Last week, a 25-second, low-quality video of a pine marten sniffing the ground caused a flurry of excitement in the media. My initial reaction to this story – as to all such ostensibly low-consequence, fauna-based stories – was: WHY IS THERE SO MUCH EXPOSURE BEING GIVEN TO THIS GLORIFIED RAT WHEN THERE IS REAL HUMAN SUFFERING AND INJUSTICE GOING ON IN THIS WORLD? Then, when I’d calmed down (and switched the letter case of my inner monologue), I determined the mass enthusiasm to be innocent enough, but struggled still to understand what was so important about one fuzzy little pine marten, even if it was the first live one to be spotted in Yorkshire for 35 years.
I felt the same during the frenzy surrounding the deaths of Harambe, the Cincinatti gorilla shot needlessly by unfeeling man, and Cecil, the Zimbabwean lion shot needlessly by unfeeling man. On both those occasions, too, the outraged hysteria that gripped many of my Twitter followees seemed an over-reaction. Time will tell whether the North York Moors-based critter will join his mammalian confrères in the pantheon of wildlife memes; perhaps it will require him to be pointlessly shot first.
In fact, many aspects of our relationship with animals seem sadistic. The online cat cult is often premised on the humiliation of the nine-lived creatures, dressed up to look like fools and ventriloquised with ridiculous, ungrammatical captions (such as “I can has cheezburger”).
The idolatry of Cecil and Harambe had a facetious edge. The RSPCA investigates about 140,000 complaints of animal abuses every year (which, given that the pets probably aren’t making these complaints themselves, makes you wonder how many go unreported). Mistreatment of pets remains rife, zoos remain profitable and it still remains an acceptable sport to make horses suffer the brutality of having to be around toffs on Grand National day. But the reverence for the pine marten seemed wholesome enough. Let’s just humour Britain’s self-identification as a nation that loves animals, even if we often (savagely) mistreat them by, for example, putting them in bins. What does that say about our national character? Might it reveal some collective psycho-social shortcoming?
It’s been said that pet ownership is a coping strategy for loneliness and social and/or romantic failure, amounting to the enslavement of less intelligent beings as a kind of emotionally servile underclass. Personally, although I enjoyed pets during the innocent and needy years of childhood, as an adult I’m yet to reach such a state of low morale that acquiring one seems necessary. But I understand those who do keep pets, though less so their collective tendency to incessantly post intimate-bordering-on-erotic selfies with them.
There’s always been a more intellectual, even poetic, strain to the British appreciation of animals and nature, revivified of late by naturalist books such as Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun – and a load of others, which I haven’t read but are called things such as Flow: Why Rivers Are Better Than People, and Otter: Why I Decided to Become an Otter.
Inevitably, there’s been a critical backlash. A reckoning for “new nature writing” came with author and naturalist Mark Cocker’s charge in the New Statesman that it is too “tame” and represents merely “a literature of consolation”. Macfarlane felt moved to reply, arguing that “powerful writing can revise our ethical relations with the natural world”.
That’s a noble enough credo. I like this stuff and, guess what, I like nature. But my mind was snagged on Cocker’s long barb. Could it be that this naturalist renaissance amounts to a mass psychological emigration from the ever more grave realities of the modern world; an almost reactionary, patriotic reappraisal of England’s bucolic delights? Case in point: last summer I spent the last week of June bemoaning the ill-founded patriotism revealed by the Brexit vote and the first week of July drifting around the Hampshire countryside on a canal boat cooing “oh England!” to myself.
Of course the popularity of these books doesn’t indicate anything new about the national attitude; interesting but quite tame naturalist television programmes such as Coast and Springwatch have been popular for years. But despite these shows’ occasional mention of decreased biodiversity or rising sea temperatures, as a consequence of climate change, as well as the valiant efforts of the likes of David Attenborough and Simon Amstell, our culture has not yet found an effective way of converting our mass appreciation of nature into an impulse to truly change the collective course. One in 10 UK wildlife species faces extinction, green issues hardly featured during the last election and now the Energy Institute believes Britain’s reformist energy policy is “on pause” because of Brexit.
Tame or not, Macfarlane sets his writing meaningfully within the context of the Anthropocene, the name given by some ecologists to the current geological epoch, in which human activity is altering the Earth and its ecosystem inexorably. Liptrot and Macdonald show how a personal re-engagement with nature can be a useful remedy for addiction and grief.
I will never forget receiving a bad review for my Edinburgh fringe show in 2013 and taking myself on a stormy day to the top of Arthur’s Seat, where I let the wet wind repeatedly thwack me about the face and, after half an hour or so, began to see that one bad review wasn’t such a big deal.
So what does all of this mean for the pine marten? Perhaps it could serve as a motif in a gritty coming-of-age, state-of-the-nation novel: “A Pine Marten for a Pauper”, in which a Yorkshire lad, life chances ruined by austerity, finds a baby pine marten on the school field (miraculously, not yet sold for unaffordable housing) and develops with it a heartbreakingly close bond. Until his brother, a walking metaphor for Tory sadism, pointlessly shoots it and renders it a meme.
But perhaps most of all, the excitement, albeit tame, engendered by the sighting of the pine marten gives us hope – during a week when inordinate heatwaves continued to grip Europe, global gas emissions records were revealed to be useless, and the Trump administration tried to ban the phrase climate change – that people still give a shit about nature.
Liam Williams’s Radio 4 comedy, Ladhood, returns in the autumn
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