April 29, 2017

Robert Waller

Robert Waller was editor of Mother Earth, the Soil Association‘s journal, from 1964 into the early 1970’s, when he left to become a freelance writer and campaign for a democratic, socialist form of organic farming. He later served on the Editorial Board of The Ecologist magazine.

He had formerly been secretary to Desmond McCarthy, and producer of the BBC Radio arts programme Apollo in the West. As a poet in his own right and protegé of T. S. Eliot, writes Philip Conford (author of Finance versus Farming: Rural Reconstruction and Economic Reform, 1894–1955) Waller

“has a strong claim to be the first ecological literary critic . . . His work for the Soil Association brought a literary perspective to environmental issues, and he has produced detailed and passionate essays on the need to restore a poetic vision of nature, as well as on Shakespeare’s ecological philosophy.”

Conford cites Waller’s article on John Clare in Mother Earth as “perhaps the first example of ecological literary criticism”.

Bob Waller was born on 30 April 1913, and died on 3 November 2005. This tribute was written by Teddy Goldsmith for the occasion of his funeral, on 15 November 2005.

Also of note is the obituary of Robert Waller in the The Guardian of 7 December 2005, by Robert Fyson.


I first met Bob Waller in 1970. He was editor of Mother Earth, the journal of the Soil Association. I, myself, had just founded The Ecologist. As far as I remember, neither Greenpeace nor Friends of the Earth existed in UK – the environmental movement was very small, one might say, embryonic.

The most interesting people involved were probably at the Soil Association. There was a veritable ‘brains trust’ of farmers, scholars, and activists at their headquarters in Suffolk. Professor Lindsay Robb, for instance, whose article “Medicine and Agriculture – is a merger needed?” which appeared in the very first issue of The Ecologist and is still read today. It was published this year in The Italian Ecologist.

There was of course Lady Eve Balfour herself who had put together this ‘brains trust’. She was the author of a superb book, still read today on soil, its structure and preservation.

There was also Ralph Gardener, a well-known figure in the world of organic agriculture and Harry Walters who wrote a very interesting book, if I remember rightly, on artificial fertiliser which he quite rightly decried vehemently.

Bob had already written his biography of George Stapleton with whom he had worked closely when he had his own programme on agriculture with the BBC. He wrote a brilliant article in the second issue of The Ecologist that came out in August 1970 entitled “The Diseases of Civilisation: the declining health of urban man”.

He quoted Elliott Smith, formerly Senior Surgeon at The Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford who pointed out that there were only five cases of appendicitis at the hospital between 1895 and 1905. “There are now over 500 cases each year. Stomach ulcers were not recorded before 1890. Yet in the last war 23,500 men were discharged from the army with them over a period of 30 months (1939-1941)”.

He also wrote an article the second volume of The Ecologist in which he pointed out that tobacco was not the cause of lung cancer, the curing of tobacco was. Where naturally dried tobacco is still smoked, he pointed out, lung cancer is no more a problem than tooth decay where unrefined foods are still eaten.

Bob Waller fully realised, that rather than providing the solution to our social and ecological problems, industrialisation is its main cause. This he illustrated beautifully in a subsequent issue of The Ecologist in 1974 entitled “Our Gradgrind Society”. Thomas Gradgrind was a creation of Charles Dickens, in his famous novel Hard Times. He was created in the image of Bentham and the Utilitarians and Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics. For Dickens, Thomas Gradgrind was

“a man of realities. A man of fact and calculations who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over…. With a rule and a pair of scales and a multiplication table always in his pocket, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature and tell you exactly what it comes to.”

It seems that, in this respect at least, Dickens is still as relevant today as he was in his day – indeed, more relevant.

Bob obviously had Thomas Gradgrind in mind when he wrote his article “Taxation and the future of the farming structure” for The Ecologist in a subsequent issue in 1975. He was horrified at the way in which farming methods were destroying the English countryside and he expressed his horror very eloquently in his poetry. By the way, he wrote beautiful poetry, let me recite two short pieces. The first is called “Grass”:

Grass

Praise be to the immortal grass,
eternal mother of milk and meat
that guards the soil from gales and rain
with its perennial cloak of green.
Without the roots of these tenacious pastures
after the plough has torn the plants apart
soil’s dust transforms the land into a desert
welcoming only goats and travelling camels
where sheep and cattle had once lushly grazed.
‘It always was like this,’ the peasant sighs
without the history to detect the truth
that ploughs and corn as Roman poets knew
had worn and wearied the fertile land to death.

In another poem entitled “Prophecy”, he lamented the cutting down of our forests, the building of endless motorways and hinted at the disasters that this would lead to, including climate change.

Prophecy

Forests sailed down the rivers as lumber long ago;
Meadows of wild flowers were scythed by motorways
now crawling with serpents of traffic burning
the earth’s primeval stores of energy
as warmer air begins to melt the poles.
Mildly intrigued at a far off disaster
– but blissful as they have just bought something new –
the affluent of the Western hemisphere
feast oblivious as sheep before they are slaughtered.

He would occasionally recite his poetry to me when I lived in Kew and we used to go for long walks together in Kew Gardens. Bob was a fine, sensitive and far-seeing man. It was a great privilege to have known him. They don’t make too many like him any more.

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