activism books conservation

Book review: Back to Nature, by Chris Packham and Megan McCubbin

In March 2020, like much of the world, Britain went into a pandemic lockdown. While off work and home from school, many people rediscovered the wildlife in their own gardens and local area. They came to appreciate birdsong as the sound of traffic ebbed away. With shops and leisure facilities closed, they went on walks instead. Millions of people reconnected with nature in some way.

Also stuck at home were Chris Packham, one of Britain’s best known naturalists, and his step-daughter Megan McCubbin, also a zoologist and TV presenter. Seizing the moment, they started the Self Isolating Bird Club on Youtube, reaching thousands of people with wildlife tips and sightings from in and around their home and garden.

Back to Nature is written off the back of this experience. It feels hastily written, and not in a bad way – more that it attempts to capitalise on a moment before it’s gone. How can we take that nascent interest in wildlife and nurture it, encourage it, and use it as a learning opportunity?

The book is something of a celebration of the living world, finding delight and wonder in the little things that surround us. Packham writes about nature in striking multisensory terms, which made his biography Fingers in the Sparkle Jar so distinctive. There’s more of that here, interspersed with McCubbin’s notes on science. She shares insights, many of them from 2020, that show how we continue to learn more about even very ordinary things – how birds sing silently in their sleep, or that butterflies have hearts in their wings.

From marvelling at nature, the book moves into how we can “make life better for life” in own gardens, and the difference that can be made by digging a pond or leaving a lawn unmown. (I dug a pond during lockdown myself, and have noticed the increase in life in and around it.) It then moves onto the institutions in charge of wildlife in the country, lamenting the poor state of our national parks and the compromised nature of those in charge of protecting them. It’s easy to forget because it’s normal to us, but Britain is one of the most nature depleted places on the planet. The book points out that in the Biodiversity Intactness Index, Britain comes 189th in the world. The scale of the destruction of our wildlife is scarcely understood.

As an example of what it could be, the authors explore the Knepp estate and other rewilding projects, looking at creatures that could be reintroduced and political reforms that would support wildlife. They take aim at some of the distinctively British blindspots around wildlife, from badger culling to the paranoia around beavers, the suppression of wildlife through agricultural lobby groups, or the vast acreage given over to hunting. Finally, they ask if the only way to break through to the authorities is with civil disobedience. Both authors have been involved with Extinction Rebellion, and they have been influential in keeping wildlife and conservation on the agenda alongside climate change.

I liked Back to Nature. It skips between memoir, nature writing and advocacy, and it’s written with flair and an infectious enthusiasm for the natural world. It neatly demonstrates how an appreciation of nature feeds into caring for it, which feels like an important message in a country that often seems to love nature in word and hate it in deed. “As we tune our senses, appreciate its beauty, celebrate its meaning and respond emotionally, we are vigorously activating our compassion for nature, and we will be kinder to it.”

I suspect that by being tied quite specifically to the experience of lockdown, it may date in time. All the more reason to read it soon.

  • Back to Nature is available from Earthbound Books UK, and doesn’t appear to have a US release.

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