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6 March 2024

Nostalgia reveals nature’s true value

A sentimental perspective helps identify those essential creatures and habitats we have carelessly lost.

By John Burnside

About a mile from where I live, there is a patch of ground that seems magical to me – not because it is a very obvious beauty spot, but because I have been learning it for decades now, passing through on the back road that leads to the nearest village, always on the alert because, no matter the season, something is always happening there. Something commonplace, no doubt, but strangely beautiful.

On a winter’s morning, light steals through the snow-lined trees that line the verge on both sides, so that everything glitters like a scene from a fairy tale. On summer evenings, families of deer emerge suddenly from the narrow woods, then turn, probing the air for a scent that, to them, signals danger, before bolting away towards the open fields beyond. During such everyday moments, I find myself lifted – as on an early walk I took some days ago, when the air was filled with the calls of several hundred pink-footed geese, conversing excitedly across the fields, no doubt planning their route back to their summer feeding grounds, now that their sojourn here had ended for another year.

With its wide moors and intricate coastline, Scotland is – or should be – a perfect haven for birds. In turn, they enrich our lives every day just by passing through, or over, our homes as they hunt for food, or engage in elaborate mating displays, or, as with my geese, rise from the damp fields and head northwards on their spring migration.

As Robert Burns once wrote to a friend: “I never hear the loud solitary whistle of the curlew in a summer’s noon, or the wild mixing cadence of a troop of grey plover in an autumn morning, without feeling an elevation of soul… Tell me… to what can this be owing? Are we a piece of machinery, that, like the aeolian harp, passive, takes the impression of the passing accident? Or do these workings argue something within us above the trodden clod?”

Birds inspire awe, reverence, affection, kindness – but we need them to exist in abundance. A rare glimpse, or a distant call that fades into the rumble of traffic, is not enough. Such passing encounters may momentarily elevate the soul, but when they fade, what often remains is unease, or the quiet burden of nostalgia.

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Usually, when it is not being used to sell giftware on daytime TV, nostalgia is depicted as a weakness, an emotional glitch that prevents us from appreciating the benefits of a bountiful consumer society. In fact, during the 19th century it was diagnosed as a disease, a mental affliction more likely to affect unlettered and superstitious rural souls than sophisticated urbanites who, it would seem, not only accepted, but relished the rapid pace of modern life.

However, as Svetlana Boym notes in her classic work The Future of Nostalgia: “The nostalgic is looking for a spiritual addressee. Encountering silence, he looks for memorable signs, desperately misreading them.” When this silence is cultural, nostalgia is, indeed, a problem – both for the individual and, sometimes disastrously, for society as a whole (consider the part nostalgia plays in populist and xenophobic movements). But when it comes to the natural world, we may need to look at nostalgia in a different light – a light that reflects that the land and the other animals who live here with us are not, or should not be, randomly subject to the tides of human history.

When considering the natural world, we should treat nostalgia not as a weakness, but as a diagnostic tool that allows us to identify the essential places and creatures that we have so carelessly lost and cannot replace. It can be a tool that allows us to see that what remains is too valuable to surrender to mere commerce or to a crude idea of progress that, all too often, serves only the richer members of our species.  

[See also: The bird that wasn’t there]

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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Bust Britain