I regretted leaving my camera at the hotel my first day in England. As I wandered Cambridge’s lovely meadows and gardens, songbirds new to me flitted in the bushes. A flock of fuzzy gallinule chicks paddled behind their parents, fresh from their nest in a park stream and unfazed by zooming bikes and gawking pedestrians. Every other ancient building had a vine trellised to its side, the bookstore had a healthy nature section, and I even found a car decorated with a mole hood ornament. I took it all to be a good sign. If even the city was filled with plants, animals, and an apparent appreciation for the environment, my nature quest in England would be successful.
Pasturelands covered the countryside, all bordered by hedges seemingly placed to provide habitat for the myriad birds that swooped in and out of their branches. Streams meandered through patches of wood and there were no lack of trees. Yet the more time I spent wandering fields, lakesides, woodland patches and coastal dunes, the more I began to crave wildness. It wasn’t a lack of plants or animals that was the issue, of both there were plenty, but it all began to feel too cultivated. “Ancient woodlands” proved highly fragmented, often supporting more free roaming livestock and species introduced for hunting (Asian deer and pheasants) than what I might consider native denizens. In one forest reserve, even some of the stately trees included redwoods and Douglas firs from California. The native fallow and red deer were most easily found in “deer parks”, grassy fields in reserves and on sprawling estates historically maintained for hunting. Badgers were most easily observed dead alongside the road. My best views, only views actually, of British reptiles were within observation pits at an environmental center. Even the Test River, famed for its crystal clear waters and some of the best trout fishing in the world, was stocked with non-native trout species and was routed under at least one town (Stockbridge) into seven different canals that underlay the main street. This didn’t feel natural, and perplexed me in this country seemingly smitten with nature.
Public footpaths riddled through nearly every meadow, marsh or natural area available, all heavily used by locals and their mannerly dogs. Nature reserves were clearly popular destinations. Every space that could be planted was planted. Buildings seemingly lacking available soil had vines espaliered along the stonework, and I even found one car with a carefully tended strawberry plant tended in a pot stuck to the backseat window. Nature text and imagery embellished bookshelves and walls everywhere. The Salisbury Cathedral, famous for having the tallest spire in England and holding an original copy of the Magna Carta, was one of several places I saw with a camera trained on a nesting raptor, a peregrine in this case that the locals clearly checked frequently. A pair of women in business attire busily speculated upon the precise positioning of a rock trio that seemingly bothered the nesting peregrine as she continually nudged at them, apparently day after day. A robin trilled its song from atop a flag within the Winchester Cathedral. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History, founded in 1860 and a source of inspiration for Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, brimmed with natural history antiquities from petrified pieces of the extinct Dodo to the skeleton of an Oxfordshire dinosaur, all documenting a centuries old obsession with the natural world. I struggled to rectify the country’s ongoing passion for nature with a seeming lack of wilderness – until I considered the fact that this environment evolved alongside humans.
Modern England is the result of thousands of years of co-evolution between humans and their surroundings. People were already in the area when the last ice age receded and the land began to revegetate. It was in fact the Romans who tamed the Test River below Stockbridge’s road to create a passageway to London. Paleolithic tribes who built Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain left gravestone hills in their wake. The heathlands in the New Forest were created 3,000 or so years ago when the area was deforested and over-farmed such that its soils no longer supported woodlands or crops. Today the habitat is maintained through controlled burns and is widely appreciated as important habitat for pollinators, like the now declining honey bee, and various species of ground nesting birds.
So maybe there aren’t vast stretches of wilderness as I’m used to in national parks in the U.S., and maybe the definition of native species is less clear in England where humans have played such an integral role in the country’s environmental development. In the U.S., we often gauge nativity based on the arrival of Europeans and our environmental history decries our infiltration into wildlands to make way for humans, but did not the native Indians have impact before the Europeans? Now that our parks and wilderness areas face new political threats in addition to the continually increasing pressures from human activities, it’s actually encouraging to see a country that has co-existed with its surroundings for so many centuries. Would I like to see our stewardship over the land maintain more of the wilderness feel I’ve come to appreciate, vast areas managed for habitat and the wildlife within? Yes. But in the end, it’s important to know that the environment can be blended to benefit both humans and other living beings, a balancing act that England has performed for thousands of years.
Join me over the next several weeks as I recount various nature quests from my recent trip to England.