Nature's polyglot: the life and work of Derek Ratcliffe

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

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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 appears in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle