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Issue 259
March/April 2010
Seeds of Change: The Future of Food

Reviews

The Poet of Ecology
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Cover: Light micrograph of part of a thinly sliced section through a strawberry. Photograph: Eye of Science/Science Photo Library.

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The Poet of Ecology

A selection of writings in memory of the environmentalist Robert Waller. The Poet of Ecology: A Selection of Writings in Memory of Robert Waller (1913–2005), edited by Philip Conford with the help of Anne and Richard Baillie. Norroy Press, 2008. ISBN 9780956006400.

The process by which certain people are marginalised, or air-brushed from memory, while others receive a surfeit of attention, needs analysis by cultural historians. Robert Waller (Bob, as he was generally known) once told me that he approached Faber and Faber, who had published his biography of the ecologist Sir George Stapledon, to see if they would consider taking his own memoirs. The reply, according to Bob, was that they would not want to publish them, no matter how interesting they were.

On the face of it, Bob’s life had indeed been as interesting as many lives which are preserved in print. After studying journalism at University College, London, he became secretary to the eminent critic Sir Desmond MacCarthy and a protégé of T. S. Eliot, who saw the promise in his youthful writing. In 1939, the Hogarth Press selected him as one of their ‘Poets of Tomorrow’. He mixed in bohemian circles, too, as a friend of the painter Graham Bell, and met Henry Miller in Paris. A perhaps excessive mistrust of authority led him to retain the rank of private in the army throughout the war, during which he took part in the D-Day landings. By happy chance he found a post-war job with BBC Radio’s new Third Programme, where he produced philosophy discussions. Later, he moved to Bristol and worked for the BBC’s West of England service with Victor Bonham-Carter and Desmond Hawkins. He developed the arts series Apollo in the West and encouraged the career of the poet Charles Causley, among other contributors.

During this period, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Bob was asked to produce agricultural programmes. Ecology joined poetry and philosophy as one of his main concerns when he became aware of the far-reaching changes which agri-business techniques were imposing on rural life. He met Sir George Stapledon, one of the great influences on the early organic movement, and wrote his biography, Prophet of the New Age, which appeared in 1962. This tribute to a great agricultural scientist played a key role in Bob’s appointment as editorial secretary to the Soil Association, where he spent the years from 1964 to 1972: a period during which environmentalism came to prominence in the wake of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Supported by his assistant Michael Allaby, Bob worked to place the Soil Association, with its holistic philosophy of Nature, at the heart of the environmental movement. He discovered that E. F. Schumacher had been an Association member since 1951 and persuaded him to become more actively involved: Schumacher subsequently served as President for six years.

But Bob was never at home in any organisation, and in 1972 he left the Soil Association to write a major study of human ecology, also working on the editorial board of the Ecologist magazine. His book Be Human or Die was published the following year: it was an ambitious attempt to create a philosophy which would defend both Nature and humanity against the dominance of scientific materialism. Although containing many valuable insights, it was written under difficult personal circumstances and is perhaps too untidy to be regarded as fully successful. Bob remained committed to the environmentalist cause for the rest of his life, writing an excellent summary of post-war farming policy, The Agricultural Balance Sheet, for the Green Alliance in 1982 and editing for many years the journal of the Commonwealth Human Ecology Council.

As Bob could not find a publisher for his memoirs, his family and friends had to be satisfied with a privately printed volume, The Pilgrimage of Eros, which contains some illuminating descriptions of 1930s’ literary life. Regrettably, he never managed to put on paper an account of his post-war years in radio and his freelance work in television, or his memories of the organic movement, though his satirical novel Shadow of Authority offers a telling portrait of the BBC’s corporate culture.

Following Bob’s death in 2005, his daughter Anne Baillie and I agreed that a memorial volume, combining extracts from his writings with contributions from friends and former colleagues, would be the best way of celebrating his many-faceted life. We took the title, The Poet of Ecology, from Fantasy, the Bomb, and the Greening of Britain by the American academic Meredith Veldman. Veldman visited Bob in the late 1980s as part of her research into British environmentalism and used this phrase as the heading for her section on Bob’s role in the movement. The Philosopher of Ecology would have been an equally valid title. As a seventeen-year-old, Bob had been profoundly affected by a series of radio talks given by Professor John Macmurray, who convinced him that the purely intellectual life was sterile and must be balanced by emotion, art and personal relationships. Bob’s later ideas embodied this perspective, locating the environmental movement in a broader context of culture and philosophies. Like all true organicists, he noted the interconnectedness of life’s many forms and activities. He fought passionately to protect the outer, natural world, but paid close attention to the inner landscape of dreams. Always interested in politics, he was nevertheless a complete individualist. He had little time for institutional religion, but belief in a spiritual dimension was central to his “ecological humanism”.

Perhaps this crossing of boundaries worked against him, for our culture prefers to pigeonhole people. Or perhaps he lacked the narrowly ambitious drive which enables someone to focus on achieving success in a chosen sphere. H. J. Massingham’s widow Penelope told me that she felt her husband had neglected his poetic gifts for the sake of his commitment to the cause of agriculture, and the same may have been true of Bob Waller. In 1951, Erica Marx’s Hand and Flower Press published his poetic masterpiece The Two Natures, which The Poet of Ecology reprints in full. Around this time, Bob began developing the ideas on environment and farming which would dominate the second half of his life. His later verse grew increasingly polemical, though at its best it could be sharply epigrammatic. Bob preferred to follow his own daimon rather than fulfil himself in worldly terms of career and status, and this ensured that the environmental movement had a gifted communicator as one of its most prominent advocates.

The memories Bob’s friends provide are warm and often humorous but do not indulge in hagiography: Bob could be fiery and at times rather vain. Nevertheless, the words with which Michael Allaby ends his contribution express my own feelings: “Life moves on. No one who knew Bob could easily forget him. I never shall.”

The Poet of Ecology: A Selection of Writings in Memory of Robert Waller (1913–2005), edited by Philip Conford with the help of Anne and Richard Baillie, is available for £20 plus p&p from Philip Conford. Email: paconford@aol.com Philip Conford’s next book, The Organic Network 1945-1995, is due to be published by Floris later this year.

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