“A culture is no better than its woods” wrote WH Auden in 1953. Sixty-five years on, Auden’s words carry a very modern warning. As the living world is diminished around us, so we are also losing language, stories, songs, poems, dreams and hopes. We need nature for its own sake above all, but also because it is vital to our imaginations and our spirits. We think with nature. We learn from it and in it, as well as about it. But shifting baseline syndrome means that each new generation becomes normalised to an impoverished version of the natural world. And a basic ‘natural literacy’ is slipping away up and down the ages, as nature itself slips away. A 2017 Wildlife Trusts survey found a third of adults unable to identify a barn owl, three-quarters unable to identify an ash tree – and two-thirds feeling that they had “lost touch with nature”*. A three-year RSPB research study1 found only one in five British children to be “positively connected to nature”. How to bring nature back into the heart of culture and education in this country? At the core of the change that is needed are wonder, knowledge and regular positive engagement: “We change people by delight and pleasure” (St Thomas Aquinas). We will not save what we do not love – and we rarely love what we cannot name or do not see. Heart, head and hand must all be engaged. The huge inequalities in the distribution of access to the natural world need urgent fixing. Nature needs to be seen as a vital part of everyday life – shaping mental and physical health, play, friendship, imagination – rather than as something hived off and distant, to be visited occasionally on a school trip or family outing, or existing as a specialist subset of science. There are good grounds for hope. Many young people are actively engaged in driving change, especially with regard to the plastics crisis, climate change and biodiversity loss. There are also thousands of small, grass-roots organisations contributing countless small acts of good. * The report, carried out by Jordans Cereals and commissioned by the Wildlife Trust, is no longer available online. 6 The nationwide response to The Lost Words, and the grass-roots movement to re-green primary education that has sprung up in response to it, suggests the huge hunger for change that presently exists in communities and individuals. But much larger-scale structural change is needed to close the gap between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ in this county.

DR ROBERT MACFARLANE READER, UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE

References:
1. RSPB (2013). Connecting people with nature, finding out how connected to nature the UK’s children are. Available at:
http://ww2.rspb.org.uk/Images/connecting-with-nature_tcm9-354603.pdf(Accessed 05/08/2018)