Photo credit: Cate Crocker / High Profiles

CHRIS PACKHAM is a naturalist best known for presenting Springwatch on BBC2. “He should be in the ‘national treasure’ class,” said The Guardian, “but he determinedly is not.” 

Brian Draper went for a wander and conversation with him in the New Forest earlier this year for High Profiles. This is part of what they talked about.


For all your focus on detail, you’re also very aware of the way that everything connects. Do you feel, as you walk in this forest, that you are part of – well, would you call it a
superorganism?


It should be, but… That
s where things get more difficult, if Im honest with you, because this is all broken, you know. Its extremely badly damaged. Most environments are. Like, when I take photos I mainly use a telephoto lens, because its easier to find beauty if you are looking at some tiny detail which is uncorrupted. When you look more broadly, the fact is that somewhere in that environment theres going to be something wrong: aesthetically maybe, but in terms of ecology, definitely.


When I come [to this expanse of heathland], frankly, something that can be really comforting becomes something that can be really painful. It
s not damaged beyond repair. It is fixable – though no one else seems to want to fix it quite as urgently as I do sometimes. And therefore I jump from being one, you know, personality into another one, and all of that admiration [is replaced by] a critical analysis of whats broken, how its broken, how it can be fixed, and then: how do we fix it?

 
It’s easy
to sentimentalise nature. Do you object to the Romantic sensibility?


I don
t mind if people want to sentimentalise nature. I think the problem weve got with the legacy of [William] Wordsworth and [John] Ruskin and all of those people who wrote and painted and theorised about nature is that they created an enduring – an unfortunately enduring – ideal of a landscape under human dominion. They had this ideal of a ‘green and pleasant land’ and they perpetuated that through their beautiful language; but it’s a damaged landscape. Its green, but it isnt pleasant in the main. Lets face it, the Lake District is a desert. In the main, its just an overgrazed sheep farm.


You never mince your words. I see parallels between you and Greta Thunberg as truth-tellers because you’re both autistic…


I don
t know her, but I think there are traits that we probably share. My mum used to say I was the most tactless child on the planet and that was simply because I said what I thought about everything and I presumed that if someone asked me a question, they wanted the answer.


Now I manage what I think and say and do, to try to minimise unnecessary conflict. But, yeah, people with our type of autism have really strong convictions and we say what we think. I think we have a pronounced dislike for injustice, and that
s always been really strong within me. I dont like people getting away with things that are wrong or bad. As a kid, that would frustrate me, and as an adult I want to rectify it.


And then we
re very focused – and obsessive, probably – so its easy to look at one thing and to put all of our energy into that one thing for as long as it lasts.


How conscious are you of having to manage your personality? Your outspoken campaigning has antagonised the Countryside Alliance,
[1] and more than 170,000 people signed a petition that said you were ‘no longer fit to work for the BBC’.


Yep. Yep. It
s like my Aspergers has now got a, you know, slightly more unruly brother. Its another part of that character that I need to manage and balance – and not just outwardly, in order to keep my job at the BBC (and I like the BBC a lot, and I like what the BBC stands for in the main): Ive also got to be in a fit mental state to carry on. So, its about anger management.


I
m very task-orientated, so, you know, tying dead animals on my gate[2] is not going to stop me, is it? Its fuel to the flames, to be quite honest with you.


It might stop a lot of us.


I don
t get physically intimidated like that. I never have done. I also dont want to intimidate other people, so I find it easy to be non-violent in a violent situation. I dont support any form of violent activism – thats counter to everything I stand for.


But is there still a place for confrontation in your campaigning?


Well, I think you
ve got to fight, but that doesnt mean you lose sympathy for your opponent. Sometimes youre fighting to win – and Ill confess that winning is important to me, because whatever Im fighting about, obviously, needs to be important if Im going to manifest and direct that energy. But, you know, you win with dignity and you dont rub peoples noses in it afterwards – no way. I mean, thats philosophically and practically stupid, if you ask me – and also its just bad taste, isnt it? And, frankly, all it means is, youre going to have another fight at some stage in the future.


At the moment, we
re fighting hard against the injustice of raptor persecution in the UK. Weve tried for a long time to use dialogue and other methods to put an end to it – hasnt worked. So, were taking them to court, were trying to get the laws changed – and were winning, theres no doubt about it. [But] I would much rather that in the final stages of that fight both sides came together to find a future where we wouldnt have to be constantly looking over our shoulder to see if weve got another fight brewing.


You talk quite a lot about love. Is that an important fuel for your work? And how does it sit with the rage in you?

Yeah, I mean, obviously the day-to-day admiration for nature is a fuel for all of us, because we love the simplicity, the pure beauty, the functionality, all of those things. And they’re relatively easy to find, even in broken systems – you know, the way they work, and even the way they look, is inspirational.


I love this time of year – and anticipation, I think, is quite important in that. Every morning, looking at those buds thinking: I know, I know, that if I can just live for the next three weeks I will see something
utterly remarkable happening…


So, yes, that is a really important fuel – which is why I wonder how… well, I constantly see people who are, say, employed to act as nature conservationists but they actually have no affinity for nature, and they fail because, you know, they
ve got no reason to set their alarm clock other than to get up and go to work.


The rage – well, of course, you know, when you see something that you love that much being abused and damaged, deliberately or neglectfully so, you
re understandably angry about it, very angry. And as that damage has got worse and worse in my lifetime, and more and more serious – to the point now where I think that we are on the brink of needing to make a last stand for the natural world – obviously, the intensity of the rage increases.


I don
t mind the word, you know. I will ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’ until my passing day – but its what I do with the rage thats important.


Do you reflect on what it means to be human within the larger natural world?


I do, yeah. I
m not a great fan of humanity, as you probably know. I think there are truly great humans – and they arent the people in the encyclopedias – but as a species were not very good.


Does our capacity to wonder set us apart from the rest of the natural world?


No, I think [that] when we look into animal cognition, increasingly what we see is that we have misunderstood things like consciousness, where we believed we were the only animals with a sense of self and all of those sorts of things. We
re beginning to recognise that thats not true and that other animals have the capacity to imagine the future – which is wonder, I suppose, in really simple terms.


Again, living with my dogs, as I have done, in a very, very close relationship, I
ve seen behaviours that in the past ethnologists would have been too frightened to recount, because theyre something you cant repeat-test in a blind trial or with a placebo; but increasingly people are finding the confidence to report those sorts of things, with increasing authority. I think the idea that we are the only animals with a consciousness is rapidly disappearing.


We
re beginning to look at the cetaceans and their cultures and were beginning to map what they do and [observe] cultural transmission and record some extraordinary behaviours. We are despecialising ourselves all the time, and I like that.

——

© High Profiles 2021. This is an excerpt from a much longer interview from our friends at High Profile which we would encourage you to read here – along with a large number of other great interviews.


Chris Packham
is a naturalist, ecologist, nature photographer, environment campaigner, television presenter and author, best known for his ground-breaking TV work. In 2018, he organised a demonstration through central London, the People’s Walk for Wildlife. The following year, he set up Wild Justice, a not-for-profit limited company that aims to ensure that the legal system protects wildlife.


Interviewer Brian Draper is a retreat leader and consultant on spiritual intelligence. His books include Spiritual Intelligence: A new way of being (Lion, 2009), Soulfulness: Deepening the mindful life (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016) and, with the botanist Howard Green, Soulful Nature: A spiritual field guide (Canterbury Press, 2020).

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