Where is the Wild? Nature Writing Workshop with Amy-Jane Beer – by Joanna Dobson

Castle Howard (used with permission from the Castle Howard Estate)

Last year on our allotment we lost an entire crop of leeks to the allium leaf miner, Phytomyza gymnostoma. I went to the plot in driving rain on a grim December afternoon, and pulled up a few leeks for supper, their oniony tang hitting my nose in bursts as the wind whipped across my face. I stuffed them in my rucksack and headed back home as fast as I could. It wasn’t until I was running them under the tap, rivulets of mud coursing down the plughole, that I saw the heart-sinking signs. The juicy white stem, the part I was planning to chop and sauté with butter, was striated with orange tracks.

Peeling back the sticky, translucent layers of leek skin revealed the tiny brown pupae embedded in the flesh. I had sown those leeks myself one warm April morning, nurtured them in a seed bed until they were big enough to transplant, and carefully puddled them into their final planting position in July. It was infuriating to lose them to this little fly that was not detected in Britain until 2002 but is now chomping its way through leeks, onions, chives and garlic all over the country. I could have wept.

Contrast my reaction to Guardian writer Amy-Jane Beer’s when she found signs of one of ‘my’ fly’s relatives, the holly leaf miner, Phytomyza ilicis, on a walk on the Castle Howard estate in Yorkshire. I was watching Amy on video as part of the ‘Where is the Wild?’ nature writing workshop she ran in February. It was grim weather for her too, so she ducked under a holly tree to shelter ‘exactly like a wild creature would’. That’s where she found evidence of the leaf miners. Like their allium counterparts, the maggots leave tracks when they burrow into the leaves, pale green ones that contrast with the glossy dark surface. ‘I wonder what it’s like in that sheltered, food-rich space?’ mused Amy. ‘A quiet, green world where it lives for all those months’. Oh. That’s a different approach.

Of course, Amy hadn’t been planning to eat the holly leaves, and as our workshop progressed, I became more and more aware of how difficult it is to separate our human needs and wants from the way we experience the rest of nature.

I didn’t expect to be thinking about leaf miners when I signed up for the workshop, part of Tipping Points, a follow-on from the AHRC-funded Land Lines: British Nature Writing project that took place between 2017 and 2019. But like the other participants, I didn’t expect to be taking part in my own home, via a screen, either. When it became clear that the session couldn’t run at Castle Howard as originally planned, I almost dropped out. That would have been a big mistake. This was one of the most generous events I have attended in this strange year of Zoom encounters. Amy had clearly put an incredible amount of time and thought into preparing the session, and the other organisers had bent over backwards to ensure that we could have as rich an experience of Castle Howard as possible. Before the session, they emailed us a vast quantity of photographs, some video walks and a series of filmed interviews with senior members of staff from the estate.

Castle Howard from the air (photo used with permission from the Castle Howard Estate)

Castle Howard was built in the eighteenth century. It’s an enormous, Baroque structure, familiar to many from the film and television adaptations of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and, more recently the Netflix series Bridgerton. The estate comprises 9,000 acres, nine farms and several villages. Set amidst the rolling and heavily wooded Howardian hills in north Yorkshire, it was an ideal location for discussing ideas of the wild. The surrounding landscape looks ‘natural’, but as Amy and all the speakers on the videos reminded us, it is in fact carefully designed and managed. Castle Howard is not so much ‘set’ in a landscape as enmeshed in it. ‘You can’t separate house from landscape,’ said Chris Ridgway, the head curator, in one of the interviews. ‘They are symbiotic.’

Castle Howard (Photo used with permission from the Castle Howard Estate)

The people who run Castle Howard are committed to regenerative agriculture and to making the estate increasingly hospitable to nonhuman species. In another interview, Clive Harrison, the head gamekeeper, pointed out numerous examples of the way they try to balance food production with managing spaces for the benefit of wildlife. Beetle banks – large grassy mounds in the middle of arable fields – provide an overwintering habitat for predatory beetles that will later feed on aphids and other insects that damage crops. The banks also support wild flowers for pollinators and offer cover for ground-nesting partridges. Seventeen hectares of the estate are given over to growing a mix of seed specially selected for declining farmland birds such as buntings and yellowhammers. The estate is also home to other threatened creatures, such as brown hare, curlew and lapwing.

Amy, who lives in a house surrounded by estate land, was a steady, gentle and knowledgeable guide, both to the landscape and to the craft of nature writing. A biologist who has written numerous books on natural history, she is also an experienced Guardian country diarist and a feature writer for BBC Wildlife magazine and others. The advice she gave us throughout the workshop was pithy and practical. When writing about nature, you need to tell as well as show, but not too much. Don’t overplay your knowledge and don’t worry if you’re just learning: you can take the reader on a journey. Plunge straight in. Resist the temptation to over-describe. All this was illustrated with excellent examples from writers ranging from Nan Shepherd to Chris Packham. A particular highlight was the time we spent on a close reading of Nicola Chester’s breathtaking Homage to a Hare.

Amy braves the winter weather for us on her walk around the Castle Howard estate

I really enjoyed Amy’s video walk around the estate and was secretly quite relieved not to be out there in the bitter wind. Not only did she point out the holly leaf miners, she also introduced us to witches’ broom galls and taught me a new word. ‘Graupel’, I discovered, is a form of precipitation that’s somewhere between snow and hail, ‘baubles of rime ice’ that we could hear pattering onto the snowdrops as we watched on our computers. More tips for nature writers: when out in the field, don’t overdress or you’ll get sweaty and smelly and that scares the animals; always take a sit mat, and use a mobile phone to record your impressions.

One great resource that Amy showed us back in the warm was the National Library of Scotland’s online collection of old Ordnance Survey maps. I got completely absorbed in tracking the area around our allotment through the past couple of hundred years. It used to be open farmland, but then a quarry and a brickworks turn up in the nineteenth century. More digging on the internet threw up a report of an inquest on a boy who was employed at the brickworks. Fourteen-year-old John Hawke, was pushing a wheelbarrow over a plank when he lost his balance and fell, the wheelbarrow landing on top of him. He died a few days later. These days, that land is a quiet cul-de-sac of expensive houses with big gardens. All through the summer I hear song thrushes carolling there while I’m working the plot. I had never thought of it as anything but quiet and peaceful.

An Ordnance Survey map showing the area around my plot in 1906. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

This exercise really brought home to me how many stories,, human and nonhuman, are layered in a landscape. I wondered about some of the stories that might be layered in the Castle Howard estate. What contribution did slavery make to the wealth of the family that created it? What is the role of recreational shooting in the management of different habitats there? I genuinely don’t know the answers to these questions, but they are hard to avoid once you stop separating ‘wild’ and ‘nature’ from the rest of life.

A quick break for lunch and then Amy introduced us to the importance of what she called ‘crystals, nutshells and tweets’, which are tiny kernels that can often reveal the essence of a longer piece of nature writing. She set us to write some of these ourselves: a haiku, a tweet or a pitch-in-a-nutshell for a longer article. Listening to what other people had written during this time was one of the most enjoyable parts of the workshop. Jane Adams, who is a volunteer badger vaccinator, produced a tweet that is a brilliant example of how much can be achieved with a minute piece of writing:

Vaccination day

The clinical smell of the mask transports me to a dawn-lit wood, wet boots and the wary eyes of a caged badger, her wait nearly over. One step closer to herd immunity. I hold out my arm.

Thank you, Jane, for permission to use this here. Thanks too to Sue Harrison for the following vibrant haiku on coccothraustes (hawfinches). Sue’s indecision over line order really demonstrates what a great exercise this was: when you only have a few words, you realise the importance of each one being in the right place.

Coccothraustees                                  Kernel breaker

A cracking pair of pliers         Or          A cracking pair of pliers

Kernel breaker                                   Coccothraustees

I spent most of the writing time gazing out of the windows of our top-floor flat. I saw a magpie sitting on a weather vane as if it had been put there on purpose. It was twitching its tail to help it balance in the wind. I didn’t know they did that. From another window I could see moss growing on the top of next door’s chimney pot. A second magpie landed and started pecking. I wrote two haiku about the magpies that were pretty unsatisfactory but I’m not sure that’s the point. What matters is that now I notice the magpies on my patch much more than I did before.

All the thinking, writing, talking and looking that I did with Amy and the other extremely friendly and talented course participants has spilled over into how I think about nature every day. Where is the wild? It’s tangled up in all of our lives but often we don’t notice it. It’s everywhere we stop to pay attention, to make room for an encounter. Even embedded in a home-grown leek.

by Joanna Dobson

If you didn’t manage to book a place on Amy-Jane Beer’s nature writing workshop, you still have a chance to have a go at the writing prompts, tasks and use all the materials generated for the workshop to produce your own creative response! We will be releasing all the workshop materials and directions here on the Land Lines website at the end of March 2021. Watch this space!

About the Author

Joanna Dobson is a second-year PhD student in English and Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. Her research focuses on the role of the more-than-human world in narratives of trauma.

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