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Creative ways of thinking about freshwater conservation

November 25, 2010

'Swans and River' by Carry Akroyd (from here)

Last week in Norfolk, England, a conference entitled Birds, Nature & Creativity brought together writers, artists, musicians, academics and conservationists to discuss new and creative ways of thinking about bird conservation.  Working under (but not limited to) the common cause of birds and their habitats, a key theme of the day was that there is untapped potential to complement traditional forms of conservation with the creative arts in order to reinvigorate public engagement with the natural world.

Contributors ranged from Richard Mabey (author of numerous books on natural history – most recently Weeds); author Mark Cocker; BioFresh partner (and Oxford University senior lecturer) Dr Paul Jepson; and The Independent’s environment editor Michael McCarthy; to environmental artists Carry Akroyd and Katrina Porteous and haiku poet John Barlow.  A common theme of many posts on this blog has been the drive to find innovative ways of planning and communicating conservation, and the wide-ranging perspectives and ideas brought together for the conference certainly sparked this debate.

How could we apply these ideas to freshwater ecosystems conservation?  We might look to the rich and diverse entanglements between nature and culture evident in many species in The Cabinet of Freshwater Curiosities.  Species in the Cabinet are celebrated for their ecological and cultural distinctiveness and significance rather than any pressing extinction threat.

Rivers crop up as a metaphor for sustenance, change, loss and renewal in the earliest folk music, and persist into the modern tradition – from Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Bill Callahan to Justin Timberlake. The same could certainly be said for poetry – a modern example being John Barlow’s environmental haikus:

clouded light . . .
ripple crests edge
the egret’s tail

(John Barlow (2008) Wingbeats from here)

'River Landscape'. Screenprint by Carry Akroyd (from here)

The role of art and music in conservation need not be only celebratory – as shown by Carry Akroyd’s work, there is potential to communicate ideas of  habitat destruction and species loss in creative ways.  A challenge is to communicate these ideas of anger and loss whilst promoting the value of positive individual engagement with the natural world, and the diversity of ideas and emotions that stem from this.

In Scotland, there is a growing movement (with echoes of bioregionalism) to simultaneously restore nature and culture to degraded landscapes (see for example the Assynt crofting community).  Traditional music, stories and poems concerning the environment are key to this process.   Perhaps there is potential to apply these ideas to the songs, stories and poetry surrounding rivers and lakes to spark a similar resurgence of interest in freshwater ecosystems?

But can an engagement with the creative arts to translate into positive conservation action?  It might be argued that creating environmental art or writing environmental poetry or songs is important, yet rarely inspires direct environmental action.   Equally, are these ideas too niche in their appeal, resonance or geographic scope to have any real effect?

The point of this discussion is not that the introduction of creativity into conservation will suddenly solve all the pressing environmental problems.  Instead, what is exciting is the potential to reimagine the relationship between landscape, culture and conservation through the creative arts to reinvigorate people who may have lost, or never acquired an engagement with the natural world.

This post has given a relatively shallow (sic) overview of some starting points for how the creative arts may complement freshwater ecosystem conservation.  We’d welcome your thoughts, comments and suggestions as to how this idea might be extended.  How could we think about using the creative arts to reconnect people with our rivers and lakes?

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