I often wonder what the past year has taught us. We have learned a new lexicon, of course. In 2019, had you heard a conversation about furlough, Pfizer, lateral flow, the second wave, PCR, Zoom and the Indian variant, you would have thought the speakers eccentric. Now we use all these terms with never a second thought.
What, though, have we learned about ourselves? I imagine there is almost nobody in Norfolk who, during the first lockdown, in spring last year, didn’t daily thank their lucky stars that they had access to the outdoors close to home; that they lived by a park or a river; that they had found a quiet, leafy lane to along which to wander and put the cares of the world behind them. All last year the media were full of stories of people rediscovering their gardens and the plants and animals living in them; of people keeping diaries of their walks and the wildlife they had seen; and of people realising just how much they had taken the wild world around them for granted.
They’re right: we do take the wild world for granted. All the water, food, soils, oxygen, fuels and fibres on which our lives depend come — directly or indirectly — from the natural world. Yet in our daily lives, our laws, and our thoughts, this truth is barely reflected; distracted as we are by deadlines, mortgages, relationships, hobbies and our phones. It is a truism — but worth repeating all the same — that none of these things would be conceivable without the oxygen we respire and the calories we digest, all of which, ultimately, come from plants.
At Norfolk Wildlife Trust we are hugely heartened that, faced by the suffering and privation of the past year, people have turned for solace to their local patches of green and wild. We’ve long known that nature is good for us; not just for the essential resources it provides, but also because — as our home for countless generations, from which we sprang — it relaxes, inspires and heals us. The scientific evidence for this is overwhelming. We have also long been persuaded that our society will stand up for nature only if we maintain a passionate relationship with it; if we love it enough to fight for it. In the words of the brilliant Simon Barnes (Norfolk resident and a great friend of Norfolk Wildlife Trust) in his delightful How To Be A Bad Birdwatcher: ‘Liking birds is not just a nice thing to do. To look at a bird and feel good about it is a violent revolutionary act. To put out peanuts is an act of insurrection. It is an act that demands a revolution in political thought, for it is quite obvious that conservation is far, far too low on the political agenda.’
In the knowledge that we need armies of nature-lovers — thousands of people willing to stand up for their priceless local patches of green space — this year our Cley Calling festival is entitled Closer To Home. Its events explore the value of staying local, treasuring and enhancing local spaces for nature, and recording wildlife on your doorstep. Three discussions — each with eminent authors, broadcasters or researchers — will take place over Zoom; plus there are family events at Cley Marshes.
On Thursday 15th July over Zoom, I’ll be interviewing my friend Mike Dilger about gardening for wildlife. Best known as the nature presenter on The One Show, Mike is an ecologist by training. Having worked all over the UK, presenting films about local action for wildlife, he is ideally placed to talk about what to do, in gardens and the other small spaces that we manage, to make them better habitat for wildlife.
Dr Erica McAlister is already well known to our Cley Calling audience, thanks to the superbly entertaining interview she gave us last autumn, when her second book was released. A natural raconteur, Erica is Senior Curator of Diptera (that’s flies to you and me) and Siphonaptera (that’s fleas) at the Natural History Museum. On Friday 16th July she will be speaking to Patrick Barkham (Guardian columnist, nature writer and champion of Norfolk’s wildlife) about the small creatures with which we share our parks and gardens, and some of their less than salubrious habits. Nobody is more effusive about our weirder wildlife than Erica, and her events are not to be missed.
On Saturday 17th July I will be back on Zoom, chairing a discussion of the importance of staying local, both for ourselves and our environment. The first of our panellists is Brigit Strawbridge Howard, whose book on native bees, and how to make our gardens and allotments a paradise for them, has been widely praised. Our second guest is Steve Westlake, climate campaigner and PhD candidate at the University of Cardiff, whose research explores how our individual actions for the environment influence those around us to act themselves. Our final panellist is truly local: Rachel Lockwood is a celebrated wildlife artist, who lives in Cley and is one of the team behind the wonderful Pinkfoot Gallery. Rachel is the definition of an artist who inhabits and cherishes local green space: her dramatic work is the fruit of years spent closely watching wild creatures in the woods, fields and water of North Norfolk.
Plenty of wildlife activities for families will also be on offer at our peerless Cley Marshes reserve, including walks, the opportunity to meet rescued hedgehogs and learn about their rehabilitation, and pond-dipping from our purpose-built platform. Never in our recent history has loving local green space made more sense. Though the past tumultuous year it has sustained us. And never in the history of our species has nature more keenly needed our support; nor we more keenly needed to protect it. We would be delighted if you would join us this July as we explore what all of us can do for wildlife and the environment as we stay Closer To Home.
Tickets available now