Nature writer Patrick Barkham spoke to Jack Watkins about a lost civilisation, HS2 and the stress of having an opinion.
When Patrick Barkham’s first book, The Butterfly Isles, was published in 2010, critics hailed it as an exemplary example of the new school of Nature writing. Elegantly descriptive and personally questing, it contained truths about the outdoor world from which all readers, whether keen observers of wildlife or those with only a passing interest, could learn.
Further books, such as Badgerlands and Coastlines, have consolidated his position as one of the most perceptive, balanced authors in his field. Perhaps reflecting growing anxiety about whether we can respond properly to species extinction and climate change, his latest publication, Wild Child, addresses the tragic, ongoing disconnection between children and Nature.
Laments about over-supervised children who are never allowed to stray outside or away from adult eyes have been getting louder for some time, but, as Mr Barkham writes, ‘the self-directed child, playing freely among an abundance of other animals, plants and peers, belongs to a lost civilisation’, one that he argues we’ve lost ‘in the blink of an eye’.
Not only does it leave youngsters under-equipped for developing an understanding of the natural world and, ultimately, to deal with environmental challenges, it has consequences for physical and mental health.
‘Evidence in so many scientific fields, from neuroscience to psychology, shows how reliant we are on Nature for our own good,’ he says. ‘I think part of the reason for the mental-health crisis, particularly among young people, is the disconnect with Nature.’
Frankly, most of these issues surrounding disconnection are applicable to the older generation, too, and Wild Child has many revelatory passages. Having grown up in the Norfolk countryside, the author worked as a journalist in London, before returning to the county in the past decade. He volunteered at an outdoor nursery inspired by the forest-school concept, which was attended by his three children. He admits he found it transformative.
‘As with so many people, much of my work revolves around a laptop in an office and, apart from gardening, I’ve never really worked outside,’ he says.
‘We can over-romanticise the joys of outdoor toil and it’s a blessing we’re spared the back-breaking physical work that once drove men and women to early graves, but we need to create more space in our modern-world existences for spending time outside.’
Almost anyone who has adapted their timetable in such a way will know how Nature reshapes your vision, so we see the true meaning and value of the flora and fauna with which we share this planet. It’s a myth that time outside is an option only available to the wealthy, but family and work responsibilities make it a challenge for many, as does locality. ‘Access to high-quality green space should be a modern-day human right, no matter where you live,’ maintains Mr Barkham.
‘It would be great if policy makers, governments, charities and communities could make this happen, protecting and creating green spaces. There are many brownfield nature reserves and you can create pocket parks in tiny areas.’
This argument is not new, he admits. Pioneering thinkers were advocating green belts in the early 19th century. ‘But,’ he emphasises, ‘we need to remember it. We’ve designed too much urban life around cars, which makes it difficult to find peaceful green space.’
The matter of transport brings us to HS2, a subject he has studied closely. Although rail travel is widely agreed to extract a lower environmental cost than cars, Phase One of HS2 (the London-Birmingham section) alone will, according to the Wildlife Trusts, destroy, damage or put at risk 108 ancient woodlands and 693 Local Wildlife Sites, as well as numerous other sites designated for their natural value.
‘I seriously examined all sides of the argument and cannot see any grounds for the line at all,’ he says.
‘There are so many green infrastructure projects that would create new jobs, but there is this old muscle memory of going back to the old ways and saying “let’s build some roads, or spend more money in shops”. It’s nota Left or Right issue — Labour, for instance, was in favour of HS2. I do believe if enough people protest about Phase One, which will cut through some of the most beautiful parts of the Chilterns, the Home Counties and the Midlands, future governments could cancel the later phases. The irony is, of course, that it’s the Manchester and Leeds sections that were most needed. They should have started with those first.’
However, despite frustration at the seemingly worldwide failure of politicians to grasp the environmental nettle, he won’t be adopting a more adversarial journalistic style or shrilly invoking the cause of endangered species.
As he says, ‘no one has ever been terrified into embracing Nature’. Although he admires the work of ‘the brilliant polemicist’ and fellow Guardian writer George Monbiot, he derives satisfaction from fact-based journalism. ‘Writing opinionated pieces can be stressful. I’m more interested in reporting what other people think.’
He’s currently compiling an anthology, The Wild Isles (‘Every Nature book has to have “wild” in the title now!’), which strives to strike a balance between the sexes and include non-white voices in a field long dominated by white males, without being tokenistic.
If we’re to ‘save the planet’, he observes that it must start with the immediate locale. ‘People in Britain give money to save exotic species such as tigers, but I don’t think we can truly improve until we have a more intimate relationship with the species around us. Wild Child is really a plea for that, to be moved by the wildlife in our neighbourhoods. To meet the eye of a blackbird is a moment of genuine connection.’