Monday, April 18, 2005

Enjoying the natural world

Stephen Moss, writing in the Guardian today, pays tribute to the Collins New Naturalist series. The hundredth volume, The New Naturalists by Peter Marren, is about to be published.

Moss sets out the series' origins:

In 1945, just after the Allied victory in the second world war, a series of books was launched that would revolutionise the way we experience nature. Published by Collins, the New Naturalists were an instant success. They combined fine writing, scientific rigour, and, most important of all, colour illustrations - a welcome antidote to the monochrome austerity of wartime. For a postwar generation eager to use their new-found freedom to travel and explore the countryside, these books were a gateway to a brave new world of wildlife-watching.
He contrasts this with children's experience of the countryside today:
My own children - and millions of others who have grown up since the 1970s - have, through no fault of their own, missed out on these essential childhood experiences. We have cosseted and protected them: encouraging them to stay at home, away from the dangers of traffic (real) and the fear of paedophiles (exaggerated). Where once every classroom had a nature table laden with bits and pieces collected from the wild, in today's schools these have been quietly removed because of a misguided obsession with health and safety.
As you will know by now, all this appeals to this blog's prejudices. But there are a couple of other notable points in Moss's article.

He reports that:
In 2003 an English Nature report, Nature and psychological well-being, concluded that those of us who have regular encounters with wildlife have a markedly lower incidence of mental disorder, and better emotional and mental health, than those who do not.
This is the same point that I made in an article for OpenMind magazine last year.

And Moss, writing of modern children's lack of contact with nature, argues:
Ironically, one of the milestones in the protection of our natural heritage may be partly to blame.

The 1954 Protection of Birds Act was the first step to virtually eradicating the odious practice of organised egg-collecting, in which a handful of misguided kleptomaniacs wrought havoc amongst populations of rare birds, such as the red kite and osprey. But by criminalising the taking of any bird's egg, our legislators inadvertently cut off one route in which many of today's older naturalists learned their trade, the schoolboy pastime of "egging".

Writing in BBC Wildlife magazine, television presenter Bill Oddie was well aware of this paradox: "The honest truth is if I hadn't been an egg collector, I very much doubt if I would have become a birdwatcher. It was my egg-collecting experiences that taught me all sorts of skills and techniques. This isn't a justification, but it is a fact."

Hardly politically correct, but I am sure there is something in it. Moss's observation reminds me of the great Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies. In his The Amateur Poacher he records that his early interest in the natural world had a strong sporting component, but that he came to see things differently.

With his finger on the trigger he "hesitated, dropped the barrel and watched the beautiful bird" and:
watching so often stayed the shot that at last it grew to be a habit ... Time after time I have flushed partridges without firing, and have let the hare bound over the furrow free.
However you come to it, the natural world is something to be enjoyed. Too often, modern environmental thinking fails to reflect this important truth.

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