Sol95-Sol120EXCERPTOFTRANSCRIPT – B Garlick 2018

Contextual Commentary

My contribution to the Terra Two archive is an attempt to reckon with key themes emergent through my research into the protection of the osprey (Pandion halieatus) in Scotland, primarily during the 20th century. Once numerous across the UK, the osprey was eventually wiped out in Britain by 1916 owing to persecution. Subsequently, during the late-1950s, migrant birds from Scandinavia would re-colonise the Scottish highlands, with the assistance of protection implemented by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). My aim was to explore the various ways in which bird and human (along with other creatures and objects) came together on Speyside in the Cairngorms over the course of the different conservation initiatives enacted from the mid-twentieth century onwards, producing new forms of entangled human-osprey ecologies.


The format of my submission is inspired by the ecological records and log books I encountered during the course of sifting through documentary sources in search of the stories of osprey conservationists and the creatures they hoped to protect. Here, in brief, I outline two of the key themes arising within my research that have inspired my creative writing.


In the history of conservation data recording during the twentieth century – particular within the field of ornithology, which is my primary interest – one sees a shift from naturalistic, prosaic and romantic accounts of encounters with other creatures towards more regimented, orderly and standardised forms of information transcription. Such a transition, as author and historian of science Helen MacDonald describes, constitute the emergence of a scientific ‘way of seeing’ the natural world [1]. To see scientifically was to see systematically, objectively, and with close adherence to method.


In the course of archive-based research I spent a good deal of time reading through the surviving log books from Loch Garten, which became, in 1959, the first recorded site of osprey breeding in the UK for nearly 40 years. These books were filled with the recorded observations of osprey life by (mostly) volunteer wardens, concealed in the forward hide. As I dug deeper through this material, I became aware that I was witnessing a key shift in the approach to recording take place. A key theme of my writing developed thereafter: examining how the kinds of ‘questions’ conservation science asks of nature – in this case, ospreys – affected what is known about, and thus also done to (or with), that nature [2].


The first logs of osprey behaviour produced at Loch Garten were transcribed into school jotters. The time was scrawled into the margin, badging a prosaic account that summarised what the birds were – or had been – doing. This account was just as likely to include notes of other birds seen, sounds heard, the weather, and the feelings of excitement or boredom on the part of the author. Finding that the first few years of such records proved frustratingly time-consuming to decode when it came to analysis the individuals in charge of the project soon begin to instill certain standards for how data was to be recorded. ‘No anthropomorphisms, please!’ was inked into the opening pages of one logbook in 1961. A few years later, wardens were experimenting with a columned approach to recording the birds’ activities. They disaggregated osprey life into quantifiable behavioural units that could be tallied and totaled. At the same time, these columns directed the watcher towards those elements of the scene before them deemed relevant to the business of understanding nesting ecology. By the early 1970s, the school jotter was both figuratively and literally an accountants ledger of osprey behavioural transactions.


Inevitably, to prescribe the normative dimensions for making knowledge about nature is to also prescribe the form that such knowledge should take, as well as what is included in its making. The categories and codes by which we label and sort the world are not neutral – they act upon it, bringing certain aspects close to hand and demoting others to the background [3]. The decision, for example, to limit the scope of osprey volunteers to speculate on how the female on the nest might be feeling in response to the disturbances of a crow, or a human trespasser – in favour of counting the number of times she moves position in the hour – closes off certain ways of talking about the birds, as beings with which we share the world, and reifies others, in which each species has as set behavioural model with discernible dimensions. In the course of my research I was led to wonder how a system of recording observations taken to extremes, policed so as to be completely devoid of sentiment or subjectivity, might look.


A second theme that runs through much of my work has been how human-animal interactions within conservation settings don’t merely preserve threatened forms of nature, but produce new environments and ‘natures’ (plural) in the process. Whilst studying the osprey story I have sought to compose a history of conservation that pays heed to the historicity of human and avian life. I have tried to pay attention to the ways in which the past lives of ospreys, via their interactions with places and their varied inhabitants, cascade through time so they may mediate ecologies in the future.


This has led me to read the story of the osprey’s return from extinction in Scotland alongside narratives concerning projects like re-wilding or de-extinction. These emergent forms of contemporary conservation are risky, uncertain and experimental. Whilst the overarching aim is easy to grasp – a desire to reconstitute lost natures and kick-start autonomous environmental processes – the outcome of such activities is far from settled, scientifically or politically [5].


I have been thinking through such plans to restore ecosystems and reintroduce lost creatures in the light of recent humanities scholarship around extinction and ‘affective’ ecologies – the idea that animals’ relations with environments, and each other, are as patterned by desire, memory or developing perceptive capacities as they are by the craving for biological necessities, like food or shelter. As a result of these conceptual interests, I have started to wonder about both the past and future of osprey life, in the UK and beyond. I wonder, in the case of ospreys past – which, in the nineteenth century in Britain, once demonstrated a distinctive way of life in the manner of its nest sites that contrasts how their kin dwell today – what has been lost in the course of an extinction that cannot be replaced [6].


Equally, I ask, what might be carried with ospreys in the future as a result of their involvements with humans today? How do such pasts, and past places, make themselves known in the course of re-introductions, re-locations and re-engineering schemes? In the most extreme example this has led me to ask: what could a known species bring to a new planet; is it more than their biological capacities to fill certain vacant niches?


As noted at the outset, my submission is based on a longer project of doctoral research into the histories and geographies of osprey conservation in Scotland over the past two centuries. If you would like to know more about this project, then you can find a short summary document available on my website. There you will also be able to find my contact details, should you wish to read the full thesis. Here I hope to convey some of the ideas that inform my academic work through creative fiction, in a more playful, risky mode.




[1] Helen MacDonald. 2002. ‘What makes you a scientist is the way you look at things’: ornithology and the observer 1930–1955. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 33(1) 53-77

[2] See Vinciane Despret. 2016. What would animals say if we asked the right questions? University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis

[3] Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Star. 1999. Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences. MIT Press, Cambridge MA

[4] Jonathan Prior and Emily Brady. 2017. Environmental Aesthetics and Rewilding. Environmental Values 26(1) 31-51

[5] See Jamie Lorimer. 2015. Wildlife in the Anthropocene: Conservation After Nature. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis

[6] This argument is developed in full in the following paper: Ben Garlick. Forthcoming. Cultural geographies of extinction: Animal culture amongst Scottish ospreys.


BGarlick B.W Portrait

Dr Ben Garlick is a Lecturer in Human Geography at York St John University. His research explores the historical geographies of conservation in the twentieth century, particularly those of the osprey (Pandion haliaetus) in Scotland. This is his first foray into the realms of creative writing as a means to explore his conceptual interest in human-animal relations and environmental writing through the lens of humanities scholarship.

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