Natural attractions and convivial conversation

September 14, 2007

Cambridge University - and the surrounding countryside - recently played host to a unique inter-disciplinary event that explored humans' relationship with the natural world. Leo Mellor reports

Marooning a leading cultural historian in a fen was never my intention. But on June 24, the third and final day of the conference Passionate Natures , I saw the tall figure of Patrick Wright disappearing into a reed-bed. After two days of discussion and arguments at Cambridge University, the delegates and speakers were out in the wild - and they weren't just making a break for freedom. Taking a walk was an integral part of the conference, and this one took us to Wicken Fen, one of the most ecologically complex places in Britain and, in some places, 5m below sea level.

Passionate Natures was an interdisciplinary event held in the faculty of English at Cambridge, with support from the Centre for Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (Crassh). It was organised by a disparate group: a historian of science, a jazz musician and lecturers on various periods of English literature, including me. We wanted to know how emotional attachments to the natural world could be valued and how such attachments are shaped by, and can shape, culture.

Our rationale for holding such an event had developed over the past two years. There is now an unmistakable sense of urgency as biodiversity loss, habitat destruction and global warming offer us ever more worryingly compelling visions of environmental apocalypse. Yet it is still the case that authoritative understandings of the natural world are assumed to rest solely on dispassionate, scientific foundations.

Ignored in such understandings are passionate responses to the natural world, passions that are the province of amateurs as well as experts, scientists as well as artists, academicians as well as foresters. Hence the speakers at Passionate Natures ranged from cultural geographers to environmental scientists, poets to sculptors, polar historians to dancers, activist critics to award-winning botanists. All were linked by a wish to pursue a conversation about why passionate attachments to natural places - and the nature of and in such places - might matter deeply.

The structure devised for the weekend allowed for conventional papers to sit alongside interactive workshops and lyrical responses to particular plants. Peter Head, chief executive of engineering company Arup and the man responsible for master-planning the first of China's new "sustainable cities" at Dongtan, made a virtual appearance via DVD, after being called out to China at short notice.

When organising the event, we called Passionate Natures a conference - but it was emphatically not, as Robert Macfarlane announced in his opening address, one with pre-ordained "deliverables" or a repeated formula of panels and responses. We preferred the term "convivium", with its roots in conviviality and the implication of an open forum.

On the Friday, two panels explored the issues that would be contended with over the weekend. Speakers approached "Landscape and Story" in different ways, but each structured a response around a particular object. There was a parable of a lost birch-bark canoe by Jules Pretty, a professor of biological sciences, and a reflection on the texture of meteorites and how we can interpret them by Marina Warner. What form of "description" might be appropriate to differing landscapes stirred the audience, with questions of scale and forms of attention being fought over.

Then the falconer and writer Helen Macdonald chaired a panel on "Moving Animals", eliciting tales from the geographer David Matless, the poet R. F. Langley and the nature writer Richard Mabey. Together they seemed to represent an East Anglian continuum, moving from bitterns to hares to barn owls. But something more than locality offered a connection, for they reflected on how, in our encounters with the natural world, however well-meaning, we should always be aware of being caught in human consciousness and timescales. The arrogance of our anthropocentric limitations was sharply exposed in a critique of how humans "view" wildlife. Our actual experience of understanding a landscape, it was argued, is often one of powerlessness and contingency.

The dangers of mystic pretension or cloudy thinking were, inevitably, well represented, but Passionate Natures attempted to be self-watchful if not quite hawk-eyed. The centrality of the Buddhist forester-poet Gary Snyder to much of the weekend's discussion was usefully disrupted by R. F. Langley's laconic swipe at his simplistic formulas. Moreover, Wright's contribution to the first panel took issue with the way in which a rhetoric of "rootedness" and "eternal landscapes" represented a denigration of urban experience and offered fodder for the British National Party (who now leaflet outside folk concerts).

But there was a place for more amorphous thinking, and Saturday morning began with questions of existence and ecology being approached through a panel on "Ecopoesis". This brought together perspectives from Chili Hawes, director of the October Gallery, and Miranda Tufnell, a dancer and craniosacral therapist, whose exercises attempted to link bodily logics with the rhythms of a landscape.

The problematic question of "the wild", and how humans have constructed the term, was central to the whole weekend. But it came to clearest visibility in the discussion on "Wildness" chaired by Macfarlane, whose book The Wild Places has just been published. A synergistic web was spun between Caspar Henderson, who works on coral reefs; Gareth Browning, a forester who jointly manages the "Wild Ennerdale" project in the Lake District; and Jay Griffiths, author of the controversial Wild: An Elemental Journey (published by Hamish Hamilton earlier this year). The closing discussion on "Dwelling" was shaped as a dialogue between Peter Head, on DVD, and the critic Ken Worpole. It ranged over planning, sustainability and history, contrasting the languages used to encode and disparage value in landscapes, from Essex to China.

The evening brought the launch of Archipelago , a new literary journal created by the poet and editor Andrew McNeillie. But now the convivium carried a sense of mourning. For the conference was dedicated to the memory of Roger Deakin, environmentalist, film-maker and writer. His books Waterlog (1999) and Wildwood (2007) were talismanic for many of the speakers, who drew on and admired his attention to detail, pleasure in language and, at times, righteous anger.

The future destinations of Passionate Natures are impossible to assess, but there are distinct signs and tracks. It hopefully marked the centrality of Cambridge University to the new patterns of interdisciplinary work on landscape, ecology and culture. This has surprised many: one of Britain's oldest universities embracing a project that seemed poised between subjects.

It is hoped that Passionate Natures could become a biennial event. For there is a definite value in transcending a conventional model with a convivium, as a speaker later commented: "It was the very pattern of all a conference can be - hugely enjoyable in its variety and very inspiring and thoughtful. It was also the least exhausting gathering of that type I've been to, because each speaker brought such a fresh perspective, register of imagery and voice."

Yet if one central question emerged from Passionate Natures , it might have been this: how does nature help us think? Why do certain places possess, or enable, types of experience and forms of wisdom that are unavailable elsewhere? Might thoughts, as well as species, therefore, require particular environments within which to exist - and can thoughts be considered "indigenous" to particular landscapes? The self emerging from contact with these places is not the same as the self that approached them. In this way, and in a strong sense, cognition itself seems site-specific.

Leo Mellor is a fellow in English at New Hall, Cambridge, and a Newton Trust lecturer. He is currently writing about London's Second World War bombsites and the plants that grew on them.

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