The Sea’s the Boss

This November saw ‘Horse’ return to Uffington. That was an important step for me, and I’ll write about it in my next post. In the meantime, I paused on my journey home for two nights in Stamford, Lincs, for the 10th annual New Networks for Nature gathering, Creating Connections. I was introduced to this inspirational alliance of artists and scientists in 2010 by my friend, the writer and naturalist Mark Cocker, who first suggested the gathering and helped to found it.

Over the last decade I’ve felt our common concern with our human depredation of the planet becoming ever-more acute, our sense of the need to act, severally as well as individually, increasingly urgent. This year, Mark was discussing his latest book, ‘Our Place: can we save Britain’s wildlife before it’s too late?’, a heartfelt indictment of this country’s ecological complacency. Another brilliant friend, Adam Nicolson, spoke eloquently with Tim Birkhead about the loss of seabird numbers, the destruction of the marine environment, and the personal steps he has taken to protect razorbills, puffins, guillemots, fulmars and other nesting birds, by eradicating rats from his beloved Shiant Islands.

Wildlife film-maker John Aitchison has written a wonderful blog post, exploring the wider conversation of the gathering. What lies at its heart, he concludes, is love: ‘this sense of closeness to home is the key to conservation; persuading us to care enough to act, because we love most what we know best.’ I always feel this at New Networks: a shared love among very different individuals for the intricacies and complexities of wherever we call home. I am always stirred: disturbed by the urgency of the task before us. And I always feel simultaneously affirmed, in what otherwise often feels a lonely vocation. As John Aitchison says, we discover that what matters ‘is feeling connected, being part of something bigger’.


This matter of nature, community, ‘home’ and our love for it, the indissoluble intertwining of human culture with the natural world, has always lain at the heart of my own writing. My early involvement with Friends of the Earth in the 1970s saw me severely reprimanded by my Cold War Headmistress for ‘disseminating communist literature’ at school. I was doing no such thing, only promoting the recycling of paper and plastics, questioning the desirability of the fast breeder nuclear reactor and the motor car, and urging my friends to love the earth at their feet.

In my 20s I was greatly influenced by the seminal work on ‘local distinctiveness’ of Sue Clifford and Angela King at Common Ground – prescient figures, who probably prepared the ground for the flowering of much of today’s ‘new nature writing’. The careful field research which I undertook during the 1980s, which later grew into my long poem, ‘Dunstanburgh’, was an exercise in the application of Common Ground’s values. My poems about the Beadnell fishermen, which some read as backward-looking, romantic or nostalgic, were essentially ecological:

       ‘Them greet muckle traa’lers – it’s nowt but greed.

        Whae, there’s nae bloody chance for the fish t’ breed…

        An’ the lobsters! Y’ bugger! In wor day

        W’ hoyed aa’ th’ berried hens away!’

(from: ‘Charlie Douglas’, The Lost Music, Bloodaxe 1996)

What I most valued in the inshore fishermen’s traditions – their intimate cultural knowledge of their local sea floor, and their heartbreak and anger at its ruin by newer, more industrial fishing methods – was a microcosm for all our human relations to place. ‘The sea’s the boss,’ Charlie Douglas used to say; meaning, we must respect the sea, and all nature, because our very lives depend upon it. Over the last nine years, during which I’ve had the honour of being an Ambassador for New Networks for Nature, I’ve spoken about this several times at the gathering, and many times beyond it, for example at the Andrew Raven Trust.

New Networks ranges far and wide in its subject matter and speakers; but at its heart remains the understanding that individual human beings and communities cannot be separated from nature; and that this is not a luxury but a fundamental connection – cultural, emotional and spiritual. It could not be more important. It’s no exaggeration to say that our survival depends upon it. How are we to protect and promote this essential value, while embracing capitalism and the liberal western democratic traditions most of us uphold? I can’t answer that question. At the latest gathering, Caroline Lucas and Barbara Young bravely focused our minds in their discussion of whether conventional politics has failed us. But I did not come away with any practical solutions.

For me, poetry, and perhaps most art, works underground, subversively, not by political activism or direct polemic, but as a mycelium, branching, spreading, preparing the soil from which those things will grow. New Networks affirms us in this vital task. Can we open people’s hearts to what matters – beyond price, beyond the marketplace – to the essential value of nature in and of itself – and understand that the Earth that we love is a complex system of which we are part, not centre? That we belong within nature, not the other way around? ‘The sea’s the boss,’ as Charlie used to say. Can we recognise that before it really is too late?