The Message Hidden in My Bookshelves by Jacqueline Hitt

by Jacqueline Hitt

Jacqui Hitt Image
My bookshelf (Jacqueline Hitt)

They say that a person’s bookshelves speak volumes about them. So, what I wonder can you tell from mine? As you look at them (or rifle through the piles of books by the side of my bed), it won’t take you long to work out what I’m passionate about. How easy will it be for you to uncover why?

My pale oak shelves are laden with books. Their main colours lean towards the blues, greens and teals of the colour spectrum. This is your first clue. The second is the titles on their spines and what’s depicted on their exquisite illustrated covers. Each announces, in a variety of artistic and photographic styles, typefaces and fonts, that the book’s owner loves – adores – nature and wild places.

As your gaze wanders along each shelf, you see a blend of soft and hardback editions. A small number are old. Antiquarian is how a bookseller would describe them. Most are newer, their spines barely broken. Their writers span over 200 years of time, and territories hundreds even thousands of miles part. The majority fall into what publishers like to label ‘new nature writing’ but not all.

There are authors you know, but many you don’t. Classics by Gavin Maxwell, John Muir and Aldo Leopold. More recent titles by Mark Cocker, Miriam Darlington, Kathleen Jamie and Stephen Moss. There are a mix of male and female writers but the balance tilts towards the men. A reflection on their owner’s taste? A lack of diversity in their authors? It’s impossible to tell.

Why would someone want to read so many of one genre of book?

You look at the subject-matter of each. Big, challenging topics lie at the heart of some (the majesty of mountains, the mystery of the oceans, the miracles that are trees) while others are devoted to a single species or family.

There is a group exploring the ecology and habits of different mammals (the badger, hare and otter), another on insects (dragonflies, butterflies and bumblebees), and several that delve into a damp reptilian world of newts, frogs and toads. Cetaceans feature, as do fish and plants.  A collection of nature poetry is sandwiched between several books on birds.

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Dance yourself free: a review of the film ‘Arcadia’ by Dr Pippa Marland

Film Poster for ‘Arcadia’

In that open field

If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,

On a summer midnight you can hear the music

Of the weak pipe and the little drum

And see them dancing around the bonfire (T.S.Eliot, ‘East Coker’)

Arcadia, the new film by Scottish director Paul Wright, is a compilation of documentary and TV footage from the British Film Institute’s National Archive and regional archives around the UK, produced by the BFI in collaboration with the environmental charity Common Ground. Described on the Arcadia website as an ‘old-weird-Britain mash-up’, the film explores the themes of identity, community, and the shifting relationship of the inhabitants of these isles with the land that sustains them. Along with its collage of visual images, Arcadia features audio content from the found footage, as well as occasional interludes of scripted narration and a new soundtrack by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp). Taken together, these elements combine into a multi-faceted work of great intensity and cumulative power.

‘Once upon a time in the heart of the British countryside there was a young maiden who could not fit into the world around her. Wherever she would turn, a great darkness would follow’. So begins the film’s extended meditation on belonging and alienation. ‘The truth’, we are told, ‘is in the soil’. So what exactly might this land tell us, if we were to look and listen attentively enough? The inaugural images conjure a pastoral landscape of sheep meadows and orchards, villages and parish churches, combined with georgic scenes of rural labour based on a profound relationship with the land: horse-drawn farm machinery moves slowly across the fields and whole families work happily together as they load the hay wagon.

Still from ‘Arcadia’

It would be a mistake, though, to assume from this opening that the film is in any way whimsical or nostalgic, alluding to some chocolate-box conception of Merrie England. In fact quite the opposite is true.  While Arcadia seems to retain throughout its course an appreciation of the dignity of working on the land, the early sequences are in large part simply preparing us for a fall. It’s not long before the ‘maiden’, in one of the film’s many allusions to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, finds herself tumbling down the rabbit hole into a kind of anti-arcadia. Here, beneath the surface of the pastoral idyll, divisions engendered by class, privilege, and capital gape wide, and themes of impoverishment and disadvantage loom larger and larger.

The film is given an overarching structure through its reference to the cycle of the seasons. Broadly speaking, it runs from Spring to Spring – a movement initiated by magnified, time-lapse photography of new shoots bursting through the surface of the soil, and mycelium and bacteria multiplying under the microscope. Again, these images disrupt any complacent notion of a benign, controllable nature, undermining naïve tropes of pastoral harmony, and evoking instead the existence of an irresistible, anarchic force. The gradated seasonal footage is mirrored by the soundtrack, which, in the early sections of the film, features songs by the English folk singer and songwriter Anne Briggs that allude to the changing seasons. As might be expected in such a trajectory, there is an attendant sense of gradual material entropy, and there is undoubtedly a darker, more melancholic tone as Autumn and Winter displace Spring and Summer.

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The Wildlife and Garden at St Barnabas Church, Southfields – Revd. Ian Tattum

The holly bush was quivering with sparrows and their chirps filled the air, bestowing on me one of those “all is well with the world” moods. The sparrow-hawk changed all that. It came from over my shoulder, barely brushing my ear with the lightest of breezes as it passed, and silently swept into the sparrows’ roost. Missing its target, the hawk doubled back and settled on the church roof. Now I was no longer serene but almost manically protective. Picking up a stone I immediately hurled it in the general direction of the predator, missing by such a large margin that the bird was not troubled at all. Calming down a little, I folded my arms and prepared to stand guard until the intruder decided to seek easier prey elsewhere. This turned out to be totally unnecessary, as within seconds two carrion crows glided in from behind the south side of the church and drove the sparrow-hawk away.

A view from the church yard (photo by Ian Tattum)

Sadly, the sparrows have since abandoned our church garden, not through fear of any birds of prey, but due to the refurbishment of the house opposite which for years had provided them with a nesting site and a look out point!

When I moved to Southfields 12 years ago, today’s church garden was an L-shaped area of grass and bramble, surrounded by a hawthorn hedge. It was viewed as a troublesome area, needing controlling and subduing, and was managed by sporadic work parties who mowed the grass and hacked back the vegetation. One of the reasons for its neglect was that behind the church, the church hall, and the adjacent Edwardian vicarage was an established garden, with open areas, fruit trees, and what amounted to a small copse. This was seen as “the garden” because it was used regularly, and inevitably was more highly valued.

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Land Lines @ University of Leeds Creative Labs: Climate Edition

by Lucy Rowland

Land Lines recently became involved with the Leeds Cultural Institute project Creative Labs, with support from the Priestley International Centre for Climate Change. Uniting academics with creative partners, the Creative Labs intend to encourage collaborative new projects not only across academic disciplines, but more widely across academia and other creative industries to produce novel ways of approaching specific research questions, to solve urgent problems and ultimately generate new research.

This most recent edition of Creative Labs focused on climate, encouraging participants to work together to develop new partnerships and cross-pollinate ideas to address the multiple issues and questions arising from climate change. There was also an explicit focus on the cultural dimensions of climate change, focusing on communications and creativity. After a few weeks of working to develop a specific project or idea together, researchers and creative partners presented at a workshop on Thursday 28th June, to disseminate their ideas across other working groups and beyond. At this event, four lab teams shared their initial proposals for follow-on projects, ideas for further development, and other collaborative endeavours.

Dr Katy Roelich and design team Buttercrumble

The first team to present their project was the graphic design duo Buttercrumble (Chloe and Abigail Baldwin) and their academic partner Dr Katy Roelich. Introducing their work on ‘Newtopia’, the team described their focus on changing behaviours and community in the context of cities. Through a series of virtual city workshops, the most important features of a city to its inhabitants include greenery, space, aesthetics and a sense of community. In order to create a medium for participants to engage with and design their own ideal city, the team produced illustrated images to work as part of a city design computer program for workshop participants to interact with.

Next, Dr Pippa Marland and Dr David Higgins from the Land Lines research team, along with creative producer Suzie Cross, presented their idea for a follow-on project after Land Lines comes to an end in April 2019. The idea for this project, which is provisionally entitled ‘Tracks, Traces, Trails’ focuses on taking nature writing beyond the page and into the public sphere. The idea came into being through collaboration with Natural England, through an initial meeting with Water@Leeds. With a goal of reweaving stories of wildlife and nature back into culture, building compelling narratives, as well as preserving heritage and new habitats, the project intends to open out thinking about nature writing in terms of using visuals, kinetic activities and incorporating a sense of playfulness into communicating with new communities. Possible avenues for development included a web app, a children’s book on a migrating bird species, and walking activities with creative interventions, as well as possible classroom toolkits and oral storytelling between senior citizens and young people.

Photo 28-06-2018, 10 52 58
Land Lines research team members Dr Pippa Marland and Dr David Higgins (right) and Suzie Cross (left) presenting at Creative Labs

The third presentation was given by Dr Lea Berrang-Ford from Indigenous Health Adaptation to Climate Change (IHACC) and photographer Elisabeth de Bezenac, who accompanied the research group from IHACC on a research trip to South Africa. The presentation focused on the creative products of this trip, with photos from Elisabeth displaying a new kind of self-reflexive consideration of the researchers themselves and as a team, as opposed to their subjects. Reporting on possible avenues for further collaboration, the team described changing relationships within the team and the importance of inter-personal connections in order to form working relationships.

The final team to present were representatives from design company Flat-e (Ruth Parker and Matt Bateman), research fellow Cat Scott, and Lecturer in Composition and Music Technology Scott McLaughlin. Focusing on the dynamics of forests and trees, the group presented several fascinating ways of ‘mediating wilderness’, including virtual- and augmented-reality scenarios viewed through Google Cardboard, one of which represented the journey of carbon particles being absorbed from the air by a tree and eventually entering the soil through the roots. With a wide range of expertise, from forests and their relationship with climate and atmosphere to creative design and music, inter-disciplinary research ideas and possible public engagement enterprises were discussed.

Ending with a Q&A with audience members, the Creative Labs proved to be an excellent environment for stimulating cross-disciplinary research and new collaborative projects, and offered a fascinating range of ways to approach the cultural dimensions of climate change and its related effects in our contemporary world.


by Lucy Rowland

‘On a Falling Tide’: Guest Blog Post by Philip Hoare

The Land Lines team are pleased to welcome a guest blog contribution from Philip Hoare, award-winning author of Leviathan, or the Whale (2008) and The Sea Inside (2013), among many others. An extract from his most recent book RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR  (2017), this piece describes the discovery — at once sad and curious — of the body of a dolphin on a Cape Cod beach.

It lies there in the shadow of the wharf, as if it had sought shelter beneath the wooden struts, where Provincetown’s restaurants turn their backs on the sea.  It has been dead for only twenty-four hours, but its distinctive markings – delicate grey and yellow swirls, merging as a graphic equilizer of its motion through the waves, as if they’d left their traces on its body – are already fading in the wind.

A common dolphin, exquisitely ill-named.  Dennis writes the binomial down on his form, losing patience as his pen runs out: Delphinus delphis, a much more princely title, redolent of Cretan friezes and Greek vases.  Two thousand years ago in his Historia Animalium, Aristotle wrote that ‘much evidence attests to the mildness and gentleness of dolphins and the passion of their love for boys’.  He added, ‘It is not known for what reason they run themselves aground on dry land; at all events it is said that they do so at times, and for no obvious reason’.

Philip Hoare dolphin
Author Philip Hoare alongside the beached dolphin

For a dolphin to beach itself is a drastic act.  Recent studies suggest that the animals ‘will strand themselves when they are very weak because they don’t want to drown’, says Andrew Brownlow.  There seems to be ‘something very deep in the terrestrial mammalian core that fires up when they are in extremis’.  It is both suicidal and a last attempt at survival.  At least, that is how we see it.  Around AD 180, the Greco-Roman poet Oppidia declared that hunting ‘the kingly dolphin’ was immoral, on the grounds that they were once humans who had exchanged the land for the sea.  ‘But even now the righteous spirit of men in them preserves human thought and human deeds’.

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Books and Birds: Ringing Ravens in a Mendip Quarry by Terry Gifford

by Terry Gifford

Three books, which I heard were forthcoming at the New Networks for Nature conference at Stamford last year (a hot tip for 15-17 Nov 2018), have just arrived and sent me hunting for references to ravens, with which I get intimate each spring. I had been warned, when I first moved onto the Mendip Hills of Somerset a few years ago, that local sheep farmers might not share my fascination for these characterful residents of the local quarry where I went rock-climbing. I should keep quiet about them and certainly not blog about arranging for their ringing. But these two books each suggest a long association between birds and people that only hints at their significance for human culture and human wellbeing. Stephen Moss, in his immensely readable book Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names (Faber and Faber, 2018), makes a telling point: ‘the name we use for this huge and fearsome corvid is not all that different from what our prehistoric ancestors might have called it’. He finds this both ‘astonishing and comforting’, and so do I.

By the third century BCE, the Greek scholar Theophrastus was recording that ravens behaving uncharacteristically was a sign of oncoming rain. I learned this, and much more about ravens in Birds in the Ancient World by Jeremy Mynott (Oxford University Press, 2018), an impressively organised and illustrated book that I shall also be dipping into forever. But it was Mark Cocker’s latest polemic on the shocking decline in British wildlife that we have allowed to gather pace in my lifetime that prompted me to want to share one of my journal entries on raven ringing. In Our Place: Can we Save Britain’s Wildlife Before it is Too Late? (Cape, 2018) Cocker is critical of the apparent separation of our creating SSSIs and demanding cheap food from monocultures, of our mass membership of the RSPB and ignoring the creeping loss of habitats on our doorsteps, of our love of birds in poetry and their disappearance from our fields and footpaths. It suddenly struck me that as writer of poems full of bird life (Gifford, A Feast of Fools, Cinnamon Press, 2018) I was as culpable as anyone in Cocker’s critique, but that in arranging the ringing of my local ravens I was, at least, perhaps making a small contribution to the science of their study and a database of the local wildlife. Brought up in an education system dominated by C. P. Snow’s notion of The Two Cultures (CUP, 1959) it has taken a lifetime, and the invention of ‘environmentalism’, to heal the cultural distance between the arts and sciences in a personal way. So here is an account of raven ringing in a Mendip quarry.

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Shashank Kela on the Development of Nature Writing in India from the 19th–20th Century

In this extract author and scholar Shashank Kela reflects on the development of nature writing in India in the late 19th and the 20th century. The passage is taken from the essay ‘Where The Wild Things Are Not: the curious absence of contemporary nature writing in India’, which was first published in The Caravan on 1st April 2018 and reprinted here with permission. You can find the full article at

My starting point for the purposes of this essay is the late nineteenth century. By this time the natural history of the Indian subcontinent was reasonably well established. Its characteristic ecotypes, with much of their flora and fauna, had been described; almost all the birds we know had been identified. The language is English, for the kind of nature writing being discussed presupposes some knowledge of natural history, and because it’s a language I’m familiar with—there may well be texts about nature written in Marathi, Bengali, Telugu or Tamil that would be fascinating to compare, but I don’t know them. Within these limits is included any work on nature written by anyone resident in the Indian subcontinent for long enough to be able to speak knowledgeably about it.

The first Indian nature writers were British residents (colloquially called Anglo-Indians), who had grown up in the country or spent the greater part of their lives there. The bulk of their work dates from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It’s usually in the form of short vignettes mixing observation with a strong streak of facetiousness. Douglas Dewar, ornithologist and civil servant, remarked that popular books “on Indian ornithology resemble one another in that a ripple of humour runs through each.” His Jungle Folk, a collection of newspaper articles on birds, originally published in 1912, has recently been reissued by the publisher Aleph. Dewar’s prose zigzags erratically through different registers, from the highly coloured to the unpretentious to the banal. Anthropomorphic metaphors proliferate; the writing provides commentary and information rather than insight or transcendence.

“Dewar’s prose zigzags erratically through different registers, from the highly coloured to the unpretentious to the banal.” – Shashank Kela

The best representative of the Anglo-Indian school is, in many ways, the most atypical. EH Aitken—or Eha, the sobriquet under which he wrote—was born and, somewhat unusually, educated in India. He got a job in the Bombay government in 1876 (in the Customs and Salt Department), serving in various parts of the Bombay Presidency and Sind. He was one of the founder members of the Bombay Natural History Society, and a gifted writer of what, for want of a better word, might be called nature essays. His prose is learned, full of classical allusions and Latin tags. It modulates fluently from the comic to the meditative. The natural history is rather sparse, with many digressions, but Aitken never loses sight of the main thread, the animal under observation.

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