbling with ancestral dialogues.’

Linford’s depiction of the 21st century drudge, of the worthless life of the urban or suburban drone, feels like a curious counterpoint to Richard Jefferies’ notorious 1872 depiction of the Wiltshire farm labourer, a heavy, lumbering oaf, crude and ungrateful, lacking in vitality, indifferent to the finer things in life. Wild Service may or may not ‘queer the binary’ of ‘people’ and ‘nature’, but it certainly runs the risk of reinforcing other divisions. An excellent essay by Nicola Chester, which sets out a robust vision of rural community with the author’s characteristic intelligence, sense and good faith, is only partial compensation; the same goes for Nadia Shaikh’s astute attack on the idea that there are good and bad people, right and wrong nature connections, and that those who ‘don’t care’ aren’t worth the bother. If you’re building a pond, you pass the test. If you’re sitting in a park drinking lager, you don’t.

In his introduction, Right to Roam co-director Jon Moses writes that ‘Wild Service reintroduces the vital lost element in our peculiar English relationship with the land: the sacred’, and it’s on this ground that the book has a tendency to go haring off in directions that may seem either radical or ridiculous, depending on the reader’s tolerance for the neo-animist, the non-specifically spiritual, the performatively pagan. Some may be familiar with a nature that ‘recognises the energy of our ancestors in our soles’, of land ‘that is awake, watching us’ (both from Dal Kular’s essay); others may not. Some may acknowledge ‘the soul of non-human objects’ and embrace a ‘land-based spirituality’ (Nick Hayes); others may not. Some may grant, with Powesland, the personhood of rivers, but others may see in a river only running water and the ecologies of running water, which don’t have views on river management; these desiccated materialists might see in the claim for personhood only human jockeying for the right to speak for the river – which may be for good or ill, but in any case is still only human.

Aligned with such wafty spirituality is a persistent recourse to indigenous wisdom. At times the term is rightly approached with caution: ‘It’s important here not to homogenise or romanticise indigenous peoples,’ Harry Jenkinson tells us sternly, perhaps unaware that most of the rest of the book – including much of his own essay – is going to do just that. He ties himself up trying to get a handle on what ‘indigenous’ means in a British context: ‘We don’t have to claim indigeneity ourselves… because the term indigenous carries history, pain and pride behind it and it should not be misused. So can we ever have a true connection to this land without being indigenous to it? Of course!… Connection… is cultivated through non-exclusive practices of care.’ Indigeneity: it’s really more of a vibe, you know?

We ourselves ‘have been divorced from indigenous thinking’ but it’s never made really clear what sort of thinking we have now. The ancestors knew best (no, not those ancestors, these ancestors) – that’s the main thing.

Being wafty and sanctimonious doesn’t necessarily make you wrong. Britain’s countryside is in a bad way, even by the standards of desperately fraught global ecologies. Some things – many things – are being done terribly wrong; it is very difficult to do things right, even when it is known what ‘right’ looks like. Wild Service, and its ideas of wholesome reciprocity, community, kinship (another interwar throwback there), may hold some answers; more likely, it may help to widen the search for answers, to provoke, to prod, to charge up the necessary debate over the land and what is done with it. Perhaps more likely still, though, is the prospect that it will not do very much. We are nature, runs the mantra – except this, and this, and you over there, doing that. This isn’t outreach, it’s an in-group hug.


Richard Smyth