The forces of nature

Nature is deity to Druids, explains conservationist Louise Sutherland

As a child I was deeply inspired by David Attenborough, Diane Fossey and Jean-Michel Cousteau. It was my admiration of them and what they achieved that made me want to work in conservation. I’m very lucky to work in this field and I’m still passionate about it. How does studying Druidry affect this? Although it wasn’t a conscious decision I made, the two are so interwoven it’s hard to pick the reasons apart to explain it.

I always experienced the world as very alive, and when I discovered the words ‘animism’ and ‘polytheism’ they seemed to describe the way I had always thought. It was a revelation to discover a community of people with a similar perspective on the world. Nature is deity to Druids. All forces of nature; from aspects of human nature like lust, to mountains, rivers, darkness or rain. They are all seen as the expression of a different ‘power of nature’. Some call these deities, some call it spirit, some call it energy, but gloriously there is no pretence of this being the “Truth”. Just a wry acknowledgment of each individual perspective determining the different ways people relate to what’s around them. Essentially Druidry is about an individual’s relationship with the world around them. To study it is to learn to be conscious of what you do, how you touch everything around you, from people to places. You could say it’s that awareness that fuels my work in conservation; if you are aware of a the high nitrates in a river killing the life in it, aware of the loss of dragonflies and wetland plants, the fewer bird species filling our skies, aware of the loss of woodland or species rich grassland, then you try to do something and conservation work is about trying to help, to protect species or recreate habitats.

But Druidry as a religion, in the original sense of the word, from the Latin religio - meaning reverence for the divine, goes deeper than that. Druids are priests of the land, my work in conservation is like a service to the gods of the land. My awe of these many, many different gods, listening them whisper through a landscape, feeling the hum of their energy – urges me to find an honourable response, to facilitate a balance between conflicting needs, try to restore what’s lost because everywhere all of nature is sacred.

A Druid working in conservation or a conservationist studying Druidry, strives to make an honourable relationship with the land. If a ‘conservation attitude’ affects their thinking, that relationship will be about protecting and restoring the sacred, natural biodiversity. All of it, from the ignored and concreted land beneath our pavements, to the stones and sand of the concrete, to the high wild mountains, is so filled with life, song and energy. I feel it move deeply through me, it fills me with reverence and inspiration - I couldn’t do anything but conservation!

Louise Sutherland works in conservation and studies druidry
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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage