This new writing from Philip Strange is the first in our 2022 series of posts about coastal themes.
To the west of Start Point, the coast path strikes out across a steep, grassy hillside. In reality, it’s barely a path, more a narrow step cut into the slope, uneven and, in places, strewn with rocks. Below the rough track, the land falls away steadily to a rocky shore where the sea attacks relentlessly, relinquishing its energy in a froth of white water and sound. Occasionally, where the sea has eroded the land, there is an unnerving, sheer drop. Walking here feels very exposed, to the wind, to the weather and to the ever-changing moods of the sea. There is an inescapable wildness and, as I picked my way carefully across the hillside on a warm and sunny mid-September afternoon, I sometimes felt as though I was suspended between sky and water.
Views looking back were spectacular across deep-blue waters towards the Start Point peninsula with its jagged, rocky spine. The iconic lighthouse, a brilliant white obelisk in that day’s light, stood towards the tip of the peninsula, a reminder of the dangers faced by shipping in these very hazardous waters.
The rough grass either side of the track was speckled with colourful wildflowers including the small, yellow dandelion-type catsear and the grey-blue mop heads of sheep’s-bit. I also noticed a few of the rare, pale lilac flowers of autumn squill, a speciality of the rocky coasts of Devon and Cornwall. Their deep purple anthers stood out against the upturned crowns of pastel petals. Pale brown grasshoppers rose suddenly from the rough grass in broad arcs as I continued westward and a rather late but fresh-looking burnet moth, resembling a sparkling red and black art deco brooch, clung to a betony remnant.
Then suddenly a very different noise intruded, a mournful, high-pitched wailing and it stopped me in my tracks. I’ve heard it here before, it’s the sound made by grey seals on the rocks at Peartree Point ahead and it never fails to unsettle me. Sometimes it seems as though the seals are singing and in the wind that day their mournful song rose and fell adding to its mystery. Some say it sounds like a human crying which is why it unsettles but to me it is a unique, other worldly noise, one that I have only heard from seals.
The path crossed a rocky ledge before beginning a gradual descent towards a wide apron of grassy land lying just above the sea and overlooking the jumble of dark, rocky islands that makes up Peartree Point. The views from here along the coast were glorious on this warm, early autumn day and the sunshine highlighted the mobile halos of white water surrounding the rocky islands. Around me, wildflowers grew on the short turf including more autumn squill together with bright patches of sea campion and wild carrot. The wind cut across from the west in waves and the flowers moved in sympathy.
I found a flat rock towards the back of the grassy apron, got out my binoculars and settled down to watch the seals from a distance that wouldn’t perturb. What I hadn’t anticipated was that by watching the seals I would also be watching humans and their reactions to these animals.
The tide was still quite high when I began to watch and several large seals were already hauled out on the exposed rocks along with one smaller one. They were massive creatures, some more than two metres long, a pale grey-brown when dry and noticeably plump and flabby with their thick, insulating layers of blubber. Most of the time, they lay still, occasionally raising a flipper or shifting position slightly and sometimes they cried out like a yelping dog. More seals were swimming among the waters between the rocky islands, visible when they snorted and raised their head to take air or when a long dark shape tantalised just below the surface. They seemed to play and squabble as they swam about and the contrast between these spectacular swimmers and those hauled out and slumped on the rocks was striking.
The tide fell, seaweed-covered rocky islands emerged from the water and a group of smaller grey seals dragged themselves on to one of these islands using their front flippers. Other seals were still swimming between the islands, some eventually hauled out whereas others splashed back into the water from the rocks and occasional bursts of their mournful song unsettled the air. A rough count suggested that there may have been as many as twenty seals that afternoon, probably about half the small colony of grey seals known in south Devon. The colony may not be large but it is the easternmost breeding colony of seals along the south coast.
It was a Saturday afternoon so I was not alone. There was a sporadic passage of people walking the coast path and as they spotted the seals, I heard exclamations of “Wow!” or “Look at those!” Some stood for a short time to look, others sat and watched for longer but nobody had a neutral reaction. One young woman had been wandering about on the rocks near the shore since I arrived, occasionally pausing to gaze at the seals. She was clearly fascinated by the creatures but reluctant to get any nearer. Some people were less restrained and I heard them shout “I’m going to get closer” as they made for the rocks.
Then I noticed some snorkellers swimming away from the shore. They surely weren’t going into seal waters were they? Eventually, though, one snorkeller did reach the area where the seals swam and I began to be alarmed. The seals noticed this intrusion and three swam closer to look. For a short time, the human and the seals were very close to one another. It looked like a standoff and I wondered what was going happen. But then the seals seemed to lose interest and retreated and the snorkeller swam back to the shore.
Later, two people in wet suits clambered on to the rocks near where seals had hauled out. They got too close and one seal panicked, flopping into the water with a great splash.
Observing how people behaved that afternoon in response to the seals brought home to me how much these creatures fascinate humans. Most people responded to this fascination by showing respect and consideration, watching the seals from a safe distance. A minority got too close and disturbed the seals. We are urged locally to avoid approaching these creatures both for their good and for our own good. Should a seal move, as one did when people got too close on the rocks, then it is upset and stressed. This can disturb its rest time and may result in injury if it panics and moves too quickly. The snorkeller was also too close in the water risking disturbing the seals as well as endangering themself. There are occasional reports of seal bite when someone tries to pat or to feed a seal.
What is it about seals that so fascinates us?
Seals are large wild creatures, rare in most parts of the UK, and places like Peartree Point provide a unique opportunity to watch them in their natural environment. This is nature in the raw and people want to get close, to get a better look, just like in a TV documentary. Seals are also one of our most charismatic wild creatures. Not only are they intelligent, showing a wary interest in humans but they have an uncanny ability to slip between worlds. On land they appear ponderous and ungainly, lounging on rocks or on a beach, but once in the water they swim with grace, elegance and speed, able to dive for prolonged periods in search of food. These two lives, on land and in the water, seen and largely unseen, give seals an aura of mystery and we are fascinated.
In the past, this fascination came to be expressed in myths and legends describing relationships between humans and seals; these were passed on from generation to generation through story telling. In the late 1940s, the writer and naturalist David Thomson went in search of seal stories, visiting communities along the north western rim of Europe, from the Shetlands to south west Ireland. These were communities whose lives were closely linked to the sea and where seals were an everyday sight. In his book The People of the Sea, Thomson described the ambivalent relationship between these communities and the seals. On the one hand, they exploited the seals, killing them for their skins and to extract oil from their blubber. On the other hand, the duality of the lives of the seals on land and in the sea held great mystery for them.
Thomson recounted many seal stories but a recurring theme concerned the ability of selkies, as these mythical seal people were called, to leave the water and slip off their skins to reveal a human underneath. The selkie could then enter the human community. If the selkie was male, he was often handsome and imposing, leading to amorous encounters with women in the local community. More often, though, the myths involved female selkies. They appeared upon beaches and shed their skins to reveal beautiful women. A man watched and fell hopelessly in love. He stole and hid the selkie’s skin preventing her from returning to the sea. They married and lived happily, although she always pined for the sea. One day much later she discovered her skin. Overjoyed, she put it on and returned to her watery life leaving her family behind. Many of these selkie-human encounters resulted in the birth of children who had some seal characteristics that may be passed down generations.
The communities that Thomson described have changed considerably since he visited, modern life has intervened, many traditions have disappeared and, with these changes, selkie stories have lost their local relevance. The stories, though, have not disappeared. Indeed, paradoxically, selkie stories may be more widely known as they now feature in literature, in film and in song and I wonder whether, deeply buried in our unconscious, there is some sympathy for these myths contributing to our fascination with seals.
Much of the human behaviour I witnessed towards the seals that afternoon was driven by this fascination. Some of the more negative aspects may have reflected simple ignorance of seal biology but I fear that something darker might have also been contributing. This is the need for humans to dominate and exploit the non-human world, to consider ourselves as more important than other species. We see this in many situations. In zoos, for example, this attitude has led to the capture of wild animals so that humans may come to look, to be entertained, often, in my experience, laughing at the behaviour of the caged creatures. The actions of a few people towards the seals at Peartree Point that afternoon seemed rather similar.
It is this careless, exploitative attitude towards the non-human world in all its forms that now threatens the future of our planet. We need to rethink urgently our relationship with the non-human world, treating every creature and living thing with respect and giving them the space to live their lives, however different they may be from us.
By now it was late afternoon. The sun hung lower in the western sky shedding a silvery light across the water, creating increasingly extended shadows on the land. The tide was at its lowest and many seals were hauled out on the rocks although a few still swam about between these landmarks. The coast path was much quieter, fewer people passed through and no one disturbed the seals. At the next high tide many of them will return to the water and set off to hunt for food. It was time for me to leave so I made my way back up the shortcut to the car park and left the seals to get on with their lives.
I should like to thank Andy Ottaway of the Seal Alliance for advice on seal behaviour.
All photos by Philip Strange.
Philip Strange is a writer, scientist and naturalist who lives in south Devon. His writing has been published in The Clearing, Resurgence and Ecologist Magazine, Zoomorphic and in Guardian blogs. He may be found searching for unusual plants or rare bees by the south west coast path, or chasing up a story about science in everyday life in the west country. Or you can look at his blog: https://philipstrange.wordpress.com/
In this, the first of Land Lines’ 2021 ‘long reads’ series, Steven Lovatt (author of the Wainwright prize-nominated Birdsong in a Time of Silence) reflects on the relationship with nature of a number of Russian-Jewish painters and writers of the late 19th and early 20th century.
Joseph Roth’s 1930 novella Job contains a scene of two Jews walking through the wintry Russian landscape:
The snow became thicker and softer as the day wore on, as though it fell from the sun. In a few minutes the whole country was white, even the isolated willows along the way, and the scattered groups of birches among the fields, white, white, white. Only the two young Jews, striding along, were black. The snow also fell on them but it seemed to melt much more quickly on their backs. Their long black coats flapped. […]
Peasants who passed them walked slowly, with bent knees. They were white; on their broad shoulders lay the snow as upon thick boughs, at once heavy and light. At peace with the snow, they walked about in it as in a home. Sometimes they stopped and looked back after the two black men as if they were unusual apparitions, although the sight of Jews was not strange to them.
In this passage Roth delicately portrays the ambiguity of the young Jews’ presence in the Russian landscape. Unlike the broad-shouldered Russian peasants, who trudge through the snowy country ‘as in a home,’ the Jews, in the traditional black garb of rabbinical Orthodoxy, seem incongruous, additional. In the passage’s finely weighted last sentence, Roth even suggests that there is something of the unheimliche about them, so that the peasants, for whom the sight of Jews ‘was not strange,’ nevertheless feel compelled to look at them.
There is no indication of hostility in the peasants’ gaze, but the mere fact of their scrutiny implies something intrusive and in this way calls to mind the general situation of the Jews in Tsarist Russia. The object of ever-changing and often inconsistent proscriptions, prohibitions, disabilities and quotas, the Jews who lived within the Russian Empire were at all times observed. Discussion within government and in the daily and periodical press of ‘the Jewish Question’ customarily posited the Jews as an alien presence within or upon the Russian national body: they constituted a ‘problem’ that could be solved perhaps by ‘compulsory assimilation’ or else kept out of sight (if never out of mind) behind discriminatory legislation.
Much has been written about this, but almost no attention has been paid to the way in which the Jews themselves perceived their situation. In particular, there is no study – certainly not in English – of the Jews’ perceptions of and responses to the Russian landscape in which they lived, worked, travelled and died.
With rare exceptions, the entire Jewish population of the Russian Empire (approximately five million people) was confined by law to the so-called Pale of Settlement, an area of some three quarters of a million square kilometres occupying all of present-day Ukraine and Belarus as well as parts of Lithuania, Poland and Moldova, but very little of Great Russia. Therefore, when considering the Jews’ relationship to the Russian landscape, it’s important to say that very little of this landscape was properly Russian at all. To a great extent, however, the image of the ‘Russian’ landscape that had been constructed during the nineteenth century relied heavily upon responses to specifically Ukrainian space, with the result that there was in practice no distinction made between Russian terrain within and without the Pale.
Given its extent, it’s not surprising that the Pale encompassed a great variety of landscapes. The two Jews in the passage from Job are just an hour’s slow, snow impeded walk from the village of Yurki in the Poltava governorate, and the fragment of landscape described, of fields edged with willows and birch spinneys, is typical not only of that district but of much of central Ukraine. Other parts of the Pale were more thickly forested, or covered in vast marshes.
This territory was watered by countless rivers and streams, the largest being the southward-flowing Dnieper, Dniester and Southern Bug (all of which drain into the Black Sea), the eastward-flowing Prut and Pripyat, and major tributaries of the Dnieper, such as the Desna. During the nineteenth century, two rivers were of particular importance as borders, the first being the Western Bug, which traditionally marked the boundary between Russia and Poland, and the second the Zbruch, which divided the Russian from the Austrian empires until 1918.
Surrounded as they were by these landscapes, the question yet remains to what extent the Jews of the Pale came into regular contact with them. A powerful strain of Judaophobic propaganda asserted the Jews’ lack of connection to the Russian soil, but Joseph Roth, too, wrote that ‘For the most part, Eastern Jews experience the countryside only as beggars or vagrants. The majority don’t understand the soil that feeds them.’
According to the Russian census of 1897, more than half of the Empire’s Jews lived in rural districts or small towns (shtetls) of a semi-rural character. It’s often maintained that these people were forbidden to work the land, but in this as in most other aspects of government policy toward the Jews, the de facto situation was complex and inconstant. Despite a statute of 1807 explicitly depriving Jews of the right to own or farm the land, contrary currents of thought within the Russian administration led, throughout the nineteenth century, to sporadic attempts at the establishment of Jewish agricultural colonies. Some of these colonies thrived to the extent that by 1900 it is estimated that there were 100,000 Jewish agricultural colonists in the Pale.
The strict religious upbringing of the majority of young Jews (both Rabbinical Orthodox and Hasidim) tended to minimise their contact with and appreciation of their natural surroundings at the expense of immersion in scripture. The American critic Irving Howe, the son of Jewish emigrants from the Pale, wrote of his relation to the natural world:
Nature was something about which poets wrote and therefore it merited esteem, but we could not really suppose it was as estimable as reality – the reality which we knew to be social. Americans were said to love Nature […but…o]ur own tradition, long rutted in shtetl mud and urban smoke, made little allowance for nature as presence or refreshment. […] Nothing in our upbringing could prepare us to take seriously the view that God made his home in the woods. By now we rather doubted that He was to be found anywhere, but we felt pretty certain that wherever He might keep himself, it was not in a tree, or even leaves of grass […] What linked man and God in our tradition was not nature but the commandment.
Ecocritic Andrew Furman cites the judgement of the twentieth-century rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik to the effect that the Jew ‘must not be “overly curious” [about the natural world]; rather, he views the natural world only through the prism of the Law’. Furman rightly explains the Jewish suspicion of nature as a fear of a regression into pantheism. Again quoting Rabbi Soloveitchik, he writes that ‘Girded with the “rules, judgements, and fundamental principles” of the Law, a Jew stands little chance of confusing the created with the Creator – of, in short, idolizing nature.’
The precariousness of the Jews’ existence at the mercy of ‘host’ peoples provided another, more practical reason to avoid attachments to natural landscapes. As Furman puts it:
‘The mountains, the sea, the forest – Jews at any given moment might be ripped from their presence. All it took was the evil capriciousness of mufti, king or czar. It made pragmatic sense, then, to spurn any emotional or spiritual investment in the natural world, because Jews could never really count upon it. They were constantly reminded that the physical world did not belong to them, but to their host country. What Jews could rely upon, what would always be theirs, was the Torah and their status as the “Covenanted”.’
So much for the landscape itself, but even greater deterrents faced those Jews who actually wished to depict it in pencil or paints. The Torah appears to forbid representational art no less than seven times, most directly in Exodus XX:4. The Avodah Zarah section of the Mishnah, which deals with idolatry, further reinforces this ban, although it may have been significant to some Jews that Maimonides, in the Mishneh Torah, interpreted the Torah interdicts as allowing ‘images of cattle and all other living beings, with the exception of man, and forms of trees, grasses and similar things [to] be formed’.
The original reasoning behind these bans was to prevent Jews from falling into idolatry, but in the context of the Pale they also served as a way of reinforcing religious and cultural distinctness and integrity in the face of a host religious culture – Russian Orthodoxy – whose religious aesthetics were very different, and which many Jews (wrongly) believed to permit the worship of images. Whatever the rationale, the effect of these prohibitions was chastening. The painter Chaim Soutine, when safely removed to Paris, frequently recalled the verbal and physical abuse he had received in his native village when he made it known that he wished to become an artist. Soutine’s father and brothers were among his worst persecutors, and the beatings they administered were often accompanied by the refrain ‘A Jew must not paint!’
Religious interdicts aside, material poverty and the absence of a tradition in the plastic arts also deterred would-be painters. Marc Chagall recalled that ‘In our little provincial ghetto, among the petty traders and craftsmen that my family knew, we had no idea of what it meant to be an artist. In our own home, for instance, we never had a single picture […] Until 1906, I had never had occasion to see, in Vitebsk, such a thing as a drawing.’
Jews could generally overcome these barriers only if they were willing to be completely disowned, or else if the culture of their family was touched by the Haskalah, the so-called Jewish Enlightenment. But at least the hardy or fortunate few could take inspiration from the host culture, since in the period roughly between 1870 and 1910 there arose a realist school within Russian art whose practitioners, the peredvizhniki (Itinerants), specialised in landscapes. The practical example of the peredvizhniki, though, was complicated by ideology, for the Itinerants’ choice of subject, and the manner of its portrayal, was obscurely but powerfully associated with a nativist conception of a unique bond between soul and soil.
The key concept here was rodina (‘native land’ or ‘motherland’). This notion, itself semantically slippery yet emotionally compelling, proved capable of subsuming without resolving all of the various competing meanings that were projected onto the Russian countryside. The ideology of rodina gave rise to the question, If this was an exclusively Russian passion, then how could it accommodate Jewish painters of the Russian landscape? To what extent did Russian Jewish artists share this sense of affinity with the rodina? After all, if a Jew’s soul could be stirred by the sight of a birch grove or gleaming backwater in exactly the same way as that of a Russian, then what grounds could there be for excluding Jews from equal membership of the spiritual nation? And if Jews were ‘real’ Russians, then why were they treated as strangers?
Something of the variety of responses to the practical and ideological context of Russian Jewish landscape painters, and their reception by non-Jewish Russians, can be shown by looking at three artists: Yehuda Pen (1854–1937), Abram Manevich (1881–1942) and Isaac Levitan (1860–1900). Pen is a particularly fascinating figure because he combined an absolute devotion to art with strict Jewish observance, ceasing work on the Sabbath and continuing to attend synagogue. In 1897 he founded Russia’s first Jewish art school, encouraging his students (including Chagall) to accompany him on walks and to make plein air studies on the outskirts of Vitebsk. Paintings such as Kupenie Koniia (Bathing a Horse) depict Jews in traditional religious dress interacting with the Russian landscape.
Manevich is now not well remembered beyond the United States, but in the early twentieth century his work was popular enough to warrant solo exhibitions in Moscow and Paris. His style, midway between naturalistic and decorative modes, is a good match for his favoured theme of villages and town outskirts glimpsed in patches of colour through the crazy branches of trees, the combination of strong colours and crawling lines sometimes recalling stained glass.
Manevich’s love of the rodina illuminates his art, yet the fraught situation of Russian Jewish artists remains apparent in how his early work is received. Of the more than twenty artists treated in Zoriana Lyl’o–Otkovych’s beautiful book on fin de siècle Ukrainian painting, it is only Manevich (the sole Jew) whose great patriotism to his ‘motherland’ is emphasised. Could it be that the seemingly special need to refer twice to Manevich’s patriotism is grounded in the same evasiveness that causes Lyl’o-Otkovych to gloss the murder of Manevich’s son in a Ukrainian pogrom as an unspecified ‘personal tragedy’?
The uncertain position of Russian Jewish landscape artists is nowhere more apparent than in the case of the most famous – Isaak Levitan. Levitan’s landscapes were incredibly popular, and a sumptuous monograph emphasises his status in Russia’s patriotic firmament by interspersing reproductions of his paintings with stanzas of verse from such guardian spirits of the rodina as the poets Lermontov, Tiutchev and Fet.
Levitan, although born within the Pale, was eventually able to settle in Moscow, and his cultural connections (notably his friendship with Anton Chekhov) freed him from some of the travel restrictions that confined the majority of Jews. Levitan painted landscapes all over European Russia, and, although some of his more well-known paintings convey a mystical sense of the overpowering sublimity of nature, he seems to have been equally enchanted by humbler subject-matter, such as a birch copse at sunset or a pond overgrown with summer vegetation. He wished ‘to locate in my country the most simple, the most intimate, the most commonplace and the most emotionally moving [landscapes], those which often cause a sense of melancholia. The spectators should be touched in the depths of their soul.’ Levitan’s very popularity as a Russian Jewish landscape artist exposed him to all of the tensions bearing on that category. As David Jackson has put it, ‘It would be small wonder if Levitan didn’t feel both the restrictions and the ambiguity of his position as an ‘outsider’ within his native land.’ It seems that Levitan was admitted to the Russian landscape canon either as ‘the exception that proves the rule’ or by dodging his Jewishness. True, Levitan painted little on explicitly Jewish themes, but these obscurities repay critical attention.
The painting Evreiskaia nadgrobnaia plita (Jewish Tombstone) is very infrequently reproduced; I have encountered it only once, printed in grainy black and white. The painting shows a section of a cemetery in which birch and alder trees grow. The trees’ naked branches and the roughly painted ground, indicative perhaps of churned mud, make it possible to guess that the season is either spring or autumn, with the quiet melancholy of the scene suggesting the latter. Dominating the central foreground is a tall tombstone obelisk, flanked along a line of diagonal composition running from the right foreground to the left rear by two tall silver birches. The tombstone, engraved with illegible letters and standing on a pedestal, is enclosed by iron railings that rise to nearly half its height. So powerful is its presence that it’s easy overlook the other, lesser tombstones arrayed behind it.
The painting emphasises the contrast between the living, supple trees and the unyielding stone monument raised above the Jewish incumbent of the tomb. The yearning melancholia that many critics have read in Levitan’s paintings is present in abundance, but the drooping birch twigs overhanging the tomb seem tender and protective as well as grieving.
This is a rare depiction of an encounter between Jewishness and the Russian landscape. Whether or not it can be taken as evidence of a hitherto overlooked aspect of Levitan’s relationship to his Jewishness is an open question. A case against such a reading might point to the absence of Jewish subject matter in his other paintings and the strong possibility that what appealed to Levitan was the general mood of the graveyard scene rather than anything specifically Jewish.
It’s possible, however, to interpret Jewish Tombstone in quite a different way – one descriptive of the tension between Jewishness and the Russian landscape. The birch has long been the symbol of the Russian rodina. In a 2004 article Averil King pointed out that ‘Isaak Levitan made telling use of the silver birch in his landscape painting. As a motif, it was lyrical, expressive and, above all, calculated to evoke feelings of affection for the Russian Motherland.’ With this in mind, the contrast in Jewish Tombstone between the trees and the monument becomes not only material but national. The very prominence of the tombstone now whispers at exclusion and vulnerability. Why is the obelisk screened from the rodina by an iron fence? Why is it exposed on a pedestal? Why, indeed, is the painting not entitled ‘Jewish Cemetery’? Could it be that this enclosed monument, imposing but starkly alone, marks the only Jewish grave in a Christian cemetery? That seems unlikely, but the very possibility of the question reveals the new sense of ambiguity, or even unease, that now pervades the painting. Perhaps all the questions about identity that it invokes can be reduced to one – the same that underlies the passage from Job with which I began – namely, what is the stone (and the man that it commemorates) doing here, a stranger in a strange land?
The religious proscriptions on the graphic representation of living things did not apply to verbal or written art, and consequently the literary history of the ‘people of the book’ stretches back continuously over three thousand years. Nevertheless, the two Jewish languages of the Pale each came with a set of difficulties. For different reasons, neither Hebrew and Yiddish was adequate to describe the internal world of subjective emotion or the external world of landscape. Hebrew possessed only words that figured in the Torah and other sacred texts, and thus sounded horribly stilted when applied to nineteenth-century reality, while the vocabulary of Yiddish, having evolved in the urban ghettoes of Central Europe, did not stretch to nice distinctions between, say, an aspen and a birch. Rich, expressive, euphemistic and malleable, by the time of the absorption of Eastern European Jews into the Russian Empire Yiddish had become the common vernacular, spoken and understood by all, yet it was also looked down on as a literary language.
Mendele Moykher-Sforim, recalling his emergence as a writer, dramatised the problem in this way:
I observed the life of my people and wished to provide them with stories in the Holy Tongue based on Jewish sources. Most of them, however, did not understand this language, because they spoke only Yiddish…Our writers…were interested only in the Holy Tongue and not in the people. They looked down upon Yiddish. If one in ten ever remembered the ‘accursed tongue’ and dared to write something in it, he did so behind seven locked doors […] so that his shame might not be uncovered to damage his good name. How great then was my dilemma when I considered that if I were to embark on writing in the ‘shameful’ tongue, my honourable name would be besmirched!…My love of writing, however, overcame my hollow pride, and I decided: come what may, I will write in Yiddish, that cast-off daughter, and work for the people.
Moykher-Sforim (‘Mendele the book-peddler’, often referred to simply as Mendele, 1836–1917) was the nom de plume of Sholem Yankef Abramovich, whose fateful decision to write in Yiddish earned him the sobriquet ‘the grandfather of Yiddish literature.’ A maskil, or follower of the Haskalah, he began writing in the early 1860s in the period of optimism following the abolition of serfdom and the removal of many of the most hated anti-Jewish policies of Tsar Nicholas I.
Mendele’s writing, though typically possessing a tendentious social subtext, evinces a great love of the Russian countryside, and these two motivations combine in his remarkable project of translating into Hebrew a three-volume compendium of texts on the natural and biological sciences, culled from contemporary Western European treatises, which covered respectively mammals, birds, and reptiles and amphibians. To fully appreciate this achievement it’s necessary to bear in mind that Mendele was obliged to invent words for these animals, the existing vocabulary for wildlife in Hebrew not having advanced much beyond ‘every thing that creepeth upon the earth’.
But Mendele’s interest in the Russian landscape was also personal and lyrical. In 1889 he published a series of autobiographical sketches entitled Notes for My Biography in which he emphasised the dramatic impact of his childhood encounters with the landscape of the Pale. He wrote of his birthplace, the shtetl of Kapulye in the Minsk governorate: ‘God did not bless the town with riches and treasure, nor did He favour it with trade and business. Instead, He endowed it with natural beauty, lovely forests, tranquil life, valleys, and beautiful fields all around.’ After a period in his early teens spent studying at various religious schools Mendele moved to the small town of Mel’niki, named after the mill beyond its outskirts which his stepfather owned. At Mel’niki Mendele rediscovered the natural world, which he associated thereafter with his own creative talent. It’s worth quoting from his reminiscences of Mel’niki at some length:
The house in which my stepfather lived was surrounded by forests, large ancient woods. Wild animals lived there. Wolves howled at night, and even bears were seen from time to time. There were nests of all kinds of birds that twittered in the branches; there were wild geese and waterfowl that screamed in the marsh grass. A wide river wove its way between the trees, flowing in a rush to the mill, where it dropped like a waterfall. […]
Here, in this isolated place, my Muse – the beloved of my youth from the time when I sat in yeshivas with other poor youths, my beloved, whom I had lost hope of ever seeing again – reappeared. She revealed herself to me in all her glory […] At her urging I made a covenant with the trees in the countryside, with the birds and the fruits of the earth. She taught me to understand their language and observe their mode of life. My heart was drawn to these friends of mine. They told me about the mysteries and events of their world, about the greatness of God, who had created and watched over them, and I told them about my feelings.
Much in this passage is remarkable. Most generally there is the mere fact, which runs counter to many stereotypes of the Jews, that the young Mendele should have been so enraptured by nature, and that his elder self should write of his experiences in such a romantic fashion. Romantic also, of course, is the way in which Mendele links his experiences of landscape to his creative powers as personified by a female ‘Muse’. Despite his reference at the end of this passage to a monotheistic creator god, there’s no question that the way in which this Muse appears to supplant the functions of the god of Moses would have alarmed an observant Jew. Mendele’s very language seems provocative – most evidently when he writes of the ‘covenant’ with nature that was encouraged by his Muse, but also when he gives her the credit for teaching him ‘the language of nature’. More subtle is the passage’s undertow of pantheism: his Muse urging him to bond with, but ‘the trees […] the birds and the fruits of the earth.’
In a complementary passage, Mendele reiterates his positive image of landscape with the difference that nature itself is now personified as a woman, without the mediation of a Muse. He writes that ‘Nature drew me to her with clarity and beauty. I fell in love with her and delighted in her as a groom in his bride […] I sought my love in the dense forests and sparse woods, on the fields of grass and at the river. She showed me all she possessed […] The nightingale sang for me, and the voice of the turtledove stood out in the chorus of birds.’ This extract is striking because of its resonance with and commingling of the Western European Romantic tradition and the Song of Songs. The nightingale, the emblematic bird of Romanticism is mentioned in the same breath as the turtledove: ‘The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.’ [Song of Songs 2:12]. Both Mendele’s reference to nature as his ‘bride’ and his description of going forth to seek his beloved are also strongly reminiscent of passages from the Song of Songs (3:1–2, 5:1).
Mendele’s biblical language raises the intriguing idea that his perception of the Russian landscape may have been mediated by imagery encountered in his years of studying scripture. In much the same way, then, as Russian artists and writers, in attempting to describe their native landscape, struggled first to ‘see’ it at all outside conventional European representations of Arcadia or the picturesque, so Jewish perceptions of the Russian landscape may well have been coloured or overlaid with biblical imagery. The close relationship between nature and scripture is made beautifully plain in another passage from Mendele’s Notes in which he writes metaphorically about his childhood experience of reading the Aggadah:
I came to love strolling in the garden of Agadah. This is not like an orchard fenced in with gates and locks in which trees are tall and planted in straight rows, each kind in its own bed, so that Nature is hemmed in by elaborate pickets. No, it looked like a broad expanse of field and forest which has no end and no fence, where there is no order, and the growth is dense and intertwined. Countless flowers grow there […] The lily is the lily of the valley of Sharon, and the rose – the rose of the valleys, wreathed with a growth of green grass.
In Notes for my Biography, the Romantic and biblical frames through which Mendele views the Russian landscape seem unconscious and inadvertent, but in a delightful passage from his novel Fishke der Krumer (Fishke the Lame, 1869) Mendele reveals that this is far from being the case. The passage describes a scene in which, after becoming involved in various hectic misadventures, four Jews lie down in a field to take their ease:
Had a talented writer seen us out that fine morning, he would have found ample material for a poem. This would have been a poem about four married Jews and how they lay unbuttoned on the grass, enjoying the day in silence. Also included would be a sun and its warm rays, a sky, nature, dewdrops, songbirds and horses, each prettier than the last. Such a writer should, of course, be generous enough to add some products of his own imagination too: a flock of sheep grazing in the meadow, a clear running brook at which “Jews do break their thirst.” He would doubtless place flutes in our mouths on which we would trill a song of praise to the beloved bride in the Song of Songs, just like the shepherds of yore.
Mendele’s playful and ironic subversion of both European and Jewish perceptions of landscape is consistent with his wider programme of freeing people (whether Jew or gentile) from lazy preconceptions and inherited viewpoints. Nevertheless, he often acknowledges in his fictional works the sometimes uneasy relationship to the landscape on the part of Jews whose religious and social background never encouraged them to feel at home or take pleasure in it. In a seemingly semi-autobiographical passage from Fishke the Lame, his youthful protagonist writes of the struggle for his soul conducted between his ‘Good Mentor’ and Satan, who tempts him to lift his head from his prayer book to witness the ‘exquisite panorama’ of nature, comprising ‘Fields peppered with blooming buckwheat as white as snow…embroidered with stripes of golden-yellow wheat and pale green stalks of corn.’
Another founder of Yiddish literature, maskil and ardent defender of Jewish culture was Isaak Leib Peretz (1852–1915). In the course of a long career as a journalist, social critic, playwright and author of short stories and novels he, like his contemporary Mendele, regarded the Jews of the Pale with an eye that was both sympathetic and somewhat removed. Like Mendele too, Peretz left memoirs of his youth in which his experience of the landscape figures prominently. Most of Peretz’s later life was spent in Warsaw where he became arguably the most important figure in the development of modern Jewish culture, but in 1890 and again in 1904 he undertook journeys into the Polish provinces of the Pale that later formed the basis of his Impressions of a Journey Through the Tomaszow Region.
Peretz was born and grew up within the culturally cosmopolitan, fortified town of Zamość. Situated politically in the contested borderlands of Russia, Poland and Austria, Zamość was a town with a large Jewish minority that was surrounded by woodland, marshes and fertile cultivated land watered by the river Wieprz. Only three miles beyond the town’s walls was the Jewish agricultural colony of Zhdanov, although by Peretz’s time this was very much in decline. In common with the children of other pious Jewish families, Peretz began to study Torah almost as soon as he was able to speak. Despite the enticing proximity of the countryside, his daily routine kept him largely confined to the interior of the elementary school or cheder. In his memoirs Peretz wrote that:
There is very little nature in what I remember. I saw very little of it in those early years which are expected to nourish the mature man. I was a Jewish child born in a fortress, walled in from forest and field by gates and ramparts. I had already been deeply moved by the Sabbath hymn in praise of God the Creator of Nature and by other biblical passages of nature description before I ever saw a living blade of grass […] Only once, on a hot day, when I went down to the damp cellar to cool off, did I see anything sprouting from the potatoes.
Here, then, is another Jewish child whose earliest experiences of nature were baffled by Torah and Talmud. The cheder itself, in the accounts of Peretz, Mendele, S.Ansky and many others who in later life became maskilim, was a sort of incubator of pallid and etiolated Jewish tubers, from which these writers felt fortunate to have escaped into the hothouse of modern European culture. A memoir left by Grigory Bogrov (1825–1885), a Russian Jew of an earlier generation, confirms this general picture:
We lived in the countryside, in a deep forest. Some cottages, some huts, the ever-smoking distillery in the distance, a rivulet winding between tall pines, horned cattle, boars grown fat on the waste from the distillery, eternally grimy peasant men and women – that picture is etched in my memory and has not faded to this day […]
Once I turned five, an assistant of my father’s, a gangly Jew, began to teach me the Hebrew alphabet. How I hated my teacher and his notebook! But I was afraid of my strict father and sat at my writing for hours, although the sun shone so brightly in the yard, the pretty little birds chirped so merrily, and I so wanted to run away and dive into the thicket of tall, succulent grass.
This contrast between nature as it is encountered in texts and as it is experienced in real life was something that the older Peretz was well aware of:
I suppose that nowadays you can’t easily imagine a childhood or adolescence like mine. You would find incredible this creature with his head full of the sweetest-smelling scents of “the field that God has blessed,” of mandrakes and Mount Lebanon, of the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valley, who hadn’t raised a single living flower to his nostrils.
It wasn’t until early adulthood that Peretz had the opportunity to venture out into the landscape, when he accompanied his father into the forest: ‘I made my first acquaintance with the forest and with the Bug River […] As soon as we entered the forest I was under its spell. The trees were gigantic, so heroic that they made me feel insignificant…’ Here again we see that the description of nature approaching what we might call religious or Romantic awe. For a child raised in the unshakeable belief that what mattered in the universe was only the relationship between man and God, the experience of being dwarfed by huge trees or dazzled by vast uncultivated distances could have been astonishing to comprehend.
Impressions of a Journey Through the Tomaszow Region in 1890 is a hybrid literary work. Part sociological survey, part reportage, it was undertaken with the intention of gathering objective data about the Jews of the Polish shtetls that could be used in their defence against Judaophobic defamation, but it is also of great value for its subjective account of the voyage of discovery made by a maskil intellectual who returns to his half despised and half beloved roots.
Peretz is accompanied on his journey through the western Pale by various local people who act as his guides, hosts, coachmen, interviewees and informants. In many of the conversations that he records, Peretz registers the gap that still exists between Jews and the land. On the way back towards Lublin from the small town of Tishevitz (Tyszowce) where he has been gathering data, he and his coachman take a rest near the latter’s village:
By now we have left Tishevitz behind. A breath of spring wafts toward us from the fields. He draws me to a tree and we sit. It occurs to me that this is where he must have sat with his mother. She must have taught him what was grown in the townspeople’s narrow furrows, because he recognises wheat, rye, and potatoes.
A theme that arises again and again in accounts of the experiences of Russia’s rural Jews is the tension between their aesthetic appreciation of the beauty of the landscape (to which they seldom seem insensible, in spite of the influence of their religious upbringing and stereotypes to the contrary) and their sense of it as concealing some vague threat. Sometimes the source of this fear becomes reified: Peretz records a conversation with one Jewish villager who is planning to travel to leave Poland and try his luck abroad:
‘“Where are you going?” “To London. I was there once, made good money, sent my wife ten roubles a week, was able to live like a human being myself. My bad luck dragged me home again.” His bad luck, I assumed, was his wife. “Why didn’t you take your family with you?” He doesn’t answer. “Something within me drew me back. London is as dark as midnight. Every time I began to doze off, I would dream about the shtetl – the brook, the woods. I felt I was choking, and I kept being pulled back home.” “Clean, fresh air – no charge. With God’s help we’ve been swallowing the air for three years now. I’m leaving with my wife and children. We can’t take any more.” “Won’t you miss the woods again?” “The woods?” He smiles bitterly. “When my wife went into the woods the day before yesterday to pick berries, the locals gave her their special welcome – accompanied by a few touches of the whip.”’
The restlessness of Peretz’s interviewee also marked the life of Uri Nissan Gnessin (1879–1913), whose wanderings led him to the great cities of Europe (including months spent living in poverty in London’s East End) only for him to return, ‘time and again […] to the remote shtetl of Pochep [..] and to the pines of his native land […] its surrounding hills and the wonderful river.’
Even in translation, Gnessin’s short stories evidence a talent that by rights ought to assure his place among the great European modernist writers. Although their haunted, melancholic atmosphere is quite unique, the stories also indicate Gnessin’s youthful absorption of Russian prose, particularly that of Chekhov, some of whose tales he later translated into Hebrew.
Gnessin shares with Chekhov a concern for the inner life of his characters that relegates surface events, ‘action’ and ‘plot’ to a slightly unreal condition, as though the external world were only a residue of consciousness, a two-dimensional sheen of images cast by the mind. This emphasis upon mood and inner spiritual states does not mean that there is anything vague about Gnessin’s descriptions of the external world, and in fact his prose is much more precise, concrete and lucid than that of Mendele or Peretz, both of whom, in spite of their talent and awareness of trite conventions, occasionally slip into clichéd formulations when attempting to render details of landscape.
A recurrent motif in Gnessin’s stories is the contrast between the confining, airless interiors of cheder schoolrooms and cramped, rented lodgings on the one hand, and on the other, the beauty and vastness of the world beyond the shtetl streets. The stories’ heroes, sensitive and spiritually homeless young maskilim, barely scraping a piece of bread and herring by teaching while daydreaming all the while of founding periodicals and becoming respected authors in the big cities, find balm for their souls on walks to the edge of town or beyond into the fields and woods. The link between the natural world and the emotional state of the protagonist is usually made explicit, as in these two extracts, the first from Hatsidah (Sideways, 1905) and the second from Beinatayyim (Meanwhile, 1906):
Yet soon it was nearly spring and the days were filled with light. Patches of soft blue showed through the clash of silvery cymbals in the sky. The sun was new and warm again; golden puddles gleamed underfoot and glimmering streams bubbled gaily. The newly let-out cows rubbed against the walls of houses, seeking their stored warmth. Hagzar cut back on his lessons. Whenever he could he went for long walks through the paths and fields, splashing pleasurably through the slick bogs from which a damp glitter arose, breathing in the soft decay of the rutting earth as it warmed, surrendering himself to the steamy mist exhaled by the fat, rank soil.
In the irrigated fields, behind the nearby river, a bird on foot began to screech moderately and confidently. The measured, considered screeches entered the silence and spread out in it and, together with it, penetrated Naftali’s absorbent soul. Suddenly his ear discerned clear words in that screech: – Flee-ee! Flee-ee!
One consequence of the intense, cloistered religious education that Jewish boys were expected to embark upon from their earliest years was a troubled relationship, in later life, to their own inchoate sexuality. From the point of view of those Jews (including all of the writers here discussed) who later looked back critically upon the traditional communities from which they had emerged, this issue was exacerbated rather than resolved by the customary practice among ‘unenlightened’ Jews of marrying off their sons and daughters on the very cusp of puberty. There is some evidence to suggest that the seemingly universal psychological correlation between the fertility of the natural landscape and the awakening of human libido was reinforced, in the case of these young Russian Jews, by the absence of early opportunities to become familiar either with the opposite sex or with the fertile world beyond the cheder or yeshiva walls, and this may help account for the feminine identification of nature in the writing of Mendele, Peretz and Gnessin.
For the Jews of the Pale, the outbreak of the First World War inaugurated a series of cataclysms that would see them, by the middle of the twentieth century, all but exterminated from their ‘step-motherland’. This war, and the Russian Civil War that followed on its heels also represented an environmental disaster, with pillaging armies destroying harvests, hacking down forests, and polluting rivers with corpses. Remarkable records of these wars, and in particular of the destruction visited upon the Jews and the landscape, ruined together, have been left by S. Ansky (Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport, 1863–1920) and Isaak Babel (1894–1940).
Ansky travelled through Galicia with the Russian army in 1915 on a mission that had the dual purpose of documenting what was occurring there and distributing relief to its terrorised Jewish communities, while Babel joined the cavalry war against the Poles and Tsarist loyalists in 1920, in the capacity of war correspondent for the Soviet press. The diaries he kept during the campaign, in addition to their intrinsic documentary value, provided the material for Babel’s best-known collection of short stories Konarmiia (Red Cavalry, 1926).
Ansky witnessed the anguished position of the Red Army’s Jewish soldiers who fought alongside Judaeophobic Russians. In the shtetl of Husiatyn, Jewish soldiers of the Red Army managed to save the synagogue only by threatening to torch the Church and Christian homes if it were not spared. They were unable, however, to prevent the pogrom that occurred in both districts of this border town, divided into Austrian and Russian sections along the line of the river Zbrucz since the first Polish partition, which left only twenty-three of the formerly seven hundred Jewish homes still standing. Ansky records that ‘during the pogrom and the fire, […] six hundred families had fled to the surrounding villages and forests and stayed there.’ Thus did the Russian forests, for generations a source of superstitious trepidation for the Jews of the Pale, become the last place of refuge from their neighbours.
Babel’s terse and impressionistic diary entries, brief sketches of personalities, encounters and events, are interspersed with a surprising number of references to the landscape. Sometimes his contact with natural beauty seems to afford him a sense of peace in which he feels able to record otherwise rare moments of personal reflection. During five days spent quartered in the relatively unscarred vicinity of Belyov, for example, Babel records the following impressions:
I feel lighthearted out in the fields, my 27th year. Thinking, the rye and barley are ripe, the oats look very good in places, the poppies are fading, no cherries left, the apples aren’t ripe, a lot of flax, buckwheat, a lot of fields trampled down, hops.
They’ve started mowing. I’m learning to recognise plants. My sister’s birthday tomorrow.
Babel’s interest in the landscape is filled with love and yearning. In his autobiographical short story Awakening, written about ten years earlier, he wrote of his regret that, through being ‘nailed to the Gemara [a Rabbinical commentary]’ he had come late to the ‘essential things’ of life, these being identified with exposure to and knowledge of the natural world. In one passage from the story, the young Babel, an aspiring ‘scribbler’ is interrogated by the knowledgeable Nikitich, proofreader of the Odessa News and a man with a sound knowledge of the natural sciences.
“What you lack is a feeling for nature.” With his stick he pointed out to me a tree that had a reddish trunk and a low crown. “What kind of tree is that?” I did not know. “What’s growing on this bush?” I did not know that either.
“And you presume to write?…A man who does not live in nature as a bird or animal lives in it will never write two worthwhile lines in all his life…Your landscapes are like descriptions of stage scenery. The devil take me, what have your parents been thinking of for fourteen years?”
Back home, at dinner, I did not touch my food. It would not go down. “A feeling for nature,” I thought. “My God, why did I never think of that before? Where am I going to find someone who can explain the calls of the birds and the names of the trees to me.”
As a twenty-seven year old man, Babel, in the midst of a war zone, belatedly, incongruously and movingly began to acquire some knowledge of botany. He reports that he is ‘studying the flora of Volhynia,’ and seems to take pleasure in being able to name the crops that he encounters. Not that his interest is limited to cold botanical nomenclature, for Babel also expresses his dismay at the effect of the war upon the Volhynian forest: ‘The forest. Magnificent, shady, ancient forest. Fierce heat, shade in the forest. Many trees felled for military needs – damn them – bare patches bristling with stumps at the forest’s edge. The ancient Volhynian forests of Dubno.’
The despoilation of the landscape and its inhabitants witnessed by Babel found in his modernist prose a vehicle fit to describe all its jarring horror:
Fields of purple poppies flower around us, the noonday wind is playing in the yellowing rye, the virginal buckwheat rises on the horizon like the wall of a distant monastery. The quiet Volyn is curving. The Volyn is withdrawing from us into a pearly mist of birch groves, it is creeping away into flowery knolls and entangling itself with enfeebled arms in thickets of hops. An orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head, a gentle radiance glows in the ravines of the thunderclouds and the standards of the sunsets float above our heads. The odour of yesterday’s blood and of slain horses drips into the evening coolness.
From the gentle shtetl paintings of Yehuda Pen to the lucid modernist imagery of Babel’s short stories, this brief introduction to Russian Jewish art of the fin de siècle shows how problems of cultural and national identity can never be entirely detached from the ostensibly apolitical subject of landscape depiction. Yet it would be no less of an error to frame this art only in terms of ideology and conflict. The more closely this subject is examined, the clearer it becomes that the variety of Russian Jewish artists’ responses to their native landscape is simply too great, and encompasses too much of the incommunicable inner life of the individual, to be parcelled into prefabricated boxes. Certainly, Russia’s Jewish population made use of and engaged with the landscape so variously as to disprove cliches of the deracinated urban Jew. Jews not only worked the land for food and crossed it for business, but also saw it variously as a sacred text, a source of spiritual nourishment, a pagan temple, a site of leisure, an object of nostalgia or superstitious dread, a trysting-place, a mass grave of their people and also, yes, as a place of eternal nourishment, the rodina.
Steven Lovatt is a writer and editor living in South Wales. He is currently editing a collection of Welsh travel writing for Parthian Books, copyediting a book about microbes and reviewing poetry for The Friday Poem https://thefridaypoem.com/about/#newsletter.
Responsibility for the reproduction of paintings lies with the author and every effort has been made to acknowledge the use of the images appropriately.
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, Bookshop.org and Amazon, among other high street and online outlets.
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 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.’
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 contributorsfor sharing their favourite nature writing this year!
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.
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!
“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?
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.
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!
‘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.’
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 howto live’.
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.
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’.
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’.
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.
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.
I then dipped into Chris Packham’sFingers 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:
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 vanishingspecies. Here, Philip shares his poem and writes about his research process and his quest to see a sand lizard in the flesh – read on below.
Purbeck Heathland in in Dorset inspired much of Thomas Hardy’s writing. Slepe Heath was the real-life version of the fictional Egdon Heath, where The Return of the Native is set. And his children’s poem, ‘The Lizard’, from 1911, was most likely an ode to the local sand lizards, abundant 100 years ago.
Wildlife can form literary connections with the landscape. Think of The Wind in the Willows and the Thames at Berkshire – inspiration and memories for Kenneth Grahame – or Tarka the Otter forever swimming in North Devon, John Clare’s Northamptonshire, or James Herriot’s Yorkshire. A new writing project led me to discover local connections to wildlife, especially the now elusive sand lizard.
‘26 Wild’ is a wonderful writing project in praise of some of our most endangered wildlife. The writers’ group 26, in partnership with the Wildlife Trusts, commissioned 56 writers to create written pieces and essays, each on a different – and vanishing – species. The creative writing is in the form of a centena – exactly 100 words long, and the first three words are repeated at the very end.
The species allotted to me was the sand lizard.
Since Hardy’s time, the very specific sandy heathland these lizards thrive in has been desiccated, destroyed and diced by urbanisation, agriculture and inappropriate forestry – so much so that around 90% of the populations have been lost. The only original indigenous populations survive in pockets in Dorset, some Surrey and Hampshire locations and a rare dune habitat in Merseyside. However, the incredible work of Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) has seen very successful reintroductions of baby lizards alongside intensive habitat management to restore, and in some cases recreate, the landscapes the lizards need.
During the spring lockdown, discussions with ARC led me to search for the rare lizards in Surrey and Sussex heathlands, and to become immersed in these extraordinary landscapes.