New Networks for Nature 2018

This past weekend was my fourth time attending part of Nature Matters, the annual New Networks for Nature conference. I’ve written about it here a couple of times, once when there was a particular focus on nature poetry and another time when it was held in Cambridge. This year it was back in Stamford for a last time for the 10th anniversary. Next year: York.

What’s so special about the conference is its interdisciplinary nature: visual artists, poets, musicians, writers, politicians, academics and conservationists alike attend and present. So although the event might seem geared more towards my biologist husband, there’s always plenty to interest me, too. The roster is a who’s who of British nature writing: Mark Avery, Tim Birkhead, Mark Cocker, Mary Colwell, Miriam Darlington, Richard Kerridge, Peter Marren, Michael McCarthy, Stephen Moss, Adam Nicolson, Katharine Norbury, Ruth Padel, Laurence Rose and Mike Toms were all there this year. I also appreciate the atmosphere of friendly disagreement about what nature is and how best to go about conserving it.

I attended on Friday, a jam-packed day of sessions that began with Bob Gibbons presenting on the flowers and wildlife of Transylvania, a landscape and culture that are still almost medieval in character. Then Jeremy Mynott interviewed Mark Cocker about his latest book, Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife before It Is Too Late? I’ve read other Cocker books, but not this one yet. Its main point seems to be that the country’s environmental organizations need to work together. Individuals and NGOs are doing passionate and wonderful things towards nature conservation, Cocker said, but overall “we ain’t getting there.” Bad news doesn’t sell, though, he noted: his book has sold just 6,000 copies compared to 30,000 for Wilding, Isabella Tree’s story of the rewilding success at Knepp.

Mark Cocker

Cocker refused to define nature in a one-sentence soundbite, but argued that we have to consider ourselves a part of it rather than thinking about it as a victim ‘out there’ (the closest he came to a definition was “the totality of the system we are a part of”). “Our responsibility, terrifyingly, is unending,” he said – every time you open a new plastic toothbrush, you can’t forget that the old one you throw away will effectively be around forever. Our Place isn’t just composed of polemic, though: it’s structured around six beloved landscapes and finds moments of transcendence in being out in nature. You find hope by walking out the door, feeling the wind on your face and hearing the starling singing, Cocker remarked. He closed by reading a description from the book of the north Norfolk coast.

Either side of lunch were panels on how social media (mostly Twitter, plus smartphone apps) can serve nature and the role that poetry might play in environmental activism, with a brief interlude from visual artist Derek Robertson, who responded to the refugee crisis by traveling to Calais and Jordan and painting human figures alongside migratory birds. In the poetry session I especially enjoyed hearing from Ben Smith, a University of Plymouth lecturer and poet with a debut novel coming out in April 2019 (Doggerland, from Fourth Estate). He recently collaborated with Dr. Lee de Mora on a set of poems inspired by the Earth System Model, which provides the data for the International Panel on Climate Change. Climate modeling might seem an odd subject for poetry, but it provides excellent metaphors for failure and hope in “Spinning Up,” “Data Sets” and “Alternate Histories.”


Ben Smith’s poem links unlikely subjects: surfing and climate modeling. Photo by Chris Foster.

Birmingham lecturer Isabel Galleymore, whose debut collection Significant Other is coming out from Carcanet Press in March, talked about how she uses the tropes of love poetry (praise, intimacy, pursuit and loss) when writing about environmental crisis. This shift in her focus began at university when she studied Wordsworth through an ecocritical lens, she said. Jos Smith and Luke Thompson were the other two poets on a panel chaired by Matt Howard. Howard quoted Keats – “We hate poetry that has a design on us” – and asked the poets for reactions. Smith agreed that polemic and poetry don’t mix well, yet said it’s good to have a reason for writing. He thinks it’s best when you can hold two or more ideas in play at a time.

After tea and a marvelous cake spread, it was time for a marathon of three sessions in a row, starting with three short presentations on seabirds: one by a researcher, one by a nature reserve manager, and one by a young artist who produced Chinese-style scroll paintings of the guillemot breeding colonies on Skomer and exhibited them in Sheffield Cathedral.

Next up was a highlight of the weekend: Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and Labour peer Baroness Barbara Young conversed with Michael McCarthy on the topic “Can Conventional Politics Save the Environment?” Both decried short-term thinking, the influence of corporations and the media, and government departments not working together. No one was ever elected on the promise of “less,” McCarthy suggested, but in reply Lucas talked about redefining terms: less of what? more of what? If we think in terms of quality of life, things like green energy and the sharing economy will become more appealing. She also believes that more people care about green issues than we think, but, e.g., a London mum might speak out about air quality without ever using the word “environment.” Baroness Young concluded that “adversarial politics, flip-flopping between parties, isn’t working” and we must get beyond it, at the local level if nothing else. That rang true for me for American politics, too.

Young, McCarthy and Lucas. Photo by Chris Foster.

Before the day ended with a drinks reception, we were treated to a completely different presentation by Lloyd Buck, who raises and trains birds, mostly for television footage. So, for instance, the greylag geese flying in formation alongside the boat in David Attenborough’s 2012 Sixty Years in the Wild TV special had imprinted on Lloyd’s wife, Rose. Buck spoke about bonding with birds of very different personalities, and introduced the audience to five starlings (who appeared in Poldark), a peregrine, a gyrfalcon, a golden eagle, and Bran the raven, who showed his intelligence by solving several puzzles to find hidden chunks of meat.

I purchased two books of poetry from the bookstall – I had no idea Darlington had written poetry before her nature books – and the conference brochure itself is a wonderful 75-page collection of recent artwork and short nature writing pieces, including most of the presenters but also Patrick Barkham, Tim Dee, Paul Evans, Philip Hoare, Richard Mabey, Helen Macdonald and Chris Packham – a keynote speaker announced for next year. I’ve been skipping through the booklet and have most enjoyed the pieces by Melissa Harrison and Helen Scales so far. Altogether, an inspiring and worthwhile weekend.

Would any of the conference’s themes or events have interested you?

16 responses

  1. Sounds SO interesting – I’d particularly love to have heard Mark Cocker speak. I’ve noted it’s in York next year!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oooh, York next year? Please remind me! I’ll go with Penny. Can you use your influence to ensure Mark Cocker, Miriam Darlington, Melissa Harrison, Adam Nicolson et al are all there? The conversation between Carline Lucas and Baroness Young seems to have been an interesting one. Maybe a year that’s hard to beat?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It will be held the weekend of 31 Oct. to 2 Nov. next year, at St Peter’s School. It would be wonderful to meet both of you! Even if you didn’t want to book for the whole thing, I’ve always found it rewarding to come for a day. Some like Mark Cocker are conference regulars; others cycle in and out. The list of speakers they’ve had over the years is very impressive indeed. Attenborough himself a couple of years ago!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Right. It’s in the diary. Thank you.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. My sister would love this – she’s a traditional storyteller and theatre director, but is also just completing a year-long permaculture course, and she’s really interested in how art and environmental issues come together. I’ll pass on the details!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yes, she has a perfect confluence of interests! We shared a pub meal with a woman who works for the Wildlife Trusts in Devon but has also recently published a collection of botanical folktales from the British Isles. The 2019 conference is in York and 2020 is planned for Norwich.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This looks amazing Rebecca, do you know if there are similar events in the U.S, particularly on the West Coast? I think my Dad would appreciate Mark Cockers book and it’s interesting that despite dystopian literature and political books selling so well this year, we still apparently don’t want to hear about problems we have a chance of helping to solve.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t have any leads on similar events, I’m afraid. I would hope that other countries would follow the lead! We need everyone tackling our environmental crisis in creative ways.


  5. You’re forgiven for passing up the Young Writer event for this – sounds superb and a wonderful report. I’ve loved reading Helen Scales’s books, so glad you liked her piece in the brochure, and so that was where you heard about Doggerland! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was technically free on the Saturday (I only attended the Friday of the conference, while my husband went to the whole thing) and actually looked into the cost of a single down to London from Stamford and then a single back to Newbury, but it ended up being prohibitively expensive.

      I loved Scales’s book on shells; the new fish book not so much, but I’m passing it along to a friend who’s obsessed with sea creatures.

      Yes! I was so impressed with Smith’s writing that I knew I wanted to give his debut novel a look, even though on the surface it sounds quite different from his poetry.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I preferred Scales Shells book too, but did enjoy the fish one – she writes really well, but the subject matter wasn’t as gripping without the history and cultural references built into the main text.


  6. What a wonderful day – thank you for sharing it with us! I would have enjoyed the non-fic nature writing most but I would like to think I’d have challenged myself with some poetry, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. […] I picked this up from the bookstall at the New Networks for Nature conference in November, I had no idea that Darlington had written poetry before she turned to nature writing […]


  8. […] annual New Networks for Nature conference. I’ve written about it on the blog a few times before: last year’s 10th anniversary meeting in Stamford, plus once when there was a particular focus on nature […]


  9. […] gathering of authors, academics, and activists (I’ve also written about the 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2019 conferences). The UEA organizers, Jean McNeil and Jos Smith, with New Networks stalwart […]


  10. […] online (last year, of course). I happen to have written about it in most other years (2015, 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2020), and this year’s programme was so brilliant it would be a shame not to […]


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