Nature, says the writer Richard Louv, is more important than you think. Divorce nature from your life and bad things will happen. For a start, you become bored and unable to concentrate. Then your risk of obesity and mental health problems increases. Nature, continues Louv, is fresh air for the mind. It is the link between life and happiness. But increasingly, it has become a missing link. To more than half of us aged 30 or less, nature is only of marginal interest. Like the girl who, when told there was a wild badger in the garden, glanced up from her ipod and mumbled, “This affects me – how?”
Yet when it comes to public policy, nature is always up there as a big deal. Parks and public gardens are managed with wildlife in mind. And we have never had more freedom to roam. We can go where we like, over open hills,forbidden forests etc.
So what is amiss? Why the disconnection between access and enjoyment? One reason, of course, is that parents worry that their children might be abducted and abused. Or that they could get run over on our busy roads. Or even, according to social research at Hertfordshire University, that they might get their expensive trainers dirty. Unlike the generation that went through two world wars, we are not inclined to take risks. For many parents and children, the countryside has become off-limits, outside the safety barrier, an uncomfortable place. As Richard Louv puts it, “our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience with nature”.
But there is another barrier to appreciating nature, and it is this: even when you find it, you are not allowed to touch it. Nature used to be associated with freedom, freedom to see and think unstructured thoughts, and to wander as you please. But all too often the nature experience now involves some corralled “country park” or “discovery centre” or guided tours by people who may or may not know much but are usually pretty hot on the dos and don’ts.The don’ts include picking or playing games with wild plants, catching pond life or flying insects, foraging for wild food, climbing trees, or burning wood on a campfire. Many people seem to think such activities are illegal. Doubt has even been raised about the legal position of picking blackberries by the wayside. Personal, direct contact with nature is being discouraged by fusspots and busybodies and control freaks who seem to want to regulate every waking moment of our lives. You can read their disapproval in the small print under the welcome sign at the entrance. Look but don’t touch. You know it’s illegal.
Well, actually it isn’t. It is not, for example, against the law to pick wild flowers, though you don’t hear many conservation bodies saying so. It is, however, illegal to dig them up. Hence we are in the idiotic situation where gathering the roots of a wayside horseradish or grubbing for pignuts for a wayside nibble, as previous generations did, is committing a crime.
There is’nt anything in law to stop you chasing butterflies, other than specially protected ones, or collecting their caterpillars to breed. If there was, high street toy shops might be in trouble when they sell butterfly nets to toddlers.
We can also still forage for winkles and cockles, but as the author of a recent book on wild food noted, the law is a nightmare: “I defy anyone not having a firm and comprehensive grip on the law to collect half a dozen different things from the beach without committing an offense.” As for mushrooms, an enforceable Code of Conduct allows us to gather a small basketful so long as we do not sell them on, but some public landowners have been reluctant to allow us even that much.
What matters more than the strict letter of the law is the sense that direct contact – enjoying nature by touching, sniffing, chasing or nibbling – is somehow morally wrong. While we may be within our rights to pick some buttercups for the vase, we may decide not to if it attracts unfriendly whispers and stares, and perhaps a word to some warden or official. Taking a butterfly net to a protected place may be strictly OK, but it marks you out as a potential criminal.
The result is a deepening divide between people and nature, for it makes nature study to all intents and purposes impossible except as an organised activity (supervised by adults, that is). This matters because it is only when you get up close and personal with a plant or insect that it enters your memory and imagination: the distinctive smell of the flowers, the way a dragonfly loops its long body to position an egg, or the patterns a mushroom makes on paper when you leave it overnight.
Small hope there of any budding naturalists. As Kate Humble, the Springwatch presenter, expressed it: “If a child hasn’t ever got its hands dirty sifting through soil for bugs, kicked up leaves, or been wowed by a cute baby bird, how can we expect them to care about the natural world?”
How indeed, but what can we do about it? There is no shortage of projects and schemes intended to bridge that gap. Natural England, for instance, not only promotes its own nature reserves as “green gyms” but has also launched a £25m grant scheme to bring nature closer to the lives of “those who face social exclusion or have little or no contact with the natural environment”.
And, it seems, we also need it, not only for intellectual stimulation but for the basic building blocks of human happiness: the sense of freedom to wander, of wind in your hair, of clouds and stars in the sky, the sounds and feelings of a world beyond everyday cares. How do we break free of the Don’t Touch Gestapo?
I suggest that we should press for the re-establishment of a right that once belonged to everyone: the right of forage. At the moment, our ability to collect nuts or berries by the wayside is regulated under the Theft Act, as though we are thieving the rightful property of some lord or squire – a notion that dates back to the Black Acts of the eighteenth century, when you could be hanged or deported for stealing a sheep.
For that great and restorative purpose, we can surely take the risk.