Although nature is not built for man, the pleasures it affords are instinctive and infinite. The beauty of the natural world transcends that of any urban space
David Butterfield (and child) in Lakeland (©David Butterfield)
It’s some 30 years since Morrissey warbled “Nature is a language — can’t you read?” But for modern-day Britain the answer seems increasingly “No”. Despite our long-standing passion for the countryside, the nation has never been so communally detached from rural life. Last year, surveys reported that two-thirds of Britons feel they have “lost touch with nature”, that one in six had not visited the countryside in the last two years, and that a third of parents confessed to being too ignorant about nature to teach their children. Yes, one in ten (some 6.5 million) tune into the BBC’s Countryfile each Sunday. But how many of us succeed in making time for the great outdoors?
The public body Natural England reports that, in 2015-16, 42 per cent of Britons visited “natural environments” spaces weekly. Encouraging, perhaps, if the definition didn’t include “open spaces in towns and cities”. Heading to the park round the corner — a man-made space for human recreation — is not the same as leaving civilisation behind for the wilds of nature. Indeed, the most important lesson of the great outdoors is that the world is not a vehicle for our convenience and comfort. It is unmoved by our transient problems; its cyclical, seasonal rhythms of life reject human obsessions with linear progress.
Yet, although nature is not built for man, the pleasures it affords are instinctive and infinite. The profound beauty of the natural world transcends that of any urban space; much of this splendour resists verbal description, however rich the linguistic store of English. Most would say the same for its therapeutic value. But what gives rural spaces such enduring allure? Perhaps it’s their sheer independence of — and impassivity towards — human activity and endeavour: their form and character remain unchanged, whether we are there to behold them or not. They have no questions to ask nor judgments to make. For many, this open-armed acceptance is a source of comfort; for others, the total escape from trivial business revives the spirit.
Perhaps this is why most of us, precluded from living in the countryside by the constraints of employment and commitments of life, cherish the hope of a rustic idyll. Whether won through retirement, pecuniary windfall or dramatic changes in circumstance, a life in the country underpins most British dreams. And there is — contrary to popular belief — plenty to choose from. A recent survey showed that Britons think 47 per cent of the country is built upon. This is staggeringly wrong: the correct figure for “continuous urban fabric” is 0.1 per cent. Far from the countryside vanishing before our eyes, 94 per cent of the UK is rural. Our 15 national parks and 46 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty cover a fifth of the country.
And yet so much of the narrative about the British countryside manifests itself in nimbyist squabbles over (relatively dull) “green belts”, or grim narratives about how humans are damaging the planet. It was impossible, for instance, to watch the wondrous scenes of the BBC’s Blue Planet II without concluding it’s a blues planet too. Environmental matters are, of course, of paramount importance; but if they’re not set against a background of people experiencing countryside and wildlife first-hand, they result in pious signalling rather than meaningful engagement.
How, then, to lure Britons back into the wild? Education. It should be a duty of schools to instil in younger generations the value — and values — of the great outdoors. The time has long since passed when a genuine sense of rural life could be passed down through family relatives and recollections. For many, the countryside really is an unknown world.
Michael Gove, who earned his stripes (and battle scars) as Education Secretary, is perfectly placed as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to reconnect schools with the natural world. Just as “work experience” forms a major part of secondary-school education, so should “rural experience”. We need to show young Britons that the countryside is theirs to enjoy — and respect. Let’s hope that the “Nature Friendly Schools Programme” announced last month by the Prime Minister, seemingly seized by a newly-found green fervour, is a first step in the right direction. And let’s hope that talk of risk assessments or funding constraints be set aside when there’s so much at stake.
Most simply, we must show young children how much pleasure the countryside freely affords. This past Christmas, for instance, my wife and I were trudging through the snow to watch the winter sun hang low over Crummock Water in Lakeland. As the sublime panorama opened up before us, our 18-monther, lashed like a log to my back, gave a sigh and simply said, “Happy.” Verb. sap.