A few weeks ago, I was walking around our A Rocha UK nature reserve in urban West London. The site previously had been used for heroin dealing, and we had to clear over 54 tonnes of rubbish to create the new reserve. Amidst the new blossoming sensory garden, wildflower meadow, bee hives and pond, there were still small reminders of its history and the damaged site from a few years ago….bricks, bottles, burnt wood. Hidden by ivy and flowers.
Try as we might it is impossible to totally erase the scars of what we have done both to nature and to the planet.
In Japanese culture there is a concept which is referred to as “kintsugi”. When a piece of pottery is broken or shattered, it is painstakingly reassembled, and a gold lacquer mixed with glue is introduced to help stick the pottery together again. By gluing the broken item with gold, the pottery becomes more valuable than it was before it broke.
So it should be with nature conservation. We should be determined to work with the scars and in doing so let the beauty shine out from within. We are aiming not for sanitised landscapes. There is a risk that new nature reserves become a bit like supermarkets…once you have seen one you have seen them all. Our thinking needs to be bigger and bolder.
I was visiting a site in Glasgow not so long ago and was informed that an area of “wasteland” was to be transformed into an incredible community hub with a new play centre, bike tracks, outdoor adventure area and new marked nature trails. As we were led through the area, I noticed a man with a beer bottle sitting cross legged on the edge of a path. Interested in what he was doing I approached him; and as I did so he beckoned me to sit next to him. “Whisht! Just be still and watch this", he said. For five minutes I sat with the man. After a few minutes a fox and her three cubs crossed in front of us, only about 10 metres away.
“I love this place” exclaimed the man. “My life is full of trouble; but every day I come to this quiet corner and see the fox and her cubs, and we have got to know each other." This “wasteland” was home to something remarkable already- and yet this had been missed. In that one sentence from the man, is everything about why I am so passionate about a radical upheaval in how we care for this incredible planet. Nature conservation is often way too formulaic. We bury ourselves in the latest theme… rewilding, net gain, no mow. We give the impression we truly know what is best for a place and for the country. We forget why we are so passionate about nature.
That one man reminded me of the kintsugi hope that needs to lie behind our actions and our words. Our passion for nature is born out of seeing beauty in the ashes of life. We are called to fight for the planet, but also to remember that we are not just dealing with broken landscapes but broken people as well.
A Rocha UK runs a programme called Partners in Action where we work across the UK and Overseas Territories to encourage actions for nature and people. We have just launched a new pollination scheme called “Seeds of Hope” on St Helena and a new nature recovery plan at a Forest School in Windsor. The aim is to inspire and empower communities to believe that real change is possible.
So what next for the UK conservation movement?
A few days ago, I came across an old English word that has been out of use since the 16th century... "respair”. It summed up everything I think we should be aiming for. We despair for what we have lost. Nature continues to struggle with climate change, population growth and the legacy of poor soil management, and we lament for our missing birds, bees and butterflies. But we can also be amazing repairers; ready to step in and get our hands dirty-transforming lives, transforming communities and breathing new life into nature recovery schemes.
“Respairing” is the act of bringing new life into dark places, lamenting the lost and yet also rejoicing in the art of the possible. These are very much the worst of times and the best of times… but I am proud to be part of a movement of almost 60 organisations through Wildlife and Countryside Link, all who bring unique and special gifts to the table. Together we can make a profound difference, and we can bring real hope to our nation at a time of great anxiety. We are artists, thinkers, believers, travellers, mourners, scientists, thinkers. There is power in working together and having the humility to stop, look and listen however busy the next months get…
Andy Lester is Head of Conservation at A Rocha UK.
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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