The Art of Nature and Protest

What a weekend … again … and this time, not all about me! Two amazing experiences, both very different, but both deeply connected in essence – one a gathering of naturalists and artists in Stamford at the New Networks for Nature, the other, a flashmob of protesters at the British Museum. To be at both was a delight and a privilege – and made me consider the connections in new light.

I was introduced to the New Networks for Nature – and their event, Nature Matters – by the otterly wonderful (sorry) author, Miriam Darlington. Mim is the otter-woman from The Beauty in the Beast, and has written her own amazing book, Otter Country. The New Network describes itself as ‘a broad alliance of creators (including poets, authors, scientists, film makers, visual artists, environmentalists, musicians and composers) whose work draws strongly on the natural environment.’ And was formed from the dissatisfaction in the low political priority placed upon nature in the UK.

I was slightly daunted at the list of people who were going to be attending … but in the end it felt a little like I had come home. I enjoy, but remain unfulfilled by purely scientific conferences. And I get frustrated when art fails to connect. But here there were scientists, writers, painters, musicians all weaving webs with their passion – early on there was a talk from Jim Perrin on rapture – and whether that was a concept we should embrace – clearly in this audience it was – without the ecstasy and joy of time immersed in the world, commentary upon it remains fraudulent. Conor Jameson – who has revisited the Silent Spring – talked of the sense of wonder in nature that drove Rachel Carson … and if this is all beginning to sound a little like a hippy convention, you could not be more wrong! This was science leavened with love and empathy  – but it was grounded.

Okay, not always grounded, the soaring voice of Hana Tuulikki took us to other planes as she opened and closed proceedings. But the main thrust was evidence based. Mark Avery made the rye comment that you don’t need a license to release 35 million alien birds (in the form of pheasants) into the wild in the UK each year – but try and get permission to release 35, formerly native, white-tailed eagles!

My notes are incomplete so I cannot attribute this thought, that, in politics, the left and the right each see environmentalism as the other in disguise. I thought this was very interesting and helped explain the refusal of either wing of politics to seriously engage with long-term matters. Well perhaps that is the problem – mainstream politicians – whatever colour – are out on one wing or the other, while the rest of us remain in the body – unable to wrest control. Time for the body to beat the wings for a change.

There was an unsurprising ornithological domination of proceedings (the NNN had arisen from a local meeting of the TA (twitchers anonymous)) – and I have a long term plan to infiltrate some proper animals … how many hedgehogs were mentioned? None! But I love birds too and there was a perfectly pitched Cuckoo segment – Mike McCarthy of the Independent’s voice was breaking as he talked of the real risk of the loss of  the cuckoo from this country. Though there was an interesting moment when he played the call – on a recorder – the familiar descending minor 3rd, from G to E … but finding that was too low when compared to the real bird, which is closer to A to F# … I was distracted at this – it maybe that this is more to do with the rather variable frequencies that have been chosen to represent the notes throughout time.

Mike’s moving talk was followed by the brilliant science of Nick Davies … and on the day went. My mind spinning. And then something else … Peter Cowdrey stepped up and slowed down a starling … I have never been taken with the song of the starling – scratchy, noisy, impenetrable … but as he slowed it down it began to make sense (though occasionally sounding rather like a pig). And then he turned it into music – transcribing it for 13 instruments … startling starling – Messiaen meets John Adams!

Friday night in the pub … surrounded by some of the funniest, wisest and strangest people … was a delight. Stamford, in Lincolnshire, has a lot going for it! So Saturday morning was a little bleary – but no less extraordinary. And I have been rambling and I still have Shakespeare to do … so just two more highlights … Andrea Roe. Astounding. A deep artist who made more than one of the audience cry. And Charles Bennett – poet and empath … ‘The more I love nature, the more difficult I find my own species.’ This is not about ‘raising awareness, but expressing disgust.’

Connections – I loved the connections. And then on Sunday morning there were more – as I filmed the FlashMob protest at the British Museum by the Reclaim Shakespeare Company. I am lucky enough to know many of these people and have already helped film one of their courageous performances as they protest the presence of the oil company, BP, as a sponsor of the arts, and in particular this season of Shakespeare. And on Sunday it was the last performance, but this time, not just a couple of courageous actors, this time it was a cast of hundreds, descending upon the British Museum – and the last day of their BP sponsored Shakespeare exhibition.

Rehearsals with the core group were fun – the energetic wit of these clever folk is inspiring … but would it work? Could we get banners/cameras/leaflets and witches hats into the museum through the suddenly heightened security? Would a flash mob appear?

We drifted in – one or two at a time … and as we mingled around I started to see familiar faces … and felt that it really could work. But would the expected 70 or so people just get lost in the amazingly large space? As the chant started from the cast, and was picked up by the crowd, my worries vanished – there were over 200 people there, and for the next 20 minutes the museum reverberated to the gentle anger as we reclaimed the bard. A short film has been made of a bit of the day. I was filming – but managed to grab one image on my phone …

And the connection I would love to see? I would love to see the brilliant minds of the New Networks for Nature meet with the courage and wit of the Reclaim Shakespeare Company (and many others of their ilk) and see what happens. It is not enough to sit and think and dream of a better world. And it is not enough to react against the evils of industrial capitalism without the love, wonder and rapture that exposure to nature brings. Are we like Andrea Roe’s blackbird? Watching our own dissection – comforted by powerful art – and reacting only when it is too late?

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