The RTÉ ecologist gives us a rallying call to see the splendour and ‘fun’ in the great outdoors, without shirking from what we are doing to our wild landscapes
After 21 years of banging the green drum, the producers of RTÉ’s flagship environmental show Eco Eye recently announced that it was coming to an end after the State broadcaster decided it wanted to go in a different direction.
The irony in all this is that Duncan Stewart and his team were finally beginning to see officialdom and society at large taking some notice of what for most of the show’s airtime had been largely falling on deaf ears — namely, that our refusal to live sustainably would have dire ramifications.
Speaking on the Brendan O’Connor show recently, Stewart sounded less than sanguine about Eco Eye’s legacy. While attention had perhaps increased towards these issues, it wasn’t remotely proportionate to the ever-ballooning scale of the crises themselves.
Alongside examinations of energy efficiency, ecological damage, and agricultural practice, a cornerstone of Eco Eye’s remit was the stewardship of our natural heritage. With uncanny timing, it therefore comes as something of a salve to those lamenting the show’s demise that Anja Murray, one of its co-presenters, has delivered a book focused specifically on wild connectivity.
Part love letter, part how-to guide, Wild Embrace is a gentle and personable invitation to see our world through the same lens as Murray does.
The broadcaster and ecologist strives for a sense of wonderment in order to entice us into adopting the level of focus and attention she herself embarks in the outdoors. We’re taken through different habitats and ecosystems, as Murray weaves luxurious depictions of what might be seen if we took the time — light is repeatedly described as “dappled”, mosses and lichens reveal intricate patterns, and flora and fauna abound.
The painterly riffing is there to try and transport us to Murray’s idealised version of the landscape she is exploring. It can be a little much, at times, like looking at an arcadian scene in a children’s wildlife guide where all the animals are arranged elegantly at once.
Providing vital backbone, then, are the dollops of science that she places with unforced ease amid the lavish bounty. Some, such as the relationship between whales and plankton, or how minute air chambers on the surface of buttercups imbue them with a shimmering appearance, are deeply fascinating. At such moments, Murray — who has also worked in the field of environmental policy and outreach — proves to be an effective everyman communicator of complex detail. Almost by way of explanation, she shares with us her belief that the mingling of knowledge and imagination is an “essential practice for connecting with the wonders of the natural world”.
What you also come to realise as Wild Embrace progresses is that Murray has set a rather difficult task for herself. She wears her knowledge of the cold, hard reality of our degraded environment lightly, and as we’re taken further along the journey, she begins to spell these things out without jargon or hyperbole. This means that on one hand, she is trying to rouse us to see the splendour and the “fun” in encountering the natural world on her level. On the other hand, she has to simultaneously come clean with us about how utterly trashed our wild landscapes have become directly as a result of us. As she admits herself: “We have passed the threshold of being able to ignore how climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse are undermining the viability of everything we depend upon.”
It is, to paraphrase the great American environmentalist Aldo Leopold, an inherent burden of intimacy with the natural world that we will also know of its wounds. Striking the right balance has become a major facet of environmental thinktanks wishing to inspire people into action rather than paralyse them with doom. Murray hits on an effective ratio where she is able to draw lines between “yielding to the childlike curiosity” and a better future for the whole planet.
Having given us the tools to take in what is around us — each chapter ends with “Invitations to the Wild Embrace”, rather charming to-do lists for those venturing out — Murray asks us to believe that life can take on “a different hue” if we just give a bit more of our daily bandwidth to the rhythms of nature. Doing so will in turn breed a deeper sense of stewardship by not only awakening us to our moral responsibilities, but also empowering us to the solutions at hand. She qualifies this by showing examples of places in Ireland where habitat restoration (or its less refined cousin, “rewilding”) is gaining pace through the work of devoted — and usually amateur — conservationists.
It stands to reason that if we take better care of the natural world, it will take better care of us. But even before we consider the improved quality of air, water or soil that a healthy, biodiverse planet would grant, we don’t have to wait for that day to reap its multiple benefits for mind and body. Murray stresses this point throughout. Wild Embrace is therefore a patient and perfectly balanced tasting plate for those dipping their toe into a relationship with the wild. Equally, its ABCs might be of less value to seasoned students of nature.
The past decade or so has seen works published by Irish authors — Pádraic Fogarty, Paddy Woodworth, Éanna Ní Lamhna, man-of-the-moment Eoghan Daltun — that suggest there is growing appetite for environmental literature that doesn’t shy away from the ugly truth of where we are. Murray now joins these ranks, albeit with one distinguishing feature; an emphasis on beauty, ebullience and compassion.
Nature: Wild Embrace by Anja Murray
Hachette Books Ireland, 320 pages, hardcover €21; e-book £8.49