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Ben Goldsmith: “We’re part of a bigger, far grander mystery beyond our perception”

The environmentalist and author on how the death of his teenage daughter inspired him to rewild his farm.

By Sophie McBain

In the months after his 15-year-old daughter Iris died in a utility vehicle accident on the family farm, Ben Goldsmith swam in the pond outside his home daily – and sometimes half a dozen times a day. In the cool water, with a frog’s-eye view of the world, he would feel “held in some way”. While his grief was still at its wildest, he set about rewilding Canwood, his 300-acre estate in Somerset. He let the hedges grow thick and unruly, to better provide shelter and food for birds and insects, and re-wiggled the stream to create wetland meadows and natural pools for wildlife. He ripped out the fences, sold his sheep and cows to be replaced by native longhorn cattle, and got into a spat with some neighbours for introducing red deer that promptly escaped. At the spot where Iris died, he built a granite stone circle.

Goldsmith had always loved being in nature, but now he understood that he needed it on a “visceral level”. Did I know of the wood-wide web, the mysterious communication observed between trees, or that the organic compounds released in forests have been shown to reduce the heart rate and blood pressure, and boost serotonin? In the darkness of his suffering, “a kind of third eye” had opened up, and he had come to sense that what we perceive of the world is “the tip of an iceberg, that we’re part of a bigger, far grander mystery, that is beyond our perception”.

Goldsmith, 42, is a green investor and chair of the Conservative Environment Network, the son of the late billionaire financier James Goldsmith, brother of Conservative peer Zac Goldsmith, sister of writer Jemima Khan. We met at Wild by Tart, the restaurant in Belgravia co-run by his second wife, Jemima Jones, where the night before he had held the launch party for God is an Octopus, a moving and meditative memoir of his search for meaning in the aftermath of Iris’s death in 2019. He arrived apologetic because he was – he checked his watch – one minute late, and was charming and voluble: “am I giving you too much? I’m sorry, I’m a waffler!” he said, while beneath the table I noticed one leg jiggling furiously, betraying the emotion he kept otherwise in check.

[See also: Consider the noble octopus]

Around six months after Iris’s death, Goldsmith visited the Scottish estate of Danish billionaire Anders Povlsen, a rewilding pioneer who lost three children in a bomb attack in Sri Lanka in 2019. Povlsen hopes to reintroduce wolves to Scotland but faces considerable political opposition. “There’s a lot of people out there who don’t want to live with anything more charismatic than a hedgehog,” Goldsmith complained, “and some people even find hedgehogs a problem because they’re known to eat the eggs of game birds.” He said he thought many in Britain had “an almost colonial attitude” towards wildlife, expecting “very poor, very food-insecure Kenyans to live alongside elephants and lions” while treating our own native species as too much of a nuisance. Many Brits no longer understand what wildlife is, he said: they travel to Wales or the Highlands, which are “pretty much sheep, sheep shit and the odd crow – and because they can see a long way and they’ve got scant mobile reception, they think it’s wild”. At Canwood, he wants to recreate the kind of landscape that existed in the UK before the enclosure of the commons.

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A director at the environment agency Defra until last year, Goldsmith has frequently clashed with farmers’ unions while championing the government’s Environmental Land Management scheme (ELM), a replacement for the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies that will reward farmers for adopting earth-friendly, regenerative farming techniques and protecting natural landscapes. “Farming has lived with an opium drip for the last 40 years which has stifled any incentive to innovate,” said Goldsmith, and there are “powerful vested interests” who don’t want to change a system that has served them well. Tens of millions in CAP subsidies went to some of the UK’s richest landowners, among them Queen Elizabeth II and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum of Dubai – “it’s bonkers,” he said. He acknowledged, however, that farmers “have a point” when they complain that ELM is not generous enough.

“Backbench Tory MPs still get pissed off if I speak out in support of Extinction Rebellion or if I am too hard on farming interests, but we need to speak out if we want change to happen,” he said. He was concerned that a Labour government might reverse schemes such as ELM: “Labour is strong on the environment, but they’re rubbish on nature.” He feared a return of “old-school, socialist, subsidised food production and nature being a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have.”

Iris had talked of becoming an environmental barrister. She was bright, ambitious and popular, someone who didn’t tolerate bullies and used her charismatic strength to lift others up. “It’s unacceptable that she’s not living that future, it’s unbearable,” Goldsmith said. A few months after Iris died, Goldsmith visited a spiritualist medium on the recommendation of another bereaved parent. The medium, a Dutch woman in Fulham, said she had made contact with Iris and was able to relay extraordinary – and unaccountable – messages to Goldsmith from his daughter. Iris said she was sorry, and that she’d been dancing with him in his dreams (she had); she told him to open the large pink book he was afraid of opening (a book of condolence notes from her friends that he couldn’t face reading.) “It was so meaningful and beautiful and important for me in that moment. And maybe I didn’t go back [to the medium] repeatedly because she told me you’re not supposed to. Or maybe I was frightened that it would ruin it, because it was an illusion of some kind,” he told me.

[See also: What the adder means]

This would all have been “hocus-pocus” to him four years ago, but the visit with the medium jolted him into exploring his spiritual beliefs – a kind of “inner rewilding”. Was Iris still with him in some way? He realised, speaking to other bereaved parents, that those least able to come to terms with their loss didn’t believe in any form of afterlife or seek any religious meaning. Goldsmith took the Amazonian psychedelic ayahuasca with a spiritual guide (“that’s the worst of the Conservative Party, their closed mindedness to these things”) and found the trip profoundly healing. On a scrap of paper, he wrote the words “God is an octopus”, to capture the reassuring sense he felt that God – a benevolent presence, a Gaian mind – is everywhere, somewhere beyond our understanding.

His experiences have made him more “intolerant of intolerance”: he has no time for zealots who want to impose their views on others. He spoke of the parable of the elephant and the blind men, the sense that many religious differences were the result of people grasping different aspects of the same vast and unknowable truth. Nominally a Christian, he’s also critical of the major religions for being “in some ways complicit” in environmental destruction: why were they not screaming at their congregants about the godless way we treat the natural world? “How can the guy in the big hat in Texas blowing the earth apart to extract its wealth, just destroying nature, go and sit in a pew in church and be considered a good Christian?” he asked.

Nine months after Iris’s death, Jemima gave birth to a girl five weeks early, following a medical emergency. She survived only by a miracle, and they named her Vita Iris. Vita suffered a severe brain injury that means her communication and mobility are impaired. Now three, she is like a “little teacher”, Goldsmith said, “she radiates life and goodness, she’s so patient and in the moment”. At night he often dreams of Iris and Vita, Vita posed a bit like the Hindu Divine Mother and Iris dancing around her. He’s stopped torturing himself with what-ifs. “I’ve gone from someone who, like everyone else, desires the perfect life, everyone perfect and in their place, the perfect family, the perfect farm in Somerset, the perfect job… to realising that doesn’t exist, and that in fact we walk through a kind of field of imperfection,” he said. “I almost have in mind that your life is by the end a field of rubble and damage, and just littered with these perfect gemstones, and what you do is cherish those.”

[See also: The lawyers taking polluters to court: “No company is above the law”]

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This article appears in the 24 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Crack-Up