“This is the age of science”, is the cry from ministries and other authorities, and it is true that science must play a large part in the lives of our future citizens. But do we truly want or need a nation of scientists where each person can claim that he or she has attained some sort of recognition of one or other kind of scientific achievement? Is there to be no room for the Arts; is there to be no effort to instil into those still young enough to learn, that a robot society which neither knows nor cares about lovely things or natural beauties or plants or animals will be a dry as dust existence as arid as any desert.”
Maxwell Knight – Chapter I of (the unpublished) Frightened Face of Nature (1964).
See also: Richard Attenborough’s ‘The arts are not a luxury’ speech
“Young people” hit the headlines this week for all the right reasons – to share their 2050 vision for nature (#VisionforNature). Let us applaud these nature-protecting protagonists for making themselves heard above the daily noise of grumpy adults.
They have spoken.
Now, we must listen…
Maxwell Knight would – of course – be gratified.
In this heartfelt chapter of The Frightened Face of Nature, Maxwell Knight drops his guard and invites the reader to consider the unthinkable – “the virtual disappearance of nature”.
“Does such a question as that heading this chapter stem from the neurotic imaginings of a fanatic,” he asks, “or is it one that can reasonably be put forward at the present (1964) time?”
This is a chapter of reflection – he questions how readers will see him, but his vulnerability is shelved for a higher purpose, for his love of all things nature. “It is always said that no person can truly see himself as he truly is to others, so one must be careful when producing an idea which might lead to the conclusion that no one in his right senses could even begin to think of anything so terrible and fantastic as the virtual disappearance of living things from the face of the earth or the ocean deeps.” He wrote this two years after Rachel Carson published Silent Spring (1962).
Could it be that “Miss Carson” awakened something within him that he couldn’t ignore? He acknowledges her “excellent book” and draws attention to her efforts to ban the indiscriminate use of pesticides like DDT. Was The Frightened Face of Nature his homage to Silent Spring? Or was this the treatise of an amateur naturalist, who’d spent his entire life interacting with nature, and who spotted something that many either ignored or turned a blind eye to?
He sets us up nicely and tucks us in to hear the “facts” that have encouraged him to draw our attention to his findings: “Take a deep breath, count up to ten or even twenty, and then consider some of the facts not fantasies – which face every human being today…”
The essence of this chapter is this: “in nature, all living things depend on something else.”
In just forty years between 1970 and 2010 the global Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures more than “10,000 representative populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, has declined by 52 per cent.” (source: WWF Living Planet Report 2014). The World Wildlife Fund’s and ZSL’s LPI report states that, “Habitat loss and degradation, and exploitation through hunting and fishing (intentionally for food or sport, or accidentally, for example as bycatch) are the primary causes of decline.”
A decline of 52% is shocking and we need things to change because as long as there are two songbirds still singing the percentage decline can’t get any worse, can it?
For things to change, we have to change: we have to agree that this problem isn’t going to go away on its own; we need our best people to stand up for nature and make certain we keep nature on the agenda during exit negotiations with the EU; our political leaders need to commit to making decisions that outlast their premiership; and we as consumers and business people need to think (really think) about our actions and – as WWF International Director General, Marco Lambertini, puts it, “build a future where people can live and prosper in harmony with nature.”
Currently, however, man runs the planet like his personal bank account – often consuming more than there is in reserve. The difference being that, the Natural World cannot plug the consumption gap with electronic quantitative easing and bail itself out; nature cannot be re-printed and re-distributed for us to “try harder next time.” We have one shot at managing the industrialized world’s interventions with nature and so far the results speak for themselves: the more man unsympathetically expands and consumes the planet’s natural capital, the more frightened the face of nature becomes.
The LPI states: “We may need 1.5 Earths to meet the demands humanity makes on nature each year.” It appears to either be us or nature who will survive, which is impossible: as we kill off nature, we kill off ourselves.
Will wildlife populations have halved again in the next forty years? That’s the question that’s on my mind as I write this and – if it’s on your mind too – we’re in the perfect place to acknowledge that this is exactly how Maxwell Knight felt when he sat down to write The Frightened Face of Nature during the 1960s and share his reflections on the first-half of the 20th century plus his concerns for the future of nature, for the second half of the Century.
He’d woken up to nature’s plight and we might try to do the same.
We cannot “pop out” to the shops or go online and purchase a new ecosystem from Amazon. Our planet’s interconnected community of living things relies on the availability of non-living things; like water, air, soil, and that’s reflected throughout the living world and broken down into its most humble (but nonetheless essential) common denominator as food, water, shelter and a place to breed.
We can start small – in our own back yards: provide safe habitat and open up a wildlife garden and its occupants will likely flourish. Encourage your neighbours to do the same and together these gardens stack up and become a super-highway, a wildlife corridor for nature to gather its thoughts and try to recover its loses. Things can improve (look how the reduction of CFCs has helped the ozone layer heal).
In contrast, strip back nature – decimate the trees and natural flora – pave every square foot of space and fight back weeds with chemicals and nature will pass quietly away, forever. Those that can – birds for example – will try to make their home elsewhere, but they will find themselves intruding on other birds’ territory. Their future in this brief scenario is bleak. Amplify this on a global scale and factor in the growth of humankind and his exploits and it’s not hard to see why nature is on its back foot.
Simon H King
“Many people think that animals of all kinds can be neatly put into groups and labelled Friend, or Foe; or Harmless, or Harmful. Unfortunately, nature does not work like this, and there are very few creatures in this country that can be described as wholly beneficial or equally destructive…
This business of friends and foes in nature is a complicated one, but the way to approach it is to learn all we can about the habits of these animals before we decide whether they are guilty or not guilty.”
– Maxwell Knight (Source: The Frightened Face of Nature).
Maxwell Knight was aware of the furore and criticism from chemical companies and others when Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring in 1962. Indeed, he credits her work in his unpublished manuscript. She wasn’t the only one in those years who drew attention to environmental problems and was criticised for not being “proper scientists”; however, her work was (is still) seminal.
Maxwell Knight was openly an amateur naturalist; however, so was Sir Peter Scott; Gerald Durrell and Charles Darwin. The first reason he did not publish this manuscript is that his publishers were divided – one thought it was the rantings of an amateur naturalist and the other believed the claims to be unscientific. What his publisher couldn’t have known at the time was how prescient the observations were.
The main reason, however, is fear of being branded a communist; Chemical companies condemned Rachel Carson’s findings as flawed and defended DDT by saying that it would be impossible to feed a country without pesticides. Her opponents were
many; she was accused of dreadful things including communism. Had Maxwell Knight received the same attention, the impact could have been far-reaching.
In 1962 the western world was in a “Cold War” with the Soviet Union and he could not have risked being branded with the same iron Miss Carson was (unfairly) branded with ‘unpatriotic and sympathetic to communism’. Given his MI5 status and the fact that four of the Cambridge “Five” Spies (Maclean, Burgess, Philby, Blunt and eventually years later John Cairncross) – recruited by Stalin’s agents in the 50s – had been exposed by 1964. Add to this that Knight was amongst the first to warn MI5 that it had been infiltrated by the soviets (he wrote a paper entitled ‘The Comintern Is Not Dead’, sharing his fears about the potential danger of the NKVD).
It could just have been bad timing:
In 1964, five years before the moon landing, governments were spending their time and money focusing on projects that would continue to pummel nature and perhaps he simply felt that the 60s weren’t going to be the decade in which to encourage the planet’s occupants to be kinder. The world was rather preoccupied with The Soviet Union’s “Space Race” and America’s rebuttal with the “moon programme”, and all manner of changes that might have felt alien to a man like Knight, including the period of radical political change in Africa – where Knight focuses a good deal of his manuscript’s attention – as the thirty-two countries gained independence from its European colonial rulers.
Whatever the reason, Knight locked away The Frightened Face of Nature in his filing cabinet for the very last time at some point before his death in 1968, and there it sat – with a rich seam of national and natural history, until 2015.
The purpose behind sharing the filing cabinet’s contents is to encourage debate on the state of the world’s nature. We think Maxwell Knight would have approved.
M’s (Maxwell Knight) Spectre: The Frightened Face of Nature
During the 1960’s Maxwell Knight “M” was working on a manuscript entitled The Frightened Face of Nature, snatching brief moments to record his thoughts on how man had treated nature so unfairly for the first fifty years of the twentieth century. The manuscript documented Knight’s greatest fears that, time was running out for nature and that its greatest threat was man’s destructive revolution and the reverse of evolution.
The manuscript was kept under lock and key and it remained a secret until 2015 when the (hitherto unpublished) manuscript was discovered inside M’s personal filing cabinet, which had been bequeathed to a family friend. The manuscript will be updated and released as a book to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Maxwell Knight’s death in 1968 and it is hoped that it will shine a spotlight on the unacceptable way man treats nature.
Why this book matters more after fifty years:
This was a man who had helped defeat the Nazis and their fifth column British sympathisers, sniffed out a Communist rat in MI5 and to any herpetologist who was alive in the 1950s or 1960s the name of Maxwell Knight needs no introduction, but for all others: he was founder member of The British Herpetological Society, he was a well-known BBC broadcaster and writer who appeared in and hosted Nature Parliament, Country Questions and Naturalist. He had a special penchant for reptiles and amphibians. Many of today’s leading naturalists owe much to the influence of Maxwell Knight and the sound and practical advice which he so skilfully conveyed.
Copyright: See acknowledgements
Previous books and articles on Maxwell Knight have focused on another, undeniably more headline grabbing, side of his life and character; revealing that Knight played a vital role in MI5 in the Second World War and was also one of Ian Fleming’s inspirations for James Bond’s unflappable “M”, so skilfully played initially by the great Bernard Lee.
Something (or someone) stopped him, however, from driving his manuscript to be published… Was it the negative attention Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring received? Were Knight’s publishers afraid to publish – or did they just feel these were the rantings of an “amateur” naturalist?
Whatever the reason was behind “M” not publishing The Frightened Face of Nature it was written for such a time as this; when there are more and more of us ready to stare down the barrel of the truth that, we are literally frightening the life out of nature.
Today, many of his fears have sadly become our reality:
In just forty years between 1970 and 2010 the global Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures more than 10,000 vertebrate populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, has declined by 52 per cent. The World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) and Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) LPI report state that “Habitat loss and degradation, and exploitation through hunting and fishing (intentionally for food or sport, or accidentally, for example as by-catch) are the primary causes of decline.”
Maxwell Knight’s hope was that the progress “at any cost” approach would change – and that, industrialised nations would stop playing the short-term nature unfriendly game of habitat destruction so often carried out in the name of progress.
Did you know Maxwell Knight?
We are planning a book about Maxwell Knight, with particular reference to his contributions to natural history in the late 1940s and 1950s until his death in 1968.
In the early 1960s Maxwell Knight began to think about a new, for him rather different, book. He was becoming aware of the marked environmental and social changes that had taken place in Britain and overseas since 1900 (the year of his birth) and felt that there was a need to draw these to the attention of the public.
We would like to hear from people who might have known Maxwell Knight (MK) or been influenced by him and wonder if you would be willing to contact us – using the form below – and confirm that you are willing, in due course, to give us more details. We will then contact you again later this year or early in 2017.
Thank you in advance
Your information will not appear on this blog (or in the book) without your approval.
Living Planet Index – courtesy of WWF/ZSL/GFN
In reproducing portraits of the late Major Maxwell Knight, we pay tribute to his family, not only for giving us the pictures but also for their encouragement and hospitality in years gone by…