Our Place: A Review
I don’t know whether to applaud Mark Cocker or kick him in the shins. Maybe both.
I’ve just finished reading his Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too late? It is a brutal, bruising read. I mean this literally: There were pages, quite a few of them, that made something in my chest physically ache.
Though I’m Dutch and currently live in Peru, I’ve spent almost a quarter of my life in Britain ̶ one year in Fort Augustus, Scotland; four formative years near Woodbridge, Suffolk; four years in London; and two years in Oxford. Not to mention annual holidays with my parents and grandparents in Devon throughout my spells abroad. In many ways, I feel more British than Dutch. And the thing I love best about ‘England’s green and pleasant land’ – yes, it’s a hackneyed quote but who cares when it’s so evidently apt - is its glorious countryside. Every time I visit my parents on the edge of Dartmoor, the lush, rolling hills, the multitudes of wild flowers blooming in road verges, and the ancient, moss-covered stone walls fill me with delight.
All this time I’ve fondly imagined the nature-passionate Brits had done at least this one thing right. (Let’s leave Brexit out of the picture). They had successfully managed to preserve much of their island biodiversity and the integrity of their landscapes.
Well, Mark Cocker has set me straight. It turns out “the idea that the British countryside is in eradicable good health” is a myth. He describes a vast field of daffodils “below birdless skies, of insectless vegetation, amid a soundscape of man-made engines, where the boundary has angles of such precision and the soil has designs of such regularity that they seem to have been fashioned by computer technology.” As a result of intensive agricultural practises, he writes, between 1920 and 2018, “99 per cent of 4 million acres of flower-rich meadow were destroyed and 44 million breeding birds vanished from the countryside.” The Biological Intactness Index lists England, among 218 countries, as 28th from the bottom, representing a “significantly greater long-term loss of nature than the global average.” Incomprehensibly, plastic grass is becoming the latest must-have.
Of the field of nature writing, Mark suggests: “The danger is that it is a compensatory, nostalgic and internalised re-creation of what was once our birthright and is no more… without the underlying biodiversity, these responses will be like the light from a dead star: they will persist for a while, maybe even decades, but they will travel onwards into the darkness that will eventually consume them.”
Mark does not shy away from revealing the harsh reality in language that is both eloquent and blunt. “We are suspended in a landscape of losses,” he writes, and you can sense his anguish. Yet, for him, “… hope lies, surely, not in perpetuating any myth, not in doctoring the facts, but in owning them squarely and with the whole of ourselves.”
As with Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm, I found myself turning the pages of Our Place with mounting anxiety and a fervent expectation that Mark, clearly a knowledgeable and experienced naturalist, would somehow have the answers. He does not disappoint, though his concluding list of ten Truths – “the antithesis of all the platitudes” – will demand a genuine acceptance of them and a radical ecological re-thinking and re-structuring of nature conservation in Britain.
Mark quotes Marion Shoard in The Theft of the Countryside: “If the people of England knew what was happening to their countryside, they would not stand for it.”
Well, now they know. Mark Cocker has made sure of that. Our Place is a bold, political, and above all timely reflection on the state of nature in Britain, of the what, how, and why of it. And it is a clarion call to arms.
All things considered, I think I’ll spare Mark’s shins and settle for a heartfelt round of applause.