Elegy and Plenitude in the Wild

Gerard Manley Hopkins can sound surprisingly contemporary when it comes to issues like protection of environment, celebration of biodiversity, or criticism of mankind’s unkindness to the earth. Consider the question he asks in “God’s Grandeur” (1877) for example, about why men exploit and destroy the land:

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

How many environmentalists have warned that it takes very little to destroy an aquifer, or a whole species, or an entire ecosystem? How many too, more recently, have exposed the well-meant efforts of some conservationists for the harm they’ve done. Yet another proof of Hopkins’ ecological modernity can be found in the last stanza of “Inversnaid ” (1881), often quoted or used in an epigraph by recent nature writers:

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

These poems deserve to be read freshly, alongside their modern counterparts. Note how trenchant their rhymes and alliterations are and how naturally their repetitions lend themselves to a catch phrase like “Long live the weeds!”

Still, it is necessary to recognize that Hopkins belongs to a long-standing, and still active, tradition of British nature writing which springs from a fundamental belief in nature’s plenitude. Whatever its sources may be, Biblical or otherwise, Hopkins voices it well in the crucial line following my quotation of “God’s Grandeur”: “And for all this, nature is never spent.” Nowadays we wonder about that “never.” We used to believe that nature was inexhaustible, no matter how rashly we “spent” it; that it was of more ancient origin than we are, and would surely outlast us; that its laws (unlike our own) are written in the nature of things, which cannot alter. Zoo animals used to be collected as examples drawn from an endless supply (God’s plenitude, for Hopkins); now we hope they are protected and saved lest the species die out, while the planet becomes ever more hostile to their survival. The antonym for plenitude may be simply finitude, but perhaps a more apt term—especially in recent British ecological writing—is elegy, i.e., an occasion for mourning. Michael McCarthy’s two most recent books, for example, are Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo (because it has virtually disappeared in England) and The Moth Snowstorm (because we no longer see any abundance of species, no matter where we look in the U.K.).[1] Both books are basically elegies and dwell feelingly on the loss of plenitude—with all the dismal data to prove it.

Why did the cuckoos vanish all across England, suddenly and completely, in the spring of 2007, where once their song had announced the coming of spring—Lhude sing cuccu!—for thousands of years if not eternally? McCarthy casts about for reasons—diminished habitat, pesticides, diseases, destructive farming, industrial contamination, climate change—and cannot pin down any one thing. Other migratory bird species are vanishing as well, “at a scarcely conceivable rate,” he says, some of them even faster than the cuckoo:

Say goodbye to the spotted flycatcher, the wood warbler, and the turtle dove; make your farewells to the tree pipit, the yellow wagtail, and the pied flycatcher; look out when you can for the willow warbler and the garden warbler, the whinchat and the swift. Oh, and cherish your memories of the nightingale.

A veritable roll call of distinguished British birds. And clearly, it’s the loss of plenitude that hurts most. McCarthy’s portent is unmistakable. He gives his book the grimmest possible subtitle: Migratory Birds and the Impending Ecological Disaster. But its epigraph is from Ted Hughes’s “Swifts,” about a species whose return provides a distinctly hopeful replacement for the vanished cuckoo:

They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still to come—

McCarthy wants to affirm that Sumer is indeed still icumen in, but both his books are mournful, pervaded by the certitude of loss.[2]

Still strongly on the side of plenitude is J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, first published in 1967 but more recently reprinted—and canonized—by the most influential of modern British nature writers, Robert Macfarlane, in 2005.[3] If you like Gerard Manley Hopkins’ imagery, as in “The Windhover,” where the falcon’s “buckling” is seen as “blue-bleak embers . . . gash gold-vermillion,” you will not be disappointed by John Alec Baker. The Peregrine was written at a time when peregrine populations in Essex, where Baker dedicated his life to observing them, had drastically diminished. Macfarlane conjectures that by the mid-1960s “it must have seemed likely to Baker that the peregrine would vanish from southern England.” Baker himself admitted that “Few [peregrines] winter in England now, fewer nest here . . . the ancient eyries are dying.” But after its introductory chapter, the book pays absolutely no attention to that. What matters to Baker is always and only the behavior of the bird, and it is awesome. Here he watches a peregrine aloft, hundreds of feet up:

He dived to the trough of a wave, then rose steeply within it, flinging himself high in the air, on outstretched wings exultant. . . . He rocked and swayed and shuddered, close-hauled in a roaring sea of air, his furled wings whipping and plying like wet canvas. Suddenly he plunged to the north, curved over to the vertical stoop, flourished his wings high, shrank small, and fell.

Here in another form is God’s grandeur indeed, in a language as turbulent and sublime as the elements it describes. Listen to its plunging, shuddering rhythms, its alliterative strains, pauses and accelerations—its sustained figurative images sculpting what only the imagination can see. Death is in it deeply, along with fury and fear.

In passage after passage of The Peregrine I am struck by the evidence of nature’s richness and plenitude. Tracking peregrines, it turns out, is often enabled by the flocks of other birds that fly up in terror as the falcon passes over, including many hundreds of gulls or fieldfares or redshanks or chaffinches or pigeons. “Evanescent as flame,” writes Baker, “peregrines sear across the cold sky and are gone. . . . But in the lower air a wake of birds trails back, and rises upward through the white helix of the gulls.” This is hardly a desolate landscape.

Nor is his quest a matter of merely enduring the “tedium and misery of searching and waiting.” When he finds one, “All is transformed, as though the broken columns of a ruined temple had suddenly resumed their ancient splendor.” Baker died in 1987, living long enough to learn that the “insidious pollen” of DDT was banned in the U.K. and peregrines began to flourish again.

Isabella Tree’s Wilding begins with an even heavier emphasis on doomed species and ecological catastrophe than Michael McCarthy’s books have.[4] And her data—she is a scientist, not a poet—is more precisely focused, using a new “biodiversity intactness index” that measures individual counties worldwide. According to that, “the UK has lost significantly more biodiversity over the long term than the world average,” ranked a dismal twenty-ninth out of 218 countries. Says Tree, “we are among the most nature-depleted countries in the world.” Yet her book is the opposite of gloomy: it’s about ecological miracles. She and her husband abandoned the high-tech dairy farm business they operated at Knepp, their 3,500-acre estate (forty-four miles from central London) and started “farming” it in a radically different way, by not farming it at all. She calls it “rewilding,” giving free rein to “self-willed ecological processes,” or simply “restoration by letting go, allowing nature to take the driving seat.” The experiment began in 2001, founded on little more than hope and “an amateurish love for wildlife.”

Before giving any explanation of how it was done, Tree reports on what happened at Knepp within two years of “letting go”: turtle doves began to appear. “Their arrival has taken us and all those involved in the project completely by surprise.” Their numbers steadily increased, and by the summer of 2018 there were twenty singing males, i.e., nesting pairs. “Their colonization of Knepp is one of the few reversals in the otherwise inexorable trend to national extinction, possibly the only optimistic sign for turtle doves on British soil.” She might almost have written that for Michael McCarthy, who devoted a whole chapter of Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo to turtle doves, with their beautifully shy tuturrus of song. Tree could also have had McCarthy’s mournful roll call of vanishing British birds in mind when she goes on to say,

But it’s not just turtle doves that have found us. Other endangered British birds—migrants like nightingales, cuckoos, spotted flycatchers, fieldfares and hobbies, and residents like woodlarks, skylarks, lapwings, house sparrows, lesser spotted woodpeckers, yellowhammers and woodcock—have been recorded here in good numbers since the project began or are now breeding at Knepp. So too are ravens, red kites and sparrowhawks, lording it at the top of the food chain.

Such biodiversity, of course, could not have been limited to birds alone. Tree adds to her list of miraculous recoveries other species like bats, dormice, slow-worms, grass snakes, and three types of butterfly, including hairstreaks and purple emperors.

Tree and Burrell came to their new conception of ecology luckily, at the moment of conceiving their project, by discovering the work of a Dutch ecologist, Frans Vera, whose innovative book had just been translated into English, Forest History and Grazing Ecology (2000). They went to visit Vera’s project in the Netherlands, the Oostvaardersplassen, where they saw a low, flat grassland “almost incomprehensible” in the richness of its wildlife. Only two decades before this was all underwater, until the Zuiderzee was dammed and arable land created. Vera told them, “Thirty thousand graylags [geese]—almost half the entire population of north-west Europe—now moult here every year.” The spectacle, for Tree and Burrell, was astonishing; the place fairly throbbed with life.

He provided the central lesson for the experiment Tree and Burrell would undertake. Quoting his words, Tree articulates the crux of her book:

There’s a fundamental process we haven’t accounted for in nature, something that doesn’t often get a chance to express itself when humans are in control: the influence of animals. Animals are drivers of habitat creation, the impetus behind biodiversity. Without them, you have impoverished, static, monotonous habitats with declining species. It’s the reason so many of our efforts at conservation are failing.

Naturally enough, Tree and Burrell went home and started thinking about animals, especially those that might have existed in England in its earliest geologic history. In February of 2002 they introduced two hundred fallow deer. In June of 2003, they brought in Old English long-horn cattle, and a year later added twenty-three more. In November of 2003 they introduced six Exmoor ponies, a species resembling (uncannily well) the prehistoric cave paintings of wild horses at Lascaux. In December of 2004 they added two Tamworth sows, for their digging and earth-churning value, plus twenty-three piglets. In 2009, they brought in three more long-horns, twenty-three more Exmoor ponies, and twenty more Tamworth pigs. More fallow deer came in 2010, and red deer in 2013. In 2015 beaver—essential to the recovery of wetlands and streams—were released officially in the River Otter, having been extinct in England for more than a century. In 2016 thirty-four white storks from Poland were introduced, after an absence from the U.K. of hundreds of years, and nesting promptly began.

The central chapters of Wilding dramatize the rewards of “letting go”—the joy of ecological surprises and the sometimes messy proofs that plants and animals need to do it themselves. These include a chapter on “worthless” scrubland, one on the hydraulic wisdom of beavers, another on Turtle Doves; one on the Painted Lady (a “butterfly blizzard” of them, in fact), another on the rare Purple Emperor butterfly. But I waive discussion of these to focus, first on “Living with the Yellow Peril”—about a universally-despised weed, ragwort—and then on “Nightingales”—probably the most universally celebrated bird of all time.

British farmers and gardeners have long disliked ragwort, and by the Weeds Act of 1959 it was declared “injurious”—a poison to grazing animals—along with broad-leaved dock, curled dock, creeping thistle, and spear thistle. Tree points out that common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) is not an invasive species, and not unique to England, ranging from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, and abundant in Britain and Ireland for millennia. Animals quickly learn to avoid its bitter taste and would have to ingest huge quantities for it to cause a stomach ache. But in recent years the British have demonized ragwort with increasing fury, notably voiced by Tree and Burrell’s neighbors since ragwort is allowed to thrive at Knepp. Says Tree wryly, “Hostility to a plant that has been part of our environment since the last ice age is a peculiar new phenomenon.” She points out that no such animosity is directed at the equally poisonous foxglove, bryony, bracken, elder or yew, nor at everybody’s favorite, the much more poisonous daffodil. Tree’s neighbors are not interested in the case for ragwort, that it

is one of the most sustaining hosts to insects we have. Seven species of beetle, twelve species of flies, one macromoth—the cinnabar, with its distinctive black-and-yellow rugby jersey caterpillars—and seven micromoths feed exclusively on common ragwort. It is a major source of nectar for at least thirty species of solitary bees, eighteen species of solitary wasps and fifty insect parasites. . . . Even at night its bursts of luminous yellow attract nocturnal moths—forty species of them. The effect of this boost to insect life is colossal.

Tree doesn’t even bother to say that this boost to insect life may have something to do with the return of other species at Knepp—like turtle doves, nightingales, and cuckoos.

The nightingale has a long history in England, particularly in poetry and legend, but its natural history lagged behind—partly because the bird itself is so elusive (and commonplace when seen), and partly because its song alone is so spectacular—powerful, various, inventive, seductive, unpredictable, sometimes disturbing. Even John Clare did not know, when he wrote “The Nightingale’s Nest” in 1832, that only the male sings; but nobody knew his poem either, which languished unpublished until 1978. That the bird flourished for centuries in Western Europe and the south of England, and survived the abuse of being caged (where it always died) and was sold to amuse courtiers and fops, is also well known. But the species diminished rapidly after World War II, so that Burrell and Tree could recall hearing a nightingale only once in the 1990s since coming to Knepp. “By 2001, the year we started rewilding, nightingales seemed to have disappeared from the estate altogether.” National figures reflected a decline of 53 percent from 1995 to 2008, but at Knepp a reversal was underway by 2010, and soon the density of its nightingales was 7 to 11 breeding pairs per ten hectares, compared to the regional average of 2. The decisive factors seem to have been habitat changes, particularly the increase of scrubland and thickets of blackthorn, bramble, and leaf litter.

What I like most about Tree’s account of Luscinia megarhynchos, however, is the way she describes its song—up against competition from the poets (Keats, Coleridge, Arnold, Hardy, T. S. Eliot, and all Eliot’s sources) and from recent naturalists (Richard Mabey and Michael McCarthy), plus John Clare who was both poet and naturalist. In The Waste Land (“A Game of Chess”) Eliot retells the Philomela story, contrasting the nightingale’s “inviolable voice” with its debased modern counterpart, “‘Jug, Jug’ to dirty ears” (line 103). It sounds grotesquely again in “The Fire Sermon,” “Jug jug jug jug jug jug.” (line 204). The annotators tell us this comes from, and parodies, John Lyly’s Campaspe (1584):

What Bird so sings, yet so dos wayle?
O t’is the ravish’d Nightingale.
Iug, Iug, Iug, Iug, tereu, shee cryes,
And still her woes at Midnight rise.[5]

I can see this parody as uglification, which happens so often in The Waste Land; the dirty ears make it ugly. And it’s clear from Part Five of the poem that Eliot finds the “water-dripping song” of the hermit thrush (an American species) far more appealing than the Nightingale’s—which he may never have heard.

I return to Isabella Tree to quote her representation of the nightingale’s song. Her ability to throw aside science and give rein to a fully poetic subjectivity is remarkable. After a prologue of hearing “beautiful but also distant and unsettling” notes, evoking “longings and misgivings,” and “looming forms” that make “the very ground feel unsteady,” she begins to listen in earnest:

The mind tries to anticipate but there is no sense, at least no human sense; no pattern, no repetition. . . . It is a display of astonishing mastery, heart-rending in its energy and volume—these pulsating strains issuing from tiny vocal cords belting out like organ pipes, throwing the music of the tropics into the English night air.

What better argument could be made for the restoration of plenitude—or just the possibility of that, if we understood how ecology really works and learned to imagine our landscapes differently?

Tree ends her book by acknowledging that many of the species we cherish will die, and that, “Compared with Knepp, most of Britain seems like a desert.” That unavoidable fact “brings an aching sadness, a sense of loss and frustration” that reminds her of Aldo Leopold’s saying, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” But her last words are not elegiac. She evokes the voice of the turtle dove, echoing her first chapter:

That gentle turr-turr-ing tugging at the heart-strings is also a signal of repair, recovery and rebirth. . . . When it flies back to Africa for the last time, it will fly over a continent of Europe that is being recolonized by beavers, wolves, wolverines, jackals and bears; it will trail in its wake ecological awakenings, a hunger for nature and hope for a wilder world.

[1]Michael McCarthy, Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo: Migratory Birds and the Impending Ecological Catastrophe (London, 2009) and The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy (New York, 2015).

[2] “Swifts” appeared in Hughes’s Season Songs in 1976 and is aggressively unsentimental about the species, emphasizing “their lunatic limber scramming frenzy” and their “screaming as if speed-burned” as they “arrow-thwack into the eaves.”

[3] J. A. Baker, The Peregrine, ed. with an intro. by Robert Macfarlane (New York, 2005). First published in London, 1967. Macfarlane’s fullest and best discussion of Baker is in his Landmarks (London, 2016), a seminal text for modern British nature writing.

[4] WILDING: Returning Nature to Our Farm, by Isabella Tree. New York Review Books. $19.95p. First published in London, 2018.

[5] The Poems of T. S. Eliot, Vol. I, ed. by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (Baltimore, 2015), p. 628.