Monday, 25 March 2013

Message in a bottle

This morning I started reading ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’ by the 19th century author and naturalist Richard Jefferies. But so far I haven’t got very far into Jefferies’ book; my progress was slowed by what I can only describe as an arresting introduction by Richard Mabey.

An introduction by Richard Mabey to any book is recommendation enough to read it as far as I’m concerned (though it presents the main author with a pretty tough act to follow!). Mabey does a brilliant job of providing a context within which to read Jefferies, giving a concise but illuminating account of the social, geographical and natural environments which coloured his view of nature. Mabey, perhaps unavoidably, plays on the strong nostalgic feelings of any naturalist when he says that Jefferies’ essays “describe an abundance of bird and insect life that [...] is unimaginable in the modern industrial countryside”.

And in the final words of the final sentence of the final paragraph of his introduction, Mabey says that Jefferies was sending “a message in a bottle from a disappearing country”. I read the words again: a message in a bottle from a disappearing country. That Mabey recognised the power of the metaphor is evident from where he put it; he must have judged that it would serve as a good handover to Jefferies. But the words resonated so strongly with me that they stopped me dead in my tracks. I had to put the book down. A message in a bottle from a disappearing country.

I alluded before to the inclination of many naturalists towards nostalgia. It’s an occupational hazard which is, frankly, for any naturalist with a soul, unavoidable. Naturalists may tend to view the past through rose-tinted spectacles, but no more or less than anyone else. And the view of naturalists that much of our countryside and its wildlife has become a shadow of its former self is backed up by overwhelming scientific evidence. Neither is there any immediate prospect of things improving. On the contrary; the outlook for biodiversity over the next 50 to 100 years is pretty bleak under any of the scenarios that ecologists and economic forecasters currently consider to be plausible. No wonder naturalists sometimes take refuge in nostalgia. I even came across a paper recently which suggested that naturalists are displaying classic symptoms of grief as a reaction to the loss of biodiversity[1] and it didn’t seem too far-fetched to me.

Message in a bottle © Karen Medlar & Jennie B Stampin
Message in a Bottle
© Karen Medlar & Jennie B Stampin
Which brings me back to messages in bottles. As a compulsive biological recorder I’ve long-since stopped navel-gazing about why I like to record the wildlife I encounter. I can see the scientific value of some of it, but I am happy to acknowledge that I do much of it purely for pleasure. I don’t need a reason to record. Whenever I make a biological record, it is partly an act of celebrating what I’ve encountered and partly an acknowledgement of the scientific value of such observations. But I’m sure that part of it is also a reaction to the sorrow – which is always lurking in the background – for what we have lost and a deep-seated need to make a record of this thing, this wondrous little piece of nature in front of me, before it too is lost. Every biological record is a message in a bottle from a disappearing country.

1 Hobbs, R.J. (2013) Grieving for the Past and Hoping for the Future: Balancing Polarizing Perspectives in Conservation and Restoration. Restoration Ecology, 21 (2): 145–148 [back]

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