Today we post the final essay in our summer series of emerging nature writers. As we welcome new students to the University of Leeds and the School of English this week, we are delighted to be publishing the work of one of our current English Literature undergraduates, Lauren Maltas. In “Process: on writing, inexperience and Kathleen Jamie” Lauren offers us a deeply-felt meditation on what it means to read and write about nature, and how reflecting on nature – in its broadest definition – enables her to recover personal memories and experiences which then play an integral part in her narratives of the ‘nearby wild’.
‘it is the dark side of the moon we call being human’
– Rebecca Solnit, ‘Knot’ The Faraway Nearby
This summer I set out on the biggest writing project of my life and have been persistently reminded that I am only twenty years old, and yet to complete my undergraduate degree. It has been equally the most rewarding and difficult thing I have done, it has cost me a summer of relaxation, and given me a summer of purposefulness. It has also made me question why I want to write, and why to begin with, I thought I could. What I have been writing is a non-fiction book about the place I live, the rural-urban blur-land of West Yorkshire, the spaces I travel through as I commute to and from university. It is also about how I came to be who I am, reclaiming ownership of my dead grandparents, coming to terms with an odd and long-lasting shadow of alienation and overwhelmed-ness.
Before I started writing, I immersed myself in the wonderful piles of nature writing to be found in Leeds’ Waterstones. My neighbour gave me his worn copies of out-of-print nature writing. I’ve read things I’ve loved, things I’ll forget, things I didn’t fully understand, but mostly I’ve read Kathleen Jamie. Her two essay collections had luckily been on two module reading lists at uni, but I was yet to find her poetry. Her Selected Poems popped up as I was about to make a pre-order purchase of Surfacing. I read all the headliners first, ‘Mr and Mrs Scotland are Dead’, ‘The Queen of Sheba’- they were as good as I’d expected. My favourite poem of all in the blue bound book, however, is ‘Moon’. I’m yet to etch it all into my brain, but a few lines are already stuck: ‘She travelled |with a small valise of darkness’, ‘I waited; watched for an age| her cool gaze shift’ and finally the stanza of all-time ‘then glide to recline| along the pinewood floor| before I’d had enough. Moon| I said, we’re both scarred now.’
I hadn’t seen a picture of Kathleen Jamie until after I read Selected Poems, or if I had I hadn’t clocked that it was her. In my head Kathleen was quite a faceless figure, in some way, I felt I would recognise her personality if I were to find myself chatting on the street, but I had no way of recognising her physical form through the words she had written. I had begun writing at this point, the first difficult sentences, wading into boggy memories of my grandma’s dementia that coincided so cruelly with my childhood, the snow that became a sign of illness, stillness, and my grandad’s unexpected death. Until I started writing I hadn’t realised that I felt their story wasn’t mine to tell, that somehow, perhaps because I was only their grandchild and not more typically ‘immediate’, I shouldn’t have been so affected by their illnesses and deaths. I kept writing, enjoyed the idea of reclaiming, exploring a time I didn’t even know had been missing. As I was writing about them, I was trying to entwine some sentences on ‘nature’. I made points about forests and national parks, and I said things that essentially boil down to ‘this doesn’t belong to me’ and ‘I will never feel at home here’. I returned to Kathleen Jamie, recalling how I felt she so fitted into her environment, and saw my mistake. She had never left the house, and still the Moon found her. I stopped and re-wrote the forests for my grandad’s garden, the quarries, the scoured patches of land my train zips through. I wrote about houseplants on my windowsills, the ways in which asparagus ferns give the illusion of a vast forest, even on the small desk where I do most of my work. I found a way of seeing nature in everything I participated in every day, instead of a distant place, so typically ‘natural’ that it felt so far from the truth of nature in my own life.
To refresh myself with a change of pace, and because I had been recommended it earlier in the year by a seminar tutor, I began reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. It’s not nature writing in the same sense as John Clare or Robert Macfarlane, as in no-one has given it that label. I felt I recognised some of Roger Deakin in his notebooks for the Granta New Nature Writing issue in it, though. It speaks of ‘nature’ in a different way, nature meaning the character of, the personality of, the human condition. It also charts Solnit’s experience of Alzheimer’s with her mother, and crucially how this illness lands you in a position you are not qualified to handle, but must. I remembered my own days with grandma, talking about my imaginary husband when she needed me to be a friend she could feel equal to. Another day out with mum looking for her, finding her trying the doors of all the cars up the street. Rarely was I a child with grandma, rarely did I fit my label. The title, Faraway Nearby, reminded me of grandma even before I read it. That song we sing for her ‘even though you’re far away, we still love you’ which was profoundly accurate both during her illness and once she was gone.
Inside the book, because she was on my mind, floating like a mist through my subconscious, I found Kathleen Jamie again. From her two essay collections, I had been most shocked and intrigued by ‘Surgeons’ Hall’ from Findings. I had thought it out of place in a supposed collection of nature writing, more disturbing, close to home, tactile than anything I had read in the genre before. I don’t like the thought that bodies do not belong to us. That upon death, an organ can be removed, transplanted into someone else, and survive, just fine, another eighty years without you, despite how miraculous I know it is. I do not like the thought that my body is not only mine, and for my own purposes. In ‘Surgeons’ Hall’, bodies and body parts are not primarily for the person that grew them, but exist inside glass jars for the interest and education of the person who harvested them and their future students. They stand as monuments to organs that were interesting, because they went wrong. I thought of my grandma, and a brain in a big wide jar like a goldfish bowl, or even an aquarium.
‘Surgeons’ Hall’ re-appeared to me during Solnit’s chapter ‘Breath’ in which she describes two pyramids jutting out of the sea like a pair of breasts. She writes it was startling to see that what she had thought of as one peak, was in fact two, and ‘more startling’ that they ‘so resembled human anatomy’. A couple of pages over she describes sea urchins, scallops, starfish, crabs which have been dragged up from the ocean floor as being ‘bright like internal organs’. I felt slightly crippled by the thought of that, that ocean creatures who I would hear on the news were being lost to the effects of over-fishing, bleaching, increased water temperatures, were akin to the human body in their vulnerability. In a book not considered ‘nature writing’ and self-described as ‘Memoir/Anti-Memoir’ I found evidence of the kind of nature I could feel, nature that was both happening to me and personally remote, that was because of me and yet not in my control. Kathleen Jamie, and her jars of organs-in-waiting were everywhere to be seen, but again I had missed something. I had been only terrified, shocked and not comforted by something that really, showed me how powerful I was.
I came to my senses later when I re-read Jamie’s essay Frissure. Somehow I had forgotten it, I think, because upon my first read I hadn’t understood it. The key message I take from Frissure is Jamie’s recognition of the importance of perspective, that in requesting a surgeon to try to repair you, or an artist to draw you, you relinquish your control over how you are seen. In asking Brigid Collins to make art out of her scar, Jamie relinquished herself to the gaze of an artist, and in doing so opened up the possibility of perspective. Her scar could become both a sign of medical intervention, and also a starting point from which to create.
As you can probably imagine, I realised that to say I was supposed to be writing, I was spending most of my time reading. In truth I didn’t feel ready to write these things that I knew I felt when I read them, but somehow didn’t think I would be able to articulate so that my reader would feel them too. I was only twenty and yet to complete my undergraduate degree. I still didn’t feel I completely had the right to claim my grandparent’s deaths, or to say that my urban-rural blur was in fact ‘nature’. I turned my attention to other things until the confidence built up again.
The ‘other things’ happened to be poetry. I went back to ‘Moon’, and I wrote a series of short, scrappy poems. One day after a visit to my one remaining grandparent, fifteen minutes in my garden, and a sandwich produced from pretty desolate cupboards, I wrote this:
I grow Chinese lanterns, teasels, honesty
Simply to preserve them.
It occurs to me as I make a sandwich
That the beetroot, sliced and in vinegar
Has been grown like this, with this intention.
As my seedlings grow, a month now before drying
I speak with my gran, about the joy of peeling boiled beetroot.
Of course I don’t know it, but I tell her
Yes, it is like peeling off a scab (dead, healed skin)
And she cannot tell the difference.
They are not particularly good poems, but they showed me the various ways in which the jars of organs, my dead grandparents, my fascination with stillness and remnants, will leak into my life if I don’t tackle them directly. I tell myself that it doesn’t matter how badly I write about them, whether or not other people think of this as an exploration of nature in its many incarnations, or simply as a clumsy mish-mash. What I’ve learnt from Kathleen Jamie is that nature is everything that lives or ever lived. From Jamie, Solnit, and my grandma, that nature is both choices and sometimes an unfair and unexpected series of events. I have sent the beginnings of my writing, around 10,000 words, off to be read by people I don’t know, who have never met my grandparents, and might never have been to West Yorkshire. Expect that if I am successful you might hear about it, if you happen to be reading this. If not, then know that I am probably still writing it anyway. Going on experiencing nature in my own particular way, appreciating, observing and participating in it. Worse comes to worse, I will still have Surfacing left to read.
Selected Poems by Kathleen Jamie, Picador 2018
The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, Granta 2014
Findings by Kathleen Jamie, Sort of Books 2005
Lauren is a final year English Literature undergraduate at the University of Leeds, where last year she was the School of English’s Writing Intern. She currently edits the school’s poetry magazine Poetry & Audience, and is working on a creative writing dissertation concerning human value in the New Nature Writing. Most recently she has had poetry and prose published by Strix and Caught by the River, and hopes to make a career out of writing once she graduates. When Lauren is not writing, she is busy finding new ways to re-use old junk in her small wildlife garden.
The Discomfort Project