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Process: on writing, inexperience and Kathleen Jamie – by Lauren Maltas

Today we post the final essay in our summer series of emerging nature writers. As we welcome new students to the University of Leeds and the School of English this week, we are delighted to be publishing the work of one of our current English Literature undergraduates, Lauren Maltas.  In “Process: on writing, inexperience and Kathleen Jamie” Lauren offers us a deeply-felt meditation on what it means to read and write about nature, and how reflecting on nature – in its broadest definition – enables her to recover personal memories and experiences which then play an integral part in her narratives of the ‘nearby wild’.

it is the dark side of the moon we call being human’
– Rebecca Solnit, ‘Knot’ The Faraway Nearby

This summer I set out on the biggest writing project of my life and have been persistently reminded that I am only twenty years old, and yet to complete my undergraduate degree. It has been equally the most rewarding and difficult thing I have done, it has cost me a summer of relaxation, and given me a summer of purposefulness. It has also made me question why I want to write, and why to begin with, I thought I could. What I have been writing is a non-fiction book about the place I live, the rural-urban blur-land of West Yorkshire, the spaces I travel through as I commute to and from university. It is also about how I came to be who I am, reclaiming ownership of my dead grandparents, coming to terms with an odd and long-lasting shadow of alienation and overwhelmed-ness.

Before I started writing, I immersed myself in the wonderful piles of nature writing to be found in Leeds’ Waterstones. My neighbour gave me his worn copies of out-of-print nature writing. I’ve read things I’ve loved, things I’ll forget, things I didn’t fully understand, but mostly I’ve read Kathleen Jamie. Her two essay collections had luckily been on two module reading lists at uni, but I was yet to find her poetry. Her Selected Poems popped up as I was about to make a pre-order purchase of Surfacing. I read all the headliners first, ‘Mr and Mrs Scotland are Dead’, ‘The Queen of Sheba’- they were as good as I’d expected. My favourite poem of all in the blue bound book, however, is ‘Moon’. I’m yet to etch it all into my brain, but a few lines are already stuck: ‘She travelled |with a small valise of darkness’, ‘I waited; watched for an age| her cool gaze shift’ and finally the stanza of all-time ‘then glide to recline| along the pinewood floor| before I’d had enough. Moon| I said, we’re both scarred now.’

Lauren 1
Photo by Lauren Maltas

I hadn’t seen a picture of Kathleen Jamie until after I read Selected Poems, or if I had I hadn’t clocked that it was her. In my head Kathleen was quite a faceless figure, in some way, I felt I would recognise her personality if I were to find myself chatting on the street, but I had no way of recognising her physical form through the words she had written. I had begun writing at this point, the first difficult sentences, wading into boggy memories of my grandma’s dementia that coincided so cruelly with my childhood, the snow that became a sign of illness, stillness, and my grandad’s unexpected death. Until I started writing I hadn’t realised that I felt their story wasn’t mine to tell, that somehow, perhaps because I was only their grandchild and not more typically ‘immediate’, I shouldn’t have been so affected by their illnesses and deaths. I kept writing, enjoyed the idea of reclaiming, exploring a time I didn’t even know had been missing. As I was writing about them, I was trying to entwine some sentences on ‘nature’. I made points about forests and national parks, and I said things that essentially boil down to ‘this doesn’t belong to me’ and ‘I will never feel at home here’. I returned to Kathleen Jamie, recalling how I felt she so fitted into her environment, and saw my mistake. She had never left the house, and still the Moon found her. I stopped and re-wrote the forests for my grandad’s garden, the quarries, the scoured patches of land my train zips through. I wrote about houseplants on my windowsills, the ways in which asparagus ferns give the illusion of a vast forest, even on the small desk where I do most of my work. I found a way of seeing nature in everything I participated in every day, instead of a distant place, so typically ‘natural’ that it felt so far from the truth of nature in my own life.

To refresh myself with a change of pace, and because I had been recommended it earlier in the year by a seminar tutor, I began reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. It’s not nature writing in the same sense as John Clare or Robert Macfarlane, as in no-one has given it that label. I felt I recognised some of Roger Deakin in his notebooks for the Granta New Nature Writing issue in it, though. It speaks of ‘nature’ in a different way, nature meaning the character of, the personality of, the human condition. It also charts Solnit’s experience of Alzheimer’s with her mother, and crucially how this illness lands you in a position you are not qualified to handle, but must. I remembered my own days with grandma, talking about my imaginary husband when she needed me to be a friend she could feel equal to. Another day out with mum looking for her, finding her trying the doors of all the cars up the street. Rarely was I a child with grandma, rarely did I fit my label. The title, Faraway Nearby, reminded me of grandma even before I read it. That song we sing for her ‘even though you’re far away, we still love you’ which was profoundly accurate both during her illness and once she was gone.

Inside the book, because she was on my mind, floating like a mist through my subconscious, I found Kathleen Jamie again. From her two essay collections, I had been most shocked and intrigued by ‘Surgeons’ Hall’ from Findings. I had thought it out of place in a supposed collection of nature writing, more disturbing, close to home, tactile than anything I had read in the genre before. I don’t like the thought that bodies do not belong to us. That upon death, an organ can be removed, transplanted into someone else, and survive, just fine, another eighty years without you, despite how miraculous I know it is. I do not like the thought that my body is not only mine, and for my own purposes. In ‘Surgeons’ Hall’, bodies and body parts are not primarily for the person that grew them, but exist inside glass jars for the interest and education of the person who harvested them and their future students. They stand as monuments to organs that were interesting, because they went wrong. I thought of my grandma, and a brain in a big wide jar like a goldfish bowl, or even an aquarium.

‘Surgeons’ Hall’ re-appeared to me during Solnit’s chapter ‘Breath’ in which she describes two pyramids jutting out of the sea like a pair of breasts. She writes it was startling to see that what she had thought of as one peak, was in fact two, and ‘more startling’ that they ‘so resembled human anatomy’. A couple of pages over she describes sea urchins, scallops, starfish, crabs which have been dragged up from the ocean floor as being ‘bright like internal organs’. I felt slightly crippled by the thought of that, that ocean creatures who I would hear on the news were being lost to the effects of over-fishing, bleaching, increased water temperatures, were akin to the human body in their vulnerability. In a book not considered ‘nature writing’ and self-described as ‘Memoir/Anti-Memoir’ I found evidence of the kind of nature I could feel, nature that was both happening to me and personally remote, that was because of me and yet not in my control. Kathleen Jamie, and her jars of organs-in-waiting were everywhere to be seen, but again I had missed something. I had been only terrified, shocked and not comforted by something that really, showed me how powerful I was.

I came to my senses later when I re-read Jamie’s essay Frissure. Somehow I had forgotten it, I think, because upon my first read I hadn’t understood it. The key message I take from Frissure is Jamie’s recognition of the importance of perspective, that in requesting a surgeon to try to repair you, or an artist to draw you, you relinquish your control over how you are seen. In asking Brigid Collins to make art out of her scar, Jamie relinquished herself to the gaze of an artist, and in doing so opened up the possibility of perspective. Her scar could become both a sign of medical intervention, and also a starting point from which to create.

As you can probably imagine, I realised that to say I was supposed to be writing, I was spending most of my time reading. In truth I didn’t feel ready to write these things that I knew I felt when I read them, but somehow didn’t think I would be able to articulate so that my reader would feel them too. I was only twenty and yet to complete my undergraduate degree. I still didn’t feel I completely had the right to claim my grandparent’s deaths, or to say that my urban-rural blur was in fact ‘nature’. I turned my attention to other things until the confidence built up again.

Lauren 2
Photo by Lauren Maltas

The ‘other things’ happened to be poetry. I went back to ‘Moon’, and I wrote a series of short, scrappy poems. One day after a visit to my one remaining grandparent, fifteen minutes in my garden, and a sandwich produced from pretty desolate cupboards, I wrote this:

      Beetroot

I grow Chinese lanterns, teasels, honesty

Simply to preserve them.

It occurs to me as I make a sandwich

That the beetroot, sliced and in vinegar

Has been grown like this, with this intention.

As my seedlings grow, a month now before drying

I speak with my gran, about the joy of peeling boiled beetroot.

Of course I don’t know it, but I tell her

Yes, it is like peeling off a scab (dead, healed skin)

And she cannot tell the difference.

They are not particularly good poems, but they showed me the various ways in which the jars of organs, my dead grandparents, my fascination with stillness and remnants, will leak into my life if I don’t tackle them directly. I tell myself that it doesn’t matter how badly I write about them, whether or not other people think of this as an exploration of nature in its many incarnations, or simply as a clumsy mish-mash. What I’ve learnt from Kathleen Jamie is that nature is everything that lives or ever lived. From Jamie, Solnit, and my grandma, that nature is both choices and sometimes an unfair and unexpected series of events. I have sent the beginnings of my writing, around 10,000 words, off to be read by people I don’t know, who have never met my grandparents, and might never have been to West Yorkshire. Expect that if I am successful you might hear about it, if you happen to be reading this. If not, then know that I am probably still writing it anyway. Going on experiencing nature in my own particular way, appreciating, observing and participating in it. Worse comes to worse, I will still have Surfacing left to read.

 

Works cited:

Selected Poems by Kathleen Jamie, Picador 2018

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, Granta 2014

Findings by Kathleen Jamie, Sort of Books 2005

 

Lauren is a final year English Literature undergraduate at the University of Leeds, where last year she was the School of English’s Writing Intern. She currently edits the school’s poetry magazine Poetry & Audience, and is working on a creative writing dissertation concerning human value in the New Nature Writing. Most recently she has had poetry and prose published by Strix and Caught by the River, and hopes to make a career out of writing once she graduates. When Lauren is not writing, she is busy finding new ways to re-use old junk in her small wildlife garden.

The Discomfort Project
Twitter @DiscomfortLeeds
www.thediscomfortproject.wixsite.com/writing 

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The rise and popularity of British Nature Writing: an interview with Pippa Marland by Gunhild Riske

The Danish journalist and anthropologist Gunhild Riske interviewed Pippa as part of her research for a forthcoming article on British nature writing for the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. We are delighted to post the full text of the interview on the Land Lines website today, illustrated with photos by Gunhild, Dan Reid, and artwork by Katie Marland.

Gaia
Luke Jerram’s ‘Gaia’, Wills Memorial Building, Bristol, 18th August 2019, photo by Dan Reid.

GR: Nature writing is obviously a huge topic. In my forthcoming article I’m trying to explain in broad strokes the phenomenon, map the many subgenres of nature writing and explore the societal forces behind it. Why is it so popular now – and who are the readers? Gender and diversity are also interesting. 

PM: Nature writing is certainly burgeoning in the UK right now – new titles are being published all the time, and they are often relatively high-profile, sometimes featuring in the bestseller lists, for example, Robert Macfarlane’s Underland and Isabella Tree’s Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm.

As you say, it’s a huge topic and there are many subgenres that come under the broad umbrella of nature writing: there are books that lean more towards memoir than natural history, like Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk and Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, and often focus on the healing power of the natural world – the Nature Cure, as Richard Mabey describes it in his quietly ground-breaking 2005 work; there are books focused on the writer’s passion for particular flora and fauna, for example, Miriam Darlington’s Otter Country and Owl Sense, Dave Goulson’s A Sting in the Tale, and Patrick Barkham’s The Butterfly Isles; books based on specific (and sometimes very small-scale) places, for example, John Lewis Stempel’s The Wood: The Life and Times of Cockshutt Wood, which focuses on three and a half acres of woodland in the English county of Herefordshire, and Roger Deakin’s Notes from Walnut Tree Farm; books that narrate practical engagements with the natural world, often related to agriculture, for example James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District and Isabella Tree’s Wilding; books that have a particular environmentalist or polemic angle, for example, George Monbiot’s Feral and Mark Cocker’s Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late; and books that bring together personal memoir with a threnody for lost species, as in Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm. Of course, there are also nature books that function as practical guides to particular elements of the natural world and wouldn’t be considered ‘literary’ in the same way as the aforementioned titles, but nevertheless play an important role in the culture of nature. As a recent example, Philip Street’s Shell Life on the Seashore, first published in 1961, has just been reissued in a new edition.

Notwithstanding the wealth of different forms associated with the genre, there are also signs that authors are moving between these forms while at the same time incorporating new elements, pushing at the limits of prose nature writing per se. In Rob Cowen’s Common Ground you find fictional passages and a range of different characters rubbing shoulders with more traditional descriptive and autobiographical writing. One of the most exciting contemporary voices in British nature writing is perhaps also one of the most overlooked (as yet): Philip Hoare’s books, especially Leviathan; The Sea Inside; and RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR, deal predominantly with aquatic rather than terrestrial nature, and blend natural and eclectic cultural observations so seamlessly that the writing resists easy classification, and yet they have a huge amount to say about the natural world and our relationship with it.

Photo by Gunhild Riske

In terms of gender, things have changed significantly in the last decade or so, with many new female nature writers now being published and achieving major acclaim, building on the success of long-standing, established authors such as Kathleen Jamie. In relation to diversity, the genre has for a long time been almost exclusively white – at least in terms of the material that actually finds its way to publication – but this too is now gradually beginning to change: we’ve seen the founding this year of The Willowherb Review, edited by Jessica J. Lee, which is dedicated to celebrating and bolstering nature writing by emerging and established writers of colour, and we’ve also witnessed the launch of the Nan Shepherd Prize – a new literary prize for underrepresented voices in nature . The Forestry Commission recently inaugurated a writers’ residency in forests for similarly underrepresented voices. Writers of colour such as Jini Reddy, Anita Roy, and Elizabeth Jane Burnett are creating exciting new work and David Lindo, a.k.a. the ‘Urban Birder’ is a highly successful ornithologist, author and media personality.

There are also younger writers exploding onto the scene: Abi Andrews’ audacious The Word for Woman is Wilderness was published last year, and Diary of a Young Naturalist by fifteen year-old Northern Irish naturalist Dara McAnulty will be published by Little Toller in 2020. Dara’s book also joins a growing list of titles by neurodiverse writers. Like British media star and nature writer Chris Packham – and of course the globally-celebrated environmental activist Greta Thunberg – Dara identifies as being on the autism/Asperger’s spectrum.

The question of why nature writing is so popular in the UK now is a complex one. Is it because there’s so little nature left? After all, the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Is the writing fulfilling a nostalgic or elegiac function? I certainly think these elements play into its popularity, especially when much of the readership is probably urban and as a result potentially lacks direct access to rural nature. Having said this, and as you suggest in your question below, the nature being celebrated is increasingly of the kind that can be found on our doorsteps, in urban or suburban environments. Rob Cowen’s book falls into this category, as does Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness by Paul Farley and Michael Symonds Roberts, which, as the name implies, explores the hinterlands of cities and towns.

I’d like to believe that the current interest in nature writing is more than just a reflection of commodified nature finding a niche in consumer culture, or a nostalgic fad that mourns the loss of landscapes and wildlife while turning its back on the nature that still remains. The UK has been part of a global movement towards environmentalism in recent months, participating in a great upsurge in support for the natural world. Even if not all the readers of nature writing are activists, I do feel that there is a certain ‘environmentally-woke’ zeitgeist emerging, in the sense that people are beginning to notice and cherish nature in a significant way, and this ‘noticing’ may ultimately translate into political and environmental action.

Photo by Gunhild Riske

GR: I wonder which nature writing captures this “everywoman” approach outside of beautiful specialist nature writing?

One of the nature writers I most admire on the British scene is the Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie (Findings; Sightlines). She never sets out to portray herself as an expert on any aspect of nature, but in her brilliant use of the essay form she brings an inquisitive and profoundly philosophical eye to the natural world and its intersections with human activity. She shows that you don’t need to travel to far-flung places or remote wildernesses to experience nature (or to create outstandingly good nature writing, for that matter); it’s always there, just at the edges of our vision as we go about our daily tasks. She writes, ‘between the laundry and fetching the kids from school, that’s how birds enter my life’. Katharine Norbury’s The Fish Ladder is another good example of this. Following a miscarriage, Norbury decides to go on a quest, to walk from the sea to the source of a river. At the same time she is engaged in trying to find her birth mother (she was adopted as a baby). She combines these narratives with exquisite reflections on the nature she encounters along the way.

There’s a lot of grass-roots knowledge about natural history to be found among members of the general public, and also a lot of people who aren’t experts but simply enjoy and value the nature that surrounds them. The final public engagement event of the initial Land Lines project was a crowd-sourced spring nature diary, created online on March 20th this year. The response was amazing! Abi Andrews is currently editing an e-book for us of some of the submissions which will be released in the Autumn. There’s an abundance of evidence of a great and heartfelt passion for the natural world. You can see the entries here.

GR: Being involved in the Land Lines project and modern British nature writing must give some very interesting perspectives. 

PM: The Land Lines book, co-written by Graham Huggan and David Higgins (University of Leeds), Christina Alt (University of St Andrews) and Will Abberley (Sussex University), forthcoming from Cambridge University Press, traces the history of the British nature writing genre through a series of in-depth discussions of the work of selected writers, from Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne (1789) to the present day, and encompassing the Romantic, Victorian, Modernist and contemporary literary eras. Their research shows that it took a long time for ‘writing about nature’ to coalesce into ‘nature writing’ as an identifiable form (if indeed it ever has fully coalesced, given the proliferation of subgenres noted above) and that the genre has been characterised since its inception by tensions and contradictions. To the present day there are heated debates on what the ideal balance of science and autobiography in nature writing might be, and on whether ‘fine’, literary writing detracts from an engagement with ‘real’ nature, rendering the literature more an escapist form than a force to motivate environmentalist behaviour. From a broader perspective, Graham Huggan sees the genre as ‘emerging under the sign of a triple crisis: the crisis of the environment; the crisis of representation; and the crisis of modernity itself’. In other words, he argues that nature writing is, and always has been, a more complex and troubled form than has often been assumed, haunted (to varying degrees in different eras) by the awareness of anthropogenic environmental impact, by the difficulty of capturing nature in language, and by doubts about the assumed ‘progress’ of the human species. This darker dimension is perhaps most clearly evident in contemporary nature writing, which, of course, as you also mention, operates within the terrifying context of the Anthropocene.

I think the Land Lines book will prove to be an important intervention into our understanding of the genre. For example, David Higgins’s opening chapter sheds new light on the complex interplay between autobiography and natural history in British Romantic nature writing, and highlights the central importance of figures such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charlotte Smith, and John Clare. In this he reveals the genre’s European, female and labouring class roots in a way that complicates later understandings of the form as the sole preserve of the privileged, often specifically English, male.

My own role in the project has, along with assisting the research, been largely oriented towards public engagement, and my experiences in this area have convinced me more than anything else that there is a widespread and growing love of nature among the British public and an appetite to think with some urgency about our relationship with landscape and wildlife, and the damage to the natural world in which we are all implicated.

Photo by Gunhild Riske

GR: What strikes me is that overall many of the nature writing books seem so full of sheer joy and especially “wonderment” at everything from the life of bumblebees and gulls to trees and walking. There is playfulness, beauty and curiosity, in words as well as visuals. 

The motivation for nature writing often lies in the author’s individual sense of enchantment with the natural world, and most of the titles I listed in answer to your first prompt are a testament to such enchantment. Caspar Henderson’s inspirational work – The Book of Barely Imagined Beings and A New Map of Wonders – is particularly full of awe at the sheer complexity and extraordinariness of planetary life.

One of the most successful UK nature books of the past two years has been the gloriously beautiful children’s book The Lost Words, a collaboration between the writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris. It features ‘spell songs’ that conjure vividly, through words and images, some of the elements of the natural world that are fading from children’s vocabularies and lives: creatures like the otter, the badger and the kingfisher, and plants like the dandelion, the bramble, and the fern. The book has become a publishing phenomenon, with individuals and grass-roots organisations raising money to try and get a copy of the book into every primary school in the UK, with significant success. As the term ‘spell songs’ indicates, there’s something really magical about this book, and it’s introducing a whole generation of young children to the enchantments of the natural world.

You mention playfulness, and Charles Foster’s Being a Beast, in which he attempts to live as a badger, a fox, an otter, a red deer and a swift, is at times highly comical, as is Chris Packham’s Fingers in the Sparkle Jar (which last year won a national poll organised by the Land Lines project to find the UK’s favourite nature book). However, I would say that the sense of playfulness and enchantment here (and elsewhere) is often tinged with sadness. In Charles Foster’s case, the comedy of his attempts to become a ‘beast’ is tempered by a sense of failure, a sense that we humans are a lonely species who can never truly know what it means to be anything other than human. Chris Packham’s book is searingly honest about his experiences of growing up with undiagnosed autism (he doesn’t explicitly name this in his book but has done so since its publication), his struggles to fit in with a human world that often baffles (especially in its lack of engagement with nature), and his difficulty in dealing with the mortality of his beloved non-human companions.

GR: In the UK there seems to be an awakening to the sheer “exoticness” of nature right outside the backdoor (“heather moorland is rarer than rainforest globally”). 

 PM: Yes, there is definitely a strand of nature writing that revels in the ‘exoticness’ of the ‘nearby wild’ – the books I’ve just mentioned by Chris Packham, Charles Foster and Rob Cowen are evidence of this, all set in the suburbs or within easy reach of urban centres. Robert Macfarlane’s celebrated nature classic The Wild Places concludes with the insight that at the end of his journeying, wildness turned out to be not something ‘which was hived off from human life, but which existed unexpectedly around and within it’, and I think this perspective is now widespread in the British nature writing scene. New books this year have celebrated this localised richness, for example Gail Simmons’ The Country of Larks: A Chiltern Journey, and there’s a growing sense that the particular habitats of the British Isles are worthy of preservation. Plans to build a motorway relief road through the Gwent Levels in Wales were recently scrapped after a campaign (supported by several nature writers) to save this unique landscape.

Photo by Gunhild Riske

GR: Looking inward can very easily be seen as a kind of nationalist insularity (Brexit). Yet anchored to climate change (plus the Anthropocene unfolding before our eyes) the implicit international aspect maybe prevents it from becoming sentimental? 

PM: There will perhaps inevitably always be some nature writing that is naïve or sentimental in its relationship to place, and even privileges a kind of exclusive localism. But I’d say that is more the exception than the rule, and the majority of our nature writers in the UK have a complex, and largely progressive sense of place. In relation to Brexit itself, it’s a hugely complicated issue and it’s perhaps a mistake to conflate too easily a desire for autonomy with nationalist leanings (though the two are sometimes linked), but a quick scan of Twitter accounts will reveal that many of our best-known nature writers, far from evincing any kind of nationalist insularity or sentimentality, are strongly vociferous Remainers (ie. anti-Brexit).

Leaving aside the vexed question of Brexit, the sense of place emerging from the new nature writing in the UK generally does incorporate a sophisticated awareness of landscape’s entanglements with both natural and social history, and of the intersections between the local and the global. This is not to say that these writers eschew local attachment. It’s more the case that, while understanding the value of devotion to a particular local environment and its flora and fauna, they feel that this should not be at the expense of more expansive understandings that transcend their immediate geographical and social contexts. For some, there’s an explicit, self-conscious awareness of the legacy of place-based writing in the UK, and its association at certain times with nationalistic sentiment. Helen Macdonald writes in H is for Hawk of the way in which her delight in the chalk downlands of England is always tempered by the knowledge that they ‘held their national as well as their natural histories’.

This expanded understanding of place has been further augmented by the strand of ‘archipelagic’ writing that occupies a significant place in the contemporary nature writing of these isles. This has been spearheaded by the creative writing journal Archipelago and draws on perspectives that attempt to reveal the complex interrelationships of the constituent nations of the UK along with its intra-archipelagic forms of colonialism and political domination, and to assert the individual identities and ‘centrality’ of places more often regarded as being ‘peripheral’. A new archipelagic, hybrid work of historiography and nature writing has just come out in the UK – David Gange’s magnificent The Frayed Atlantic Edge – which tells an alternative history of the archipelago from the ‘outside in’, the author’s main research method being to kayak the length of the British and Irish Atlantic seaboard.

Finally, as you say, the Anthropocene changes everything … it’s simply not possible to think exclusively on a small scale any more. Indeed the Anthropocene demands that we engage with dimensions of time and space that push at our imaginative and cognitive limits. I’d argue that some of our best nature writing has been dealing with these challenges for longer than we have had a term for the new epoch. Tim Robinson’s writings from the West of Ireland, the Stones of Aran diptych and the Connemara trilogy, have, since he began publishing in the 1980s, looked back through geological deep time and out into cosmic space in order to reach for an understanding of how we might best dwell in our own individual patches of ‘home planet’. The late German-born (but UK-based) writer W.G. Sebald, traced the ‘natural history of destruction’ involved in human relationships both with each other and with the environment in works such as The Rings of Saturn, which now seem extraordinarily relevant to the environmental catastrophe unfolding before our eyes.

Solastalgia
Solastalgia (2019) Clay and crystal, by Katie Marland

But now that we have a name for it and are indubitably in the midst of it, nature writers are responding in a more focused, and in many cases, more politicised way to the Anthropocene. Adam Nicolson’s heartbreaking The Seabird’s Cry considers the evidence and implications of the Anthropocene as he documents the lives of the planet’s beleaguered seabird populations. Tim Dee’s latest book Landfill, which pays homage to the extraordinary variety of gulls that visit municipal rubbish tips and, more broadly, ponders the complicated entanglement of humans and non-human species, is subtitled Notes on Gull Watching and Trash Picking in the Anthropocene. I would say that Robert Macfarlane’s Underland (which has just, wholly deservedly, been awarded the 2019 Wainwright Prize) is the first work of British nature writing to devote itself entirely to the question of the Anthropocene, and as such it breaches the boundaries of what nature writing has previously been deemed to be. In essence, it’s an attempt to understand what it means to be human on this Anthropocene earth, and it does so by thinking back through deep, subterranean, geological time; by bringing to light more recent, hidden and often exceptionally cruel human histories; by witnessing the contemporary crisis refracted through the lens of melting glaciers;  and by imagining the current members of the human species as ‘ancestors’ of both the near and the very deep future, even as we attempt to sequester underground spent nuclear fuel that will remain toxic for the next 100 000 years.

Kathleen Jamie’s new essay collection Surfacing is due to be published later this year. I’ve been lucky enough to read an advance copy and I can see that she too is explicitly situating herself within the Anthropocene, contemplating, in her characteristically wise and incisive fashion, what this epoch means for us environmentally, culturally and socially. While recognising the enormity of our environmental problems, she also offers a perspective that shows how the Anthropocene might also offer unexpected opportunities – for example, she describes the way in which the retrieval of artefacts from a long-buried settlement in Quinhagak, Alaska, that is gradually reappearing as the permafrost melts, puts an ancient indigenous culture damaged by colonialism in touch with its own lost history and its earlier methods of living in tandem with the natural world.

It’s significant, I think, that the final section of Macfarlane’s book and Jamie’s whole essay collection are entitled ‘Surfacing’. Both writers play on the multiple meanings and connotations of the word, from the idea of long-buried things, both material and psychological, emerging (sometimes erupting) from subterranean spaces; to a sense of coming out of, or alternatively of reorienting oneself towards, particular phases of one’s own personal life; to the notion of a philosophical feeling, almost, of accommodation to the new situation, accompanied by the resolution to go on in a kind of hopefulness, even as the darkness deepens.

Dr Pippa Marland was until recently the research assistant on the first phase of the AHRC-funded ‘Land Lines: Modern British Nature Writing’ research project. She now holds a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellowship at the University of Leeds, with a project entitled ‘The Pen and the Plough’ in which she is investigating the representation of farming in British nature writing.

Gunhild Riske is a Danish journalist and anthropologist. She writes about travel, culture and nature often with a particular focus on “the periphery”. For example how combining arctic birding with architecture in Norway could be a means to developing a sustainable local tourism. Or how art thrives on the Danish islands of Lolland & Falster far from the bigger cities.  She also writes a guidebook in Danish on London: “Turen Går til London”. https://www.instagram.com/gunilla_cph/

Katie Marland is a freelance natural history illustrator: https://katiemarland.com/. Solastalgia (2019), clay and crystal,  is a piece designed to raise questions of preciousness and worth, looking specifically at museum exhibits and the way in which we display that which acquired worth through destruction, things that are extinct or ancient and rare. What will the natural history displays of our future hold, and will the wildlife that appears mundane now become precious in it’s scarcity?

 

Notes on Return, Recycling and Renewal

By Kim Crowder

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In the second installment of our summer series of new nature writing, Kim Crowder reflects beautifully on the dramas of the natural world that took place during the course of this year’s spring and early summer in the microcosm of a stable roof, noting the ‘returns’ that the season brought and the forms of recycling and renewal that emerged.

For me, April and May are months of great anticipation: I’m watching for the returning birds, especially swallows, house martins and swifts whose arrivals signal the beginnings of summer. My ornithological skills aren’t particularly acute, but first sightings of these species really matter to me for the same reason that swifts matter in Ted Hughes’s poem:

                They’ve made it again,
        Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
        Still waking refreshed

Since 2016, I have been keeping a nature journal, on and off, and in it my first sightings of passerine birds are a high point each year. From April to September, swallow-spotting is all part of the daily routine at my stable because, ever since I began using it in 2015, there has been a nest of one kind or another there. Like me, the pony has learned to cope with near-misses with speeding swallows. In good years the residents of this nest – and of several others hidden in nearby derelict barns – form large aerial congregations. A mixed flock of swallows and martins skims the paddock daily, sometimes hunting for insects, sometimes chattering and swooping as though for the sheer pleasure of acrobatic flying.

By journalling, I’ve kept track of the swallows’ comings and goings over four summers. Given the pessimistic environmental context, this journal-writing has come to feel increasingly important. This year, like last, the swallows were slow to arrive. The first three birds put in a short-lived appearance on 18th April and a group of eight martins arrived the next day. But by the end of the second week of May, I was concerned as many completely swallow-less weeks had passed here while friends in neighbouring villages already had their full complement of swallows. This spring’s journal entries document the story of the life of the nest in my stable.

22nd March, 2019:
At the stable this morning Peter asked me if I had noticed what had happened to the swallows’ nest. At first glance I couldn’t see what he meant as the nest is up in a very dark corner. But then I saw that around the top edge of the nest, several layers of dried leaves had been very carefully added. They are arranged so that there is a small gap at the centre-front of the nest’s rim. We are not sure which bird might have done this – wrens maybe? If so, this will be the third round of recycling this nest has undergone.

When I first took on the stable, which is in fact a re-cycled shed, there was a small defunct wasp nest high up in one corner. In the summer of 2016 a pair of swallows used this empty wasp nest as a kind of foundation on which they built their own nest and raised two broods of chicks. In between one brood and the next, Peter fixed a small shelf under the nest as we were unsure how much support the fragile wasp nest was actually providing. All too often we have seen the disastrous collapses of nests full of swallow fledglings. In 2017 swallows, possibly the 2016 pair, used the nest but only raised one brood. 2018 was a great disappointment – and a worry. Very few swallows returned to the barns adjacent to the stable. Those that did come arrived very late and the nest in the stable stayed vacant all summer. Whenever I piled up his bedding to air, the pony climbed on it, giving himself enough height to chew at the old wasp nest, so I pulled its remains out from underneath the shelf that supports the still-intact swallow nest. I’m still hoping that this summer another chapter will unfold in the story of this nest.

Recently roofers began work on the old Georgian stable block nearby. Local rumour has it that this is the start of conversion to luxury holiday accommodation. The slates and joists are off and today I had a look round the yard at the piles of old timber and debris amongst which I saw the wreckage of two immense wasps’ nests. Perhaps the wasps will find somewhere to relocate this summer as there are still many undisturbed places in other derelict buildings here, but if swallow nests were destroyed too I’m not convinced that the birds will find new nest sites so easily because, to me, swallows seem more choosy than wasps about where they live.

After becoming aware of the remodelling of the nest, I began to observe it very closely. A few words at a time my journal records how, day by day, the leafy brim was carefully developed and embellished, with further materials added piece by tiny piece – but I never spotted the builder at work. Tiny shreds of hay stems and seeds filched from the pony’s feed were carefully placed around the entrance hole. Silks from a large adjacent spider web were stretched across so that they became part of the structure. After a month, we were curious to know what the nest’s interior looked like, so we visited with a camera and a mirror. Peter held the mirror and I quickly photographed what was reflected in the glass. I felt inside the nest for an instant, just long enough to discover that the nest did not, as yet, contain eggs. We left hurriedly, aware that we might well be being watched by an easily discouraged nest-builder.

When magnified on screen, the photos revealed that, in addition to the soft white breast plumage that the swallows had previously used for insulation, the mystery builder had added more feathers, horse hair and velvety green moss. These materials were densely interwoven so that they lined the whole interior. The dried leaves around the brim were from oaks, beeches and bracken nearby and they had been meticulously broken down into tiny, more easily manipulable, fragments. Consultation of our bird books suggested that the re-modelling might be the work of a wren. We learned that a male wren often works on more than one nest so that the female can take her pick. How could could any female wren resist the beautifully decorated structure waiting in the stable?

20th April, 2019:
Record-breaking Easter temperatures today. A sign of global warming? At the stable first thing we found out that the new occupant of the old swallow nest is definitely a wren. I saw her dart out of the little hole at the front of the crown of leaves on top of the swallows’ mud cup. She streaked across the stable and exited through a tiny gap under the eaves. With the wren absent, I reached up and felt very gently inside the nest. Under my fingertip, the unmistakeable shape of a tiny egg. I withdrew my hand immediately for fear that the wren might sense my intrusion and abandon the nest.

Knowing that the wren must be sitting, I didn’t dare touch the nest again. Further consultation of our various bird books showed that she might have laid up to eight eggs which she would incubate for 12 – 15 days. Once hatched, the nestlings would fly 12 – 18 days later. These estimated timings were only partly useful: I didn’t know how long the wren had already been sitting so it was impossible to work out a projected date when her young might fly. Each day I completed my stable work quickly, taking care not to cause any disturbance. After my discovery of the presence of an egg in April, well over three weeks passed before the next notable development.

15th May, 2019:
There’s an adage that says you should be careful what you wish for. Tonight I wish I’d been more careful with my wishing. All last summer, when no swallows nested in the stable, I kept wishing they would. This year I’ve been wishing for their arrival since early April. In their absence, I’ve wished instead that the wren would rear a brood in the old swallow’s nest. Well, now both my wishes have been granted – and it looks like a problem.

This morning I heard a few swallows chattering loudly as they made low swooping passes across the meadow. It was so good to see that they had, at last, arrived. But when I went to stable Ollie for the night, one swallow was making repeated dives in and out of the open door and paying close attention to the nest. Very cautiously I put my finger into the nest entrance and immediately felt several tiny, very warm and well-feathered little bodies. It can’t be long before the hatchlings fly, but I’m not sure whether a swallow might eject the fledglings. How good would a wren mother be at defending ‘her’ nest against swallows who very much want ‘their’ nest back? How patient can the swallows afford to be, given that their time here for breeding is so short?

Three days passed, during which I saw a pair of swallows flying agitatedly in and out of the stable. I knew they were determinedly checking out the nest. I worried. The swallows vanished yet again. Then on the third day this happened:

17th May, 2019:
A dramatic time at the stable tonight!

While changing Ollie’s rug I thought the female wren flew past me. I looked up and saw one baby wren perched precariously on top of one rug hook, one on another, two whizzing straight out of the door, another one flying madly around the back of the stable, and one more scrabbling about in the hay. Baby wren mayhem ensued for several minutes with them repeatedly landing on Ollie’s head and back and clinging to the stable walls with their long sharp claws. Worried that a wren might get trodden on, I wanted to get at least some of them back up on the shelf that the nest sits on. But in the half-light, that was easier said than done as I kept mistaking stray balls of horse-dung for wrens and vice versa. I managed to catch two wrens and lift them onto the shelf and in the second that each was in my hand, I had the chance to see the ferociously tigerish stripes on their wing and tail feathers up close. Once caught, the frenetically hyperactive little birds glared at me, their minute eyes black and shiny as beads of jet. After watching the two who had flown outside, Peter also commented on the birds’ high-speed movements, their frenzied energy and the intensity of their fierce expressions.

Everything settled down eventually, but tonight I’m anxious about the water bucket. I can’t remove it because an equine must have access to water even if he can’t be made to drink it. But I hope no young wrens fall in overnight. We think there are seven fledgelings who all seem completely ready to leave, which is good because the swallows have been back checking the nest again. This could all just work out if the wrens depart safely and the swallows move in promptly. But wrens can rear more than one brood in a season – so there could still be competition for this nest.

18th May, 2019:
Up early, keen to get to the stable to see if all was well. Not a wren in sight. They’d all flown! Walking away, I heard faint cheeping from inside the thick beech hedge, and one wren fledgling shot like an arrow across the track and into the wood.

20th May, 2019:
I’m on the lookout, not just for the wren returning to rear another brood, but also for the swallows who might decide to reconvert the hybrid nest back to a swallow-specific dwelling. I’m watching closely for signs of another kind of nest-building too – a queen wasp grazing the timber of the stable walls, mouth-harvesting tiny particles of timber. By mixing these with her saliva, she creates the material to produce paper honeycomb cells for her eggs. The tell-tale signs of this grazing are networks of tiny light-coloured tracks where wood has been stripped away.

A queen can lay 100 eggs a day, so a big nest like the ones destroyed by the roofers might contain thousands of wasps. A colony of this size is something I definitely don’t want in close proximity with a pony well past 30: he’s the equine equivalent of a human nonagenarian. The idea of locking him in with a vast wasp colony seems risky. If the wasps begin to build, they will have to be stopped.

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The idea of destroying one kind of nest while appreciating and encouraging another kind seems contradictory. Shouldn’t I cherish all nests? What logic is there in treating one nest as though it is more valuable than another? Who am I to decide? It’s a tricky problem – one that is deeply embedded in contemporary concern with wildlife. The RSPB’s current slogan ‘Giving nature a home’ (displayed on signage at a local marshland reserve) makes me uneasy because it contains the unspoken implication that the onus is on humans to decide where nature’s home is, what that home might consist of. The notion of partitioning nature off, creating a divide between ‘it’ and ‘us’ is worrying. Perhaps, unintentionally, the slogan carries the strong suggestion that the homes we might ‘give’ to ‘nature’ are ours to give in the first place, ours to apportion to species we consider most deserving. Which birds, animals and plants do we discard, dispossess, and which do we nurture and foster – and on what grounds? The questions are as old as our species and the answers have probably always involved a balancing act. But now, there is a pressing need to make intelligent and informed choices about our actions and their impacts on the species with whom we share the planet. Acting responsibly towards nature is paramount, but we should beware of ‘homing’ nature in ways that are conscience-salving short-cuts: we need to avoid the trap of thinking that the care we extend towards nature in one context grants us permission to be bird-averse, nature-averse, in another.

Like most of the people I know who care about the state of nature, I slip into inconsistent, irrational habits and thoughts, sometimes playing off one action intended to benefit nature with another that I know to be detrimental. If I feed the wild birds, can I justify exterminating just a few troublesome garden pests? As I’ve never owned or driven a car, do I have enough carbon credit in the bank to offset the ills of having coal fires? When this sub-conscious bargaining between nature-friendly and nature-averse choices occurs, George Orwell’s notion of ‘doublethink’ is apt as it involves ‘…holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them …’ and, or, ‘…forget[ing] any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, [drawing] it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed.’ It is precisely the ‘now you see it – now you don’t’ character of nature and environmental change that makes it difficult to resist this kind of doublethink.

This story of the changing fortunes of various nests is about something more than seeing birds suffering a housing crisis – an avian predicament that might be addressed by well-intentioned provision of assiduously monitored reserves – or ‘homes’. If there is a need to give nature a home, there is a bigger and more urgent need to stop taking nature’s home away from it in the first place. In the case of the roof renovations here, de-construction prior to repair and renovation has dislodged resident populations of birds and insects. But the problem is far bigger than the disturbance to some old buildings and their non-human inhabitants in one defunct farm-yard in Suffolk: the events there are all part of momentous global change. Why have the populations of swallows and martins decreased so suddenly here? What is going on in the distant homes that passerine birds also occupy on the other side of the globe? Although the migratory birds’ return is still a definite cause for rejoicing and reassurance – as in Hughes’s poem – the moment has come to be tinged, too, with a sense of anxiety and foreboding. The number of returnees is dwindling yearly; their behaviour is altering. When will none breed? When will none make it back at all?

There’s no way of knowing if ‘our’ swallows even began their journey out of Africa – impossible to tell what mis-hap befell them. Did they succumb to natural predation? Were they snared, or poisoned, or shot? Did they perish in some unprecedentedly powerful storm? I’ll never know. And this lack of knowing troubles me. I feel their absence as a huge loss, the kind of loss that nags and persists because there can be no closure, no conclusive answer to my questions. Looking up, I see not just empty space, but an emphatically unoccupied place – a blank where something is missing, is meant to be: there is silence where the sounds of bird voices should be. This vacancy exists not just in the air or the empty nests: it extends into my journal, onto this page and into my mental calendar. With just two or three exceptions, all the days of 2019 will remain unmarked by the presence of swallows in this place.

The way I have written about these nests may coincide with what some refer to as the ‘new nature writing’ – a genre that emphasises loss and the belated celebration of those parts of nature at greatest risk. In her 2018 overview of the nature books of the year, Pippa Marland wrote of the ‘widespread sense that we need new stories to narrate our relationship with the natural world – stories that inspire us to pay attention, to mourn what is gone, to cherish what is left, and to translate our enchantment and grief into political action.’ In Hughes’s poem, written almost half a century ago, the swifts’ re-appearance affirms that ‘the globe’s still working’. Were Hughes writing now, alongside the practitioners of the ‘new nature writing’, he might have shifted the poem’s emphasis to highlight how the world is starting to stop working, how not all of creation is waking refreshed.

While Hughes’s ravishing descriptive passages capture the swifts’ exuberant flight, the poem’s celebratory message has an unspoken subtext that points to the birds’ vulnerability and risk-laden existence. The lines that I quote covertly recognise the frailty of migratory birds: their journey is hazardous and their arrival can’t be taken for granted. But what has changed since the poem was written is that now, it’s not just the travel but also the conditions at both the departure point and the destination which make the birds’ existence so precarious. What Hughes didn’t know, as we do in an era of climate breakdown, is just how much the odds are stacking up against the survival of migratory birds.

Twenty years after Hughes wrote ‘Swifts’, my neighbour provided a powerful demonstration of hostility rather than appreciative welcome towards another passerine species – house martins. In the 1990s, the eaves of my house, and of four of my immediate neighbours’ houses, sheltered dozens of house martin nests. All summer, every summer, the martins were an established fact of life. Not only did I take their comings and goings for granted, I also assumed that, like me, everyone would be delighted by their presence. I was wrong. One day there was a commotion, hysterical martins wheeling through the air, shrieking in distress. The cause: a neighbour was leaning out of a window dismantling the nests. Just as you might snap an Easter egg’s chocolate shell piece by piece, she was systematically destroying the nests one by one, indifferent to the anguish of the parent birds who saw their eggs and fledglings falling to the ground. Her justification: the birds had dirtied her laundry. In breaking the nests, she also broke the law. I tell this story alongside the one about the swallow/wren nest because both illustrate ruinous human intervention into the lives of birds.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 – intended to protect wild birds and their nests and eggs – is good in theory. But, as in cases like the one mentioned above, it can’t safeguard against ignorant impulse, nor is it always robust enough to answer back to profit-driven agendas. Transgressions against birds do not only happen on remote mountains and moors, or in the unseen private spaces of domestic sheds, attics or roofs: they are far more widespread, and often, paradoxically, legitimised under the terms of the Act. The RSPB’s website quotes several legalised conditions on which exceptions to the Act may be granted, including this one:

‘A person may kill or injure a wild bird […] if they can show, subject to a number of specific conditions, that their action was necessary to preserve public health or air safety, prevent spread of disease, or prevent serious damage to livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber, or fisheries.’

Thanks to the granting of such exceptions, bird deaths, damage and reduction of bird habitat take place wherever property development, farming, forestry, road building and a host of other ‘justifiable’ activities occur. In a small country like Britain, that’s just about everywhere. Bird-hospitable spaces are rapidly shrinking. In its 2016 State of Nature report, the RSPB described the UK as being ‘amongst the most nature-depleted countries in the world’.

The kind of political, nature-aware action that Marland advocates was given recent and powerful expression. While the swallows were absent and the opportunist wren was re-building, another kind of migration was taking place 100 miles away from my stable. People were flocking to the multi-sited Extinction Rebellion London rally that ran from 15th – 24th April, 2019. The timing of the home-making event logged in my journal exactly coincided with environmental protesters setting up home in a tented encampment at Marble Arch. During the days when the wren was most active, well-orchestrated acts of civil disobedience were being committed by rally-attendees at Parliament Square, Oxford circus, Heathrow Airport, the Stock Exchange, on railways, on roads and elsewhere.

Extinction Rebellion’s concerns focus on climate breakdown and its ‘utterly catastrophic impacts to life on Earth’. Their website states that ‘A “biological annihilation” of wildlife in recent decades means the Sixth Mass Extinction in Earth’s history is under way’ and that ‘The air we breathe, the water we drink, the earth we plant in, the food we eat, and the beauty and diversity of nature that nourishes our psychological well-being, all are being corrupted and compromised by the political and economic systems that promote and support our modern, consumer-focussed lifestyles.’

I am not a wildlife campaigner, and this essay is not offered on behalf of any organisation. This writing is not intended as an elegy for bird species who have probably returned yearly to this site since at least the 13th century. Nor do I want it to merely memorialise the delight that the swallows’ arrival has brought to me and to generations of people who have lived here before me. In describing the chronology of events that occurred in one small birds’ nest in England over the last four summers, the writing is intended to bring alive the reality of the presence – and the absence – of certain wild creatures. Trails cut into wood by a grazing queen wasp might be understood as a kind of writing: the queen’s statement of intent, her prediction of the nest and colony that she will bring into being. They are literally the writing on the wall. The stories I have told here have some resemblance to the queen wasp’s grazing tracks, made one thought, one mouthful of words at a time, to bring this account into being. I am writing about the writing on the wall.

The questions provoked by the absent swallows and the renovating wren are as probably as old as the ruthlessly competitive and power-hungry species that we are. That’s one way of looking at the problem, but then again, the fact that the human species got where it is by being adaptive leaves space for optimism. It could be that the answer is nested inside the problem: the adaptivity and resourcefulness that got us into the current environmentally precarious situation may be the very traits that enable us to find a way out of it – if we want to.

The nest I have described is a complex structure combining materials and techniques contributed by two completely different bird species. Swallows built the superstructure, patiently laying successive courses of pellets of damp earth, a raw material composed of mineral particles – sand, silt and clay – as well as molecules of air and water. Every one of these gobbets of earth comes replete with fungal spores, pollen grains, humus and all the incidental particulars of decay – microbial life forms, bacteria. It also contains swallow saliva and whatever parasites the birds’ mouths may contain, plus bits and bobs of avian DNA. For insulation and soft furnishing, the swallows lined the nest with downy feathers plucked from their own breasts. To all that the swallow had collected, the wren added more feathers, leaves, moss, and animal hair. So the nest is very much a thing made of the stuff of both life and death – a construction cemented together not just by spittle or skilful interweaving, but also by instinct, determination, devotion, labour – and maybe by love too. Although the component parts of the swallow-wren nest can’t easily be picked apart, it is all too easy to undo the bigger patterns of bird lives: remove a roof, lag a loft, fell a tree, and whole systems of bird livelihood begin to unravel.

Did I make this piece too long, too detailed? Possibly, but when detail is omitted or blurred the full meaning of the bigger picture is lost. What’s in the bigger picture? Everything that we stand to lose – the co-inhabitants of the world, and ultimately, our own long-term tenure of the planet. Keeping an eye on the detail, sharpening up awareness of what’s immediate, or, in Pippa Marland’s words, allowing ourselves to be ‘enchanted’ – these are are good places to make a start on renewal and reparations. Such acts are the raw materials that might be used to rebuild outworn relationships and attitudes to the natural world.

In moving between a Suffolk stable and a London protest rally, between poetry and politics, delight and despair, this essay points out how the effects of environmental and anthropogenic change play out very close to home, if not actually at home: they are there to be seen in the every-day as much as in the exotic or the far-away. The nest seen as quintessential home provides a rich metaphor, one which is useful for thinking about the current environmental crisis in which everything is contingent upon everything else. The nest illustrates how what is big, momentous, catastrophic, often manifests most explicitly in the overlooked, the very small. Nature is now deeply entangled in the cat’s cradle of late capitalism, yet the survival of the planet – and of all its creatures – may lie in the little things that fit in the palm of your hand: a car key, a long-haul holiday flight ticket, a throw-away bottle, a plastic spoon. The political is right there in the personal and now is a good moment to take a leaf from the birds’ book, or in this case, a feather from the birds’ nest: to take notice, to repair, recycle and renew.

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Notes and References
1 Hughes, T. 1974. Swifts in Season Songs: Spring Summer, Autumn, Winter. London: The Rainbow Press.
2 To read the full text of Hughes’s poem Swifts, see https://www.racingtheswift.com/cycling-africa/swifts-ted-hughes Accessed 3/6/2019.
3 For information on the lifecycle of swifts see https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/swift/ Accessed 3/6/2019.
4 Marland, P. 2018. Nature Books of the Year at https://landlinesproject.wordpress.com/2018/12/21/nature-books-of-the-year/ Accessed 24/5/19.
5 Oakley, K., Ward, J. Christie, I. Engaging the imagination: ‘new nature writing’, collective politics and the environmental crisis at http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/174288/1/174288.pdf Accessed 24/5/2019
6 For the UK Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wildlife_and_Countryside_Act_1981 Accessed 2/6/2019.
7 Extinction Rebellion Protests: What happened? at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-48051776 Accessed 3/6/2019.
8 Extinction Rebellion website is at https://rebellion.earth/the-truth/the-emergency/ Accessed 3/6/2019.

Kim Crowder is a writer, visual artist and researcher. She holds a PhD in Visual Anthropology from Goldsmiths, University of London. Her PhD project, which investigated industrial pig farming in Britain, focused on pig-mens’ intuitive knowledges, embodied skills, craftwork and previously unexplored  human-animal relationships which occur during commercially led animal commodification. Current writing concentrates on aspects of nature, agriculture, rural lives and the histories of people, places and things in East Anglia. Her writing and visuals draw together nature, culture, ethnography, history and memory.

You can read more of Kim’s writing here: http://www.livesinnature.co.uk

‘Snickets’ by Nic Wilson

Snicket Steps, Gyffin. Image credit Rob Carter
Snicket steps, Gyffin, image credit Rob Carter
We are delighted to announce the start of a special series of blog posts throughout July, August and September featuring new work from emerging nature writers. First up is Nic Wilson’s ‘Snickets’ – a beautiful meditation on memory and the daily renewal of our contact with the land.

 

‘All locales and landscapes are … embedded in social and individual times of memory. Their pasts as much as their spaces are crucially constitutive of their presents.’
Christopher Tilley A Phenomenology of Landscape
Snicket, n. – a narrow passage between houses, an alleyway, origin obscure.
Oxford English Dictionary

There are many different types of snicket and each has its own story to tell. I surface in these riven-pathways early; they tower above my head. The stones at eye-level jut out of the mortar and despite their unforgiving corners I’m compelled to run my fingers along the broken edges, remembering the reputation of slate – the letter-bearer, the nose-slitter. With a recent school trip to Beaumaris Gaol still raw in my memory, the subterranean passages behind my grandparents’ house in Gyffin simultaneously draw and repel me.

Slate is a grotto stone, waiting damply for the unwary to slip and graze a knee or elbow. But I’m young enough, in my early snicket days, that there’s always a rough hand holding mine, leading me up the steps from the musty utility room with its cavernous chest freezers and ham radio desk to the square grey terrace and narrow snicket beyond the gate. I look up as I ascend, at the glossy slick on the undersides of the stones, the moisture collecting in ferny fingerpools which feed the liverwort crusting. Ivy-leaves of toadflax drip down the walls smudging the yellow fumitory and up by the fence red campion dots the colour of Welsh lanes onto the empty terrace: a place much celebrated by my grandpa for its horticultural barrenness.

But granny belonged to the wild and it came for her, fed by the floods that gushed down the snicket in heavy rain, breaching the houses, sowing the cracks with soil and seed, floating the foliage of hart’s tongue fern and maidenhair spleenwort. In this intractable, embedded space the gravitational pull of the earth was strong and there was no guarantee of finding a way out. Although my head eventually reached beyond the walls and my hands became the firm clasp around lithe fingers, I discovered a rootedness in those slate passages that has stayed with me as I’ve walked through the past forty years.

Granny and me on Conwy Mountain, Image credit Alan Garner
Granny and me on Conwy Mountain, image credit Alan Garner

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

My daily journeys still connect me to the land: a morning run along Gypsy Lane, one of the ancient holloways carved into the chalk alongside the Roman villa at Purwell; visiting the lightning-blasted black poplar with its roots in the Ashbrook or walking back from the community garden fete with the children, exploring the oldways that used to mark the medieval field boundaries, now forgotten snickets, their entrances hidden behind brambles, buddleia and privet. Many of these ancient pathways survived in Hitchin as a result of the open-field system which remained intact on the east side of the town well into the twentieth century, far longer than in many towns and villages where enclosures in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries radically altered the structure of the landscape.

Gypsy Lane 2. Image credit Nic Wilson
Gypsy Lane, image credit Nic Wilson

Overlaying an early sixteenth century map onto Google Earth reveals little change to our local paths, field boundaries and lanes. As the area was developed, the estates, community centres, roads, even the railway was forced to fit into the existing field-strip framework and as ancient boundary paths were surrounded by houses, new snickets were born. These in-between spaces exist on the margins of everyday narratives; we merely pass through, leaving behind us memories of daily journeys and the seeds of our agricultural and horticultural heritage. Like the dead sea scroll deciphered last year by scholars using fragmented marginal notes, old pathways retain the scattered remnants of local histories even when the main body of the landscape has been erased and rewritten. As I trace these porous paths on the school run, on my way to the train station or to the shops, I can feel the past seeping up through the cracks.

In the verges, deadly nightshade lifts its shadowy bells above the nettles, garlic mustard and cuckoo-pint, rising from its agricultural past as a nineteenth-century pharmaceutical crop and embracing the arable margins. Alpine clematis coils over the wall and tumbles into the snicket, freed from the rigours of trellis and twine. Its leaf-stalks tangle with its wild cousin, old man’s beard, on a reverse mission to infiltrate the cottage borders from the hedgerows. At the back of the park beside the path, self-seeded elm saplings have broken through a line of old fence panels and are busy creating thickets in an abandoned garden corner.

After years of walking the snickets I am in step now, trodden into the upwelling of wild and cultivated, past and present, culture and landscape, all muddied and conjoined. I have become grounded in these everyday routes, now the runnels for my commonplace roots, like a network of veins feeding a living landscape.

Deadly Nightshade in the Snickets 2. Image credit Nic Wilson
Deadly nightshade in the snickets, image credit Nic Wilson

Nic Wilson is a freelance writer and editor based in Hertfordshire. She contributes to a range of nature and gardening magazines, journals and websites, and has recently written a piece on John Clare’s Contemporaries for the 2019 John Clare Journal. Nic is currently working on a book about engaging with the nearby wild. She blogs at http://www.dogwooddays.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Places of Poetry: giving voice to environmental heritage

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Calling all poets! Read on to find out about a wonderful new project inviting contributions of poetry that celebrates and commemorates special places around England and Wales. Guest blog by Professor Andrew McRae from the University of Exeter.

On Britain’s disappearing woodlands, Michael Drayton, writing four hundred years ago, was as articulate and passionate as any modern environmental campaigner. Describing in Poly-Olbion the ‘wound[ing]’ of one tree in Blackmore Forest, Dorset, by ‘man’s devouring hand’, he reflected soulfully on ‘The losse that to the Land would shortlie come thereby, / Where no man ever plants to our posteritie’. Today, as environmental campaigners call for a massive tree-planting initiative and the re-wilding of large areas of British land, there is cause to reflect not only on the environmental heritage of our land, but also the history of environmental writing. Places of Poetry, a community arts project running over the summer of 2019, will encourage the inhabitants of England and Wales to do both.

Places of Poetry was inspired by Poly-Olbion. Its quirky use of places as points of entry to history – with the narrative burden often assumed by geographical features, such as rivers or forests – retains the power to intrigue. So too does the sheer mass of detail: the way Drayton values the local and obsessively pursues a fantasy of encyclopedic knowledge. I have been working on it as a critic and editor for too many years, while my colleague on the Places of Poetry, the poet Paul Farley, has been rewriting the poem for the twenty-first century. But we wanted to create something truly polyvocal, and thus devised the model of crowd-sourced poems pinned to a two-layered map. We have been given access to Ordnance Survey data, down to a high level of detail, and we will overlay on this a new map of England and Wales modelled on the decorative and iconographic style of the county maps published with Poly-Olbion.

Poly-Olbion is about more than the natural environment. It is capacious and inclusive, covering the history of settlement, details of civil wars, naval leaders, saints, monarchs, and anything else Drayton perceives to be of significance to the national story. But the environmental detail was unprecedented in the prose genre of chorography, from which Drayton took his structure and much of his information. While some pamphleteers and politicians were becoming concerned about the perceived depletion of woodland, especially for industrial use, Drayton is arguably the first ever poet to respond to this phenonenon emotionally. He also includes catalogues of wildlife, such as fish and birds, and details in another passage the ‘soils’ or agricultural regions of England. Therefore, when planning Places of Poetry and thinking about different kinds of heritage that we wanted to foreground, the environment was always critical. We wanted the project to prompt reflection on the history of the English and Welsh environment, and the ways in which it continues to change.

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The principle of Places of Poetry is that anyone can pin a poem anywhere on the map. But we will use events and activities at partner organisations across England and Wales, supported by professional poets-in-residence, to model different ways of thinking about place and heritage. One of these will be at Sherwood Forest, a site now managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, but best known for containing some of the oldest oak trees in the country. The Major Oak, now supported by an architecture of props, was already mature in the years when Drayton was lamenting the destruction of woodland. Another will be Dovedale, in the Peak District, which has attracted visitors as a site of natural beauty for centuries. Drayton and his contemporaries were fascinated by ‘the wonders of the Peak’. Thomas Hobbes even wrote a Latin poem about them, De Mirabilibus Pecci. And another still will be the Lake District, where we will be based at Dove Cottage.

But rivers were without question the most significant natural features of Poly-Olbion. On the maps, created by the engraver William Hole, they are unnaturally enlarged and lend shape and character to the landscape. Roads were not registered on maps at all in England and Wales until later in the seventeenth century. In the poem, rivers are the principal routes of navigation, and are traced in such detail that it can today be difficult to identify some of the hundreds of streams that Drayton lists. Although Poly-Olbion is not explicitly a river poem, it assumes a key place in a tradition that can be traced from classical texts through to the extraordinary contemporary work of Alice Oswald. Rivers provide pathways into narratives about places, nations, ecosystems.

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The Severn is important to Drayton, not least because of his positioning of it as an informal border between England and Wales. In the fifth song of Poly-Olbion, the Severn – ‘a Queene, miraculouslie faire, / … absolutelie plac’t in her Emperiall Chaire’ – passes judgement on a singing contest between the rivers of England and Wales for sovereignty over the Isle of Lundy. Later Drayton acknowledges the myth of Sabrina, the innocent girl slain for being caught in a love-triangle that involved both of her parents, her body ‘dissolv’d into that crystall streame’. While he does not dwell on the wildlife of the Severn, some of his best fluvial descriptions are devoted to rivers in Wales and the west of England, including a stunning description of salmon migrating upstream:

Forc’t by the rising Rocks that there her course oppose,
As though within their bounds they meant her to inclose;
Heere, when the labouring Fish doth at the foote arrive,
And finds that by his strength but vainlie he doth strive,
His taile takes in his teeth; and bending like a bowe,
That’s to the compasse drawne, aloft himself doth throwe:
Then springing at his height, as doth a little wand,
That bended end to end, and flerted from the hand,
Farre off it selfe doth cast; so doth the Salmon vaut.
And if at first he faile, his second Summersaut
Hee instantlie assaies; and from his nimble Ring,
Still yarking, never leaves, untill himselfe he fling
Above the streamefull top of the surrounded heape.

While Drayton is not greatly interested in why the salmon travels upstream, the commitment to description of this natural phenomenon is nonetheless remarkable. Few writers of his age attempted this level of engagement with the struggle of an animal barely mentioned in any context other than as a foodstuff.

In Drayton’s time rivers were already being blocked to the passage of fish by weirs and other obstructions. It thus feels appropriate that another of our Places of Poetry partners is the ‘Unlocking the Severn’ project, the largest and most ambitious river-restoration project in Western Europe. At its heart is the twaite shad, a migrating fish that will be given improved access to breeding grounds in the upper reaches of the river by a series of fish-passes. So we will invite writers to reflect on environmental heritage by engaging with a river in the process of a process designed to undo centuries of human intervention. And we will have Isabel Galleymore, a poet with an established interest in environmental writing, as our Severn poet-in-residence.

Pinning a poem on a river defies hydrographical logic. As John Donne observed, rivers undermine a cartographer’s myth of stasis: ‘Nor are (although the river keep the name) / Yesterday’s waters, and today’s the same’. The Severn is also a very long river: 220 miles from source to sea. While we cannot make our pins float downstream, we will be curious to see where writers choose to pin their river poems. We hope that our focus on the Severn will inspire poets across England and Wales to put their local rivers – as well as other natural environmental features that matter to people, from ponds to forests, beaches to moors – onto the map. And we hope that our focus within Places of Poetry on the relation between heritage and place will lend a distinctive inflection to the resultant environmental writing, prompting writers and readers to reflect on changes to the natural world. As Drayton observed, these changes have most commonly had detrimental effects; however, as Unlocking the Severn demonstrates, it remains possible to change for the better.

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You can read a recently published poem by Isabel Galleymore, Severn poet-in-residence, here. Isabel’s new collection Significant Other has been shortlisted for the Forward’s Felix Dennis Prize for a first collection of poems.

 

Dog Country

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In celebration of Beltane we bring you a special blog post today –  stunning new nature writing from Ali Cargill, first year Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Hull.

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To begin, an ending: I had a dog, Zola – a dark chocolate cocker spaniel, mad for flushing pheasants out of hedgerows. One fogged November walk she took off across field towards road. I whistled her back; she was coming – bless her! Last moment, another pheasant flew up and the dog was after it, fast. At the road: a van, fading into fog. I whistled; and again. Then found her roadside, caught in her own blood pool. I picked her up and her paws flopped as if puppy-playing, rolling on her back. She was still warm. I cried her home in my arms.

Three days later I walk the same field: eulogy for dead dog. She runs with me as far as the split tree. This tree’s time is deep; rounding. One huge bough lies stubble-crashed in October’s gales, the trunk splintered, yawning jaw. But the halftree lives, still. Stop. Gaze up into vast criss-cross. How long do I haunch against its windshielding bark? My dog-spirit smokes over dead stalks of last summer’s crop. She leaps, dog-Frith.

Away from the killing roads. I’ll tell you instead of Big Skies; big green. Scale Sylvandale’s slopes or wander the folds of Deepdale; nothing else exists. Half an hour or so east of the city, the flatlands of York rise into hills, where I live. This is what it doesn’t have: bleak drama in drystone walls and Wuthering Heights. Trees wind-sculpted under flint sky. Flat caps and whippets. This is what it is: colour wheel; noise scape. Wildfest: skylarks sing-hover; lapwings dipflap; red kites circle, fold, fall. Deer, easy running in pairs. Long-horned, fringed cattle that bellow if you come too close to their calves. Hares dash; owls haunt, grey-gliding. Sunfaced oilseed rape; whiskered barley; twisted hawthorn ancients. Gaunt ash stalks. Grand beech. Sun. Wind. Rain. More sun.

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January. I walk to Swineridge View: a small hollow, fringed with ash woodland. Grass, wooden bench; bonfire dregs still, from Guy Fawkes Night. It looks over the Vale of York and if I squint, I can make out York Minster’s white-mist tower. Easier to see are the concave, concrete towers of Drax: biggest power station in the UK.

This used to be the village tip. Under this frost-blenched grass are grown-over years of rubbish: nails, screws, tights, knickers, vests, pipes, pots, irons, radios, washing machines. Vase, cream, pink roses. Bra, Playtex, 38DD, green. Child’s bike, red, Raleigh, three gears. At Pocklington, the nearest town, Roman burial graves have been unearthed: soldiers, sworded, shielded. A chariot, its horses buried standing, now headless: sliced away by plough. I don’t know if this is true. My father-in-law once buried a whole car: hacked the uprights, dug a hole, pushed it in. This is true: somewhere in Four Oaks in Sutton Coldfield there’s a black Austin A35 pushing up first snowdrops. Old earthworks!

Could be anything under here, clay-capped, topsoiled, grassed, bunny-scuttered. Right now I’m benched, bobble-hatted – then Zola leans against me and we sit, grass gazing; rabbit watching. She’s fading; I watch her in her last running. She’s dandelion puff; spider silk; nipped air.

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Today, early spring but rain sheeting down. Up into the Wolds. Wet green; raw windsoaked. Grazed moorland stretches across contours to Rabbit Copse, then downhill to roughland where a spring bursts. But first I step over the stile then off the path into forest corner and that special feeling: no one knows I’m here. Conifers droop and drip in dimmed corners. The smell is wetbark pine, alive, magic where Treebeard comes rootstriding across the mossed undergrowth.

Out from my own personal Fanghorn and downhill to the road that will return me to the village – unless I step off once more and head into unknown, deep-reeded, hawthorn-crowded territory in search of the spring. Bottomed out, puddled squelch-squirch land. Knobbles of bone; fan of feathers. The bones look white; plastic. It’s pheasant: this is shooting country.

It’s easy to spot the course of the beck that flows from the spring: clear-watered, crowded with wild, bright watercress and gravel-bedded – not nature-formed then, but human-made – and ancient. There is wild history, deep time and more Tolkien sorcery to be had. A Roman settlement was here, a temple excavated in a field nearby. Once upon a time, a track led from the temple to the spring. Ancient ways.

I find the spring source, drawn by noisy gush to a spout set into the hillrise where it rushes and pours. For centuries it has been this way, drawing Iron Age settlers to its life-force, then Roman temple communities, then our village – Millington’s water supply came from this small spout, until the Water Board and mains services arrived. I skirt watery channels, climb to higher, dryer ground to stand on the Roman track, its rough channel still visible from the spring to the top of the hill and the lane that turns homeward. Who else has walked this path? Women, head-carrying water urns? Soldiers in full Roman get-up? Gladiators. Iron Age dwellers, hauling beast-backed pots filled with this precious, clearspring water. My steps fill ancient footprints. Humans, through time and landscape. Deep, deep history.

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Text and photos © Ali Cargill 2019

First Year Creative Writing PhD Researcher

University of Hull

 

Sensuous Spring

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Continuing our theme of Spring, we are delighted to bring you today two short pieces of new writing by two of the UK’s finest nature writers: Katharine Norbury and Miriam Darlington. The extracts were written for our crowd-sourced Spring nature diary last month.

The MARCHING – Katharine Norbury

Time has been out of joint for a while now. A glorious, warm, unseasonable January followed a warm, windy winter. Snow drops came up late and muddy; early daffodils hard behind them. Like Wordsworth, my heart with pleasure filled, and danced, although I couldn’t help feeling that Spring had jumped the gun. And then it all went back again, and we learned new words: polar vortex – fresh and unexpected – reminding us that in the north the ice was melting, the climate on the move.

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On the day of the Equinox I crossed the Pedley Street Bridge – one of the magical portals in the East End of London – and found myself in the Nomadic Community Gardens. And for the first time everything felt right. Seeded vegetables from last autumn protruded from flowerbeds engineered from wooden packing crates. Bundles of narcissi announced a second Spring. And blossom formed a canopy of goodness.

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I had always wanted to go to Japan to witness the arrival of the cherry blossom, sakura, as waves of flowers ripen cross the country. Yet in this curious double spring of 2019, the blossom has come to London. And it is the most abundant, fluffy, delicate yet profuse blossoming I have ever seen. Cherry blossom, apple blossom, spritely imported mimosa, damson, pear. A few more weeks and horse chestnuts will put out improbable candelabra. Time may be out of joint. But this strange disjointed London spring is extraordinary to behold.

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(Photos by Katharine Norbury)

Spring Equinox 2019: Walking the dog on Tor Hill, Wells, Somerset – Miriam Darlington

My dog seems to know the way even though we’ve never been here before. He flows over the fat-man’s-squeeze and silks into the coppiced hazel woods. Dotted around are ash, sweet chestnut and spindly oaks. It’s been a long day travelling, but here on the side of this homely hill on the edge of the city of Wells, on this high limestone outcrop, the air is mad with birdsong. Wrens. Robins, Dunnocks, Warblers and at last that herald, the aptly named Chiffchaff, ticking its tune from the highest twigs. On the ground, wild garlic is a choppy foam of green through the dark-wet mud. Soon a gauze of aromatic white will bloom into the warming air. It’s almost here, pungent and mouth-watering. There will be bluebells too. Their slender spikes are scattered in the leaf-light, and sprouting here and there already some blue fronds are beginning to dangle, showing an enticing hint of purply-blue. Walks at this time of the year can feel full of promise. Warmed over the bedrock and earth, the air is fresh with mulch and new growth.

As the dusk falls I go out into it again, and there is the familiar, comforting hoot and scratchy return of a pair of Tawny Owls. Their duet feels like a hinge moment, pivoting the disappeared day with the crepuscular mystery of hidden things to come. They are nesting high up and invisible in a cleft between the boughs of the ivy-clad tree. I walk closer to locate the call of the female, and the male flies in, a shadow amongst many shadows. He warbles a soft song as if to say to his mate ‘I am here for you.’ When I follow the twining path up, up and the light has faded my hearing takes precedence. As the hooting rings out, the birdsong that had increased for a moment, with nothing to do now, falls quiet.

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(Photo of Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, England by c.art, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)

The path exits the woodland edge and over an old stone wall covered in moss and liverworts, it crosses swathes of delicate leaves and pale petals. The wood anemones are in bloom. White violets. Periwinkles. Young stinging nettles have just come into flower. Connectedness. I’m experiencing it through the nose, the ears, the eyes, the heart. The evening thrills through the woods, and through the twigs and framed by them, the medieval contours of Wells Cathedral are stark against a crepuscular sky.

The steam trickles, catching the last of the light. I love the way water flows over limestone. Down through its rain-scoured fissures and runnels it fills spaces, even entering caves nobody has ever seen. You can only sense them, seamed with the taste of iron. Nobody thinks of it, but when you do it’s a kind of vertigo that rises from the soles of the feet, and before you know it, you can imagine the watery, dripping under-land. It makes everything you see feel newborn, sparkling.

I pick some Blackthorn flowers to take home; we’ll watch the petals scatter and drop, the new leaves emerge. Once the bees have done their work, in the autumn all along the stream and field margins there will be silvery-coated sloes to gather. In the distance, the lines of Glastonbury Tor with its empty church tower stand out against the Avalon marshes. The memory of murmuring starlings over a million reeds fades and diminishes with the last of the light. ‘There is no part of this world that isn’t looking at you,’ the poet Rainer Maria Rilke said. ‘You must change your life.’

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(Photo by Katharine Norbury)