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‘Stitching the threads’: UK book offers radical vision of a grassroots ecology
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‘Stitching the threads’: UK book offers radical vision of a grassroots ecology

It is a call to action that might just be the founding text for a new environmentalism. A forthcoming book by a diverse band of right to roam campaigners offers a radical new vision of how people can repair both the natural world and their broken relationship to it.

Wild Service: Why Nature Needs You, inspired by the rare wild service tree, calls on communities to develop new relationships with the natural world, combining the hard graft of conservation science with the ceremony, gratitude and fun bound up in festivals, Indigenous traditions and even church services.

The campaign group Right to Roam also argues that the first step to enjoying, caring and acting for the natural world must be access reform to end citizens’ exclusion from the vast majority of land in England and Wales. Right to Roam has 110,000 followers on social media, the largest of any access organisation in Britain. Its Dartmoor protest last year attracted 3,500 people.

Man in dark green jacket amid reeds with three other people in backgroundView image in fullscreen

“All around the country we’re already seeing wild service – a huge flowering of grassroots ecology in the last 10 years,” says Jon Moses, a co-author of the book. “But there hasn’t been a narrative binding all that energy. The idea of this book is to stitch the threads together.”

Moses and three fellow Wild Service contributors are explaining what “wild service” is all about on the banks of the River Roding where the barrister and tree campaigner Paul Powlesland is putting the concept into practice. Powlesland, who lives on a barge on London’s third-largest river, has founded the River Roding Trust, whereby residents clear up rubbish, campaign against illegal sewage discharges and open up riverbank pathways.

His group recently spent a weekend clearing rubbish, planting trees – including a wild service – and improving the riverside path.

But wild service, which one contributor suggests could become a voluntary national service, is not just hard labour for nature. As the folk singer singer Sam Lee writes in his chapter, it encompasses paying homage through poetry and song, sparking a new culture that will return wild species to the heart of human life.

“We know that people are disconnected from nature and we know that the restoration of nature is the work of this century,” says Powlesland. “So we must put them together. I’ve found that hippy ceremonies are often ungrounded in action but equally a lot of action is ungrounded in ceremony. Nature restoration days are sometimes a complete slog. We’re trying to give people a bit more joy rather than just, ‘Here’s a bag, a muddy river and seven hours hard labour collecting rubbish.’

“If regarding nature as sacred happens in the UK, it’s not going to come from the politicians saying, ‘Oh, we now believe in this’; it’s going to come from a grassroots movement of people who are connected with a specific local nature, who then demand rights for nature on a national level.”

For co-author Nick Hayes, an artist, writer and activist, a renaissance of nature in culture can only flourish alongside challenging property rights that exclude others from accessing land.

Man in red jacket beside muddy pathway with three other people to the side sat and stood around a fallen tree branchView image in fullscreen

“If you take away the notion of property as we’ve defined it in western law, how do you enact belonging in Indigenous cultures? From New Zealand to North America to Australia to India, it’s through culture. Culture comes from the land. When communities come together on the land, you celebrate. The only vestige that we’ve got [in England] is a church service – rituals and songs that everyone knows from childhood. I’ve got no time for God – just its original source. Wild service wraps up all of that, and they are just beautiful trees.”

Hayes and Moses compare the church in the Berkshire village of Englefield whose doors are open every day, with the thousands of acres of a nearby estate which, apart from a few public footpaths, is shut to the public.

“It’s only now that we have this idea that land ownership equates to absolute dominion, to absolute exclusivity, and anyone forming their own relationship of care or connection to the land around them is prohibited,” says Moses.

He lives beside the River Wye in Wales, one of only 3% of rivers in England and Wales with a statutory right of navigation and historic access to its banks. Now it is home to a vociferous local campaign against river pollution.

“Those two things are obviously connected,” argues Moses. “No one will describe what’s happening on the Wye as an access story but it absolutely is. All the time, the access discussion is, ‘How do we mitigate the damage? How do we protect people from themselves and protect nature from everyone?’ This innate sense of caution is completely blind to the magic that bringing people into the land has done for the environment.”

Open churches suffer from theft and there is concern from conservationists and landowners that extending the right to roam will damage rare species, with chicks of ground-nesting birds destroyed by an off-the-lead dog, for instance.

“Undoubtedly there will be repercussions because people don’t have a generational relationship with the Earth,” says Hayes. “And that will come. But [opponents] will try and pin that on [the] right to roam when the source is people’s exclusion in the first place – landowners’ barbed wire fences.”

Right to roam campaigner Nadia Shaikh writes a powerful chapter on the colonial and exclusionary mindset of mainstream conservation. “I’ve worked in nature conservation for so many years and so many meetings are centred around really not liking people,” she says. She thinks the sector suffers from a “toxic positivity” – unable to criticise itself – because practitioners are so attached to their self-image as “good” people doing “good” for nature.

Three people on grassland with office type building in backgroundView image in fullscreen

Conservation charities “say that people need to connect to nature in order to care for it and make change. But then understanding what it is for everyone to connect to nature in a meaningful way, the blank face starts to come.”

Shaikh undertook community engagement for the RSPB when it assumed the management of Sherwood Forest. “The locals were pissed off. It was visceral. ‘Now the kids can’t climb the oak trees. Great!’ they’d say. I’d reply, ‘You do realise it’s the biggest collection of ancient oaks in Europe, and home to some of our rarest wildlife, and these trees can’t be climbed on.’ But the tree-climbing creates relationships that in the future the charity will want to capitalise on – the children will become members, but also the people who love and care for the place.”

The book’s publication on 25 April is followed by book discussion groups and collaborative events with grassroots green collectives across the country.

“This is not the definitive conclusion of what wild service means,” says Hayes. “It’s a provocation – throwing it open to other people to define it. It is totally up to the reader. We’re just trying to say that belonging has an active dynamic to it.”

People are often desperate to help but overwhelmed by the scale of global heating and ecological breakdown. “We’ve been breastfed on leadership,” says Hayes. “People have forgotten their own collective community power. We’ve been taught that coming together is somehow seditious but it is the true power and the true way. It’s a democracy.”

  • Wild Service by Nick Hayes (Bloomsbury, £20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Source: theguardian.com