My Dad, me and Nature By William Bowles

5 February 2009

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The badge of the Woodcraft Folk

Unlike most of the kids I grew up with, my folks introduced me to Nature at a very early age and they introduced it to me in very specific ways, especially my father, Roy. Not just trips to the country at weekends, weather permitting, but a view of Nature as all-encompassing including us humans.

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My dad, building microscopes at Baker’s Microscopes

Roy was a self-taught man who had left school at perhaps fourteen or fifteen and like others of his class, time and politics, he felt a deep sense of inferiority when it came to knowledge. Thus he did everything he could to educate himself in all kinds of subjects especially the English language, science, history and of course politics and surprisingly for those days, Nature.

Our books reflected this for many of them were about Nature and evolution and although too young really take them in, they had a lasting impact on me that was to be reinforced when at around seven I joined the Woodcraft Folk, the cooperative movement’s answer to the Boy Scouts/Girl Guides, with its ‘Rasta’ colours of Red, Green and Gold and it was mixed, boys and girls together.

My mum ran the local branch of the Woodcraft Folk. We would meet once a week in a big space over the local Co-op in Balham High Road where I learnt folk dancing and other very unfashionable pursuits. We also had a campsite in Cobham, Surrey where I would go on weekend camping trips. One of the things we did on these weekends were to go on all night hikes, navigating by the stars led by one those outdoorsy types, all khaki shorts and big boots, an Australian called Digger.

Digger would point out all the plants and insects to us as we tramped across Surrey and made me very aware of the centrality of Nature to life. He also installed in us ideas about conservation, pretty advanced stuff for the 1950s, but in a way not that surprising given that the history of the Co-operative Movement and hence the Woodcraft Folk was inspired by people like William Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement and of course, socialism.

I must have been around seven when we went on vacation to Cornwall, to a place called Porthcurno[1], where a friend of my folks, Dora Russell had a house (the ex-wife of Bertrand Russell who had been writing about feminism and technology since the 1930s, years ahead of her time). We drove down in an ex-army truck overnight and it’s around a four hundred mile trip.

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The trip to Cornwall, overnight, in an old army truck, circa 1952.

Exploring the coastline of Cornwall was a sheer joy, the memories are still sharp today, the smell of the gorse, the buzz of insects and the roar of the Atlantic as it crashed into the granite cliffs.

My dad made me a butterfly net and a ‘killing bottle’ as they were called, made from one of his brown glass chemical jars with a chunk of ammonia salts in the bottom underneath a piece of cardboard so the salts didn’t damage the butterfly (you could buy all kinds of lethal chemicals at a chemist’s shop in those days). All very non-PC of course, but then in those days there were millions of butterflies, especially in unspoilt Cornwall with its sunken lanes and high hedgerows winding over a spectacular landscape whose steep sides often fourteen or fifteen feet high, were sun traps for all kinds of wild life. I would spent hours exploring these hedgerows, butterfly net to hand and once home with my specimens would mount them on pieces of cardboard.

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Cornwall

So socialism and Nature, at least as far as I was concerned, were inextricably linked. This was reinforced by the books I read as a youngster by people like Prof. JD Bernal, whose wholistic view of science and history made an extremely strong impression on me, an impression that has stayed with me especially Bernal’s views on education.

It seems incredible to me today, in our age of cynicism and utter barbarism that the idea of socialism was for me intimately connected to a wholistic view that embraced all life on our planet, long before the tags ‘green’ or ‘ecology’ became buzzwords.

Today by contrast, our rural landscapes have been degraded to the point where they are all but unrecognizable and in many locations denuded of the diversity of life that made them such a source of joy and excitement to a child.

Upon reflection, it’s the ideas of those early socialists such as William Morris (long a hero of mine) whose reactions to Victorian industrial capitalism were to presage our current questioning of unrestrained production and destruction of our natural legacy and the loss of skills brought about by the factory system.

william-morris.jpgMorris, long considered ‘unfashionable’ and to have a romantic and nostalgic attachment to an earlier pre-industrial age, now makes absolute sense if we are to consider how to ‘retool’ our industrial civilization, not only because endless industrial-capitalist production threatens our very existence but just as importantly, it involves altering the scale of production to something more modest that reconnects us once more to Nature.

No doubt there will be many who take the view that this is an ‘unrealistic’ idea but consider the fact that the vast majority of the people on the planet are still connected to Nature in the most intimate ways albeit at a subsistance level. It’s us who are out of step, who are the minority.

And the signs are all around us, even if expressed in a corporatist manner eg, ‘heritage’ that nevertheless reflects the renewed interest in our past; yes, perhaps a yearning for a ‘lost innocence’; the rediscovery of crafts and the natural world of our ancestors; organic farming that of necessity means a reversion to smaller scales of production, are just some of the expressions of an intense dislike of the ‘gigantism’ and uniformity of modern industrial capitalism (ironically, one of the arguments used against Soviet socialism).

Any socialist transformation of our economy must, through its very nature, be one that is in tune with the natural world. It must include the reinvention of skills and processes that capitalism has destroyed simply because they don’t make a profit. It is moreover, a sustainable method of job creation, in other words, labour intensive.

Utopian? I think not for such a revolution doesn‘t involve the wholesale dumping of industrial technologies, rather their use in a sustainable and balanced manner, that compliments rather replaces. There is also the extremely important aspect of ‘retooling’ namely job satisfaction, for there is no doubt that one aspect of the rediscovery of lost and disappearing skills is the immense satisfaction we get from actually doing things ourselves.

Note

1. I didn’t know it at the time but the beach at Porthcurno was where the world’s first undersea cables, connecting the British Empire to its ‘dominions’ made land. The tiny hut is still there with the same cables emerging from the ground inside and little plaques above each cable naming where they went; Malta, Newfoundland and so on.

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