The Land Lines Blog is delighted to share Philip Parker’s experience as part of a brand new project – 26 Wild – a collaboration between the writer’s group ’26’ and the Wildlife Trusts, which commissions writers to engage creatively with vanishing species. Here, Philip shares his poem and writes about his research process and his quest to see a sand lizard in the flesh – read on below.
Purbeck Heathland in in Dorset inspired much of Thomas Hardy’s writing. Slepe Heath was the real-life version of the fictional Egdon Heath, where The Return of the Native is set. And his children’s poem, ‘The Lizard’, from 1911, was most likely an ode to the local sand lizards, abundant 100 years ago.
Wildlife can form literary connections with the landscape. Think of The Wind in the Willows and the Thames at Berkshire – inspiration and memories for Kenneth Grahame – or Tarka the Otter forever swimming in North Devon, John Clare’s Northamptonshire, or James Herriot’s Yorkshire. A new writing project led me to discover local connections to wildlife, especially the now elusive sand lizard.
‘26 Wild’ is a wonderful writing project in praise of some of our most endangered wildlife. The writers’ group 26, in partnership with the Wildlife Trusts, commissioned 56 writers to create written pieces and essays, each on a different – and vanishing – species. The creative writing is in the form of a centena – exactly 100 words long, and the first three words are repeated at the very end.
The species allotted to me was the sand lizard.
Since Hardy’s time, the very specific sandy heathland these lizards thrive in has been desiccated, destroyed and diced by urbanisation, agriculture and inappropriate forestry – so much so that around 90% of the populations have been lost. The only original indigenous populations survive in pockets in Dorset, some Surrey and Hampshire locations and a rare dune habitat in Merseyside. However, the incredible work of Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) has seen very successful reintroductions of baby lizards alongside intensive habitat management to restore, and in some cases recreate, the landscapes the lizards need.
During the spring lockdown, discussions with ARC led me to search for the rare lizards in Surrey and Sussex heathlands, and to become immersed in these extraordinary landscapes.
Several morning visits to hidden heathlands followed, particularly at Crooksbury Common in Surrey, in the baking heat of May and into June. These places are a paradise for birds like woodlarks and tree pipits; I found slow worms, and looked out for the natterjack toads which have been reintroduced. After they emerge from their six-month hibernation, male sand lizards develop vivid green flanks, to entice females. Surely conspicuous and easy to spot? Apparently not. Wary of movement and shadows, they proved elusive and after several visits I was still to spot one.
With each visit I began to realise I had to slow my pace, and in my imagination started to match the metabolism of the lizard – and perhaps the landscape. Immersed in the heathland and the heat, and lying flat to experience a lizard’s eye view, I thought of this majestic creature as a regal figure; perhaps thinking the Sun rose for him to give him his green flanks. From his perspective a clump of heather is a forest, a stone is a hill for sunbathing, a breeze is a storm of scent.
In my research I became fascinated by the presence of lizards in lore and religion, from Tahiti to the Amazon (where the lizard is a manifestation of the Lord of Animals), to the ancient Romans who associated them with death and rebirth, to North American First Peoples where lizards can play a large, symbolic role in myth and life. I worked some of these associations into my creative piece.
In the South Downs National Park I later came across the Heathlands Reunited project and another creative response to the landscape and biodiversity. Several local organisations have collaborated to ensure the remaining 1% of precious heathland sites are linked and restored. In celebration of this sculptor Graeme Mitcheson was commissioned to create seven bespoke stone carvings for a Heathland Trail. He and volunteers spent six months collecting oral histories and carried out research with the local community to identify species people had a connection with. At Lavington Common a superb stone lizard now basks forever in the Sun.
And yes, I did finally spot some sand lizards – a superb male literally walked under my feet, soon followed by a female. An unforgettable experience. ARC’s work in dozens of locations enables future generations to marvel at these rather perfect creatures, and to be inspired in these distinctive heathland landscapes which Thomas Hardy loved.
The (Sand) Lizard King I Am King, Lacerta – true lizard; Lord of Animals. Sun King. The star worships me: submits its shafts to stoke my blood; burnish my robes this dignified emerald. Jade Warrior. A gem that glints in the dunes. My tongue flicks to caress the grasshopper’s scent. Insect sacrifice. Sand Shaman. I discard my whiplash tail; summon another to sprout. I’m healer, diviner, sorcerer, creator. Great Pharoah. I dismiss the sun; shrink the days; venture to the underworld to slink into your dreams and fantasies. Lord of Light and Shadow. Every autumn entombed; every spring my resurrection. Incandescent. Immortal. I Am King.
By Philip Parker
The centena, essay and all the other ’26 Wild’ pieces are online at: www.26project.org.uk/26wild/sand-lizard
You can find out more about the sand lizard and its habitat here:
About the Author
Philip Parker is a writer, editor and researcher/project manager. He commenced his career in book publishing, worked in the charitable sector and is currently in the corporate. You can find Philip on Twitter: @parkerpj01