9 February 2017
I have been spending a lot of time on my own recently, taking a regular journey by air between my home in Glasgow and my workplace in Surrey. This hasn’t been entirely unpleasant. Suspended miles above the landscape, or responding to emails in the reassuring universality of airport lounges, it has been easy to detach myself from the succession of personal crises that I am struggling with just now. Nonetheless, I am heartened to receive an invitation from Jamie Lorimer to join him for a morning walking in the Chilterns. We will discuss our new project as we explore the area around Christmas Common, followed by lunch at The Fox and Hounds. We are looking for elephants in birch trees and hedgerow.
We have been thinking about the ghostly presence of past inhabitants of the British countryside. If you know where to look, and what to seek out, there are myriad traces in the fields and woods. Signs of species that are no longer with us. They are there in certain bark colours and features, patterns and fissures that would break off if a large herbivore attempted to remove a strip. They are there in the tough wiriness of smaller trees, resistant to uprooting and snapping. And they are there in the impenetrable tangle of flexible shoots that comprise the quintessential English hedgerow. I first learnt of these hidden clues on reading George Monbiot’s work on rewilding. Monbiot reminds us that ‘wherever we go, we walk in the shadows of the past’.[i]
One of the most successful rewilding projects in this country was the reintroduction of the red kite to this area in the early 90s. Apart from a small pocket of survivors in Wales, these magnificent raptors were hunted to extinction in the nineteenth century, and it took a foreign delegation to re-establish regional populations. Quarter of a century later, these European immigrants, released for several years across this hilly area of Southern England, are thriving. We are walking through red kite country and as we set off from our meeting place in the pub car park, Jamie recounts the brazen theft of his wife’s sandwich by one of these majestic opportunists. The intrusion of unpredictable wildness into an innocent family picnic. Today, they are a constant presence on our walk, circling and swooping through the wide-open skies, stirring up the smaller birds to frantic alarm calls, and occasionally dipping below the tree line, perhaps in search of carrion.
Weaving around the theme of our walk, the kites send potential victims diving into the cover of the surrounding woodland, and as we follow roads and pathways into the trees, we note the otherworldly lustre of the silver birch guarding the way into the beechwoods. As we walk we move through places and subjects. A theatre maker and a geographer, searching for parallels and convergences in our fields. We want to explore the potential of creative practice to contribute to rewilding; and to find out what theatre and performance might learn from contemporary approaches to conservation. We will start slowly, inviting a disparate group of artists, scientists and conservationists to think and create together. And in time, we will plan a larger scale project. It will be called The Elephant in the Hedge.
Walking gives way to talking and on several occasions, I realise that I have stopped looking around me, lost in trains of thought about cultural geography, performance theory and natural history. Most contemporary walkers claim their practice as a way of relating more closely and attentively to the landscape, but I wonder how honest they are about those moments when, walking with a companion (or indeed alone), they tune out and follow some conceptual tangent, periodically travelling inwards rather than gazing outwards. It takes a particular feature of the route to jolt me back into the world again, usually prompted by Jamie’s attentive navigation and guidance.
We reach a borderline, where the beech clash with another interloper: the conifer. Planted for timber and spreading quickly throughout the twentieth century, these fast-growing conical trees serve a functional role, but drive back native species such as oak, ash and cherry. A project is now underway to remove conifer from ancient woodland, opening up areas for wildflower growth and encouraging greater biodiversity across the Chilterns. At every turn, I see that wildness is a human decision, and that it is only one possible option. We could walk through annexed monodominant forests, our sandwiches intact, but our lives would be lesser for it.
As we complete our loop, we pause briefly to investigate a circle of chalky mounds, which Jamie suspects may be the work of badgers. Then back to the pub, which is now open and warmed by a welcoming log fire stoked by a friendly proprietor who we had passed earlier, walking his dog in the opposite direction. Here, we eat well and quickly and capture some of our thoughts and plans on paper. Then we bid farewell and leave this remarkable patch of countryside to the collaborative ecologies of the kites, the beechwoods, and the walkers.
I park my car outside my office later that day and as I gather my bags, out of the small strip of protected woodland that borders the carpark, a couple of small skittish deer cautiously watch me from the shade of the collection of rare trees that the University has gathered from all over the world. The rest of the day seems to have been intentionally preparing me to find profundity in this encounter and for several minutes, we simply watch each other. I will a vestigial wildness from my being, and it might be a vast Mesolithic elephant staring back at me from the undergrowth for all the meaning that it conveys.
[i] George Monbiot, ‘Thinking Like an Elephant’, June 2015. http://www.monbiot.com/2015/06/15/thinking-like-an-elephant/ (accessed 11/01/17)