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Mark Cocker

In October, Mark Cocker gave an illuminating talk about his most recent book Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s

Wildlife Before It Is Too Late? A sense of place pervades Cocker’s work, as it does the work of many of our most

respected and admired nature writers. Think of the late Roger Deakin and his moated Suffolk cottage at Walnut Tree Farm from where he dreamed up the aquatic peregrinations he undertook in Waterlog; think of Richard Mabey and his journey in Nature Cure from the Chilterns to put down roots in East Anglian soil; think further afield of Nan Shepherd’s deep, intimate knowledge of her native Cairngorms, evoked so vividly in her book The Living Mountain. So it came as both a surprise and a sadness to learn that after having established himself as an essential part of the literary ecology of our region for so many years, Mark Cocker has decided to up sticks and return to his native Derbyshire.

Blackwater, the Norfolk smallholding he purchased in 2012 largely on the proceeds of his book Birds and People, is portrayed in affectionate detail in the opening chapter, and it is of course from a distinctly Norfolk vantage point that Cocker wrote Crow Country, which was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2008 and won the New Angle Prize for Literature in 2009.

As he has developed in maturity as a nature writer, he has also witnessed, over the years, the continuing degradation of the British countryside, a reduction in bio- diversity, habitat loss, species decline, the impacts of climate change and, recently, news of a global collapse in insect numbers. Cocker reads each new volume of the State of Nature Report avidly and it proves sobering reading to anyone who cares about our country’s wildlife; Britain is now the twenty-eighth most denatured country in the world.

Speaking for a good hour without notes but with irrepressible energy and passion, Cocker’s presentation covered a country mile of anecdotes, strongly held opinions and acute analysis of the state of Britain’s wildlife today. He explained the origins of nature conservation in this country and outlined what he terms ‘The Great Divide’, the severance of landscape conservation and nature protection. He observed that some nature organisations, (notably The National Trust) have an anthropocentric viewpoint whereas others (such as the RSPB) ask what the organisation can do for nature. This anthropocentric stance is widespread and explains how, for example, money flooded in when the Cathedral of Notre Dame was ravaged by fire but not to help the Amazon recover from its recent devastating fires.

Cocker outlines the pioneering 19th century work of Octavia Hill and her original ‘The Commons and Gardens Trust’ which became, in time, The National Trust. But he points out that it was not until about 70 years ago, after the end of the Second World War, that state conservation began in Britain. This was significantly later than in North America where the Yellowstone National Park was founded in the 1870s.

He marvelled at the wondrous interconnectedness of things: how humans fundamentally depend on nature for the stuff of life (e.g. for bacteria, food, wood, medicines) yet we often appear to distance ourselves from nature, as if we could survive distinctly from it. In Cocker’s view, nature is also central to human creativity, as well as to our mental and even spiritual well being.

Asked by an audience member what we can do to combat complacency about the ongoing decline of Britain’s wildlife, Cocker said the most significant thing we can do is to improve education, that we should educate young people about our relationship with the natural world before it is too late.

Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late? (2018) is published by Jonathan Cape.

Written by Andrew Burton


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