‘Always include the local nature in the membership of the local community’ Wendell Berry
By any reckoning, Reverend Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne – staggeringly, the fourth most published book in the English language – is an unlikely success story. Essentially a journal of the fauna and flora found in one eighteenth-century Hampshire parish, its littleness is undoutedly the clue to its appeal. Unlike many clergy today, whose hands wring at global dynamics well beyond their influence, White’s principal pastoral concern appears to have been the varying movements of toads across his rectory garden. Such micro-level attention – and his role as unwitting pioneer of a progressive view of nature that viewed the welfare of human and non-human culture as inseparably related – means that White emerges today as something of a local hero.
In a fascinating introduction to White’s Natural History, Richard Mabey considers that ‘parish’ is the crucial idea behind White’s unparalleled description of local ecology:
‘Parish’ is a very laden concept. It has to do not just with geography and ecclesiastical administration, but with history and a system of loyalties. For most of us, it is the indefinable territory to which we feel we belong, which we have the measure of. Its boundaries are more the limits of our intimate allegiances than lines on a map. These allegiances have always embraced wild life as well as human…
Mabey coins the term ‘parochial ecology’ to capture White’s settled attention to Selborne – ‘the landscape of the pastoral dream made flesh’, but there is no ‘illusory’ nostalgia to this affirmation: for Mabey, it became a guiding theme for his pioneering environmental work, as expressed in, for example, Common Ground (1980) and Second Nature (1984). As he writes in the former: ‘The idea of parish … must underlie … a conservation policy which takes any account of human feelings.’
Highlighting another priest-naturalist, John Stevens Henslow, Rector of Hincham in Suffolk, Mabey argues that, for the man who taught Charles Darwin and encouraged his voyage on The Beagle: ‘Yet it was in his parish that his most important work was done … he was not just Hincham’s rector but its curator.’
Leaving aside the enviable freedom of the single-parish incumbent in this era to attend to broader interests, the essence of Mabey’s tribute to Henslow is profoundly significant. It is not his concern to explore the theological implications of being the ‘curator’ of a locality, nevertheless the resonances with the pastoral ‘cure’ under English law, still retained by the parish priest, are plain – and it may be contended with some force that truly parochial ministry is pastoral on both counts – formed by an ecology of care for a particular place, its people and their relation to the land.
One of the riches of the parochial tradition is thus what Oliver O’Donovan describes as the ‘reciprocal relation between nature and culture … mediating a possibility for human life in community’. By virtue of its territorial stability, the parish is uniquely placed to offer such mediation: a fact that has long been recognised in the pioneering work of Common Ground, the environmental charity that Richard Mabey founded in 1982 with Sue Clifford and Angela King. This saw particular expression in the Parish Maps project, which, for ten years from 1986, encouraged local neighbourhoods to depict in imaginative ways the territory to which they especially identified. Accepting the ways in which this scheme was ‘tugged away from the city’ by the inescapably rural overtones of the term ‘parish’, Crouch and Matless (1996) observed how it:
connects settlement and surrounding land … to a long English cultural tradition of presenting place, especially rural place, in reverential, ritual, sacred terms.
Whilst the imaginative affiliation of ‘landscape’ with rural, rather than urban topography became a conditioning factor on what was produced (and by whom), Common Ground chose the parochial concept, because, as Sue Clifford plainly acknowledges: ‘The ecclesiastical parish has been the measure of English landscape since Anglo-Saxon times.’ ‘Parish’, Clifford argued, offered what no other English term could: an equivalent to the German heimat – a way of describing ‘the intersection of culture and nature’ and ‘deeply felt ties of familiarity, identification and belonging’.
Digging more deeply into the affective connotations of ‘landscape’, however, the charity also offered ‘parish’ as their definition of English particularity expressly because of its rich notes of personal association and attachment – the ‘place of responses’ as Mabey has it. Parish thus becomes an imaginative bridge between ‘real’ space-time community and the less tangible, psychological responses that seek out a place of personal settlement and wellbeing. In Second Nature (1982) Fraser Harrison writes:
At least it can be said that we are saner, more contented people when we have … close familiarity with a small, parish-sized patch of countryside in which we can plant our experience.
The ‘belonging’ resonances of the term are hard to underestimate – and are a theme which the nature writer Roger Deakin picks up, with reference to John Donne’s poem ‘the Good Morrow’:
A parish accommodates to the imagination because it is framed or contained … by ancient boundaries, natural and supernatural.
In a further assessment of Gilbert White’s parochial ecology, David Elliston Allen, in his landmark History of the Naturalist in Britain, described Selborne as ‘that secret, private parish inside each one of us’. Notwithstanding its need for cultural deconstruction (the ‘each one of us’ in Allen’s statement presumably being only those to whom the word parish carries such emotional significance), the idea of the parish as a secret place of belonging is deeply suggestive. Because, in the English context, notions of belonging are so tethered to a idealized conception of the land – ‘nowhere else is landscape so freighted as legacy’ observes David Lowenthal – such an account must resurface the route between nostalgia, utopia and a genuinely hopeful eschatology, so that parochialism is prevented from becoming, on the one hand, a hopeless quest for unattainable place or, on the other, a stagnant cipher for lost homeland.
The danger – heightened in the current climate – is that debate about place becomes unhelpfully bipolar, such that attachment to territory falls victim to easy caricature as reactionary, exclusive and politically right-wing, whilst liberal geographical discourse can appear detached and curiously placeless. The response must not be to dispense with the territorial principle for being locked into anachronistic perceptions of landscape, but to find the means whereby heritage – and the rediscovery of local ecology – becomes a key to unlock, not barricade, the future. To reverse the old hippie dictum, thinking locally but acting globally may be the best place to begin.