Having lived in Norfolk for many years, and for the last 13 years as a professional photographer, the Norfolk landscape is very dear to my heart. Though I’ve taken images throughout most of the UK, I keep coming back to Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s nature reserves.
When Norfolk Wildlife Trust first asked me to participate in Wild in the City, I felt thrilled and privileged to have the chance to share some of Norfolk’s hidden gems with so many people, right in the heart of the City. Twenty years ago I had a vision of bringing the softening effect of nature into the centre of cities: Wild in the City does just that, albeit at a smaller scale than the ‘mini-Eden projects on every high street’ that I envisaged all those years ago!
Wild in the City is also a chance to participate in Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s most auspicious 90th anniversary – it’s the oldest Wildlife Trust in the country - and to celebrate all their excellent work throughout Norfolk. Most importantly, I hope that these images and installations of the natural world will communicate the peace, harmony and sheer aliveness of these very special places.
I’ve spent a lot of time immersing myself in the Norfolk landscape, sometimes in Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s well-known nature reserves such as Ranworth Broad, Hickling Broad or Cley Marshes, and sometimes in the most secret, undisturbed tranquil places where I am often the only visitor. I’ve come away refreshed, renewed and enlivened by nature – and usually with some beautiful photographs.
Encounters with wildlife, whilst not guaranteed, are often a lovely surprise: I’ve seen badgers in Honeypot Wood, a peregrine falcon in Wayland Wood, a grass snake at Thompson Common, extraordinary dragonflies at Upton Broad, three marsh harriers just over my head at Cockshoot Broad to name a few, and all without looking for them or any special equipment. The wildflowers are a photographic favourite of course – and they are guaranteed in spring and summer.
To experience the deep contemplation and peacefulness that nature has to offer, I have to be patient and contemplative myself: prepared to let go of the busy-ness and constant thinking of my everyday life.
Through my photography, I’m passionate about reminding us how beautiful and necessary the natural world is for humanity to thriveRichard Osbourne
An afternoon walk at New Buckenham Common comes to mind here. It was late in the year, overcast with no exciting photographic opportunities. I’d had a stressful week and was buzzing from long hours at a computer. New Buckenham Common is, at first glance, somewhat unprepossessing – it’s just, well, just a field really! But after half an hour of walking across this ‘field’ something remarkable happened: all the buzzing went away to be replaced with a calm equanimity and peacefulness. This was surprising – how can a ‘field’ have this effect? It was partly getting some exercise in fresh air and nature, of course, always excellent for stress. But there was a heightened quality to it. On reflection it occurred to me that New Buckenham Common has been in a mostly natural state for many hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, and maybe this undisturbed quality rubs off and helps us to feel similarly undisturbed.
It has to be said though, that as wonderful as nature is, it is under huge pressure. One statistic from WWF that jumped out at me recently is that 52% of the World’s wild animals have disappeared in 40 years. It doesn’t take any maths expertise to see where that graph is heading. Those are astounding numbers. And in Britain, 60% of our wild species are in decline, according to the Wildlife Trusts. This has been going on for the last 100 years but has greatly accelerated recently.
So, when I visit any of Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s reserves, I regard them as sacred land – giving us real hope for the future, particularly in the light of the Living Landscapes initiative, which aims to connect smaller areas to create wildlife corridors and larger areas for nature to thrive. It is starkly obvious, however, that the existing reserves are mostly very small and often intruded upon by road noise, aircraft and many other human activities. It makes the statistics easy to believe.
Why does all this matter? So what if starlings and house sparrows are threatened species now, how does that affect our lives? Well - quite apart from how beautiful we find nature - the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat all come from the natural world, even if in many cases they are via factories. The natural world is a network, an eco-system. Like a car engine, if one bit doesn’t work properly or is missing, it reduces the ability of the whole system to function correctly. Recent extreme weather is perhaps one example of how the system is struggling to compensate for the pressures we are putting on it. Further down the line, it’s possible to see bigger problems affecting our air, water and food more directly.
Through my photography, I’m passionate about reminding us how beautiful and necessary the natural world is for humanity to thrive. Most of my photographic work has gone to creating artworks in public places in Britain that are seen by over 8 million people every year. Many of the images are of nature – especially Norfolk’s nature. From what people tell me, they find these images to be very healing, particularly if they live in built-up cities such as Manchester or London.
We have been commissioned to create and install artworks by hospitals all over Britain and it is deeply moving to receive phone calls, for example, from relatives of patients who were comforted in their last days by an image of a bluebell wood at their bed; or a nurse who was going to leave the profession but who decided to stay because she loved how the art had improved her working environment; or the young man whose father was undergoing chemotherapy and who told me that my photographs of nature made the experience bearable by giving them something to talk about.
I feel that this is one major purpose of art: to lift the heart, give meaning to life, especially in difficult circumstances. It is also what nature can do. Richard Louv, in his 2005 book ‘Last Child in the Woods’ suggested we are collectively suffering from ‘nature deficit disorder’, a state of alienation from the natural world that has crept up on us in recent years. I would argue that it has occurred gradually over the last ten generations since the Industrial Revolution. For a thousand generations previous to this, humanity lived in harmony with nature so it is our home in every conceivable sense and has the power to heal us profoundly.
I hope that ‘Wild in the City’ inspires and excites everyone to visit Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s wonderful nature reserves for themselves. Try going at dawn if you want to experience something really special, and try going off the beaten track to one of the lesser-known reserves. Consider what you can do to be a friend to nature: perhaps become a member of NWT, perhaps join them as a volunteer. Or perhaps just take some really beautiful photographs and inspire all your friends!