Reading the Land
Shaftesbury Book Festival
11-13 March, 2022
Shaftesbury's first book festival, suggested by Motcombe writer, Rosie King but delayed by the pandemic two years ago, was finally realised in early March this year to great acclaim. Virtually every talk at the Grosvenor Hotel and all of the children's events at the Library and Arts Centre were sold out. People who attended, including many from beyond the town and its immediate environs, came to hear an inspiring array of writers, some of whom live locally and who had agreed to talk not only about their books, but also to share their passion for their subjects and raise awareness about the natural world. They were greeted by friendly venues, helpful staff, and assistance from the FOLDE Booksellers. As one attendee remarked, the Grosvenor was buzzing with happy, interested people engaging with the authors, adding that, in her opinion and those of others she spoke to, this was the best happening in Shaftesbury since lockdown. I'm sure many would agree, and if you want to re-visit the event or get a taste of what it was like, then This is Alfred features a number of interviews with contributors and these are well worth listening to. Put Shaftesbury Book Festival into Search on the website for a selection of Keri's interviews.
Listen to the interview with Sue Clifford, following the success of the first Shaftesbury Book Festival.
To set the scene for the festival and stimulate interest in the town and beyond, the organisers had produced an attractive brochure which introduced the speakers with an overview of their subjects, and featuring a special article by naturalist and writer, Richard Mabey who had agreed to be the festival patron. Richard Mabey's article described the history and distribution of the relatively rare Dark or Black Poplar tree, and here in north Dorset, we have some specimens along the River Stour near Sturminster Newton, watercourses being their favoured habitat. Those interested in looking these up will now know far more about this lovely tree thanks to that appreciative article.
Reading the Land, as the overall theme for the festival, couldn't have been more topical in drawing attention to our imperilled planet on so many fronts. Despite other current global concerns, awareness of the climate emergency has filtered down into most people's lives. The festival committee had pitched the programme to all-comers, offering an exciting evocation, frequently accompanied by videos, photographs and illustrations, of the many different aspects of the natural world, from the larger canvases of our land and seascapes to the micro worlds of the tiniest creatures. The challenge in designing a programme on such diverse themes was to ensure balance: people need to be alerted to the threats faced by our planet yet without wanting to shut down because of its overwhelming nature. This was achieved by the choice of speakers and their fields of interest, but also their enthusiastic deliveries which focused on what we can champion rather than feel defeatist about. As another attendee remarked, it offered people with a passion for something rather than against something. The speakers had appeal but weren't at all sentimental. The programme embodied challenging ideas. Each author was introduced by someone with additional interests in the landscape, the natural world or publishing, and there were frequent dialogues here with the writers. Shaftesbury's Sue Clifford, long-standing environmental campaigner and member of the festival committee, set the ball rolling on the opening evening by welcoming everyone and paying tribute to the sponsors of the event.
See the speaker lineup
Topics encompassed subjects as varied as an adventurous sea voyage in search of the unique character of island life (The Summer Isles; a Voyage of the Imagination by Philip Marsden) and the domestic life of Dippers on a small stream in Cornwall (Where the Woods meet the Stream: Finding Solace in an ever changing World by Brigit Strawbridge-Howard); often with humour as in Stephen Moss's account of his own local patch in the wake of the pandemic (Skylarks with Rosie: from Local to Global, and Back again), but also with hard-hitting messages such as the catastrophic decline of insects from Dave Goulson (Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse); or about humanity's unbalanced place in the complex web of all life. Thus Keggie Carew (Beastly: Close Encounters across the Species Divide) described our relationships with other species and how the stories of these have evolved over millennia across different cultures. Mary Colwell (Predators, People and the Land – It's Complicated!) challenged us to examine what radical changes to our lifestyles might we be prepared to make in order that other lifeforms with whom we share the planet, might have an equal place in it. Donheads' author, Christopher Nicholson (Uncertainty and Survival: Summer Snow in Scotland), focused on how emotion infuses our response to landscape and he described the personal journeys he takes into the Scottish mountains in search of snow beds and how they are being impacted by global warming. Climate change also formed part of Robin Walter's talk (Living with Trees), but overall, he wanted us to celebrate trees and envision a future where some of our landscapes might be restored with woodlands.
All the talks recounted the stories of how the writers had become fascinated by their specialist subjects, often in their childhood; but some were especially personal, for example Ben Hoare's endeavours to introduce his two adopted daughters to the wonders of Nature (Nature's Treasures: Getting hands-on with the Natural World). The children's events at the Library were designed to entice young people to discover that wonder all around them: Tim Laycock told and sang often fantastical stories from Dorset folklore (The Wonderful Crocodile and other all Tales) and these were fun. The session, How to Draw Bugs with Yuval Zommer, was also sold out but sadly had to be cancelled because of a serious family illness. It is hoped that there might be another opportunity to host this very popular event especially since the organisers had liaised with four local primary schools (Motcombe Primary, St Andrew’s Fontmell Magna, Shaftesbury Primary and Abbey Primary) in the lead up to the festival. As one of the organisers, Julia Markus, commented, every child in the schools did some artwork on the theme of Reading the Land. The teachers chose three from each class and these were displayed in shops around the town with posters for the festival. The schools have been given copies of books by Yuval Zommer and Tim Laycock to say a big thank you to the children. We hope to work more extensively with the schools in the future.
For those wishing to know more about these talks, read on since Shaftesbury was immensely privileged to have the company of such accomplished and award-winning writers, and it is hoped that you will want to read their books.
Two of the talks recounted adventures in relatively extreme landscapes: Christopher Nicholson's latest book, Among the Summer Snows addresses the deep emotional affection he has for the Highlands of Scotland after many years of trekking up the mountainsides; these hikes have been in search of the snow beds, those pockets of compacted ice and snow in the corries and gulleys of the mountains and which endure through the Summer months, but which are now beginning to disappear because of global warming. This was another talk about human contact with the natural world, about environmental and human fragility and loss, survival and death and how we invest our landscapes with personal significance; but also about time itself where memories are formed of places, and then we are taken by surprise on repeated visits because nothing is the same. As the title of his talk indicated, Uncertainty and Survival: Summer Snow in Scotland, each repeated visit will produce something different from what was expected and remembered, and this uncertainty continues to influence our feelings, thoughts and responses, and gives rise to new insights and memories.
Cornwall writer, Philip Marsden's book, The Summer Isles, describes an intrepid seascape voyage along the coast of Ireland as well as the South West coast of Scotland; it traces his journey among the archipelago of small islands to those Summer Isles in often hostile waters. He spoke about the uniqueness of island life and the emotional attachment local islanders have with their environment. The interflow between land and sea is liminal space, he said, and seeing land from the sea provides and entirely different perspective of it. He shared his own deep and personal attachment to places as well, reporting that many of the islands he stopped off at are no longer inhabited, the lives of the people who once lived on them now unsustainable but living on in memory; these memories are, he said, frequently embellished by the imagination, hence the title of his talk. Like Chris's repeated visits to his snow beds of memory, Philip described a similar sense of loss, longing and nostalgia enshrined in the many traditional island stories, the Gallic language and the music which linger among surviving residents: places are as much about people as they are about the broader wilds of a landscape, he said, and islands hold a particular place in human imagination, carrying our fantasies and ideals. He cited humanity's earliest maps which show imaginary islands and mythical sea monsters. But these island landscapes, each unique in character, are also changing all the time, buffeted and eroded by the sea, their inhabitants dwindling in number and often leaving behind crumbling structures, remnants of former lives lived in the toughest of environments.
The themes of these talks echoed those of the others, each covering a different aspect of their concerns about the environment, human habitation, loss, and about the current climate crisis. The ominous title of opening talk by Professor of Biology at Sussex University and founder of The Bee Conservation Trust, Dave Goulson (Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse) set the tone for the dangers facing us from humanity's destructive impact on the planet through the shocking decline in our insect populations. This finding was the impetus for his research and resulting earlier books, A Buzz in the Meadow and A Sting in the Tale. The same alarm, in a later talk, was picked up by former Shaftesbury resident, Brigit Strawbridge-Howard when she described how she had first become interested in bees herself and learned about their decline; this had led to her first book (Dancing with Bees). Both speakers described the importance of insects for both their local ecosystems but also the wider ecosystems of other species which depend on them for their survival and which have also been adversely impacted by their demise. Insects are highly complex creatures with extraordinary behaviours and lifecycles; they play multiple roles in the biodiversity of whole landscapes. They are therefore integral to an extensive network of vital ecological activity, for example in how they break down and recycle organic matter in the soil which provides nutrients for plants and a broad spectrum of animals which feed on those plants; this is as well as what they require for themselves and other insects, and it illustrates their diverse functions within the entire food chain, not least as pollinators.
It is no coincidence that the title of his latest book and also of his talk, Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse, echoes that of Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, published in 1962, and which first drew the attention of the world to the devastating impact of using the DDT pesticide on wider species, notably farmland birds and in many cases on human health. Elsewhere in the world, use of insecticides is being recognised as one of the biggest threats to wildlife, including the potential extinction, in Britain, of once common countryside song birds like the Nightingale and Spotted Flycatcher. One listener to the talk referred to the decline in Swift numbers, saying, for those of us living in Shaftesbury and who love to see the Swifts swooping round the Town Hall clock and St Peter's church tower, Dave Goulson's warning about the insect decline is particularly poignant. He explained the vital role of insects in the whole web of life and food chain for many species.
In Brigit's case, she has transferred her current focus from bees to aquatic insects. In a lively conversation with another speaker, Mary Colwell, she described her observations of a family of Dippers on the stream opposite her new home in Cornwall. She has now trained to be a 'river guardian' through The RiverFly Partnership which works with other bodies like wildlife trusts to co-ordinate volunteers. One attendee at her talk was so inspired that he has signed up with Dorset Wildlife Trust to train as a guardian himself with Riverfly locally. The presence or absence of aquatic insects is a key indicator of the health of our waterways which has come under scrutiny in recent months. This is owing to the failure of every water company in the country (according to the Parliamentary Audit Committee in January this year) to control sewage dumping in the rivers under their care. The audit declared that only fourteen rivers in the country met acceptable ecological standards while none was deemed free of chemical contamination. Brigit said that working with the RiverFly kit is also something children love to do, so it is a fun way of educating them at the same time. Engaging children in this way is clearly at the forefront of the school involvement described earlier. But Ben Hoare's account of seeking to interest his two adopted daughters in a love of Nature (Nature's treasure: Getting Hands on with the Natural World) profoundly reminded us of how so many children living in some urban communities have virtually no access to Nature at all. In a moving account of how he let his daughters teach him what they wanted, it was these close encounters with insects which captivated their interest rather than the grandiose walks he had begun taking them on in the woods and even by the sea. He entertained the audience with pictures of their thrill at caterpillars crawling across their hands, and his beautifully produced and illustrated books are wonders in their own right.
These magical experiences with Nature do not require huge expeditions across the globe; all speakers described their observations and fascination by noticing the creatures in their gardens and immediate environment. Both Dave's and Brigit's talks had illustrated the interconnectedness of all life on the land everywhere, and how destruction in one place has far-reaching consequences for other species; Ben's talk demonstrated the excitement of close encounters with all manner of wildlife if you take time to observe it. Writer and award winning Somerset resident, Stephen Moss described the effect of lockdown in 2020 and how it had confined people to their homes and gardens or local green spaces. He said, we couldn't go out anywhere, but Nature came to us. He cited how bird songs were more clearly heard without their having to compete with the sound of the traffic. All these themes also formed the focus of Keggie Carew's talk, Beastly: Close Encounters across the Species Divide, and her book, Beastly: Our paradoxical relationship with the creaturely world is coming out next year. Keggie lives in Cranborne Chase and like Brigit, feels a deep attachment to other species; she too is a river monitor. The watercourses which run through her locale are the rare and endangered chalk streams and are in grave need of protection. Keggie drew our attention to the often emotional relationships we have with animals, what they can teach us about the world and our place in it, but overall what those relationships reflect about our attitudes to other species and the natural world at large; in a word, the interconnected nature of all life. She challenged us to think about how we have separated ourselves from Nature, seeking to subdue it as if it were external to us instead of recognising that we are a part of it, and also pointing out what we might be missing from closer engagement with other species. Through stories of relationships with animals from different parts of the world, she described how some other cultures live alongside animals much more harmoniously; this doesn't deny how difficult some of those relationships can be when human settlements can be threatened by large predators often with consequent cruel responses from the people. But humans have always sought relationships with animals, and so we have conflicting attitudes to living alongside them. She pointed out that many of them are much better than humans at managing the land, for example the Beaver which, with its re-introduction in this country, has demonstrated its role in flood control.
Such talks demonstrate how the natural world can be a source of solace in a variety of different ways. Having direct contact with and learning about the natural world starts with simply looking at what's on our own doorstep: there are fascinating creatures to observe if we are prepared to put in the time to notice what is all around us. But there are conflicts associated with the human impact of engaging more closely with Nature: while there is a major need to raise awareness about the vulnerability of so many of our different species and their habitats, the more they are intruded upon by increased human footfall, the more at risk they become. Brigit cited an ongoing debate about the right to roam which needs to come with the responsibility to guard against habitat damage; this requires people who seek access to protected areas of the country to be educated, to understand and respect the land and the species which live on it as well hold to account organisations like the Environment Agency and landowners themselves to enforce environmental protection. As many people found during the lockdowns caused by the pandemic, the natural world offered comfort and relief, and many parts of the countryside saw increased numbers of visitors; but the survival of many endangered species depends on people not invading their spaces, as Brigit pointed out in her talk.
Mary Colwell's subject (Predators, People and Land – It's Complicated!) also indicated the problems of sharing our spaces with other wildlife but this time, her major subject was about re-wilding the landscape, another hot topic of today. Her conversation with Richard Kerridge mirrored some of Keggie's themes about interconnectedness, and like Keggie's call for more education about the environment and respect for all life, Mary believes that there needs to be serious engagement from people on the question of how top predators like Wolves and Lynx might be re-introduced to this country. She said that over millennia, humanity has evolved alongside animals, but with the development of complex human cultures and habitation, we have become increasingly separated from those earlier relationships. This is illustrated by the inroads which humans have made into the territories of other species, altering their behaviour, pushing them to the margins of their habitats, even causing their extinction. But introductions of non-native species have made inroads into human spaces as well and with equally damaging effects. There are virtually no truly wild landscapes across the globe in which humans have not intruded, and one among many detrimental consequences, is the throwing out of the balance of natural ecosystems. Because of the elimination of top predators in Britain, the deer population has exploded, especially in the Scottish Highlands, depleting the vegetation, destroying biodiversity and causing starvation amongst those animals. For a long time there have been calls to re-introduce species which would keep those populations under control, but such solutions are controversial.
Farmers, landowners and rural people are naturally concerned about the implications of living alongside such large predators. Mary challenged us to consider what compromises we might be prepared to make to bring back such predators, to restore the biodiversity of our wilder landscapes and revive the balance of our ecosystems. This country might learn from North America's experience of the Wolf re-introduction into Yellowstone Park in the 1990s; this area had become overrun with Moose which, like the Scottish Red Deer, had devastated the vegetation and biodiversity for other species in the park. After a few years, that biodiversity has recovered and the scheme was heralded as a success, but all is not well for a variety of reasons, not least the continuing unhappiness of local hunters and farmers. This shows that what's at stake isn't just fear of predatory animals or about loss of livelihood, but whole ways of life which people have developed and which they won't easily want to give up. And yet, referring back to Keggie's talk about our encounters with animals, Mary reminded us that many countries live quite co-operatively with large predators in other parts of Europe.
Many re-introductions of once native species in Britain have been made in recent years 'under the radar': only when such re-introductions are considered 'successful' have they been made public, as with Beavers. The endangered Scottish Wildcat is currently being introduced into secret locations in England in an endeavour to save it from extinction. Following the re-introduction of the Red Kite across southern England in the 1990s, there are still pockets of concern just as there were when the White-tailed Sea Eagle was returned to the West coast of Scotland. From recent newspaper reports, there is now suspected persecution in Dorset of this bird since it was introduced to the Isle of Wight. The idea of returning top predators raises the concern to a much higher level, and there are still major problems from earlier introductions of non-native species: the most commonly known one is the Grey Squirrel which carries a disease that is transmittable to the native Reds and this can be fatal to them; they also damage trees. Another concern relates to the muntjac deer which also has a detrimental impact on our woodland. By contrast, many landowners are recognising that re-wilding can have a beneficial effect on their land including on their farming practices; this is demonstrated at Isabella Tree's Knepp estate which was re-wilded in 2001 and is now a thriving farming and visitor attraction in West Sussex. The Knepp estate now faces a new concern from those who want to build properties on adjacent land; this could have a harmful impact on what has been created on the estate, and yet there is a shortage of social housing for people. Such examples illustrate the difficulty faced by those wishing to restore the ecological balance to our natural landscapes and make room for all species with whom we share it. As Mary Colwell says, it's complicated.
Mary's challenge to us is to have open and honest discussions about the need to recognise the roles played by all species on our land and about the kinds of relationships with them which we need to recover. In her interview with Keri on This is Alfred, Mary described her campaign to protect the Curlew whose numbers have decreased considerably in recent years. Unlike Dave Goulson's focus on the decline in insect food sources, notably from chemical farming, this once common countryside bird is suffering from habitat loss caused by other changes in farming practices as well as increased predation by foxes which have inadvertently benefited from the urban expansion provided by people. As one attendee said, all our attempts at restoration of natural habitats/species are fraught, there are many, many balances and conflicting interests that must be weighed up before we can even begin to take the 'right' action. This for me was holistic thinking in the true sense.
The upset in the balance in Nature from the activities of humankind has taken many other directions from the stripping of the land of its natural resources, regarding it merely as a source for human economic benefit and so degrading and polluting it, and eliminating wildlife along the way. Now attention has been drawn to one of the serious dangers it has posed for climate change and when all countries need to reduce their carbon emissions. There are numerous ways by which carbon can be stored in the land, for example through the creation of new wetlands and protection of our bogs, but the subject of Shaftesbury's Robin Walter's talk, (Living with Trees), was the essential role trees play in this process. This talk was more than an appeal for people to plant more trees for carbon capture, however; it was a profound appreciation of trees and the important and many varied functions they have in the protection of our landscapes. Robin is a forester as well as a writer; he is also an environmental campaigner who has done much to raise awareness of the urgent need to address the threats posed by the climate emergency as well as communicate his intimate connection with trees, and how we can play a part in their conservation and in the regeneration of our landscapes. His illustrated talk, echoing his celebratory and eminently practical book on how this might be realised, took us from ancient times when most of our land masses were covered in trees, to a vision of how we might re-create a future where trees could reclaim their ecological place in the landscape.
There are still remnants in this country of ancient woodland, of venerable trees and even a little wildwood itself, each area dominated by particular species; but now, there is barely 13% of any woodland in Britain which still exists, and only 10% in Dorset. Along with the topics of the other speakers in relation to providing more habitat for wildlife, and of the different kinds of relationships we can have with other animals, there is ongoing conflict about land use and where more trees would be planted: farmers are concerned about the need to grow food and fear that good agricultural land will be taken over by woodland; many are fighting the attempts of big business to buy up such land to grow trees in order to offset their carbon emissions. Yet it doesn't have to be conflicted when there are urban wastelands and marginal land in the countryside which can be re-planted. The latter would restore the biodiversity which has been destroyed by modern industrialised farming practices, and in urban areas, whole new habitats for wildlife could be created and provide healthier environments for local people.
Our relationship with wood over millennia has been extensive and varied and yet we import 80% of our timber, an activity which attracts a major carbon footprint, and so there is a need to become more self-sufficient. Trees have multifarious functions in the landscape, for example in anchoring the land to prevent flooding, conserving the soil, and providing habitats and food for wildlife. Not all tree-planting is appropriate as the above conflicts illustrate: there has been bad planting in the past, especially the replacement of broadleaf woodland with fast-growing monocultures of non-native conifers which have destroyed biodiversity. The introduction of non-native species was also something which Stephen Moss also explored in his talk when asked, what is a native species? He talked about how many animals have adapted and become 'naturalised' over hundreds of years and contributed positively to our biodiversity; this applies to trees and other plants as well, but many have also contributed to the imbalance of our ecosystems. Importing non-native trees has led to increased threat from pests which can wipe out whole species, often our most iconic native trees such as the Elm and now the Ash. Trees may continue to be vulnerable to fungal attack and diseases when non-native insects are brought into the country. What tree species to plant and where to plant them are crucial discussions which need to take place in order to return our landscapes to health: different trees thrive in different habitats, so the selection of species will need to take account of this as well as their resilience in the face of climate change.
Trees feature in our earliest myths and legends, our spiritual traditions, in our Art and literature, and are loved by many people in many different and celebratory ways. They provide essential habitats and food sources for threatened wildlife, and play a myriad of other crucial roles in the landscape for people; they supply valuable timber as well as the pleasure and solace that many of the other speakers also described; but they are simply beautiful and majestic in their own right. This final talk brought us full circle: that as bad as things are, it isn't too late to recover if we take on board things we can all do, but only if we act now. All the talks could so easily have focused on these 'doom and gloom' circumstances facing the planet because of climate change and the destructive behaviour of humanity; but all the speakers delivered balanced as well as informative accounts of what gives them joy in the natural world, and how each works to further the raising of awareness of what can be done to protect our landscapes and waterways.
At a time when both domestic and international events repeatedly knock the climate emergency off the news agenda, an event like this will have kept the topic alive in people's minds. As audience members, we were challenged yet, despite the "righteous anger" felt by many at the state of things and alluded to by Stephen Moss, none of the speakers' 'hectored' in spite of the force of their arguments. This is not least because what is needed to reverse the human damage of centuries is something which cannot be achieved overnight. As someone from the Planet Shaftesbury network put it, tackling biodiversity loss, tackling climate breakdown through adaptation in our community is a marathon and not a sprint. Many of the talks referred to the need to educate the next generation, to include more on the school curriculum about the interconnectedness of all species and humanity's place in the world. Again, this need not be a heavy subject but one which communicates the fun and comfort which Brigit described, and the excitement of discovery which she and Dave Goulson and all of the other speakers related from their first encounters with the natural world. Yet Ben Hoare's moving talk was a direct and personal reference to how so many children already suffering from disadvantage, can be additionally denied the potential solace which Nature could provide.
Healthy people require healthy environments in which to live, but without understanding humanity's place amongst all other species in the world, it is difficult to care about what you don't know. Now, however, everyone at school will soon have an opportunity to study and understand the role of the natural world in the health and wellbeing of all life on the planet: after eleven years, Mary Colwell's campaign for a GCSE in Natural History has been confirmed by the Department for Education. In response to this news, Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas said, we owe it to our young people to teach them more about the riches of the natural world so they can recognise and appreciate its beauty, understand the scale of loss we're living through, and be equipped with the necessary tools to reverse it.
What a fitting way to thank Mary and all the speakers for their involvement in this, Shaftesbury's first book festival. Their passion for their work has already made a difference, and it is continuing to alert people to what needs to be done in order to achieve more. The vital need to educate the next generation should not be approached from fear but through what you love: what you value as precious, and passionately care about, you will seek to defend and protect.
We would also like to thank those who have personally donated toward this event, including: Sara Jacson, Juliet Rogers, Laura Loncar, Clare Martin, Bernard Ede, Julia and Charles Cardozo, and a number of people who wish to remain anonymous.