What Pliny the Elder and David Attenborough have in common

When it comes to natural history, Sir David Attenborough rules the airwaves. Pliny the Elder (d. ad 79) who, as general of the Roman fleet, ruled rather less compliant waves, composed a 37-volume Natural History 2,000 years ago, expressing exactly the same concerns about the relationship between man and nature. For Pliny, the earth was divine, and the word ‘god’ meant not some being with shape and form, but Natura, ‘Nature’. Man’s natura, however, was imperfecta, and as a consequence, though Romans were the supreme masters of the world, they and god/Nature were often in conflict. This was disastrous, Pliny argued, because Nature was providential, as even man’s abuse of

Isabel Hardman

Why the Chelsea Flower Show shake-up is good news

Is it really such a bad thing that the Chelsea Flower Show has been postponed to the autumn because of Covid?  Yes, we’ll be missing out on the blousy, frothiness of early summer gardens that we see every year – not so many umbellifers, alliums or delphiniums – and yes, the Floral Pavilion will be strange without the heady scent of roses from the David Austin and Peter Beales stands. But the show will benefit enormously from a shake-up that forces designers to stop using the plants listed above until it seems there is nothing else you could possibly grow in your garden. Every year, a presenter or commentator gushes

The ethics of eating octopus

Should the undoubted intelligence of octopuses change the way we treat them? This question has been asked a lot of late because of the documentary My Octopus Teacher. The film is about a year-long relationship between a man and an octopus, and it takes place in a kelp bed off South Africa. It celebrates the sensitivity, awareness and intelligence of the octopus. That’s a difficult concept. Octopuses — octopi is wrong because it’s not Latin and octopodes is insufferably pedantic — are molluscs. That’s the same phylum as slugs and snails and cockles and mussels. In other words, intelligence is not restricted to our own phylum of chordates or back-boned

The ancients knew the value of the natural world

The ancients knew nothing about global warming, but they still reflected on the relationship between man and nature. In the absence of modern technology and with few sources of power (men, animals, wind and water), the ancients were limited in the use they could make of natural resources. Fire brought about the most radical change to nature’s offerings (cooking, pottery, smelting), with weaving, wood- and stone-working a close second. This could provide the farmer with all he needed, as Cato the Elder tells us: tunics, togas, blankets, shoes, iron tools, scythes, spades, mattocks, axes, carts, sledges, storage jars, pots, tiles, oil-mills, nails, buckets, oil-vessels, water-carriers, wine-urns, bronze vessels, etc. Cicero

The best wine since incarceration

The woodpecker jinked across the lawn like an especially cunning partridge. Its goal was a skilfully constructed bird table with wire surrounds, to provide safe feeding for finches, tits, woodpeckers and other small birds, while denying access to corvids, grey squirrels and raptors. A sparrow hawk regularly sweeps across the garden. The ‘sparrow’ element is misleading. This is an avian pocket-battleship, with not a molecule wasted in the pursuit of lethality. Sparrows? I have seen it feasting on a pigeon. It is a pity that real-life nature offers so little scope for sentimentality. Magpies are handsome creatures, but if you want songbirds, you will need a Larsen trap to control

Is it too late to save Britain’s ash trees?

Once we wrote poems when we lost our trees. Now we just watch them rot. In 1820 John Clare was moved to mark the end of a single tree he had loved: ‘It hoples Withers droops & dies.’ In 2020, so many English trees are dying that it would take a library of Clares to record the casualties. This year, locked-down in Derbyshire, I have been watching skeletons amid the green, hoping that they will return to life. Almost all have. The last of the great field ashes are only just coming into leaf, scarred by late frosts and drought. A row of oaks I ride by most days has

There’s no point in bishops – Covid has shown us so

It is a relief to parents that young children are allowed out a bit now as the length of the lockdown has wreaked havoc with tempers. Birthdays have been particularly difficult. Zoom parties, with every guest in their little on-screen box like stamps in an album, are a poor substitute for a roomful of overexcited kids eating jelly. My granddaughter was eight last week and at last could meet her best friend, who lives next door, in the new paddling pool. They have managed uncomplainingly via walkie-talkies through a window so this was a joyful reunion. But what about the other would-be dressed-up party guests, not to mention gift-bearers? Allow

Why whales sing: it’s a question of culture

A few years ago I was sitting in Carl Safina’s yard on Long Island, drinking tea, occasionally patting a dog who was lying at my feet. Safina was talking about the magnanimity of wolves. A wolf in Yellowstone National Park, known as Twenty-One, never lost a fight, and unlike most wolves, never killed a vanquished opponent. Park rangers called him the perfect wolf. ‘When a human releases a vanquished opponent rather than killing them, in the eyes of onlookers the vanquished still loses status but the victor seems all the more impressive,’ Safina said. ‘Onlookers might feel it would be desirable to follow such a person, so strong yet inclined

The intense pleasures of lockdown

I used to live in Mogadishu for months at a time, cooped up in compounds behind fortified walls. Venturing on to the streets meant a flak jacket, escort vehicle bristling with guns, chain-smoking as we zoomed through smashed districts, militias, ambushes and roadside bombs. Despite the incarceration, Somalia gave me some of my happiest memories. At home on the ranch in Kenya we often make a point of staying away from town for as long as possible. Our record is three months of no shops, offices, crowds or traffic — just cattle, pasture, birdsong and the rarest of visitors dropping by for a beer. And as a child in north

How John Constable got masterpiece after masterpiece out of a tiny corner of rural Suffolk

Before his marriage John Constable returned regularly in early summer to his native village of East Bergholt. When he wrote from there to his wife-to-be, Maria Bicknell, he almost always exclaimed that Suffolk was ‘in great beauty’. His enthusiasm was never more eloquent than on 22 June 1812, when he declared: ‘Nothing can exceed the beautiful appearance of the country at this time, its freshness, its amenity — the very breeze that passes the window is delightful, it has the voice of Nature.’ I often think about Constable (1776–1837) as I pace across the water meadows on my daily constitutional — partly because this too is an East Anglian landscape

The importance of the Natural Health Service

Most people consider going for a walk or a run as a sort of optional leisure activity, something you get round to once you’ve been to the shops. But when the government announced its coronavirus restrictions, there it was in its own category of ‘essential activities’: daily exercise. Yes, there have been rows about whether sunbathing or sitting on a bench to eat a snack are acceptable, but by and large the message has been clear: we need to get outside to stay well. But it’s not just exercise that’s essential to our lives, it’s nature too. We have become used to thinking of nature as something we need to

Now is the time for comfort reads

It all started on the day after the Brexit referendum. People who do not get the result they voted for in any election are naturally annoyed, sad, even despairing. If we sincerely believe in one political party and point of view, and lose to the opponents, we feel doomy and gloomy and say so. We used to speak our minds to friends and fellow believers, and that was that. Brexit changed everything. For many who lost, that was not that, and it still isn’t. What started on social media extended to public platforms and personal communication. Disagreement became vicious, language abusive, people tore at one another, claws out, simply for

Covid-19 is giving me hyper-focus on the beauty of spring

We know, because of the lack of widespread testing, that incidences of Covid-19 are under-reported. What is less well known is that they may be over-reported as a cause of death. In hospices and in care homes, I gather, where tests are not available, doctors are encouraged, if in doubt, to write ‘suspected Covid‑19’ on 1A of the death certificate, as the ‘primary cause’ of death. They do not wish to be accused of underplaying it. But they do not know they are right, because there have been no tests. A cough and a temperature can be enough to secure a Covid diagnosis, yet the cough could have many causes

Mother nature is finally getting the art she deserves

I guess that few would currently dispute that the world is in crisis. I’m not talking about Covid-19. Nor am I primarily addressing the issues arising from the 36 billion tonnes of carbon that the human project sends into our atmosphere every year. Climate chaos is a part of the issue, but I’m thinking principally of those things that most impact upon the biosphere as an ongoing live enterprise. They include the additional billion humans that our planet acquires every 12 years; the four-fifths of fish populations harvested to or beyond sustainable levels; the half of all the world’s trees felled by our species; the catastrophic depletion of soils by