Sunday, 18 November 2012

New Networks for Nature

I spent Friday and half of Saturday in Stamford, at the fourth annual New Networks for Nature symposium. The organisation has the long-term aim of establishing a festival celebrating the cultural significance of nature in Britain - on the evidence of this year, it's well on its way to doing just that.

It's really a bit unfair of me to pick out highlights, given that there were so many, and I'd be hard-pushed to find a poart of the programme that I didn't enjoy.

It all opened with Hanna Tuulikki singing entirely unaccompanied, but then she has such an extraordinary voice that no accompaniment could do it any justice. She somehow manages to make links between folk song and birdsong that really need to be heard to be believed - at the time I tweeted that she sounded like a cross between Bjork, Sandy Denny and a curlew, which I suppose at least ought to give some idea of what a unique voice she is. I have the feeling that I'm going to be looking for and downloading a lot of her work.

Conor Jameson's talk on Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, and the debt we owe to it, was really excellent. I've read his own Silent Spring Revisited (highly recommended), but there was plenty more to take away from this, not least the conviction that change can be achieved relatively quickly. The following talk, by Jim Perrin, was equally inspiring, arguing for the value of 'rapture' in our relationship with the natural world.

The panel debate, preceded by Ruth Padel reading three poems (one of her own, plus others from Clare and Larkin), considered the question "Do the British care about nature?" You wouldn't expect to come up with hard and fast answers, but there were some intriguing leads.

In the afternoon session, the hard science provided my early highlights, with Chris Hewson's look at the satellite-tracking of Cuckoos, and Nick Davies' analysis of exactly how Cuckoos trick host birds into raising their young in the first place. Bruce Pearson's talk on albatrosses was excellent too, with his artwork adding an extra dimension.

On Saturday morning, David Tipling's all too brief opening slot was superb. Most birders are familiar with David's photos (we certainly use them whenever possible at Bird Watching), but everyone in the theatre gave a little gasp at a couple of his recent photos of Hares. Katrina van Grouw is someone else I know through her work for the magazine, and her current book, The Unfeathered Bird, is terrific, but her talk about its making was something else again - the phrase "labour of love" doesn't really cover it.

I read three birdsong-related poems myself, before Charles Bennett read from his poem/song sequence The Angry Planet, as well as talking about its composition. He touched on a theme that kept re-emerging throughout the two days - how to avoid giving in to hopeless pessimism about the state of the natural world, without offering easy answers.

Finally, Hanna Tuulikki retuened, along with Nerea Bello and Lucy Duncombe, to sing Air falbh leis na h-eoin (Away With The Birds), a large-scale vocal composition inspired by the Western Isles. Suddenly my rather glib tweet of the previous day looked a bit closer to the truth - this was music that both imitated and completely transformed wader calls and songs.

There was, as I said, much more that's worthy of mention, and as always it was good to catch up with friends and colleagues (and frustrating to miss one or two others). But there was always a feeling of momentum really starting to build, and next year's event has the opportunity to develop that in a big way.

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