Wild Nature has lost another good friend
say, Alison Parfitt has died, an enigma from the day I first met her when we
set up the Wildland Network back in 2005 (1) and throughout the 14-year
dialogue we had on nature connectedness and how wild nature is portrayed in
the written word. Alison and I had something in common even before we
first met – we had both been wrapped up in the potential of Local Agenda 21
(LA21) during the 1990s to unleash citizen activism for a better world. I have
discarded so much of my LA21 stuff, but I wrote this in 1999, and which
encapsulates my transition from 1994 onwards from a dirty-kneed organic
gardener, to a Permaculturist involved in community environmental
Bring that energy locally and create a better world
Alison, like many others, was attracted to join with people in realising the expectation that had come out of the Earth Summit in Rio, Brazil, in 1992, that they could create visions of their common future within their local authority area; set up voluntary networks and stakeholder forums to provide commentary on local issues; help identify priorities in action plans: and take on responsibility where they could to deliver on those plans (see Ch. 28 in (3)). Alison’s LA21 grouping would be Gloucestershire Vision 21 (4) and which I have now found had received glowing praise in 1998 in a speech by David Drew, then MP for Stroud in Gloucestershire, who had secured a debate on LA21 in the House of Commons (5). Looking at it now, it was a well-informed speech, and which made special mention of a few people who Drew acknowledged had “worked relentlessly to make Vision 21 the success that it has become”. Amongst them was Alison, and also Lindsay Colbourne who I will come back to.
I joined Bradford Environmental Action Trust (BEAT) around 1994, a voluntary organisation whose formation had been supported by what was then the Environmental Action Unit of Bradford Council with the aim of providing a forum for the LA21 process (6). Heady days – we formed working subgroups around such issues as growing food in cities and improving urban nature (my interests); held themed members meetings that buzzed with local knowledge and insight; published quarterly and interim monthly membership newsletters (BEATroot and babyBEAT) and produced an imaginative LA21 poster for the District that gave simple and inspiring ways that people could contribute. On incorporating as a limited company, I negotiated with Bradford Council for BEAT to distribute landfill tax credits on behalf of the council (6,7).
There would be an unwitting crossover when in 1999 I went to a three-day outdoor conference at Green & Away on strengthening the local food link sector where I talked about BEAT’s Growing Food in Cities (8,9). While there, I experienced a guided visualisation led by Lindsay Colborne of Vision 21, later incorporating the method into one of my Permaculture lessons on participatory techniques (10). I noted that it was based on the approach of Gloucestershire’s Vision 21, and it is likely that I copied it straight out of Participation Works!, a very useful compendium of participatory techniques compiled by the New Economics Foundation (11). I see now that Alison was given as the contact in Participation Works! for training of facilitators in listening and communication for this technique as part of the Facilitators Learning Network of Vision 21. Earlier this year, Alison told me that she had been busy with compiling a graphic timeline to commemorate the 25 year existence of Vision 21, the early years mirroring those of BEAT (12). There is a lovely section in the accompanying video of Alison as a Founding Member – “that extraordinary sense after the Rio Summit that we could bring that energy locally and create a better world” (from 0:47 in (12)). LA21 never dimmed in Alison’s eyes, the timeline showing that it was an ever present phenomenon in Gloucestershire.
Unfortunately, in Bradford by the late 1990s, LA21 had been subsumed by Community Planning, a competing process inspired by the then Government that had a greater focus on social and economic issues, rather than environmental. Not all local authority areas had jumped to it like Bradford, and there was no transparency from Government as to whether the two processes were complementary or mutually exclusive. When I wrote in 1999 about that lack of clarity for what was the house journal at the time for LA21 (13) I became the focus for council officers across Britain who were similarly confused. The article was cited in a review of the potential of LA21 as a delivery mechanism to secure community involvement and promote environmental, social and economic policy integration, where the authors sought to distinguish between LA21 and Community Planning (see Section 2 in (14)).
The sight of some early lily of the valley there would make her giddy
Alison was a long-time member of the British Association of Nature Conservationists, out from which came the Wildland Network, and which published ECOS, its member’s journal that provided a platform for early writings on rewilding in Britain. As well getting to know Alison through the Network meetings, we also saw a lot of each other in supporting Steve Carver’s wilderness course at the University of Leeds. We three co-founded the Wildland Research Institute at the University in 2009 (15) and Alison dubbed our first commissioned work the Scottish play, a report we compiled on wildland in Europe for the Scottish Government (16). This got us connected into the wilderness scene in Europe, Alison shepherding a group of students to the World Wilderness Congress in Salamanca in 2013 to conduct a survey of a participants, when at night we were deep in discussion on how to ensure a continued presence of a wilderness-oriented organisation in Europe after the impending demise of PAN Parks (17).
Alison always had great ambition for the students in embracing the wildness of nature through the course, gleefully catering the course field trip where she supplied restorative tray bakes brought up from home to sustain the students, cold and exhausted from the field, before serving evening food of deceptive simplicity but astonishing complexity of taste. I would soon get roped in as well. Out with the students during the day, you could always see where Alison was in the landscape from her shock of white hair. Even though we switched locations for the field course a few years ago, from Ennerdale in the Lake District to the Carrifran Valley in the Borders, Scotland, we continued to call in on Scar Close in the Yorkshire Dales on the way back, a very favourite place of Alison’s (18-20). She would always hope that the beginning of the third term could be as late as possible out of winter so that the timing of the field trip would have some burgeoning floral interest that characteristically brings Scar Close to life – the sight of some early lily of the valley there would make her giddy, but oddly she never liked the colour of orchids.
Alison was the great facilitator
Alison’s vocation in the years I knew her was the consultancy Nature With Attitude through which she and Rick Minter delivered help for communities and decision makers in working together to solve environmental challenges, as well as working with residents and collaborating with practitioners, such as ecologists and artists, to understand how people relate to nature in a particular place (21). Alison would always drag me back to the importance of capturing people’s participation in decision-making, something I was acutely aware of anyway, having put myself up to be a focal point of responsiveness to those bewildered by the damage inflicted to wild nature by the dogma of mainstream conservation– Alison would work within the system, I would harry from outside (22). That we worked in different ways became somewhat awkwardly apparent when Alison in 2009 took on facilitating the production of a management plan for St Catherine's Hill and Town Common, a publicly owned part of an extensive, designated lowland heathland site that stretches up on the western side of the River Avon above Christchurch to Hurn Forest and beyond in Dorset (23). Initial tree felling as part of another ghastly, poorly thought out heathland restoration had angered local residents when fires of brash were left burning, and there were fears that the extent of felling would give rise to landslip, erosion and flooding (24,25).
I first came to hear about the conflict over heathland restoration in this area in 2007 when local councillors in Hurn and Christchurch objected for a second time to a heathland restoration plan by Dorset Wildlife Trust to cut down 5,000 pine and birch trees on Sopley Common, just up from Town Common (26). The wildlife trust was accused of having a "cavalier attitude" because it had not been prepared to discuss local objections. As with so many classic heathland restoration horror stories of tree felling (27) this arrogance was justified by hiding behind the designation that allegedly puts a legal obligation on the wildlife trust as owners of the common to cut down the trees (28). Local knowledge is always very important for me in pursuing the truth of situations, and so in 2011 I sought collaboration with Hurn Parish Council in publicising its support for its local Forestry Commission forest, its only local woodland and a space highly valued not just for its recreational value, but also its diversity of habitat niches, and for the Councils involvement in shaping the future of the forest by contributing to the Forest Design Plan, as well as the consultation on deforesting to open habitats on the Public Forest Estate (29). On the latter, the Parish Council was implacable in its view, supported by a poll of local residents for its Parish Plan, that trees should not be felled in order to increase the amount of heathland in the Parish (30). The Parish Plan, and subsequently confirmed by the completed Management Plan, also told me that Hurn Parish Council had objected to an application in 2003 to fell 15,000 trees on Town Common/St. Catherine’s Hill, considering it to be a “fait accompli” and working with West Christchurch Residents Association to collect 2,000 signatures to a petition, and other letters of objection, to convince Christchurch Borough Council to successfully object to the Forestry Commission that this amount of felling was excessive and could lead to erosion and flooding (23,30). The Parish Council Chair confirmed to me that the Council was part of the Steering Group that was formulating the Management Plan for Town Common (31) – the process facilitated by Alison – and that it was putting forward residents' views on minimising the felling to preserve the public amenity and woodland wildlife.
Each aware of our respective involvements,
Alison and I didn’t really get into sharing notes on this, but I did encourage
Margaret Phipps, Chair of Hurn Parish Council, to write up her experiences of
that process, and of the defence of Hurn Forest (32). Margaret noted that
heathland was not a natural habitat, but was created by a cultural need at a
particular time in our evolution. She dismissed the notion that all heathland
was being lost, when our environment, influenced by humans as always, was just
evolving. The imperative then was to maintain a balanced landscape that
contained both heathland and woodland to ensure that all the species that live
there are not lost. Balance was a repeated aspiration throughout her article,
and in what would have found favour with Alison, Margaret saw the need to
strike a “balance for all wildlife and people”. This was Margaret’s
comment on what had been achieved through the management planning process
facilitated by Alison (32):
What is the wildest world we can live in?
Alison was a regular attendee of literature and arts festival, always keen to hear in person when there were nature writers. She wanted to encourage good writing on wild nature - that is, writing that was honest to its intrinsic value. What Alison didn’t want to see were people wittingly or unwittingly buying into the continuing decline of wild nature. She highlighted this when she wrote a review of Canadian writer J.B. Mackinnon’s book The Once and Future World for ECOS, seeing that the nature of the problem was how we misunderstand, how we don’t see, and the illusions we live with, picking out an important point of MacKinnon’s book – “Denial is the last line of defence against memory” (33). Alison agreed with Mackinnon that denial fulfilled …”our need to be innocent of a troubling recognition”. I wrote that along with denial, MacKinnon riled at the “change blindness”, what I would call wilful ignorance (34). Both Alison and I alighted on the hard choices, the challenge that Mackinnon set us in asking what is the wildest world we can live in? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is dependant within our forbearance that wild nature gets existence, or as Alison observed “of being human within a culture inclusive of all life and its everyday and exceptional wildness”. Alison really hoped that her review would help get Mackinnon’s book read by more people.
In contrast, Alison was always wary of the fame that British writer Robert Macfarlane had achieved from his book The Wild Places, often noting to me the swooning groups of young women she would encounter fawning over it in bookshops. During correspondence between us on a critique of new nature writing that I found had this – “….it is Macfarlane himself who is the most prominent of the new nature writers” (35) Alison mentioned that she had caught half of the “worship” at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in October 2017 when Macfarlane and Jackie Morris were talking about their “latest glossy offering” The Lost Words. Alison said she didn’t want to go on about Macfarlane, but “it is annoying that he sells better than others, how is this deserved? My feelings are not improved by the latest encounter”. The authors of the critique of new nature writing referenced a spat in the New Statesman in 2015 between Mark Cocker, another nature writer, and Macfarlane, where Cocker complained that nature writers were no longer naturalists but “excursionists” in the sense of being domestic travel writers (36,37). The critique judged that the spat highlighted the “contested terrain of new nature writing, in particular the relation between the human and non-human, and the extent and role of new nature writing (and writers) as agents in environmental activism”- I had also written about this spat (38). After reading the critique, and noting that the spat had been referenced, Alison revisited it and then remarked dryly that the critique, although it had looked at the bigger picture of how nature writing might engage with the environmental crisis and lead to a kind of collective politics; that there was much more context in that the American writers got a mention; and that it unpacked, a bit, what had been chosen to “put in the new nature writing box”; it had not, though, introduced anything more than had already been introduced in that spat three years earlier.
The drift in meaning of rewilding
I never got around to writing the article on nature connectedness with Alison for ECOS that I always wanted to do. Instead, we combined a few years ago on an article that was critical of the way rewilding was being re-interpreted in Europe in a way that left us stranded. It was a difficult decision, but we choose to discard rewilding and use wilding instead, because the former had become freighted for us with so many different meanings, often seemingly to suit the purposes of particular agendas, when we wanted to look forward to nature-led lands and life, not back. I see the passages that Alison wrote, the fluidness, thoughtfulness and reflection, its relation to the human condition (39) - “There is a danger that rewilding has settled into an approach of large herbivores, nestled into the familiar agri-environment approaches and funding so that it is close to farming as we know it, and in that process shedding the challenges to ecology and the challenges to us, as well as colluding with the decline in nature that we acknowledge, but struggle to comprehensively address (other than a species here and a species there)”. Alison believed it was much harder to work with those challenges, but as she observed what is the point of wilding if we don’t?
It was Alison who encouraged Steve and myself to return to a correspondence about the drift in meaning of rewilding that we had with Ian Convery of the University of Cumbria and Erwin van Maanen of the Rewilding Foundation, to see if there was anything we could all do together to redress the drift (40). Out of that came the Rewilding Task Force under the umbrella of the Commission on Ecosystem Management of the IUCN (41). Alison kept us on track, catered our retreat, facilitated our Task Force progress meetings and advised on and ran workshops, all the while encouraging us along a bumpy road of countering what we saw as the drift, while at the same time giving space for the perpetrators of the drift to have their say, something I increasingly became frustrated with. I had committed to Alison and Steve to produce an article on rewilding for a thematic issue of ECOS in December, as part of its celebration of 40 years of publication, but after I sent it to Alison, I explained to her that I needed to have a break from the Task Force, that it had all got on top of me, of constantly having to push a rock up a hill, especially when a motion was tabled for next year’s IUCN Congress in Marseille that could effectively make the Task Force pointless (42). I told her that I had to have a break generally from writing about it as I had become a rewilding bore, saying the same things over and over again, having to keep making a point when nobody was listening. I’d had enough. I went on, though, to say that I had signed up to a Statement of Commitment to Ecocentrism as my commitment to the intrinsic value of wild nature (43) but that I felt that while I can be emotionally overwhelmed by wild nature, there does have to be some emotional detachment in not getting in the way of it doing its own thing, a self-binding ordinance – as averse to the saviour complex of the conservation industry. It was what I wanted to write about next, to explore what ecocentrism meant and where there were distinctions with the biocentrism that had come out of deep ecology.
I dropped in on Alison in early December, the ever present, simple homemade food offered. She was sparky and engaged as ever, albeit very frail in the end stages. Alison was relieved at having got the ECOS edition on rewilding to bed (44) and was excited about having booked a venue for a send-off bash in early January where we would all bring something to share and eat - she didn't want a funeral. I had not written on ecocentrism by then, as two more pressing articles on rewilding had got in the way (45,46) but it was my plan that it would the topic of this month’s article, and I would have been looking to have Alison as my sounding board. While I was with Alison, I noticed a framed artist impression of her in her clowning outfit (see icon top left). Alison never liked photographs of herself, but she said she really liked that portrayal of her. I had never asked why she went clowning, assuming it was one of the many group activities that she got involved in just for fun. In what proved to be my last message to Alison, I told her that while I was googling to find something out about decentring of self as a means to better relate to wild nature, I came across a Master’s thesis that linked clowning to decentring the ego (47). I found it doing research for the article on ecocentrism, and it seemed to parallel the human debaggaging of unselfing that I have explored before (48). I was excited to have found this, knowing it was a way to draw Alison and her clowning in to the article on ecocentrism, and it still will be, my last words to her being – “Now I understand!”
Mark Fisher 27 December 2019
(1) Untamed nature, Self-willed land March 2014
(2) Food, land and money - making the case for urban food production, Self-willed land August 1999
(3) Agenda 21, United Nations Conference on Environment & Development. Rio de Janerio, Brazil, 3 to 14 June 1992
(4) Gloucestershire Vision 21
(5) Mr. David Drew (Stroud) Local Agenda 21. HC Deb 03 June 1998 vol 313 cc476-84
(6) BEAT History, Bradford Environmental Action Trust
(7) BRADFORD ENVIRONMENTAL ACTION TRUST - Company number 03324790. Companies House
(8) Growing Food In Cities, BRADFORD ENVIRONMENTAL ACTION TRUST 1999
(9) Green & Away
(10) Fisher, M. (2001) Enspirited visioning, future searches and guided visualisation, Permaculture Design course handout notes
(11) GUIDED VISUALISATION, PARTICIPATION WORKS! 21 techniques of community participation for the 21st century. New Economics Foundation with members of the UK Community Participation Network 1998
(12) History, Gloucestershire Vision 21
(13) Fisher, M (1999) 'What future for Local Agenda 21?', EG- Local Environment News, 5 (5), 5-6
(14) Karen Lucas, Andrew Ross and Sara Fuller (2001) Local Agenda 21: When is it a model for joined-up community based activity? Working Paper 1: Literature Review. Centre for Sustainable Development, University of Westminster May 2001
(15) Alison Parfitt, Wildland Research Institute
(16) Fisher, M., Carver, S., Kun, Z., McMorran, R., Arrell, K., & Mitchell, G. (2010). Review of status and conservation of wild land in Europe. Report: The Wildland Research Institute, University of Leeds, UK
(17) Wilderness Timeline, 2019 Is The Year Of Wilderness, European Widerness Society
(18) Large carnivores as the focal species for reinstatement of natural processes in Britain, Self-willed land November 2014
(19) Watching the naturalness return to the Carrifran Valley, Self-willed land April 2015
(20) Addressing ecological and legislative issues, Self-willed land July 2017
(21) Nature With Attitude, Positive News 16 September 2008
(22) Wild Park, Brighton - not so wild now, December 2013
(23) Smith, J.E., Parfitt A., Minter, R. & Christchurch Countryside Service. 2012. St Catherine's Hill & Town Common Management Plan, 2012 - 2023. Prepared for St Catherine’s Hill & Town Common Management Plan Steering Group, c/o Christchurch Borough Council, Christchurch.
(24) Anger over tree felling for lizards, Bob Jolliffe, Daily Echo 8 March 2009
(25) St Catherine's Hill tree felling fears backed by report, Katie Clark, SDaily Echo 20 December 2010
(26) Nature grooming - the killing of wildness in nature, Self-willed land April 2007
(27) Heathland MADNESS - the juggernaut of nature conservation, Self-willed land 2008-2014
(28) Trust plans to fell trees opposed by councillors, Louise Isaacs, Daily Echo 22 February 2007
(29) England's Public Forest Estate - public ownership now and for future generations, Self-willed land February 2011
(30) HURN PARISH PLAN: Where village life is valued. Produced by the Hurn Parish Plan Steering Group 2010
(31) St Catherine's Hill and Town Common Management Plan, Christchurch Landscape & Countryside Team, Services in Christchurch, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council
(32) FRIENDS OF HURN’S FORESTS – IN DEFENCE OF HURN’S PINE FORESTS AND THE FORESTRY COMMISSION, Margaret Phipps, Save Our Woods 28 May 2012
(33) Parfitt, A. (2016) Book Review: THE ONCE AND FUTURE WORLD J B MacKinnon Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, ECOS 37(1): 55-57
(34) The challenge of Lost Island - making ourselves wilder, Self-willed land November 2014
(35) Oakley, K., Ward, J. and Christie, I. (2018) Engaging the Imagination: 'New Nature Writing', Collective Politics and the Environmental Crisis. Environmental Values, 27(6), pp. 687-705
(36) Death of the naturalist: why is the “new nature writing” so tame? Mark Cocker. New Statesman 17 June 2015
(37) Why we need nature writing, Robert Macfarlane, New Statesman 2 September 2015
(38) Breaking the pattern, Self-willed land October 2016
(39) Fisher, M. & Parfitt, A. (2016) The challenge of wild nature conserving itself, ECOS 37(3/4): 27-34
(40) A science-based movement for wilding, Self-willed land February 2017
(41) Rewilding, Commission on Ecosystem Management, IUCN
(42) 100 - Rewilding, List of Motions. IUCN World Conservation Congress, Marseille 2020
(43) Statement of Commitment to Ecocentrism, The Ecological Citizen
(44) Parfitt, Alison and Carver, Steve “ECOS 40(6): Editorial: Rewilding – connections and perceptions” ECOS vol. 40(6), 2019, British Association of Nature Conservationists
(45) Rewilding Britain backs out of Summit to Sea – a symptom of a wider failure to achieve, Self-willed land October 2019
(46) UK Restoration and Rewilding Plan - a positive action-oriented narrative, Self-willed land November 2019
(47) Rocio D. Zumaeta (2012) Decentering the Ego Perspective: Clown Workshops as a Vessel for Personal Transformation. Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology, Pacifica Graduate Institute, California
(48) Unselfing – a selfless approach to the beauty of wild nature, Self-willed land February 2016