It’s like a bereavement, the state of our planet. Not just the fact of loss – I’ll get to that later – but the way it smacks you in the face when you’re not looking, or leaps up in the midst of the everyday, shocking you all over again when you thought you were safe.
I bought a nostalgic treat the other day, a copy of the Ladybird book What to Look for in Winter. I could justify it, almost, as ‘research’ for my MA but really I pressed the button on eBay because I had the book as a child and seeing the cover again made it irresistible.
It’s a beautiful cover. What to Look for in Winter, published in 1959, is part of a series of Ladybird nature books illustrated by the renowned wildlife artist Charles Tunnicliffe. Muted greys and ochres evoke a wintry chill and the sparse beauty of a frozen landscape.
Most striking of all, though, is the sheer quantity of birds on the lake: herons, mallards, widgeon, tufted duck, and a snipe skulking where mud meets ice. Above, a flock of whooper swans is coming in to land; you can almost hear the ‘wonderful whirring of their wings’, as the author E. L. Grant Watson puts it.
The abundance of birds and other wildlife is repeated throughout the book. Another lake picture shows at least fifteen pairs of coots and, in the bare-branched tree above, a flock of redpolls and siskins.
You can only see part of the thorn tree beside a Dutch barn, but there are seventeen birds in it: greenfinches, bramblings, yellowhammers and chaffinches.
On other pages, fieldfares crowd into a holly tree, golden plovers throng the bank of a lake and a huge flock of lapwings circles above a farmer ploughing a field.
My nostalgic indulgence suddenly turned into a sickening sense of loss.
Perhaps it’s because I live in quite a built-up area that empty or almost-empty, trees have become the norm for me. An occasional flock of long-tailed tits in the silver birch outside our house is something I treasure for days.
Things are a little better on the allotment, where there are often small flocks of goldfinches in the summer, and a colony of rooks in the nearby woods. Sometimes we see large gatherings of lapwings, geese and swifts around the nearby reservoirs.
But the blurb on the inside cover says this book will ‘add considerably to the pleasure of a winter walk’. There’s an implication that the kinds of wildlife pictured are accessible to ordinary readers, and that the abundance is normal. It doesn’t suggest you need to go to a special, out of the way place to experience it.
Was Tunnicliffe exaggerating? I doubt it: as a wildlife artist, his attention to detail was meticulous. What’s more, the book as a whole is instructional in tone: the point of it is to enable children to identify plants, birds and animals.
In any case, the evidence of loss is there in the statistics, if we can bear to look at them. In the last 40 years, humans have killed half of all the animals on earth. The current extinction rate may be 100 times higher than normal.
I don’t know how we reverse this but I do know we can’t care about things we have never seen. You can’t miss flocks of siskins, skeins of geese or a whirring whiteness of migrating swans if they have never been part of your life.
When I was writing the book about Incredible Edible Todmorden, I learnt that looking too hard at the big picture can be paralysing. Confronted with loss on this scale, it’s easy to despair.
Conversely, even very small actions can be energising and lead to bigger things. Going outside and paying attention would be a start. Trying to learn more, and in the learning to care more.
Why not go on a walk today and try to identify a new species? Take a Ladybird nature book with you if necessary. It’ll help you with the identification. It’ll also remind you what we’re up against.
When I was researching this post, I came across a lovely article by the award-winning author Helen Macdonald, on what this book meant to here as a nature-obsessed child. Well worth a read.