Creativity and nature - why does it matter when the country's in a state of disarray?


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Posted on June 29, 2016


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On Friday morning people in the UK woke up to an alarming result and a very uncertain future. Since then, threads have been unravelling. There has been a huge financial impact on the markets; resignations; accusations and nastiness; backpedalling by some, narrow-minded comments by others; confusion; and general disturbance even at the most intimate level of families. The votes cast may have indicated a wish not to remain in the EU but no one remains unaffected.

We heard the results on waking up after seven days of walking and wild camping. We had taken ourselves away from news and internet connections so that we could link up, on foot, the land between the seven trees that are part of The Long View. And we wanted to do this over midsummer, so it was something of a coincidence that our own emergence from a world outside of houses and walls, and outside of news reports and social media, coincided with this momentous result. We had pared our lives back to basics. Beyond considering the ground beneath our feet and the necessity of food and shelter all else had slipped away. We had cast our votes by post before we left and hadn’t thought much more about it. Like so many other people we were shocked by the news and have been pretty consumed with a need to follow the unfolding story. The growing dis-ease sits like a stone in the stomach.

This feeling of uncertainty, nausea and disbelief is accompanied by many questions. One of these is our own question about the work we do: Why use photography and writing as a focus on the natural world, and why does it matter? What can our close attention to the natural world contribute to our own or to others’ lives when so much is unstable?

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The question ‘Why does Nature Writing Matter?’ was discussed at Kendal Poetry Festival on Friday night. It has risen again and been addressed in the very good blog by Stephen Rutt, and we wanted to give our own take on this. Photographing the natural world, walking, and writing about it, for sure carries the possibility of peace, calm and escapism, but these are not the only reasons we do it. The crucial element for us is connection, and the way that a deeper connection fuels a desire to care. It’s really important not to lose that connection.

Despite the excellent work of many organisations whose focus is on the natural world, at the level of government over the last 50-60 years the UK does not have a great track record of taking the initiative in looking after the environment. Consider some statistics. The incidence of wildflower meadows has fallen by 97%; ancient woodland cover has fallen to 3% of its previous extent; 44 million songbirds have disappeared; over 70% of butterfly species are in decline … the list goes on. The State of Nature Report (published 2013) showed that 60% of the species studied are declining. It’s not all bad news, as many projects focusing on conservation or natural regeneration and habitat protection are thriving, but with political uncertainty there are frightening headlines being shared about the environmental cares of some of the people who potentially could be in positions of power very soon: the dismissal of the reality of climate change, for instance, by Boris Johnson, or Nigel Farage’s reported wish to scrap pollution limits on power stations. In 2012 chancellor George Osborn, following a review of the habitats and birds directive, shared his concern that nature protection was placing ‘a ridiculous burden on UK businesses’.

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In terms of EU policies and the extent of its funding in encouraging and supporting attention to ecosystems and biodiversity it seems that the UK has a lot to thank the EU for. The fact that pressure from the EU was needed to overcome the UK government’s reluctance to ban the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, or clean up beaches, are just two of many examples. Craig Bennett, CEO of Friends of the Earth, says that leaving the EU puts 70% of the UK’s environmental safeguards at risk. A report written for the same organisation by Dr Charlotte Burns ‘The EU Referendum and the Environment’ makes sobering reading. Here’s an excerpt:

‘… with the notable exception of climate change legislation, in recent times the UK has failed to play a leadership role in the environmental policy field. The UK government has sought to block strict rules limiting imports of tar sands at the European level, tried to water down the EU energy efficiency directive, successfully blocked the adoption on binding national renewables targets for 2030, threatened to block an EU pesticide ban protecting bees, and has pushed for a weakening of habitats laws at the European level. Rhetoric from key players in the Tory party and the UK Independence Party suggests that they would like to see the clock turned back on progressive environmental policies, condemning UK citizens to poor water and air quality, and negatively affecting business throughout the UK that benefit from tourism and wider ecosystem services, and raising the prospect of an increasingly built-up countryside with fewer green spaces. Such a perspective is peculiarly short-sighted and narrow, failing to take into account both the wider economic benefits that environmental policies deliver and their popularity with the public.’ (read the full report here)

Of course nothing is set in stone and the future is uncertain. Trading with the EU will require the UK to adhere to certain environmental standards as set by the EU, but so much depends on the people who have the leading role in policy decisions. We can only hope that some of the leaders of our near future really do care about the environment and develop practical and achievable plans to support it. And the onus is also on us - the general public - to do whatever we can to press them to do this. This applies even if Article 50 is never actually triggered and the UK stays in the union (no knowing quite how it will go!).

On a matter that’s locally significant to us, as we live in an uplands area and within the largest area of Common Land in western Europe, we have also been talking to local farmers and thinking about what the impact of leaving the EU might be for the uplands. We asked Julia Aglionby, Chief Executive of the Foundation for Common Land, for her thoughts.

"As we collectively come together to shape a new future for Britain’s Uplands we would be wise to remember that the beauty of our Uplands is not an accident of nature. It is created and maintained by farmers, landowners and commoners who over the last 40 years have been supported by payments from the EU to compensate for the failure of the market to pay for public goods such as landscape, community and nature. Farming is a long term business but marginal in returns it provides so as well as the post Brexit planning farmers require clarity and certainty in the short and medium term to ensure the viability of their marginal businesses which in turn underpins the long term conservation of our most loved places.”

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Somewhere, nowhere, everywhere

The guiding principles of somewhere nowhere are: Journey – Pause – Reflect – Respond – Connect. These underpin our own personal creative work and drive the work we do with schools and in public settings. Without making a journey, however short or long, it’s hard to learn new things and begin to see beyond current belief systems. Without pausing, how can we reflect? How does our contact with the natural world around us make us feel, and how are we inspired to act? And in what way are we all connected – to the world around us and to one another?

Our return from our long walk during the year’s turning point and our consideration of the land as we walked, with its different habitats and its biodiversity (some areas richer than others), the heritage it holds and the lives that depend on it, has as ever got us thinking about the way all things are connected. We will continue to take time to pause and look at the smallest things – the sticky miracle of sundews dissolving flies, a beck finding life from the mossy ground of a high fell – as much as the larger things, like the far-reaching view of land that falls away for miles with no signs of political, racial or financial boundaries. And we will continue to consider the challenges and the debates about environmental management and the value of nature, and how political decisions affect the natural world, from the air we breathe to invertebrates, from birds of prey, to mosses and grasses, and the very soil upon which everything depends. The state of nature matters to and affects each and every one of us and the other species that we share this planet with.

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We’ve been considering our common foundations as people regardless of race, colour, class or creed, and find it hard to accept a view point that is influenced by a wish to break connections rather than strengthen them. somewhere nowhere is not driven by politics and we work with people who have many different political views, but it is underpinned with the desire to seek the commonalities that unite people and our dependence on a healthy world. We begin our enquiries here rather than with issues that divide. We have always said that we can’t fix the big problems and don’t try to. Our work begins with the small things but from these small things we are always heartened by small but significant impacts. We love seeing enthusiasm and learning from school children, and gentle shifts in perception, just as much as we enjoy discussions about biodiversity or landscape management on walks with adults, and it’s a great pleasure and reassurance to receive emails from people saying that something we have created or shared has made them pause and think a little bit more about their environment, or decide get involved in environmental work.

So what I’m trying to say is, in a rambling kind of way, that taking note of what’s around us, recording it, celebrating it and sharing what we experience does matter. For us as much as for the politicians who are fumbling around at the helm of a country that has lost direction. We think it is vital that the importance of the world around us and the diversity of species and habitats are not overlooked, not just for their own sake, but also for what they do for us in helping us all feel better, physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally, as individuals and as communities. For our part, we will keep getting outside, keep getting our feet muddy, keep exploring, and staying curious, and keep writing and taking photographs. We’re not politicians but we’ll do what we can as best we can and hope to encourage at least a few people to stay engaged and deepen their involvement. There’s only one planet and we’re all on it, even if the ride is feeling a bit bumpy at the moment.

Resources and further reading

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