Gifts of Gravity and Light: A Nature Almanac for the 21st Century – Pippa Marland

Pippa Marland, Land Lines team member and co-editor of the nature writing collection Gifts of Gravity and Light: A Nature Almanac for the 21st Century, reflects on how the collection came about.

‘I learned something new from each enjoyable essay and by the end realised that nature is integral to how we live on this planet, not a subsidiary to life, but at the heart of it.’ Bernardine Evaristo, author of Girl, Woman, Other.

‘These essays urgently reimagine what nature writing can be-and whose stories belong in that canon. Gifts of Gravity and Light is generous, unsentimental, and bursting with talented voices that will shape this genre for decades to come.’ Jessica J. Lee, author of Two Trees Make a Forest and Turning, and editor of The Willowherb Review

‘A meander through the seasons that is filled with lyrical gifts and new ways of seeing the world. This is new nature writing – as diverse, original and ceaselessly surprising as the wild world it celebrates.’ Patrick Barkham, Natural History correspondent for The Guardian and author of Islander, Badgerlands, The Butterfly Isles and Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature.

‘A wonderfully diverse collection of poetry and long-form prose, celebrating the four seasons of the year in a fresh and ultimately life-affirming way.’ Stephen Moss
, author of The Accidental Countryside.

In Spring 2020, in my role as one of the Land Lines team at the University of Leeds, I helped to organise a crowd-sourced online nature diary, in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the National Trust. Taking place on and in the week following the 2020 Spring Equinox, the event coincided with the UK entering its first period of lockdown. As people uploaded their written and visual snapshots it became apparent that not only were we seeing a picture of spring arriving across the country, but also witnessing the cumulative record of what nature meant to people at a time of personal, national and global crisis.

In April 2020 this dimension of the diary was reported in The Guardian in an article that highlighted the way in which the entries spoke of the solace and hope nature offered at this time. The piece also referred to the breadth of the public response to the event and, in fact, the diary had been envisioned as contributing to a democratisation of nature writing through welcoming a range of new perspectives to a genre that throughout its history has been something of a monoculture.

As a result of the Guardian coverage, Rupert Lancaster, Non-fiction Publisher at Hodder and Stoughton, got in touch with me to suggest a collaboration. He was keen to develop the idea of a seasonal almanac, and we immediately contacted Anita Roy, author of A Year in Kingcombe, which traces the course of year in a Dorset nature reserve, to see if she would be interesting in co-editing the book with me. From the start, we wanted to curate a series of essays by diverse, distinctive voices – brilliant authors who might not be immediately associated with the nature writing genre, but whose work nevertheless often revolves around the subject of nature. We also wanted to commission essays that represented a kind of dialogue – with the British landscape, with people’s individual and collective cultural histories, with ideas of ethnicity, disability, sexuality, gender and class, and with existing literary traditions of writing about the natural world.

Anita and I drew up a wish list, hoping to mix emerging authors with some well-established names. Nearly all of them said yes. From early on we had the support of the Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, who allowed us to take a passage from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for our epilogue, and it was while discussing Simon’s contribution to the project that Rupert suggested as a title for the collection the phrase ‘gifts of gravity and light’ from Simon’s poem ‘You’re Beautiful’. We’d been mulling over numerous different possibilities, but this one resonated very powerfully with us. It symbolised the kind of balance we were looking for – between the weight and darkness of writing about nature in the midst of the Anthropocene and the inspiration and illumination that can still be involved in exploring the natural world and our place in it.

We were delighted when Bernardine Evaristo, a tireless champion of diversity in all genres of writing and winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, agreed to write the foreword for the book. Jackie Kay, the former Scottish Makar, also gave us her gracious permission to reprint her New Year poem ‘Promises’ as the epigraph. As the collection progressed, Anita and I assessed our own role as editors and realised that we didn’t want to write a standard introduction to the volume. Instead we decided to contribute our own pieces of creative writing – equinoctial ‘hinges’ for the spring and autumn sections of the book.

Now, just over a year on, we’re delighted to announce the publication of Gifts of Gravity and Light with its glorious cover, which features a kestrel, or windhover, made by the artist Zack Mclaughlin. It has the names of the contributors – Simon Armitage, Kaliane Bradley, Testament, Michael Malay, Tishani Doshi, Jay Griffiths, Luke Turner, Raine Geoghegan, Zakiya McKenzie, Alys Fowler, Amanda Thomson, and Jackie Kay – all fanned out on the bird’s lifted wing. 

The book’s content reflects not only the diversity of the authors’ voices but the endlessly changing natural world itself. There are meditations on mud – in a Birmingham park and in the trenches of the First World War – on greeting the arrival of cherry blossom in East London with a Cambodian New Year’s dance; on seeing nature pushing through the cracks of a Manchester pavement; on watching sea otters at play in the summer sun; on imagining eels gathering in the dark waters of the Bristol Channel; on leaving India to spend summers in Wales; on hearing Romany family stories of celebrating the hop harvest; on experiencing the icy stillness of winter in the Cairngorms or remembering the ‘sun drunk’ days of a Jamaican childhood in the chill of a British Christmas.

For me, working on this collection has been an absolute gift of light in a dark year, as has collaborating with Anita Roy and the team at Hodder and Stoughton. Gifts of Gravity and Light is published today, 8th July 2021, and is available from Waterstones, and Amazon, among other high street and online outlets.

An earlier version of this blog post was published on the University of Bristol Centre for Environmental Humanities blog

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.

Land Lines Blog Community Reviews: Favourite Nature Writing Texts of 2020

We are delighted to be able to share contributions from the Land Lines Blog community in this special post – which brings together our readers and contributors’ favourite nature writing texts that they encountered in 2020. A profoundly difficult year for many, 2020 has offered some of us a chance to reflect on what nature writing means to us, and what it offers us in times of crisis. Thanks to all our contributors for sharing their favourite nature writing this year!

Photo by 5598375 via Pixabay

Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman by Rebecca Tamás – submitted by Lauren Maltas

Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman by Rebecca Tamás is my favourite nature writing text of the year. It was kindly sent to me by the publisher Makina Books around the time I was beginning to document the destructive changes as hundreds of new homes are built in my local area. It’s the first text I’ve read that sensitively and accessibly discusses that the climate crisis is a crisis of inequality, exploring the links to poverty and racism in particular. Tamás draws from a vast pool of inspiration; poetry, prose, and artwork, as well as history and folklore to inform her writing. My favourite essay is ‘On Grief’, which references one of my most loved nature texts, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, in which Leopold discusses the idea of ‘living in a world of wounds’. Like many, I struggle with what other people call ‘climate anxiety’, and in this book Tamás has given me a new word for this, a new perspective which I will take with me as a person and as a writer. What I feel is grief; sadness, anger, despair encompassing all of those words but also hope, optimism, and an active drive towards healing, moving on, the future.

Lauren is a recent graduate of the University of Leeds and a recruited member of The Writing Squad. She writes about female relationships, the environment, social class and memory and is working on her first novel. In her free time Lauren makes new things from old stuff, and reviews books. You can follow her work on Twitter @laurenCmaltas 

Otter Country by Miriam Darlington – submitted by Jo Baker

My favourite nature writing text this year is Otter Country by Miriam Darlington. It is a vivid account of her tour around the UK tracking otters, and meeting up with otter experts in her quest to understand this elusive animal. The first part of the book is largely description and poetic prose about the habitat and lives of otters. The author is very gifted with words and paints pictures of wild country scenes around her home area of Devon and Cornwall, as well as Wales, Scotland and lastly Northumberland including the Farne Islands. In the latter half of the book the theme turns to environmental issues and a discussion of how otters are unfortunately killed on roads or damaged by polluted rivers. I was able to relate to her descriptions as her personal writing style drew me into her world of otters. I am also passionate about wildlife and have discovered otter signs around our local rivers in Northwich, Cheshire. Having read the book, I feel inspired to become involved once again in otter surveys and to take some action to improve their life chances in the country. From a wider perspective, I was horrified that so many otters meet their end due to road kill and have been challenged to find ways to reduce these deaths. The text is significant as it depicts the history of otters in the UK and their recovery in more recent years. It challenges the reader to examine their attitude towards environmental issues and conservation of key indicator species.

Jo Baker is married with one adult son and works part-time as a scheme manager for elderly residents. In her spare time she writes poetry and short stories, and is part of a local poetry stanza. Jo has volunteered for her local nature reserve organising events and is a member of Cheshire Wildlife Trust. She also enjoys participating in musical theatre, ballet, singing, and attends the local Anglican church.

An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth – submitted by Ian Tattum

On top of the steeple on our church is a broken cross. I have no idea when the damage was done and neither do I mind in the slightest, being fond of imperfect things. The birds are also indifferent to its marred symmetry; it is a high perch and that is all they care for. A crow can teeter on it, three starlings can squeeze on together, and a blackbird can use it as a platform for his song at dusk or dawn. Richard Smyth’s book An Indifference of Birds is a short, but densely informative, account of how birds utilise and interact with the world we humans create. The mess that we make, the artificial cliffs that we construct and the tarmacked killing fields of our roads all provide opportunities for them to exploit. It is an exceptionally well written story of a relationship, one grittily, rather than lyrically told. A bird book quite unlike any other I have ever come across, which leaves the reader struck by the contrast between how little we matter to birds but how deeply they matter to us.

Ian Tattum is a priest in the Church of England and currently works in South West London. He has written feature articles for the Church Times on Gilbert White and Mary Anning, and the role churches can play in conservation. He has also written for the Land Lines blog on previous occasions.

Rebirding by Benedict MacDonald – submitted by Michael Roberts

One of the things which annoyed me this year was the excessive mowing of verges on Lancashire lanes. In May, I saw examples of this on every cycle ride. The worst were thirty Southern Marsh Orchids and hybridising red and white campions simply trashed. On reading Benedict MacDonald’s rewilding manifesto Rebirding, I found that this text spoke of what I value, whether this is peat restoration, tree planting, or hay meadows. I thought of two evergreen plantations felled four years ago and left to nature. They are now dense woodlands of small silver birches. Among all the good things like renewing forests, hills, moors and wetlands, just a few pages jumped out at me. This was in the chapter entitled ‘Our Birds’, and it starts with a vision of what could be, should rewilding be taken up in our towns and gardens. It also dealt with a serious ailment – Ecological Tidiness Deficit. Those who have visited my garden know I don’t suffer from it, but many do as they tidy their garden, or put it down to concrete, or destroy road verges. That is the death of wildlife, whether in gardens or roadside verges. I now try to cure people of EDT.

Michael Roberts began work as an exploration geologist in Africa, and then became a vicar. He is now retired, but walks and cycles a lot (6000 miles this year, but mountains were curtailed). He also has an interest in the total geo- and biosphere, and is a keen fan of Darwin.

Nick Hayes’ The Book of Trespass – Review by Rebecca Ferrier

This December on the Land Lines Blog, we are delighted to share with you a miniseries of reviews of key contemporary nature writing texts – including creative nonfiction and poetry – contributed by some wonderful writers and academics. Keep a look out for more instalments of the series over the next few weeks!

The Book of Trespass – and the laws concerning land its ownership – begins with a fox. (Photo by Rebecca Ferrier)

“There are boundaries in nature,” writes Hayes. “There are rivers, forests, escarpments, ravines and mountain ranges… areas of transaction, semi-permeable membranes. The notion that a perimeter should be impenetrable is a human contrivance alone.”

I am here to trespass. It is easy to do in the West Country, where green fields back onto military sites, lazily roped with netting. There is a thunderous bellow as an aircraft carrier passes overhead. A training exercise on distant Salisbury Plain adds booms like crisp-packet-pops to the stillness. These are reminders that I am not where I should be.

Ahead is a crumbling manor house in an abandoned Royal Air Force station. As a military brat, such forgotten places were once my playground and the signs ‘ASBESTOS’ a familiar (heeded) warning. I pass a squalid swimming pool. It’s piled with rot, shopping trolleys and, known only to me, a diary I once dropped into the water with the hope it would corrode my secret teenage yearnings.

Thirty-eight RAF bases in the UK have been closed over the past two decades. These monuments to history have since become accidental rewilding projects. Nature goes rampant, buckling cement and warping wood, to create Hollywood scenes better suited to an apocalyptic epic. Such sites are teaming with wildlife, such as the great fox-spider. This critically endangered species was thought to be extinct in this country until recently and was discovered in a military training ground in Surrey. Its exact location has not been disclosed. What more could be found by taking back such unwanted places?

Continue reading “Nick Hayes’ The Book of Trespass – Review by Rebecca Ferrier”

Seán Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire – Review by Pauline Rowe

This December on the Land Lines Blog, we are delighted to share with you a miniseries of reviews of key contemporary nature writing texts – including creative nonfiction and poetry – contributed by some wonderful writers and academics. Keep a look out for more instalments of the series over the next few weeks!

‘the living thing/pulled from the earth and lifted’: Seán Hewitt’s poetics of vital materialism in Tongues of Fire

Seán Hewitt’s accomplished debut collection Tongues of Fire (Jonathon Cape, 2020) celebrates the natural world through unashamed lyric poetry that examines the relational connection of bodies and creatures and things. It surveys the edge-lands of towns, urban ghosts and hauntings, grief and loss, male desire embodied in woods and earth, as well as weather and light, and the ontology of creatures and other living things, including trees and ‘their endless stretching upwards’ (‘Härskogen’, TOF, p.12).  Hewitt’s is more an aesthetics of vital materialism than queer eco-poetics, as he is concerned to challenge anthropocentric preoccupations and offer, in part,  a study of the affective relationships between bodies and living things, the creatureliness of creatures, the tree-ness of trees and their ‘long/ suffering bodies (‘Psalm’, TOF, p.16). 

The first poem ‘Leaf’ is a credo or prayer to trees and collections of trees:

For woods are forms of grief
grown from the earth. For they creak

with the weight of it…

We are located in the world where collectively trees carry the grief of the earth. What is this grief? It is a heavy burden as it has such weight that the bodies of trees creak beneath it. And the tree becomes a symbol of prayer and sacrifice: ‘an altar to time’ and a preserver of precious life giving elements with each knot of the oak’s body becoming ‘a hushed cymbal of water.’ The sound of life in the tree is contained. This first poem is driven by the need to name the essential elements of Hewitt’s landscape: woods, grief, earth, tree, altar, time, oak, water, water, heavens, eye, axletree, heaven, wind, moon, leaf, light, life.  He often includes a single reference to a colour in a poem (in ‘Leaf’ it is ‘silver’) or time of day.  The final lines of ‘Leaf’ affirm the essential imperative, to live:

For how each leaf traps light as it falls.

For even in the nighttime of life
it is worth living, just to hold it.

This poetry is concerned with the matter of the world and cycles of living, where the bodies of men meet in the woods and live, where matter decays and is renewed. Tongues of Fire is brimming with trees, and parts of trees, woods and plants;  leaf,  oak (many oaks), hawthorn, rhododendron, green moss, pines, lilac, grass, conifers, St John’s Wort, pines, fir, wych elm, oak, wild garlic, watercress, wood-sorrels, blackthorns, and more. The collection also pays attention to seasons and birds, as the poems move across the world and through time, from local woodlands in North West England to Suffolk, to Sweden, to the ancient mythical Ireland of Suibhne, to Liverpool’s Princes Park, from woods and heaths, from dark quiet places and frozen lakes, to minds and bodies. Hewitt’s poetry also speaks of pain and human desire,  as it pursues the close, careful study of the visible and invisible to reveal the wondrous life abundant in, and of, the earth, as well as the fragility and perseverance of human life and suffering love. 

Continue reading “Seán Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire – Review by Pauline Rowe”

Surfacing with Kathleen Jamie – by Michael Malay

This December on the Land Lines Blog, we are delighted to share with you a miniseries of reviews of key contemporary nature writing texts – including creative nonfiction and poetrycontributed by some wonderful writers and academics. Keep a look out for more instalments of the series over the next few weeks!

Yup’ik Mask, Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons

‘Why go anywhere else?’, a man says in ‘In Quinhagak’, an essay from Kathleen Jamie’s latest book of prose, Surfacing (2019). As a boy, he remembers his elders asking the same question. ‘Why go anyplace? We got what we need here. Living off the land. We’ve got the river, salmon, trout’. 

The man’s name is Darren, and he is referring to Quinhagak, a village of 700 souls in western Alaska, on the edge of the Bering Sea. He is a member of the Yup’ik, an indigenous people that has inhabited this region of the world for the last 10,000 years. He is at home here. This is a place of ‘extraordinary light’, Jamie writes, set in a tundra landscape of fireweed, willows, lichen, and moss, and interwoven with melt-pools, creeks and braiding rivers. Caribou and bears roam the tundra while owls and merlin fly overhead. Why go anywhere else? 

But the question isn’t entirely rhetorical, not anymore. The last winter was bad, Darren explains, there wasn’t enough snow on the ground, and the following summer was hot, ‘too hot’. The tundra dried out, so that, when lighting struck, the land caught fire. The ocean was also becoming bolder, advancing over the tundra, swallowing whole sections of coast. 

The Yup’ik have seen extremes before. They live in a landscape defined by them. Quinhagak is a place of sudden fogs, dangerous winds, hazardous cold and prolonged winter storms. In the past, though, these extremes made sense; they were the conditions of being on the land. The present extremities no longer make sense. ‘They’re moving my house soon’, a woman says, a few days into Jamie’s stay in Quinhagak. ‘The land is eroding so fast. I come out here in the morning in my robe with a coffee, but every time more is gone. The next full moon tides, I think all this chunk of earth we’re standing on will be gone.’ 

By IceCreamForEveryone – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

There is a lot of loss in Jamie’s essay: the loss of the tundra, the loss of the permafrost, the loss of the seasons (the winters are now too mild, the summers too hot) and, because of these losses, the unravelling of a traditional way of being on the land. How do you travel when, in the winters, your usual ice-roads are no longer solid, when, with ‘just two blows’, a man called Warren Jones explains, you could ‘hit through the river-ice’? When Jamie asks him about the mildness of the last season, Warren responds: ‘What winter?’. Last year, he says, ‘[w]e couldn’t go anyplace’. (This last statement, a disturbing revision of Darren’s question – ‘Why go anyplace?’ – is one of the most haunting sentences in Jamie’s book.  How does one live on the land when the land is becoming increasingly unliveable?)

But there is more to Jamie’s essay than loss. One of the paradoxes of all this vanishing is the return of lost things. Now that the permafrost is thawing, ancient Yup’ik artefacts – ritual masks, bentwood bowls, dice hewed from bone – are starting to tumble from the ground, prised loose by powerful tides, or else carefully excavated by a team of archaeologists, of which Jamie is a volunteer member. And so an ulu, a woman’s knife, swims to the surface of the earth – its handle carved with two images: a beluga whale (its eye and blowhole still visible) and a seal. Other artefacts – of equal beauty, sensitivity and wit – follow in turn, touching light for the first time in centuries: darts, wooden dolls, pendants, earrings, fishing weights, arrow-shafts. Even ancient smells are resurrected. One day, while working at Nunallaq, an archaeological site next to Quinhagak, Jamie recounts how a certain scent, ‘familiar’, ‘domestic’ and ‘not unpleasant’, rises from the earth. It is the smell of seal-meat, an odour that has been dormant in the earth for ‘five hundred years’, and which is now being revived, thanks to the efforts of the archaeologists and, of course, to the thawing effects of climate change (the land, Jamie writes, ‘is losing its grip on itself’). 

Fire, melting permafrost, vanishing land. But also: the austere beauty of the tundra, its bounty of gifts (blueberry, cloudberry, salmonberry), and the return of lost worlds, in the form of artefacts that provoke curiosity, tenderness and joy in those who handle them, and, for certain Yup’ik elders, a sense of melancholy too. ‘What kind of people were they?’, an elder called John Smith asks, as he turns over an earring in his hands, unearthed earlier that day. ‘We’d often hear John make remarks of wonderment and of sadness for the culture which was past’, Jamie notes. Later, she will record John saying: ‘We gotta remember. If the planes stop flying and no food comes in, we gotta remember how to live’.

Western Alaska Sunrise, By Joseph from Cabin On The Road, USA – Own work, CC By SA-2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Jamie never presses the point – part of the fastidiousness of Surfacing is its refusal to make grand statements about anything at all – but the contradictions experienced by John Smith (that sudden oscillation between wonderment and sadness) seems to be the defining condition of present-day Quinhagak. Not a day goes by without further erosion, further loss; at the same time, not a day goes by without more surfacings, more returns from the past. The Yup’ik are living through a strange interregnum, characterised by uncanny gains and disappearances, in which impossible things are suddenly possible (the thinning of ice-roads in the winter; the return of five-hundred-year-old smells). How does one live alongside these changes? And how does one make sense of the reappearance of lost things? 

Among the many objects retrieved from the earth during Jamie’s stay in Quinhagak, or which spill out of the ground willy-nilly, as the sea continues to nip away at the coast, are ‘ceremonial dance-masks, ritually broken after use’. These masks fire the imaginations of the contemporary Yup’ik who encounter them. Warren Jones, between worrying over the loss of the river-roads in winter, and about the logistics of the archaeological dig at Nunallaq, also has this to say to Jamie: ‘Since this dig began, kids from [the] village are hunting, carving again. They’re working on the dig, learning archaeology, learning their own traditions’. He also explains how a local teacher, inspired by masks that were beginning to reappear, put a ‘dance together from elders’ memories and fragments from other villages’. Again, Jamie never stresses the point, but the implication of these passages is clear: devastation is not a one-way road. There can be renewal too – and perhaps also hope. The recovery of a tradition can forge new ways of being in the present, can show new ways across uncertain terrain. ‘I liked the way she travelled’, Jamie writes of her travelling companion, Jeanette, during a fishing trip upriver: ‘with her iPod in one pocket and her ulu in the other’.

The fragments of nineteenth century cups and plates, surfacing in a farmer’s field in Scotland; hearths, arrowheads, and bone pins from the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age, found on the island of Westray, in the Orkney Islands; the antlers of reindeer that walked the earth tens of thousands of years ago, discovered in a cave in the North West Highlands. These are among the revenants and artefacts that appear in Jamie’s Surfacing. The essays also describe the return of old voices (the voice of Jamie’s grandmother – a voice she initially struggles to remember, but soon finds again: ‘Nana’s voice is coming back, it was just mislaid’) and the return of younger selves and half-buried experiences. The self in Jamie’s book, just as much as the land, is a kind of archaeological site, rich with the experiences of other eras, some of which are lost for good, but some of which, with the aid of language and memory, can be excavated and restored. 

Excavations at Ness of Brodgar, Orkney in 2011, by Geneviever Romier, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

In one essay, recalling the time she was diagnosed with cancer (‘[a]s you may know, biopsies can be horrible’), Jamie remembers a peculiar dream in which she is bitten by a Tibetan dog. The dream opens a ‘hinterland of other memories’, and the essay that follows, ‘The Wind Horse’, describes her travels in Tibet in the late 1980s, when she was in her twenties. Among the people Jamie meets are Chinese art students who want to ‘challenge the government with beauty’ (she meets them a few days before the Tiananmen Square massacre); Elena, a recovering heroin addict from Italy, who now devotes her time to the cause of Tibetan independence; and a young Tibetan monk learning to pronounce the English alphabet, and who Jamie helps with the letter ‘W’.  (‘Dub-elle-you!’ the boy and his classmates later call out to Jamie, when they see her passing by the temple). 

In the same essay, Jamie also describes a moment, when, coming across a collection of prayer flags by a monastery, she spontaneously decides to offer her silk scarf, which she ties next to the flags. ‘What for?’ she asks herself, before answering: ‘For the students in Beijing. For the whole damn mess. For the suffering world’. As she stands there, ‘squares of white paper’ appear before her, ‘tumbling along the grass and wildflowers by my feet, goodness knows where from’. One of these squares, which Jamie keeps as a memento, is ‘a little printed picture, red on white, of a winged horse rearing through the air’. ‘It seems like a fair swap’, she reflects: ‘a silk scarf to stay, a windhorse to go’.

The Anthropocene – and the lexis it has generated: ‘solastalgia’, the ‘sixth extinction’, ‘climate catastrophe’ – is firmly embedded in our consciousness now. We know that there is something wrong with the state of the planet and with the state of our politics. We feel this deep in our bones. Too often, though, what we are presented with is ‘information’ – numbers and graphs, statistics and charts. These things are necessary; if we want to understand where we are, we cannot do without them. And yet where shall wisdom be found? (The word is the right one, I think, though we may feel mawkish about it.) 

The power of Jamie’s essays is how they refuse to make any general statements about the trouble of the present moment, even as they exemplify a form of care, attention and witnessing that, without ever laying claim to an authority they do not possess, suggest a particular way going forward, a way of going on. ‘If you give them your presence,’ John Smith tells Jamie in ‘In Quinhagak’, referring to the bears that live on the tundra, ‘they’ll leave you alone’. Slow down, pay attention, stand aside. And make time to listen to what the others – the ulus, dance-masks and elders, the tundra, mountains and rivers – have to say. Interesting things will happen. A plane on the horizon will turn out, on closer inspection, to be a ‘flock of geese, heading south’; and, after sitting on the tundra for a while, with no motive in mind but just to be there, you will find your sight ‘adjusting’ and your ‘hearing sharpening’. After nearly an hour of such sitting, Jamie writes, ‘I could distinguish the different sounds the breeze made in the various grasses’.

Bears, Alaska, by Carl Chapman from Phoenix, USA, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The essays do not deny the sense of lostness confronting anyone facing the ‘whole damn mess’. Even as they attend to all that is disappearing, however, they sometimes discover, at the centre of the unravelling, things that the apocalyptic sensibility cannot see, or refuses to see: fragments, glimmers, possibilities. Perhaps, in the end, those fragments will amount to nothing more than fragments. And yet, in Quinhagak at least, the shards of ancient dance-masks have led to the revival of old dances – or, more to the point, have inspired new dances based on old materials. 

These glimmers will not come with clear instructions, Jamie’s essays caution. Nor will everything you see make sense. Scattered throughout her book are reminders that ‘our habitual vision of things is not necessarily right’, as Nan Shepherd puts it, or that the universe, in Barry Lopez’s phrase, ‘is oddly hinged’. In one essay, during a train journey along the eastern coast of Scotland, a strange mirage appears in the window: ‘a ship! A ghostly tanker […] sailing over the pine trees’. (The phenomenon is explained by the fact that the window, even as it lucidly frames the scene of the forest on the landward side, also reflects, on the oceanward side, the boats in the North Sea – a doubling of vision that may also stand in for the power of a language honed by attention, its capacity, that is, to receive impressions of the world even as it discovers what is missed by our customary ways of looking.) There are other strange sightings in the book, caused by tricks of the light, or by the simple limits of human vision: what seems like a woman picking berries far away on the tundra begins to look like a bear which, as it erupts into flight, turns out to be a raven. The ‘visible shifts’, Jamie writes of the scene. ‘Transformation is possible. A bear can become a bird […] The past can spill out of the earth, become the present’.

The transformations do not always take place ‘out there’, on the land. Some of the transformations take place in the body. When John Smith speaks about animals, for instance, Jamie notices how he will often mimic the thing he describes. When John talks about dogs, his hands transform into ‘the paws of a running dog’; when he talks about cranes, he hunches ‘his shoulders in intimation of the cranes’ long-winged flight’; and when he talks about owls, his eyes take on the wide expressiveness of the bird. This, too, is another way of paying attention: looking at animals so closely that their movements inhabit your body and animate your face and hands. The more you give your presence to them, the more they give their presence to you. ‘The whole place must be in constant conversation with itself’, Jamie writes of Quinhagak, ‘holding knowledge collectively’.

What might such transformations auger? And what’s the point of looking so closely? Jamie doesn’t say. She simply looks and listens, compelling her readers to look and listen too, so that whatever emerges is allowed to emerge. A ghost ship; a grandmother’s voice; a raven; a flock of geese; the distinctive sounds of wind on various grasses. None of these things point towards any political programme, or add up to a coherent manifesto, yet they are quietly radical acts, in their own way: at a time when so much is disappearing, due to inattention and neglect, what might it mean to give our attention back to things, so that their presence is scored onto our imaginations? In one of his poems, Les Murray imagines a mode of looking ‘where nothing is diminished by / perspective’, and where everything is ‘all foreground’, and ‘equally all background’. It would be, he says, like looking at a ‘painting of equality’. 

Raven in Seward, Alaska, by DickDaniels (, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Is that enough, though, paying attention? The question will naturally haunt anyone who works with words, especially when those words placed alongside, or before, the operations of political power, corporate influence and military might – or, indeed, before the rising of the seas. What’s the use of drawing flowers when tanks are advancing on student protestors in Beijing? And why listen to the wind when miles of coastline are being lost? Jamie wonders about these questions herself. ‘Can we actually say’, she writes in an essay for The Clearing, that noticing amounts to ‘an act of defiance’? The notion can quickly become absurd, she admits. ‘If we indulge the idea, then a bairn hunkering down to peer at a slug will be committing a political act, and we don’t want to lay that on them.’ 

Still, if ‘inattention is slowly killing the world’, then attention can – and should – be at the heart of a politics that would transcend the narrowness of present ways of looking and feeling. To look, to really look, such that the self is prised open by what it sees – such a task has its own urgency and value. We need deep transformations – and quickly; at the same time, we’ve never needed to slow down more, to pay heed, and, yes, to listen to the different kinds of singing the wind and grass can make. Jamie’s essays, even as they prompt feelings of startlement and wonder, or even fear and dismay, also move the reader towards the ethical categories of justice, fairness, and care. This is close looking pressed in the service of recovering the world we lose through neglect, and that can be returned to us, as if for the first time, through the excavations of art. 

Surfacing does not only describe cultural and ecological loss; it is also full of personal loss. In one essay, Jamie describes the passing of her father (when the ‘late snow was gone’ and ‘the daffodils were in bloom’), and, in another, the loss of a certain phase of motherhood. ‘From the Window’ recalls the moment when, after buying some kitchenware for Jamie’s daughter, soon to become a university student in another city, the daughter walks away to meet a group of friends. Jamie is left standing there with a ‘colander and two tea towels’, thinking ‘okay, what now?’ It seems more than fitting, then, that the final essay, ‘Voice of the Wood’, takes place in the middle of a life’s journey, in the middle of the wood, at a moment when the right path seems hard to find. ‘Concentrate’, Jamie tells herself: notice what’s around you.

Green ferns in the groin of an oak. Green moss cloaking a stone. Voice of a crow. Voice of a chiding wren. A smirr of rain too soft to possess a voice. Voice of the shrew, the black slug. Voice of the forest… Did you hear something move out of the corner of your eye? The same moth come back? Or another leaf falling? You are not lost, just melodramatic. The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on.

by Michael Malay

About the Author

Michael Malay is Lecturer in English Literature and Environmental Humanities at the University of Bristol. He is the author of The Figure of the Animal in Modern and Contemporary Poetry and is currently working on a project called Late Light, a book about eels, mussels, crickets and moths.

My Great Outdoors – by Sue Cassell

What motivated me to build My Great Outdoors?

During lockdown, my eight-year-old son, despite the brilliant weather, was reluctant to venture outdoors.  This was tough for me, as I thrive in the outdoors.  

My time at home was at least a chance to catch up on reading. I started with a book by a former colleague, Duncan M Simpson. Although a trained journalist, Duncan had been captivated by the ethos of the Youth Hostelling movement during his stay at a London Youth Hostel, and decided to switch careers to work as a Youth Hostel warden. In retirement, he has written a part-memoir and part-history of the Youth Hostels Association.  Open to All: How Youth Hostels Changed the World is a juxtaposition of personal (and fascinating) reflections on the life of a Youth Hostel warden and the external forces that were at work during the last century, transforming the Youth Hostels Association from ‘a simple idea’ into a global movement.

Wittenham Clumps, Oxfordshire (North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), photo by author

I then dipped into Chris Packham’s Fingers in the Sparkle Jar.  I was impressed by how his parents lovingly gave up their free time to take him out to the places that fed his early passion for wildlife. I could also relate to Chris’ description of his first encounter with a fox cub:

Button nose, sleek cheeks with a fuzz of fine black whiskers. A fluffy, smoky coat, and after the most amazing second of my life, it turned and skipped through the hole, its glowing tail tip following it forever in my memory. It was indisputably and absolutely the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.  

Continue reading “My Great Outdoors – by Sue Cassell”

The Sand Lizard and a Sense of ‘Place’ – by Philip Parker

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 fleshread on below.

If on any warm day when you ramble around
Among moss and dead leaves, you should happen to see
A quick trembling thing dart and hide on the ground,
And you search in the leaves, you would uncover me.

Thomas Hardy, The Lizard

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.

Sand Lizard – Photo by Ralph Connolly

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.

Continue reading “The Sand Lizard and a Sense of ‘Place’ – by Philip Parker”

October – by Merryn Glover

Speybank Woods – Photo by Merryn Glover


“October is the coloured month,” Nan Shepherd wrote in The Living Mountain, her now-celebrated account of her relationship with the Cairngorm range of Scotland. Here, where I live on the Spey side of those mountains, it is radiantly true. Somehow this transitional time gathers the full spectrum of colours, shades and tones and spills them across the landscape and into our spirits.

Fragments from my journal over the years testify to its moods.

Magical morning with a low mist rising slowly. A clear, pale sky full of the promise of blue, brushed with feathers of grey cloud. The forests ring with the light piping and trilling of birds and thousands of cobwebs stretch across the heather, glittering. The loch is grey and muted, the smooth water broken by a duck’s turn. The mist now is thinning and glowing gold. A disappearing veil, a vanishing breath.

Loch Insh – Photo by Merryn Glover

It is a season of contrasts, of shifting temperatures, weather and light, both across the month and within any day. Something within us turns, too, recognising the cycles of laying down and letting go in order to journey forward.

Woke to the first frost of the year and sunshine. Then a sudden, beating rainstorm in the afternoon and when it cleared, the far hills to the east were dusted with white.

It is usually early October when we get the first snow up on the Cairngorms, lying like the ermine cape of a queen, answered by the pure white of the swans on the loch, the ancient stone church and the high clouds. The harbinger of winter, it can suddenly fill the valley in deep drifts this month and send children charging forth with shouts and sledges, but then just as quickly disappear again.

Uath Lochans – Photo by Merryn Glover

The first week of October brought astonishing weather with temperatures in the low teens. The mornings started in a white blur of frost and mist, then the sun burned through and turned the sky to clear cobalt. A vast brightness, the beginnings of autumn gold, patches of apricot and orange, blushes of red.

Continue reading “October – by Merryn Glover”

Nature from the Inside – Susan Holliday

In this piece for the Land Lines blog, psychotherapist Susan Holliday revisits the role of wonder in revealing to us the hidden depths of human nature.

In the hush of lockdown I have found myself walking around my little patch of south London more often.  My dusty senses have been swept clean by the intricate and ever-changing details of nature in the gardens, parks and trees around me. I am not alone in this. Social media has abounded with intimate pictures of nature seen afresh. The uncurling of a leaf. Recordings of birdsong. Buds blossoming.  At the same time, many of us have looked at ourselves more deeply. Away from the glare of our carefully curated lives we have found traces of subterranean dramas, trails of nocturnal longings, and tracks leading to uncharted inner landscapes.  Perhaps there is more to human nature than meets the eye. More to feel, more to sense, more to see.

When I tell a new acquaintance I’m a psychotherapist, I often encounter the response ‘How do you do it?  How do you sit with all that depression?’  The question floors me every time.  It assumes that the ordinary men and women who step into my practice room are all grey, washed out and featureless, that my seeing of them might resemble a walk through a desolate landscape on a dull winter’s day. The truth is that beyond the surface symptoms of troubled lives, I have discovered ecologies of feeling as intricate as coral reefs and walked in landscapes of human experience as irreplaceable as our rain forests. Have you any idea, I want to reply, just how much richness, intelligence and beauty surfaces from the depths of every human being – if you just know how to look?

Heron at Dawn – an infinitely patient vision (Photo by Susan Holliday)

Most of what I have learned about seeing deeply within human encounter, I have discovered from a lifetime of wandering and wondering in the natural world.  Seeing nature ‘out there’ has fashioned how I see nature ‘from the inside’.   

Continue reading “Nature from the Inside – Susan Holliday”