Nature study for absolute beginners

It’s never been more needed, says Melanie Challenger

GABRIEL and I are back from the woods that brace the town of Cromarty. It is the last day of September. Our minds, like two halves of a pot pourri bowl, share a cluster of materials and scents: the smell of drying chaff and cow dung; hay bales poised to roll across a yellow field like wild-west wagons. My son, named after Gabriel Oak in Far From the Madding Crowd in the hope of honourable virtues running through him “like metal in a mine”, a man at one with the natural world, is not yet 18 months. He suffers from machinery tourettes, exclaiming, “Digger! Tractor! Trailer! Wheel! Windmill!” But the majority of his early words are of those things that surround us during the many hours of each day we spend alone together outside: flower, gull, owl, cow, sheep, leaf, tree. He hymns the words in his soprano voice, incants them, echoes them, amazed by his new gift of speech. He scatters the birds.

I am teaching him these words. It is almost our entire world at the moment. For this brief phase of our lives, I am an intercessor to the gods, fastening recognition onto the animals, rocks, flowers, suggesting their repeatability and their permanence. It is an act made more poignant by my knowledge that these things are not stable and ineradicable, far from it. We are living through an era of unprecedented and, in some cases, irreversible damage to nature.

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A line of sycamores and a hedgerow gone wild at the approaching winter tuck together to form a church-and-steeple like those made from our hands for play. Gabriel points at the grisly mouth of its entrance. Fire? No, I say, tunnel. A tunnel of trees. And we duck into darkness. I stop. Ahead a tree creeper has started its lizard-like twiddle up a branch. The motion reminds me of a child rewinding up a helter- skelter. Smoothly up, up, up. We stare at its anteater-like beak and the soft buff shawl of its upper plumage. Another kind of bird, I tell him, tree creeper.

These walks with my child are especially precious because I was not always able to name these things. Growing up on an ordinary housing estate in an ordinary town in south-east England, I knew little of the nature around me. I used to beg my mother to take me for long drives in the car, beyond the scruffy negotiation between bramble and Tarmac, into the countryside, where something else drew me – at once still and agitated, profitable and autonomous: the natural world. In my twenties, I wanted to write poems brimming with description and understanding of nature, but I had no intrinsic apprehension to light such poems with authenticity. I would have resorted to thesauruses or field-guides for the words I was missing. I would have felt like a fraud.

This is why, six years ago, I set out to discover what historical and cultural forces led to people like me, born and raised with so little knowledge of nature, and how this lack of knowledge is associated with the dangers nature faces. My book On Extinction is the product of those years of effort, and a series of journeys that took me to both Polar regions, to teeming cities, and back to nature. It traces the ways our species became so destructive to the natural world.

During the latter half of the 20th century, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) began gathering data about the world’s species of plants and animals. Their reports and the so-called Red List of endangered species have brought to public attention a world in which nearly 20,000 of the tiny fraction of known species are threatened with extinction. In Scotland alone there are dozens of threatened life forms: large magnetic animals such as the harbour porpoise, birds like the capercaillie and the corncrake, butterflies such as the dingy skipper and the scotch argus, flowers such as the common butterwort and even the Scottish primrose. Last year, ministers acknowledged that Scotland has failed to meet its targets to protect its precious wildlife.

And so my book plays close attention to the human world too. The likely extinction of as many as half of the world’s formerly diverse human cultures and languages is predicted to occur in the next 50 years. Many of these cultures are still reliant on nature and intimately knowledgeable of it. But within them, livelihoods are hard-won, and while, in some cases, people are forced to abandon a cherished way of life by aggressive, dominant regimes or cultures, in other instances, they are understandably drawn to the ease and comforts of a life of supermarkets and central-heating.

Perhaps inevitably, my years of research and learning from the numerous kind-hearted and hardworking scientists, conservationists, linguists and anthropologists, began to have a transformative effect on my life. And so the book is also the personal story of my own sense of loss and the beginnings of my efforts to rediscover nature. While On Extinction is a book of disappearances and dire prognostications, it is also infused with immense joy, the addictive first days of my passionate effort to learn the names and habits of every flower I saw, every creature I witnessed.

I started the book in my mid-twenties, full of youthful energy and ambition. In the course of writing it, I fell in love, got married, and became pregnant. I carried Gabriel, waiting for birth, somersaulting in the sunless warmth inside me, as I travelled to the Canadian Arctic in the depths of winter to meet Inuit people – a people now raising a generation of children like me, utterly estranged from their native environment. I met women who hunted on the tundra and worked ardently to renew and instil the land-skills of their forebears in a generation of disaffected teenagers. It became shiningly obvious in the shadow-dance of the Arctic winter that I, too, would have to do everything in my power to teach Gabriel about nature.

We have spent Gabriel’s first speaking summer diligently watching the flowers and birds of the Highlands. Trees and beetles are next year’s challenge. There are precious few flowers left at the scrag-end of September, but we are both full of visions of their earlier vibrancy, private gardens of our minds. And soon, their names will tread a measure on our tongues again, bloody cranes-bill, water avens, rosebay willowherb, wood forget-me-not.

• On Extinction: How we became estranged from nature by Melanie Challenger is published by Granta, priced £20.