‘The artist…only after long and close observation do the scales drop from his eyes and he sees a beautiful pose, even in a child digging up potatoes…or he sees the subtle beauties of colour in a reed bed.. and this is far more difficult to see than it is to learn to see the scientific truths.’

Peter Henry Emerson

Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936) was an Old Cranleighan and a pioneer photographer who developed the aesthetic of ‘naturalistic photography’ in his handbook Naturalistic Photography (1889).

I have chosen Emerson’s photographs as the featured image for a short series of blogs on climate change, the environment and conservation as they and the aesthetic that guides his art highlight the interconnectedness of human beings with their natural surroundings.

Many of Emerson’s photographs present people at work within their environments: gathering water lilies, towing a reed boat, casting a fishing net. They are from a time of rapid industrialisation and a migration from countryside to city yet the old rural ways of working were not yet fully mechanised and many communities relied on the land and its seasonal rhythms for survival.

It was a time when art, poetry, music took their inspiration from the beauty of nature which was cherished and valued. The names and deeper habits of flora and fauna were familiar. Delve into the glorious glossary of Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks and you will discover thousands of words from throughout the British Isles to describe landscape, nature and weather; dialect words that are so precise to location that they powerfully demonstrate how people make sense of their immediate place.

In some regards it is a melancholy read as so much of this vocabulary is spent, symbolic of the slow dislocation of people from nature as people move towards the city; and perhaps even the wasting of nature itself. Even the common names of flora and fauna are not only unfamiliar but unknown today.

If I am right and the source of climate change lies in the human heart, this dislocation of people from nature has to be a contributory factor. If we find no meaning in our surroundings, no purpose, no beauty why would we ever seek to protect it? If a sense of its immeasurable worth has been lost, why would anyone choose to allocate resources to its preservation for future generations when we could use that place for economic growth? Hearts away from their loves like coals grow cold without fire.

That love needs to be rekindled for such a reconnection is essential for our own well-being, essential to who we are. Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust, commented ‘the sight of sky and things growing are fundamental needs, common to all men.’ In F Scott Fitzgerald’s the Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway is impressed by Gatsby’s ‘capacity to wonder’, in context suggesting strongly ‘wonder’ as a natural attribute of the human condition.

In his foreword to Natural Childhood (2012), Stephen Moss, makes the observation that evidence suggests we are no longer an outdoor nation and that we are increasingly suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder:

‘In his seminal book, ‘Last Child in the Woods (2005) … Richard Louv coined the phrase that has come to define the problem we are now trying to solve: Nature Deficit Disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses’.

Stephen Moss

Somehow we have to rekindle that sense of loving connectedness or we will not be inspired to make a difference. This may seem gloomy but I think we should be filled with hope for it was a nature documentary, Blue Planet 2, and the awful visions of plastic destruction that reawakened sleeping hearts with a sense of outrage. I think the momentum is shifting and society is gradually realising what is being lost.

We do not need travel to distant shores to find again our ‘capacity for wonder’; we need to reconnect with our own natural locations as our predecessors once did. All we need to do is to go outside, walk, stand watch and listen and be. I can bear witness that doing so will change you.

Trust me, you will go out for the purpose of watching and you will grow sensitive again to the changing seasons, what arrives and departs. You will wait and you will watch and you will notice more – plants and trees and butterflies and moths and insects and small mammals and you will itch to identify them, learn their song. You will see the drama of birth and death and near escape – and the simple busyness of feeding, a whole world that you have missed. And that unfamiliar language will become yours again and you will cherish your place and want to protect it. You may not be an artist but you will see along with Emerson,’ the subtle beauties of colour’.

Further reading:

In 2015-16, to celebrate a 150 years of Cranleigh, I wrote a series of blogs on Cranleigh’s wildlife through the year. It suggests what you can see and where and whilst there have been a few new sightings, much remains the same:

Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks (Penguin 2016)
Stephen Moss, Natural Childhood – National Trust (2012)