Aubrey Manning Memorial Service

Professor Aubrey Manning died in October last year, aged 89. He was a wonderful man. Our relationship began as a presenter on a Radio 4 series we made together, Rules of Life, and ended as a dear friend. Aubrey taught me much more than simply love of nature. He showed what it is to be an authentic human being full of integrity and love. This is the address I gave at his memorial service in Edinburgh on 13th April 2019. I was asked to comment on his concern for population growth on the natural world, something that concerned him a great deal.

Big Foot - Homo magus pedites

This image was a favourite of Aubrey’s. Big Foot - Homo magno pedites – made by a company in Bristol called Cod Steaks. It has stood in various locations around the country, including outside the Natural History Museums of both London and Oxford. As you can see, it is a large human figure that is squashing the earth out of shape. It is deformed, tearing it apart by its sheer weight. Oil is leaking into the oceans, landscapes are flattened and wildlife is trampled. The outsize figure has the air or someone not too concerned, the pose looks like he is removing annoying debris from the soles of his feet. He, I assume a he, looks down with not a great deal of concern, perhaps a little curious? The sculptor has chosen not to make the figure gross, bloated or ugly, this is a finely proportioned figure - fit, well-fed and young. The overall impression is that the life is being squashed out of the earth by someone who doesn’t really understand what they are doing. Look more carefully and you’ll see that Big Foot is made of lots of small metal babies, forming the lattice work of the body. It is a striking piece of art and I wanted to get to know it better, to understand why it appealed so much to Aubrey. If you’d asked me to pick something that Aubrey would have liked, it probably wouldn’t have been this.  To understand it I wanted to try to get into Aubrey’s heart and mind. I have though a lot about it over the last few weeks. It has to do, of course, with population. Aubrey understood, with a sense of real pain, that the mass of humanity is damaging the world he loved so much.

 

I admit I was quite shocked when I first saw it. Despite being a skilled piece of art it’s not a pleasant message. It’s complex and a little accusatory. And if one thing I know - all of us in this room know – Aubrey loved people. He really did. Everyone fascinated him, he loved humanity in all its variety and difference. But what he did struggle with was the numbers.

 

Aubrey was born in 1930 when the population of the UK was 46 million. He died in 2018 is was 66 million, 20 million more people in these small islands.  The world population in 1930 was 2 billion, today it is fast heading for 8 billion. In Aubrey’s lifetime we have lost well over half of the mass of wildlife on earth. There are far fewer insects humming, birds singing, fish swimming and so on. Not just abroad in the savannah or rainforest, but right here in the UK too. I remember a programme I made with Aubrey on what has happened to wildlife around his boyhood home in Surrey since he was a boy. He said the natural world just seems thinner, more threadbare. There is less accessible, everyday nature than when he was a boy. He remembers wood warblers, kingfishers and many wildflowers. They have gone.  There are far more people, far fewer wild corners, many more pressures on wildlife. It made him immensely sad.

 

So, there is no denying he thought the increase in the human population was to blame, but I think he liked this image so much because it doesn’t blame any single group or nation in particular – it doesn’t finger point – this is all of us.  We all consume and take from the earth. Of course, Aubrey well understood that some take far more than others, that richer western countries consume the vast amount of the world’s resources, but the direction of travel for all nations is towards greater consumption, not less. And the trajectory, at least for the next few decades, is for an increasing population. This ate away at him, particularly in his later years.

 

Aubrey joined David Attenborough and became a patron of the charity Population Matters, which raises awareness of the problems caused by the growing human population and he was passionate about it. He wrote many letters and campaigned and lobbied tirelessly. But not because he thought people are a bad thing, his concern didn’t come from being anti-people, it came from a deep love of the earth and he wanted future generations to experience the awe and wonder of the natural world as he had done. He wanted people to live on a thriving planet that supported their needs but at the same time allowed other life to flourish too.

 

And there is no doubt Aubrey revelled in the wildness of the earth. I remember going with him to the Scottish island of Rhum to do a programme on the red deer rut. If you have never experienced it, the rut is a life tick.  Red deer males are so pumped up in the breeding season they barely eat, they bellow and paw the ground and they swish their antlers through vegetation. We spent the night in a row of tin huts on a remote part of Rhum, away from any houses or roads, to see the deer being studied by Josephine Pemberton as part of a famous, long-term research programme. That night, after we had gone to bed, a red deer stag called Clatter 95 came to the hut and I was woken by the sound of him bashing his huge antlers against the tin wall of my bedroom. He was bellowing outside my window. It was quite scary! The next morning Aubrey was like a 6-year-old, so excited by what had happened. “Did you hear it!  It was fantastic!” And many a time afterwards he said, “I wonder what happened to dear old Clatter 95??” It amused him greatly to discover that Clatter was impressive in the antler department but in fact sired very few offspring and died a few years later from exhaustion! His skull rests in the research station as one of the famous red deer stags of the island.

 

On our way back to the mainland we chartered a small boat. It was a windy, stormy day. I am a poor sailor and sat in a corner of the deck going a deeper shade of green by the second. Aubrey, though, stood at the bow, open coat flapping in the wind, loving every single second. He reminded me of a passage from a book by my conservation hero, John Muir, who describes sailing off the east coast of America, the white spray and wind thrilling him to his soul. That was Aubrey. He was a giant of a man who was as excited about discussing natural history as music as my work on curlews as he was describing the “delicious” characters conjured up in the mind of Trollope, his favourite author. And no one, simply no one, could say “delicious” like Aubrey.

 

I personally learned so much from him. I treasured every minute I spent with him. As Stephanie Hilbourne said, spending time with Aubrey was like reading a book you never want to end. But I think what I learned most from him was the importance of integrity. His life was full of integrity. He was an authentic, deeply honest and good human being, and that is worth more than anything else. I shall miss him so very much.

Finding words

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Yesterday a friend asked me to help with some phrases for a talk he was giving on curlews and the crisis they are facing. It was a strange request in some ways as I haven’t thought like that before. So I sat down and wrote from the heart.

I said I would start by asking the audience what really matters to them? I bet if you did a poll very few, if any, would say just money. No one runs their lives purely on the basis of what something costs. Be that an otter or a sparrow, an elephant or a river, we value them for their own, magnificent selves, not because somehow their presence translates into cash. They lift our hearts, that is all that matters. I’d then ask, what do you teach your children? What do you want for their future? We all want the next generation to be good, fine citizens - rounded and balanced. We want them to inhabit a world that is full of wonder and awe. So, I doubt anyone tells them a bedtime story on how to invest in shares or hedge funds. We read to them about songs and animals, love and joy. We take them through forests and into outer space. We ask them to listen and be a quiet person when a mouse comes tiptoeing through the brambles, then shout loudly when a dolphin leaps or an elephant charges. These are the fantastical, earth inspired adventures we take our littles ones on when we pick up a book or go to the park. So what happens as we get older? Why don’t we notice when something beautiful slips away? Why does it take the empty seat on the bus where the curlew sat, or the eagle or the lion, to be permanently empty before we realise what is happening?  Sadly we do, despite being members of wildlife organisations and caring in our hearts for the state of the planet.

We are a species that wants to live with other species, it seems to be part of our nature to reach out to our fellow travellers, but we do a good job of letting them fade away.

I think we love birds like curlews simply because they take us to where the wild things are - out onto the estuary, onto the shores of the ocean, into cold, wet, quiet fields. We love that burst of song that stops us in our tracks and for a moment, we can just listen, just be with a beautiful, shy bird.  But the declines continue and we are getting perilously close to the time when it will be silent in those places where we loved to listen to them tremble their way through spring and summer. Is there no longer any room in our lives for a singer of wild songs? Sadly, it seems not.