Events Archive

Since 2009, New Networks for Nature have organised a series of annual events designed to explore new perspectives in our cultural and creative responses to birds, nature and wildlife, and to challenge certain narrowly defined but prevailing views on the environment.

Nature Matters: In Touch with the Wild
September 2016, Cambridge

Sir David Attenborough Photo © Cheryl-Samantha Owen

Our 2016 event, Nature Matters 2016: In Touch with the Wild, was held in collaboration with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative in the new David Attenborough Building.

Two-and-a-half days of panels, discussions, breakouts and workshops created a cocktail of traditional New Networks for Nature and collaborative innovations, concluding with an inspirational address from David Attenborough himself. It was an exhilarating time, and some 250 people went home buzzing with new energy.

Thursday evening’s opening session and conversation was a lively exploration of our connections to nature from a range of perspectives. Chaired by Dame Gillian Beer, Kathleen Jamie, Tony Juniper, Martin Rees, and Rebecca Stott brought the perspectives of poet and essayist, author and activist, astronomer and cosmologist, author and historian, to the table. A classic NNN mix, and a good discussion that included the Astronomer Royal arguing: “Even the simplest living organism is more complex in chemistry than the largest star. All nature is precious.”

On Friday 250 people filled the Babbage Lecture theatre for a prologue by the former BirdLife conservationist, and now UEA creative writing alumnus, Ed Parnell, who spoke from his debut novel, The Listeners. Personal Connections to Nature in the next session explored a combination of psychology and literature. Chaired by NNN Ambassador, Ruth Padel, William Fiennes opened with reflections on John Fowles’s poorly known short work, The Tree, and its provocations. Alison Brackenbury brought a long-term sense of working a place and its nature for poems, her home in Gloucestershire of 40 years, in verse that includes her powerful poem, The Lapwings. It starts in plenty, “They were everywhere. No. Just God or smoke is that. / They were the backdrop to the road, my parents’ home, the heavy winter fields / from which they flashed and kindled and uprode the air in dozens. …” and mourns their passing.

And Laurie Parma spoke on her research that explores nature and mental and physical health, finding innovative ways of measuring our links, including an app called Naturebuzz. It was this connection of nature with well-being, so powerfully explored by Richard Mabey in his classic Nature Cure, that caught the audience’s imagination.

After a coffee break, we returned to a new panel, this time chaired by John Fanshawe, focusing on Understanding Loss. With a presentation rooted in the recent IUCN Assembly in Hawaii, Stu Butchart, BirdLife’s Chief Scientist, used birds as a basis for explaining Red Listing, and many of the consequences of two decades’ data. Toby Smith, Artist in Residence for UCCRI, focused on the image, building from a photographers’ ‘blue marble’ (NASA’s famous 1972 photograph of the Earth swathed in water and cloud), and Susan Sontag’s searing essay on the images of war and conflict, Regarding the Pain of Others, to argue how exposure to endless images can engender a dangerous indifference.

From presentation to performance, and Hanna Tuulikki, who melded two bird voices, cuckoo and blackbird, and mimicry of their songs, into a piece, At Sing Two Birds, that held us all spellbound. As a member of the audience argued, the move from presentation to performance created a wholly different atmosphere in the room, powerful in itself, but also raising the power of other talks.

George Monbioth Photo © Cheryl-Samantha Owen

After lunch, FFI’s Jo Elliot chaired a debate on Rewilding, a topic championed by one of the panelists, George Monbiot, who, in his characteristically challenging and engaging style, made a strong case for rewilding upland Britain, and created yet another memorable quote: “the skylark was the last refuge of the conservation scoundrel”. Following him, Charles Burrell explained the transformation rewilding is bringing to his Knepp Estates, and the Oxford academic, Jamie Lorimer, author of Wildlife of the Anthropocene, spoke of future nature and landscape change, and many of the constraints associated with political reality in the United Kingdom, particularly in urban communities.

The day concluded with Katherine Norbury reading from her memoir of loss and nature, The Fish Ladder, and then a panel on Reconnections with Nature, chaired by Katrina Porteous, in which Ivan Scales explored attitudes towards conservation in Madagascar. Publisher and author Sharon Blackie, whose magazine of nature and culture, EarthLines, has published many NNN contributors, spoke of myth and story telling, and the artist ATMStreetArt shared his experience of creating large realistic paintings of birds in city and town spaces, many of which become meeting places for local people.

Later that evening, over a hundred delegates dined at Queens’ College, where many were also staying for the meeting. Excellent food and wine was enjoyed in the Old Hall, which dates from 1448 and contains a remarkable array of wallpaper by the artist William Morris. A hardy few retreated to the Anchor to talk until closing time.

Saturday began with Matt Howard announcing the 2017 RSPB, BirdLife/CCI Rialto Poetry Competition for 2017, which will focus on Nature and Place, and a prologue from Mike Toms, ornithologist and writer, which drew on nightjar as inspiration for scientists, artists, and writers, and included his poem, An Incline of Nightjar.

Poetry has played a core role in the evolution of New Networks for Nature, and will continue to do so. As last year, Derek Niemann conceived and pulled together a stunning brochure, In Touch with the Wild, which included contributions from many speakers and performers, and poems from Alison Brackenbury, Kathleen Jamie, and John Barlow, as well as Mike Toms, and a new voice, Imogen Cassels, whose work evolved from a day at the RSPB’s Strumpshaw Fen this summer.

Our first panel of the day focused on Tools for Life, and the explosion in technology that is supporting conservation. Stuart Newson spoke on his work creating community surveys for bats in Eastern England, and showed how static audio recordings are revealing poorly known species distributions, and providing information on a suite of ‘bycatch’ like crickets and grasshoppers. Kate Jones from UCL provided insights into a suite of app-based citizen science projects, and Stephanie O’Donnell outlined her work with the website, WildLabs, an international collaboration of NGOs supporting fieldworkers with new technologies.

Workshop Photo © Cheryl-Samantha Owen

After coffee, a series of workshops conceived by CCI’s Shelley Bolderson and Elizabeth Allen (co-organisers of this year’s event with Matt Howard and Mike Toms), broke out to occupy every meeting room and spare space in the David Attenborough Building. A dozen lively gatherings of conference participants dealing with subjects from education in and out of the classroom to gender in conservation and whether conservation represents society, to film-making, photography, print-making, sound-recording, drawing, ‘love, rage and nature’, how poets listen to landscape, nature writing, and sense of place in fiction.

Thanks to Katrina Porteous, Hugh Warwick, Sharon Blackie, James de Winter, Toby Smith, James Murray White, Carry Akroyd, Bruce Pearson and Harriet Mead, Richard Kerridge, Ben Hoare and Liane de Mello, Peter Cowdrey and Geoff Sample for designing and running such a successful suite of workshops for people attending the meeting.

And so, the last session of the meeting: Hope – a Conversation. Chaired by CCI Director, Mike Rands, the eagerly awaited discussion began with a performance by the singer Jade Cuttle and her specially created song, The Quiver Tree, accompanied by acoustic guitar. It was a beautiful prologue. Three speakers then spoke to stories of hope: academic and writer, Andrew Balmford, chose the remarkable recovery of Eurasian Bittern, the bog-bull, in the UK; Michelle Cooper, from Australia’s Zoo Victoria, chose the reintroduction of the delightful black and yellow Corroboree Frog; and the artist Bruce Pearson spoke of an EU-funded project which allowed four artists from the Society of Wildlife Artists, SWLA, to support Turkish Sweetgum conservation and collaborate with Doga Koruma Merkezi.

Then the audience was put to work, and everyone was asked to talk to their neighbour and come up with one-line descriptions of conservation successes. Using a large soft blue microphone box which was thrown from person to person, we heard a suite of stories, from the successful breeding of Pine Martens in Wales to crowd-sourced funding for guillemot research, and concluded in some words from Susan Jones, from A Focus on Nature, a growing network of young conservationists, whose report Vision for Nature: Young People’s Vision for the Nature World in 2050 included powerful challenges to decision-makers, not least the demand that planning for nature must be long-term.

And we concluded with a rousing finale from Sir David Attenborough who bought his powerful perspective of hope from his seventy years of broadcasting. For sure, he said, the problems are mounting, complex, greater than ever, but so is the ambition, the skills, and the reach of the conservation community. In the voice of natural history, Sir David brought the audience to its feet with a standing ovation for the hope he represents, and his single-minded pursuit of the wonder that nature inspires. It left everyone heading home afire with enthusiasm for a better future, whatever the challenges we face.

Full 2016 programme

Nature Matters 2016
   — Storified by Kate Risely


September 2016, Cambridge