A sense of place?

I sometimes think that one of the reasons the ecological destruction of this planet has been allowed to advance this far is that as a species we have become largely oblivious to the reality of the world around us. In fact maybe this ignorance could go beyond enabling the degradation of our habitat to being a driving force behind it.

While I was working carrying out wildlife surveys around Hampshire and the south coast this general lack of awareness of who we share our fields, gardens even our towns and houses with was really brought home. While going about the surveys I’d often end up in conversation with the owners of the land or people from the neighbourhood. Whether openly laughing at the preposterous idea of bats in Southsea or balking at grass snakes in their paddock I was struck by peoples lack of knowledge and interest in wildlife that they lived alongside everyday.

Though older generations definitely seemed to have a much better idea of what you might find lurking nearby they often felt that ‘you just don’t see them anymore’. While in many cases numbers had definitely declined compared to the historical levels the populations were still significant and it was rarely difficult to spot either the animals themselves or signs of their passing if you had a mind to. I began to feel that it was more a changing attitude and awareness of the animals that changed whether or not they noticed the creatures they were sharing their landscape with rather than their actual abundance.

This decline in our ecological awareness has probably been slowly accumulating over the last 10 000 years but does seem that, like many other things, the rate of our separation has risen exponentially during the last century. Our bodies and our senses evolved to be highly tuned to the subtleties of our environment. In order to survive as part of an ecosystem we needed exceedingly acute awareness to stay one step ahead of our prey, find the seasonally abundant edible plants and avoid our own predators. As we have become more technologically advanced we have become correspondingly less reliant on our own personal abilities for survival. First the turn to agriculture over hunting and gathering lessened the need for such keen senses. After that we eradicated human predators out of fear (destabilising their ecosystems in the process) from much of our range. This means that we have created a world where we can spend most of our time dawdling along, paying no heed to the world around us without starving or ending up as lunch. More recently we’ve begun to flood our senses with artificially enriched input. We like to feel like we are getting the most out of the time we have, and rather than really paying attention to our experience on the earth, instead we have largely opted for more and more sophisticated forms of escapism. Most of us have little time for the quieter, subtler but ultimately more awesome things that are going on all around us, instead plugging in headphones to block out the sounds of the world as we move through it, the HD TV drowning out the reality of wind and rain outside. But does this sensory gluttony really enrich our lives? Could it actually be the cause of a lot of the problems we are facing besides ecological collapse, such as mental health issues and ‘life style’ diseases?

Most people today feel they are against habitat destruction and for environmental protection. By and large as a population we feel that the loss of species diversity and natural wildernesses is a terrible thing, so why is it still running rampant? I think that one of the first things that needs to happen before the tide will really turn is we need to reconnect with our immediate habitat through our senses. People donate and campaign against the destruction of habitats on different continents but are largely indifferent to the patch of scrubland down the road being developed for a corner shop and a car park – “No-body used it anyway”, “about time someone did something with that land”, “It was starting to look a right mess in there, all that bramble” – I’ve heard people say all these things and more when talking about pieces of land that are home to literally millions of animals birds and invertebrates that were a part of their everyday lives in a subtle but powerful way. This disconnection from our lives and the life around us is why we ‘don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone’ and more and more is ‘gone’ every day. Much of the undeveloped land we have is a long way from pristine habitat but it is still vitally important to our wildlife and to our own well being and we spend our time ignoring it on a daily basis. The first step towards saving our wildlife is to start to connect with it, through the only means we have to connect with anything, our senses.

Every time I get a chance (or remember to do it!) I love to just tune into the world around me. Whether deep in the country or at a London train station the reality of the more than human world finds it’s way into my ears, up my nose or tickles across my skin. When I first realised how much I was missing out on I used to worry about what else I was missing, and jealously hoarded every moment of connection I felt. But now I just try and savour it whenever I can. I reckon that just a little bit of time spent tuning into our habitat does wonders for our well being. Perhaps if we were all a little more aware of the true cost of habitat loss in our own everyday lives, maybe our society would better reflect the way that we feel about the world we feel we want to live in.

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