At the Water’s Edge: A Personal Quest for Wildness by John Lister-Kaye | Books | The Guardian

Scottish Wildcay snarling and being aggressive

The life of a Scottish is a constant battle for survival. Photograph: Ron McCombe/Alamy

In this calendar of walks and reflections the distinguished naturalist John Lister-Kaye urges us to live in the world rather than be distracted by the doomed comforts of over-consumption. It’s hard to imagine anyone disagreeing, but you’d have to admit they do – lots of them. They do so deliberately or by thoughtless reflex, wholly or in part, for reasons including sentiment, stupidity, greed and cynicism. And the behaviour of many who agree with Lister-Kaye is often inconsistent with their principles. He seems to reckon without the effects of that allegedly disgraced term “ideology”, whereby people treat artificially created conditions as natural and inevitable. Cars, to take one grim example, feel “natural” to many people, not just knuckle-dragging petrolheads.

Lister-Kaye is a Darwinian, for whom life is a ceaseless competition to survive – to take and retain power – and among the creatures he describes with such power and beautiful exactitude his favourites are predators such as the wildcat: “The club tail, blunt as an aubergine, far thicker at the tip than a fox’s brush, is black-ringed to a tip dipped in Indian ink . . . The white whiskers flare. The mad metamorphic eyes coldly fire.” A book wholly of this order would be a treasure. His favoured activity is solitary walking and observing, and he has managed to arrange a crowded life so that indispensable solitude is just beyond the study door, beside the loch he owns on the eastern slopes of the Scottish Highlands.

He is clearly a man of principle, but his immediate world is very different from one occupied by the long-term unemployed on a sink estate in Hull or in small towns in northern Scotland. In the afterword, stung by accusations of privilege, he states: “As with any situation in life, it ultimately boils down to what you make of it and how determined you are to stick at things when the going gets tough.”

That, comrades, is the leonine roar of the unwitting ideologue – one, moreover, who growls at the clumsiness of democracy and thinks Something Must Be Done about overpopulation. Something Will Be Done: the third world poor will be allowed to go on dying while their environment is degraded until their plight becomes irremediable, by which time the developed world will be a series of competing fortresses fighting over fuel and water.

Matters become farcical when Lister-Kaye recommends business solutions to political problems: “In the business and commercial world . . . when the cause of a serious problem is known and understood and those in charge continue to ignore it, blindly pressing on towards damage and destruction, it is condemned as professional negligence and people act quickly to remove those responsible and put in place the necessary remedial policies.” Eh? The world itself is a business now, run by petrochemical companies, mining, agribusiness, pharma and the banks, all of which display carelessness, incompetence and cynicism. Though Lister-Kaye attempts a global view, his reading of the human sphere is parochial.

Given his passionate seriousness, you might imagine him throwing up his hands in frustration at these quibbles. Surely the reader can see what he means. But there’s a difference between what he means and what he ends up saying. “Competition never sleeps; it is built into the very spiral of the DNA double helix. Like love and hate, it is built-in, a part of us all.” This might suit the kind of television programme whose evaluative vocabulary ends at “fantastic” and “incredible”, but it won’t do for the kind of argument-cum-meditation Lister-Kaye is engaged in. For “love and hate” read reproduction and competition. If those underlying terms are what Lister-Kaye really means, then he should say so.

You can’t simply use “love” as an add-on to a deterministic scientific world-view any more than you can use “hate”, another emotion requiring nurture and intention to come into its own: these are characteristics that accompany consciousness, which is exactly what we don’t share with the animals Lister-Kaye so admires. His longing to surrender a sophisticated self in favour of the animals’ natural fit with their environment, to stop thinking and simply be present, would make no sense to a wildcat. Nor would the sheep and deer he resents for replacing older Highland fauna be concerned that they are beneficiaries of environmental damage by early farmers who cleared the forest and killed the bears and wolves.

In this sense, there may be no nature to go back to. Indeed, Lister-Kaye suggests as much when summarising the ecological history of the Highlands, without being quite able to accept the separation enforced by consciousness. He seems to oppose the pathetic fallacy while indulging it (slow worms are described as dreaming, for example). Above all, though, nature doesn’t care whether you’re on its side. And perhaps what makes the piety of some environmentalism so annoying is the sense of being addressed by someone who thinks they’re a member of a club that doesn’t actually exist.

It may be such an unworthy but recognisable response that animates the exemplary ‘orrible teenager Sammy, encountered by Lister-Kaye on a school visit. She can’t be made to care about the fate of the planet, having biological problems of her own to contend with. She, too, is a product of her environment: why should she be any smarter than the men who sell the world?

Sean O’Brien’s novel Afterlife is published by Picador.


Sean O’Brien on a back-to-nature book that misreads human beings. I have some sympathy with O’Briens take on this but you can’t deny the passion of Lister-Kaye for his environment.


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