Derek Ratcliffe in the field, 1989. Picture: WILL WILLIAMS
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Nature's polyglot: the life and work of Derek Ratcliffe

Mark Cocker remembers the great naturalist's remarkable constellation of talents.

Derek Ratcliffe in the field, 1989. Illustration: Will Williams

 

Nature’s Conscience: the Life and Legacy of Derek Ratcliffe
Edited by Des Thompson, Hilary Birks and John Birks
Langford Press, 571pp, £29.99

I remember vividly an occasion when a journalist friend pronounced with all the conviction of the uninformed that a well-known writer on nature was also the nation’s greatest naturalist. In truth, literary merit has little to do with field ability. Being good at finding wild creatures or plants depends on two things: acute senses and the ability to shut down the internal monologue so that the whole of one’s attention can be devoted to the search image in question.

The naturalist’s third prerequisite is the power to recall the thousands of bits of information that enable them to turn what they see into an identifiable organism. Being good at species recognition is rather like mastery of a language. To know your flowers is like speaking fluent Spanish. To know all Britain’s flowering plants and then the ferns and sedges is comparable with an overarching mastery of Spanish, Catalan and Italian.

Most naturalists, however, are monolingual. Rare is the person who knows two groups of organism fluently and rarest of all is a naturalist such as Derek Ratcliffe, who had an astonishing ability to distinguish plants, ferns, sedges, bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), insects, birds and practically everything else. His talent was like that of the mythic polyglot who speaks Spanish, Arabic, Persian and Japanese. When he died in 2005 one of this book’s editors proposed him as the greatest naturalist since Darwin. In the intervening decade no other name has suggested itself.

Yet naturalists are a strange lot. Many of them neither care, nor are able to make their beloved part of nature accessible to any but others exactly like themselves. Too often they cherish the impenetrable code of their discipline, steeped in scientific Latin and Greek. Who among us ordinary mortals can be bothered to get on terms with something known only as Anastrophyllum jorgensenii or Bryoerythrophyllum caledonicum?

The true measure of Ratcliffe’s abilities is that he knew the secret languages of moss taxonomists and plant biologists but could also write and speak in the lingua franca of us all. This book is a glorious, multi-authored exploration of the many parts of this great naturalist: writer, scientist, mountaineer, explorer, photographer and unremitting champion of the wild. It is also a summing up of his place in British natural history, which amounts now almost to a cult.

Ratcliffe’s constellation of talents was especially manifest in two achievements. Rachel Carson may have issued the broad-spectrum warning on pesticides in her book Silent Spring (1962) but it was Ratcliffe with friends who nailed exactly how organochlorine compounds were driving predators, including everything from pelicans to peregrines, towards extinction.

His paper of 1970, unravelling the science of pesticides, was cited as one of the 100 most important ever published in any British ecological journal. Against great opposition from vested commercial and agricultural interests, Ratcliffe’s hard and hard-won facts – he personally monitored 500 peregrine eyries to get the raw data – eventually led to an international ban on the offending pollutants.

A lesser-known part of his CV was his almost single-handed drafting of A Nature Conservation Review (1977), now a scriptural text for environmentalists, which laid out the whereabouts and character of Britain’s chief natural riches. Over the past half-century, this has been a blueprint for national policy and it also shaped the organisational criteria for pan-European legislation on nature and natural resources. Arguably only someone with Ratcliffe’s 360-degree field skills, encyclopaedic knowledge and intellectual clarity could have synthesised so much data so succinctly.

Curiously, the least satisfying essays in Nature’s Conscience are those in which the authors strive to re-emphasise Ratcliffe’s importance. He needs no bias. Yet ultimately the leeway that the book’s editors offer to all the contributors encourages them to stray routinely into a much wider hinterland of environmental material. Ratcliffe’s life story thus serves as a totem pole around which has been assembled an entire history of British conservation since the 1940s.

Our hero had one cardinal failing, however. He was so much a man of truth that he became easy prey to those for whom facts were relative. Numerous friends bore witness to his time as chief scientific officer at the Nature Conservancy Council. At many higher-level meetings Ratcliffe was forced to sit in seething, white-knuckled silence and endure the presence of his political bosses who, for 18 years, were largely landed Thatcherite Conservatives.

Unfortunately he did not live to see how nature and nature writing have become so much a part of mainstream popular culture. A recent spate of books has achieved high prominence but has moved far from what was considered orthodox natural history in Ratcliffe’s day. The new works dwell on suburban wildlife, edgeland landscapes, or wildlife species kept as pets. Very often the main theme is the ego and personality of the individual author. One wonders what Ratcliffe would have made of these developments. All we can say is that, in his own engagement with wild places and wild species, nature asserted its true north.

Mark Cocker’s books include “Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet” (Jonathan Cape)

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon