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 I’m honest with you, because this is all broken, you know. It’s extremely badly damaged. Most environments are. Like, when I take photos I mainly use a telephoto lens, because it’s 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 there’s 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 what’s broken, how it’s 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 we’ve 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. It’s green, but it isn’t pleasant in the main. Let’s face it, the Lake District is a desert. In the main, it’s 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 don’t 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 it’s 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, 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 Asperger’s has now got a, you know, slightly more unruly brother. It’s 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): I’ve also got to be in a fit mental state to carry on. So, it’s about anger management.
I’m very task-orientated, so, you know, tying dead animals on my gate is not going to stop me, is it? It’s 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 don’t want to intimidate other people, so I find it easy to be non-violent in a violent situation. I don’t support any form of violent activism – that’s 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 doesn’t mean you lose sympathy for your opponent. Sometimes you’re fighting to win – and I’ll confess that winning is important to me, because whatever I’m fighting about, obviously, needs to be important if I’m going to manifest and direct that energy. But, you know, you win with dignity and you don’t rub people’s noses in it afterwards – no way. I mean, that’s philosophically and practically stupid, if you ask me – and also it’s just bad taste, isn’t it? And, frankly, all it means is, you’re 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. We’ve tried for a long time to use dialogue and other methods to put an end to it – hasn’t worked. So, we’re taking them to court, we’re trying to get the laws changed – and we’re winning, there’s 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 wouldn’t have to be constantly looking over our shoulder to see if we’ve 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 it’s what I do with the rage that’s 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 aren’t the people in the encyclopedias – but as a species we’re 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 that’s 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 they’re something you can’t 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 we’re 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.
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).