Norfolk Wildlife Trust evangelist Nick Acheson on a festival inspired by the natural world
A selection of art exhibitions in the county
Among the defining qualities of humanity is our ability – our inherent need – to praise in words, images and music the natural world which gives us home. Many species copy sounds they hear around them: think of marsh warblers in east European wetlands, Lawrence’s thrushes in Amazonia and superb lyrebirds in the rainforests of southeast Australia, all of which incorporate dozens of other birds’ calls or ambient noises into their songs.
Others, like the bowerbirds of New Guinea and Australia, construct striking tableaux of flowers, leaves and shells in which to dance. But these are strategies to woo a mate, using and reflecting elements of the natural world for a purpose; they are not hymns in praise of nature, or even expressions of fascination with it.
Through history we humans have made things, said things, written things and sung things which are not functional. They have not filled our bellies with food; they have not kept us safe from harm; they have not – per se – made it more likely we would breed and hand our genes to future generations.
What they have done is lay bare our sense of wonder at the natural world; they have furthered understanding of our place in it; and they have expressed kinship with the other beings which shape and inhabit it. From the lion-man of Hohlenstein-Stadel and the cave paintings of Lascaux, through the fables attributed to Aesop and adapted by La Fontaine, to the elegiac music of Vaughan Williams and on to the present day, countless millions of us – in every culture and in every age – have looked on nature and known a need to express the feelings she stirs in us.
At Norfolk Wildlife Trust, engaging people with nature is among our core commitments. We teach thousands of children about wildlife on our reserves each year, because we understand that people need nature in their lives and nature needs people who love her.
As the Senegalese forester Baba Dioum famously put it; “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.” Yet teaching
and learning – in life and at Norfolk Wildlife Trust – are far from simply a matter of young pupils soaking up knowledge from adults. They are a lifelong adventure, with each of us learning from wildlife in different ways and at different times. It is this understanding which sits at the heart of Cley Calling.
Cley Calling is a festival of writing, art, photography, music and performance – all inspired by the natural world – which takes place every year at NWT Cley and Salthouse Marshes. Each event in the festival reflects nature in a different way, through the eyes, the voice, the fingertips or the mind of a different artist.
For some lovers of the wild – and I grew up among them – engaging with nature involves detailed study, description and naming. This relationship with wildlife runs deep through the ornithological pedigree of Cley and Salthouse Marshes and it is right that it should run through Cley Calling too. With its mix of grazing marsh, saltmarsh and reedbed, with patches of woodland, heath and scrub nearby, Cley is not only a celebrated site for birds. Its varied habitats are also home to many scarce or little-known species of moth; so experts will be on hand during the festival to open their live traps and share a haul of moths whose beauty is matched only by the strange, poetic names they were given by our Victorian naturalist forebears.
Even less well known than moths are solitary bees, many of which are tiny and inhabit vanishing remnants of habitat. If only – you say – north Norfolk had its own expert on solitary bees to share his years of study and hymenopteran erudition and to fly the flag for these wonderful, neglected insects. As luck would have it we do! Nick Owens, author of Bees of Norfolk and a Cley local, will lead a Cley Calling workshop on bee identification, aimed at complete beginners and established bee-lovers alike.
Terrestrial and visual animals that we are, we understand fish still less than we do bees and moths. But Cley and Salthouse Marshes lie between land and sea, where the bright water of the Glaven flows out past Blakeney Point to meet the inhabitants of Norfolk’s unique chalk reef. This is emphatically a place of fish too. Bringing her new book
Eye of the Shoal, Helen Scales (a fitting surname indeed) comes to
Cley Calling to destroy the myth that fish are brute, unthinking creatures and to enchant us with the watery secrets of their lives.
For many of us, naming and studying the denizens of the natural world are secondary to a raw sense of wonder. North Norfolk artist Amelia Mills is enthralled by the shifting moods and shapes of the sea. For
Cley Calling she will deliver a demonstration of her unique style of capturing North Sea waves in paint.
There far more than I can mention here to this celebration of all things wild. There is music; there is food; there is art; there is the crunch of shingle under feet; there is the clumsy flap of freshly fledged marsh harrier chicks; there is the summer sun. There is, above all, humanity transfixed by nature, as we have always been and as always we must be.
Helen Scales and fish by Ria Mishaal
Amelia Mills in the studio
Booking now open for Cley Calling events. Visit cleycalling. com or call 01263 740008 Cley Marshes visitor and Aspinall centres
Six-spot Burnet moth emerging at Cley Marshes