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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Frank Ocean’s stairways to heaven: how his new works explore faith and mental health

It’s hard to have faith in a world that is relentlessly traumatic.

In the Apple Music video stream for Endless, released to the world on Friday, Frank Ocean is building a stairway, step by step. As the album plays out through an enormous boombox, we watch the slow unfolding of a spiral staircase in real time. When it’s completed, it leads up out of shot, giving the impression that it could go on forever, that it, too, is endless. “When you see the video,” artist and collaborator Tom Sachs explains, “you see him building a stairway to heaven.”

It is slow, humble work – Sachs adds that the full art film of Ocean completing the staircase lasts over 140 hours – and it feels spiritual in its physicality: woodwork as a craft has been blessed with the whiff of holiness since the Bible told us Jesus was born into a carpenter’s family. Anupa Mistry writes in the FADER, “Ocean’s had a spiritually significant impact on our lives”, adding, “There are a lot of lessons that faith tries to impart – patience, justice, etc – and I think that, amidst the infinite scroll of our contemporary lives, Frank’s made a new virtue out of quiet.”

“I believe there’s heaven,” Ocean sang on his nostalgia, ULTRA mixtape back in 2011 – and it sounded like he was trying to convince himself of its existence as much his audience. “You must believe in something, something, something.” Five years later, many of the songs on Endless and Blonde, the two albums Frank Ocean released this weekend, are reaching towards a distant, ethereal state, even when hope seems futile. “I’m just a guy I’m not a god,” Ocean sings on Blonde’s final track. “Sometimes I feel like I’m a god but I’m not a god / If I was I don’t know which heaven would have me.”

Blonde’s “Solo” sees Ocean describe the trajectory of a drug-fuelled night out in detail set against a sparse, organ backdrop – from triumphant Jagger-esque dancing, through a moment of warmth with someone outside, to an inevitable comedown, where Ocean is left alone and depressed, “solo” and “so low”. As the high fades, the horror of the world encroaches: the police arrive to shut down the party, and we hear the occasional screech of a siren over the organ keys. The line “Stay away from highways / My eyes feel like them red lights,” feels like a warning. The spectre of police brutality hovers just out of view in this song, only fully entering on the later track “Solo (Reprise)”, when Andre 3000 admits he is “So low that I can admit / When I hear that another kid is shot by the po-po it ain’t an event / No more”.

It’s hard to have faith in a world that is relentlessly traumatic. The chorus of “Solo” explores how the everyday ordeal of living in a violent, racist society can lead to a retreat into the mind, be it via drug use, dreams or isolation.

It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire
Inhale, in hell there’s heaven
There’s a bull and a matador duelling in the sky
Inhale, in hell there’s heaven

Here, conflict permeates even the heavens themselves: the constellations (Taurus and Orion) are locked in an eternal battle. The only sanctuary is in the mind. We see the mind as a microcosm reflected in the use of words inside words (“inhale” contains “in hell”). Ocean offers his own variation on Milton’s line “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven”, one that also touches on the devastating cycles of racial trauma, its impact on mental health, and self-medication that, when coupled with a racist prison system, see so many young black men with mental health issues imprisoned for minor drugs offences.

On Blonde, dreams and highs become a kind of heaven on earth. “Ivy” begins with the line, “I thought that I was dreaming,” and ends with the refrain, “I could dream all night”. “Pink + White” ultimately looks not towards a blushing, cloud-patterned sky, but the pink of flesh and the white of cocaine, as “glory from above”. “Nights” quips, “Rolling marijuana – that’s a cheap vacation”. Sex, drugs, and driving offer a tempting escape. But every escape is transient, and involves an eventual crashing back down to earth. “How come the ecstasy always depresses me so?” comes the refrain on Endless’s “Mine”. In the video for “Nikes”, we hear a deep, computer-manipulated voice insist over images of hedonism, “This is heaven on earth.” Later, we see a visual reference to the Heaven’s Gate cult, which saw 39 people commit suicide while wearing Nike Decades, shrouded in purple sheets. It’s not an overly optimistic moment.

But Blonde ultimately feels like a hopeful record. At a show in London in July 2013, Ocean projected pink and white clouds the length of the stage behind him, bearing the Jenny Holzer lyric, “In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy.” (Holzer references are peppered throughout this recent wave of Ocean’s work: he wears a top emblazoned with her “Truisms” in the “Nikes” video, which also appears in his zine, Boys Don’t Cry.)

Survival is a miracle in itself on this record. A verse on “Pink + White” contains the lyrics

If you could die and come back to life
Up for air from the swimming pool
You kneel down to the dry land
Kiss the Earth that birthed you
Gave you tools just to stay alive
And make it out when the sun is ruined

If the tools required just to stay alive are miraculous, life itself becomes more important than questions of afterlife. If you can find the freedom and joy in simply keeping going, then perhaps we can worry less about the unending staircases unravelling before us. “This is joy, this is summer,” Ocean sings on “Skyline To”. “Keep alive, stay alive.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.