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Sensuous Spring

Kate Norbury 2

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

The MARCHING – Katharine Norbury

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

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

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

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(Photos by Katharine Norbury)

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

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

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

Glastonbury_Tor

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

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

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

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

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(Photo by Katharine Norbury)

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THE COUNTRY OF LARKS: EXTRACTS

BT ACOL Cover WINNER.indd

We’re delighted to share with Land Lines readers extracts from Gail Simmons new book The Country of Larks: A Chiltern Journey, published today by Bradt Travel Guides.

ABOUT ‘THE COUNTRY OF LARKS’

In 1874, a lovesick Robert Louis Stevenson stepped off a train at High Wycombe station on the first leg of a three-day journey across the Chiltern Hills to Tring. Almost 150 years later, Gail Simmons took to the hills in his footsteps, chronicling the world of her childhood before HS2 brings destruction to this historic landscape.

Entwining personal memories with impassioned interviews and extracts from Stevenson’s essay In the Beechwoods, Gail portrays the author’s ‘country of larks’ from prehistory to the present day.

Setting out

In October 1874, a slender young Scotsman carrying a rucksack stepped off the London train onto the platform at High Wycombe station. He was twenty-four, suffering from poor health and in the throes of an unhappy love affair with an older, married woman. Having based himself in London over the summer to be near the object of his affections, and to immerse himself in literary life, Robert Louis Stevenson was now procrastinating over returning to Edinburgh to resume his university studies.

Wearing his favourite velvet jacket, and with his wispy moustache and unkempt hair, the aspiring author must have cut a strikingly bohemian figure in High Wycombe. This was, after all, a respectable working town famed chiefly for the chair-making industry that flourished thanks to the beech woodland covering its nearby hills. The daintier crafts of lace-making and straw-plaiting also thrived here, but from the late eighteenth century it was chairs – particularly good, solid Windsor chairs – that concerned the town’s inhabitants. Passing through in 1822, William Cobbett described Georgian High Wycombe as ‘a very fine and very clean market town’. By the time that Stevenson alighted here some fifty years later, the rows of terraced workers’ cottages had already begun crawling up the steep slopes of the Wye Valley.

Now, almost 150 years on from Stevenson’s arrival, I too alighted the train at High Wycombe station. Built in the Chiltern vernacular style of knapped flint with brick dressings, the station had opened just twenty years before Stevenson turned up. This was the heyday of Victorian engineering, a time dominated by names such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Robert Louis’ own grandfather, the Scottish civil engineer Robert Stevenson.

Layers of history

Antique landscapes such as the one I was walking through that day are palimpsests, layers of history, one lying just beneath another. Sometimes an upper layer peels away, and a buried one is revealed. Such is Kingstreet, which according to my 1880s map existed when Stevenson was here and which leads north from Holmer Green. This was an important drovers’ road, where cattle and sheep would be driven across the Chilterns to seasonal fairs and markets. Nowadays its importance is much reduced, there not being much call for drovers anymore. Yet there are still references to the village’s connection with drovers and their animals in the street names. I was standing in Penfold Lane (where sheep were penned), having just passed Sheepcote Dell Road. Even the neat bungalows lining the street out of the village still cling on to the old rural traditions, with their allotment gardens and signs advertising home-grown runner beans. And names such as Orchard End hark back to Holmer Green’s vanished agricultural past when the village’s proximity to London encouraged fruit-growing, its plentiful cherry orchards still studding my 1880s map.

Kingstreet survives today as a bridleway, its entrance hidden at the edge of the village. Too hidden, it seems, as I could not locate it. I paused to check my map, and an elderly couple with Labradors approached. They looked very like my parents – he tall, with a cloth cap and gilet, she with a trim grey bob and a smiley face.

‘You look like you’re on a long-distance walk,’ the woman said, touching my arm. I wondered if this was a polite way of informing me that I didn’t quite fit in with the Sunday strollers of Holmer Green, with my scruffy hiking gear and old rucksack. Just as the apparently civil enquiry ‘can I help you?’, when uttered by a certain breed of English person, really means ‘what do you think you are you doing here?’

‘I am on a long-distance walk – to Tring,’ I responded to her gentle tease. ‘I’m looking for Kingstreet, which goes to Little Missenden.’ She pointed me in the right direction.

A dream of Middle England

Wider still the track, and greater still the sense of walking on an ancient thoroughfare. Descending steeply, Kingstreet sinks into the earth from centuries of footfall. A sudden clearing, a breach in the hedge and I looked down, over a stubble plain, to a scene – a mirage, almost – of village England. Little Missenden lay cocooned in the Misbourne Valley, its flint church tower winking in the autumn sunshine. Beyond, the hillside rose steeply from the valley bottom, its upper slopes clad with beech hangars.

Hangar: ‘wood on steep side of hill’;
from Old English hangra, ‘hang’

Geologists have a term for this characteristic Chiltern topography in which the land has eroded more dramatically on one side of the valley (usually south and west facing) than the other. They call them ‘asymmetric dry valleys’, with the gentler northern slopes, such as where I now stood, being more suited to cultivation. But even the arid language of geologists could not detract from the tableau before me that day. In the foreground, the village cricket team was playing perhaps its last game of summer. Ripples of applause wafted up from the vale as a run was made or a catch taken, and mingled with the birdsong in the tree canopy above. If you could ignore the pylons striding gigantically across the hillside, little appeared changed since Stevenson travelled here.

I turned back from this dream of Middle England, a microcosm of old certainties in an uncertain world, and continued down the deeply hollowing holloway. Twisted beech roots, like arthritic fingers, emerged from earth banks almost as tall as me. The trees leaned in, branches interlacing over my head like clasping hands.

Above the treetops the early autumn sun was warm, but the air beneath was cool and damp. I was lured further into this verdant tunnel by birdsong, sucked deeper and darker into England’s rural past on a venerable road once trod by drovers and tradesmen, churchgoers and soldiers, merchants and missionaries.

Route map

A most pleasant country

‘The lanes were profoundly still. They would have
been sad but for the sunshine and the singing of the
larks. And as it was, there came over me at times a
feeling of isolation that was not disagreeable, and yet
was enough to make me quicken my steps eagerly when
I saw someone before me on the road.’ R L Stevenson

The lanes were profoundly still that Sunday afternoon too, although sadly no larks were singing. My feeling of isolation was not disagreeable either, as I followed in the footsteps of Stevenson’s lovesick ghost. Heading away from Little Missenden along a narrow road marked on my map as Chalk Lane, the idyll was ruptured by the grumble from the A413 which now bypasses the village. Stevenson, the scion of a great engineering dynasty, might have approved of this road, but I did not as I scurried across, dodging the traffic.

Chalk Lane now led me out of the Misbourne Valley and up into the chalk uplands, and once again I became aware of the geological and climatic forces that shaped these hills. From around 145 million years ago the Chiltern chalk started to form under sub-tropical seas, to be thrust upwards by massive tectonic forces some eighty million years later. And although they were never entirely covered by glaciers during the Ice Ages, their tundra-like hills were carved by ice and frost to emerge as vertebrae in a spine of chalk hills that run from the Dorset Downs in southern England to the Yorkshire Wolds in the north.

It is the Chilterns that John Bunyan is thought to be describing when he writes in The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) of ‘a most Pleasant Mountainous Country, beautified with Woods, Vineyards, Fruits of all sorts; Flowers also with Springs and Fountains, very delectable to behold’. Three hundred and forty years on and Chiltern woodlands are beautiful yet: fruit and flowers still grow in Chiltern gardens and vineyards still prosper on their slopes.

Looking back from the top of just such a slope I could no longer see Little Missenden, sequestered in its valley. This mirage of village England had dissolved back into the miasma from where it came.

The eye of the storm

And then, just as I found myself lulled into reveries of this meadow’s history, I was brought up short by a sign barring my way. Ahead, where the portal of HS2 will emerge from under the Chilterns, ‘essential maintenance’ to the electricity pylons was taking place and I was forbidden to take another step. The shouts of workmen scaling the pylon in front of me confirmed the warning. I had no choice but to turn back and retrace my steps to the bottom of the hill and walk up the busy main road to South Heath.

South Heath is a prosperous community, and one that will bear much of the brunt of HS2. Having failed to get the tunnel extended under the whole of the AONB, the inhabitants will see the railway emerging from a portal just north of the village.

If the tunnel had been extended another six miles, to beyond Wendover, then it would have emerged outside the AONB. As it is, the tunnel will descend under the River Misbourne – twice – then climb uphill in one of the steepest gradients in the whole of Network Rail, to surface near the top of one of the most historic and unspoiled valleys in the entire Chilterns.

Now, walking into the village, I was entering the eye of the storm, the illusory calm before the maelstrom of HS2. It was a Monday morning, but an unnatural hush settled over the village like the first autumn mists. My 1880s map shows little development where modern South Heath is, only Sibley’s Coppice, another ancient woodland of oak and beech wood scattered with rowan, cherry and birch. Coppices are woodland in which the trees or shrubs are periodically cut back to ground level to stimulate growth and provide firewood or timber, the woodland being managed sustainably to provide fuel for generations of villagers.

To hear a skylark?

That morning I wanted to stride out across the hills and the meadows one last time, as summer faded and autumn took hold. Above all, I really wanted to hear a skylark. The air might not have been ‘alive with them from High Wycombe to Tring’ as it was for Stevenson but surely I should hear at least one before the end of my walk. And I was at least walking this last leg. As Stevenson cheerfully admits in ‘In the Beechwoods’:

 ‘The morning cleared a little, and the sky was once more
the old stone-coloured vault over the sallow meadows
and the russet woods, as I set forth on a dog-cart from
Wendover to Tring.’ R L Stevenson

Stevenson was, in Victorian parlance, a sickly youth. Like so many of his contemporaries, he was thought to have been suffering from tuberculosis (‘consumption’), although medical experts today dispute that he had this disease, or at least that he died from it. Besides, to play the role of a romantically ailing poet was the height of late nineteenth-century fashion, which may also have played a role in Stevenson’s decision not to walk the final day of his Chiltern jaunt.

No dog-cart to hand, and preferring to walk anyway, I struck off down a minor road…

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Our grateful thanks for Bradt Travel Guides for permission to reproduce these extracts, artwork and map. Bradt Travel Guides is offering readers of Land Lines a special 20% discount on copies of The Country of Larks. To claim your discount, purchase the book at www.bradtguides.comand enter code LANDLINES at checkout. Offer valid until 30 June 2019.

Angel of the Ocean: An Interview with Philip Hoare

Professor Graham Huggan and Dr Pippa Marland (Land Lines team) are delighted to share with you today an original interview with Philip Hoare, one of the UK’s most fascinating and gifted writers, and a chronicler par excellence of the planet’s oceans and shorelines.  The interview was carried out by email in late February and is published here for the first time.  Graham and Pippa are currently co-writing an article on Philip’s work.

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Philip Hoare in the ocean (Photo by Andrew Sutton)

GH:  Much of your work seems to be a play on resemblances, not necessarily physical ones but figures whose lives, half-real half-mythical, are used as projection screens for your own desires. Would you agree with this?

PH:  I suppose I see my imaginative self in that way, and have done since I was a child.  I was always an Indian, not a cowboy.  I was always dressing up as other people – a super hero, an Aztec, even into teenage, as the starman.  He was merely the culmination of those desires, as if I’d invented him, rather than the other way around.

GH:  Animals, too, seem to act at times as projection screens: birds, for instance, or most prominently, whales.  Human and animal worlds often merge in your work: is that because you want at a certain level to become an animal even though you’re aware that non-human animals are nothing like ourselves?

PH:  Well, I think animals are very like ourselves in ways we don’t care to acknowledge.  The perfectible other, streamlined, unconfined – by gravity in the case of birds, by land in the case of whales.  Because I feel unaccepted by humans – not having a family or a close relationship, not operating technology (cars, phones etc), not being part of a community – ironically, returning to my suburban origins has allowed me to continue this. It as if the preserved back garden of a semi-detached house becomes a last resort, much as the inland sea beyond the hedges is – as though this removal can only go one way, towards another species.

Continue reading “Angel of the Ocean: An Interview with Philip Hoare”

#SpringNatureDiary

Thanks to everyone who took part in our crowd-sourced Spring Nature Diary on the 20th March (the Spring Equinox!). We were delighted at the scope, diversity and different locations we saw represented in your contributions to the diary. We had so much interest on Twitter, and it was great to see people sharing their photos and ideas across different platforms.

You can read a small selection of entries here, which were live-curated on the day as they arrived! We have had many more, however, and some of these will be edited by poet and writer Abi Andrews (author of The Word for Woman is Wilderness) into a special eBook to commemorate the event and share the wonderful words and images we’ve accumulated with everyone!

You still have a little more time (until 00:00 on the 23rd March) to contribute your own entry to the diary, which you can do here. You can find out more about the #SpringNatureDiary campaign itself here, and feel free to get in touch with us on Twitter or via email (landlines@leeds.ac.uk) if you’d like more information!

Image: Magnolia at Trelissick (Credit: National Trust and Hilary Daniel)

ANNOUNCEMENT: Capturing the arrival of spring in a nationwide crowd-sourced nature diary  

We’re really excited to reveal this morning the event we have been trailing over the past few weeks. Today wildlife lovers across the UK have the chance to contribute to the first ever crowd-sourced nature diary to celebrate the first official day of spring (Wednesday 20 March 2019).

Led by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), researchers from the Land Lines research project and supported by the National Trust, Natural England and the Field Studies Council, the digital diary encourages people across the UK to document their observations of wildlife, their favourite places and what spring means to them.

Sheep and lambs on the steps of St Mary's church at Ickworth, Suffolk
Sheep and lambs on the steps of St Mary’s church at Ickworth, Suffolk (Credit: National Trust Images and Justin Minns)

For generations, poets and prose writers have put pen to paper to express the importance of the arrival of spring and the burst of colour and busyness in the animal kingdom. Your entry could be a description of an early morning encounter with an urban fox, as you make your way to work, or capturing the wonderful sounds of birdsong when walking in the woods.

All of the diary entries, which can be up to 150 words, will be live curated from dawn to dusk, and could take the form of a poem or prose – a description of what you see and/or something about the symbolism or meaning of spring. People can upload their diary entry and any accompanying image to the AHRC website https://ahrc.ukri.org/spring-diary/ and also share them on social media using the hashtag #springnaturediary .

Writer Abi Andrews will then select the entries from across the UK that best capture the arrival of spring for a specially produced ebook.

Dr Pippa Marland, part of the Land Lines research team, based at the University of Leeds, said: “The crowd-sourced spring diary will give nature lovers across the UK the chance to participate in an event that combines the best traditions of citizen science with the opportunity to produce their own nature writing.

“It will offer a unique snapshot of the beginning of spring this year and mark an important moment in the history of nature writing in the UK.” – Dr Pippa Marland

View of the dovecote in the Forecourt at Nymans, West Sussex, with Magnolia blossom seen flowering in the foreground.
View of the Dovecote at Nymans with magnolia in bloom (Credit: National Trust Images and John Miller)

Prof Roey Sweet, Director of Partnerships and Engagement at the Arts and Humanities Research Council, said: “Generations of writers have sought to capture the beauty and meaning of the arrival of Spring and the burst of new life that signals the change of season.

“We want people to record and share those signs, whether on the daily commute or a rural walk, so that through their words we can bring to life the essence of spring as it sweeps across the country.”

The National Trust looks after and protects thousands of hectares of countryside, coast and gardens for people to enjoy.  Its Head of Species and Habitats Conservation, Dr David Bullock, said: “This is an amazing time of year as nature starts to wake up with the lengthening of the days and the climbing temperatures. Blink, and you might miss the first bumble bee.

Nuthatch at springtime
Nuthatch in the spring (Credit: National Trust Images)

“Wherever you are in the country, there is lots that you can look out for.  From the frogs in ponds to the honey bees finding nectar in the last of the snowdrops; the powerful songster – the mistle thrush – pronouncing its presence from the very top of the tallest tree to hungry badgers excavating lawns searching for grubs and juicy plant roots.”

 

Natural England have two hundred and twenty four National Nature Reserves in England, and the Field Studies Council have twenty sites across the UK.  Both organisations will be helping us to celebrate the start of spring, welcoming visitors to experience a range of stunning locations and encouraging people to write about what they see.

Craig Ralston, Senior Reserves Manager for Natural England in Yorkshire, said, “National Nature Reserves are simply that; a national resource, protecting iconic landscapes, heritage and a wealth of wildlife, outdoor laboratories undertaking research and demonstration, and also providing access, engagement and inspiration with the natural world.  The 224 NNRs across England offer some of the very best our English countryside has to offer and we would encourage people to visit one of them this spring to take part in this special project and to be rewarded with all the benefits that being engaged in the natural environment brings”.

With participant consent, the diary entries and images will be preserved long-term in an online research data repository as a valuable resource for future reuse, and to enable comparative analysis with any data collected in the future from similar events.

Please do upload your words and join us in this, the first event of its kind in the UK!

Submit your entry here:

https://ahrc.ukri.org/spring-diary/

The Green Heart: Nature Writing and Spring

We’ll be making a big announcement this week about how people across the UK can get involved in writing about the spring in a major crowd-sourced project. Watch this space first thing on Wednesday morning (20th) for more details.  In the meantime, Dr Pippa Marland offers a brief meditation on spring nature writing over the centuries. With thanks to Land Lines’ friends on Twitter who responded with a range of wonderful suggestions when asked for recommendations of examples of spring nature writing.


Who would have thought my shrivelled heart
Could have recover’d greenness? It was gone
Quite underground; as flowers depart
To see their mother root, when they have blown,
Where they together,
All the hard weather,
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

Daffodils flowering in the park at Wimpole Estate, Cambridgeshire
Daffodils at Wimpole Estate (Credit: National Trust Images)

This verse is an extract from George Herbert’s poem ‘The Flower’, published posthumously in 1633. Herbert, along with John Donne, Andrew Marvell and others, was one of Metaphysical Poets of the 17th century. Renowned for their wit and extravagant use of metaphor, these writers were famously castigated by Samuel Johnson in his Lives of the Poets for the excess of their imagery, in which, according to Johnson, ‘heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions’. In the case of Herbert’s ‘The Flower’, though, the idea of the beleaguered human spirit brought back to life after a long, hard winter like the flowers of the returning spring seems to move beyond metaphor. Nature is not ransacked here; rather, the human is placed under its sway, and, for Herbert, in the hands of a higher power. The poem expresses with great beauty the way in which we are affectively bound to the seasons – to the Earth’s slow tilting on its axis away or toward the sun. Who hasn’t felt their heart rise at the first signs of spring, and seen in the burgeoning of the natural world the possibility of their own renewal – physical, emotional, and spiritual? Or at the very least, experienced a pure impulse of happiness; as George Orwell averred in his 1946 essay, ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’, ‘Life is frequently more worth living because of a Blackbird’s song’.

Magnolia (Denudata carcaddon) at Trelissick, Cornwall
Magnolia at Trelissick (Credit: National Trust Images and Hilary Daniel)

It is no surprise, then, that nature writing has long celebrated the coming of spring, with its promise of lighter days and new life. Accounts of early spring read like a detective story, as the writers look for clues that the new season is really on its way: hearing the first song of returning migratory birds, spotting the first wildflowers, the first butterfly, the first frogspawn, or seeing the promise of new foliage in the trees and hedges. On March 18th 1780, Gilbert White writes, ‘Green plovers on the common. The uncrested wren, called in this place the Chif-chaf is very loud in the Lythe. This is the earliest summer bird of passage, & the harbinger of Spring. It has only two piercing notes’; Dorothy Wordsworth, walking in Somerset on the 20th March 1798, comments, ‘No green trees, only the hedges are budding, and looking very lovely’; and Derek Jarman, in his Dungeness journal, notes that on 21st March 1989, ‘Deep in the middle of the woods, in the most secret glade, primroses are blooming’.

Continue reading “The Green Heart: Nature Writing and Spring”

Land Lines Conference: Nature Writing’s Future Pasts – Report on Proceedings

On the 28th February and the 1st March 2019, the Land Lines AHRC Project welcomed delegates to the School of English at the University of Leeds for the conference Nature Writing’s Future Pasts. Promising to be an exciting two days of discussion, creative interventions and theoretical debates, the conference was fully booked from early on in the organisational stages, and the Land Lines team had the privilege of hosting delegates from Canada, the USA, and Europe as well as a diverse range of panellists from across the UK. The conference also incorporated events that diverged from a conventional structure, which involved integrating creative practitioners into a roundtable panel as the focal event, hosting a live performance of a new play production about the life of Phyllis Kelway, and even a lunchtime nature walk across the Leeds campus (on which a peregrine falcon was spotted!).

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Writer Patrick Barkham giving his keynote talk

Professor Graham Huggan, PI of the Land Lines Project, welcomed delegates to a productive and thoughtful two days of discussion, emphasising the aim of the conference to react against ideas of nature writing as a compensatory form, and inviting participants to consider how nature writing has always engaged with temporality and the struggles of the future. Following some opening comments by Professor Frank Finlay (Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures), who commended the Land Lines Project for its wide-reaching impact across the public and academic spheres, the conference keynote lecture from author and journalist Patrick Barkham commenced.

Ranging across key issues and debates surrounding the genre of nature writing from the perspective of his own experience as an author within the discipline, Barkham surveyed the current burgeoning of British nature writing, problematising the often “feel-good” green covers and their aesthetic appeal on a bookshelf. Offering a possible definition of British nature writing, however, Barkham identified a transition from the more traditional tropes of the genre – for example, writing about other species – to the more contemporary trends of “writing about our relationships with other species”. Barkham noted, critically, that the new British nature writing questions objectivity, and the “grand authority” of the author. Identifying three key characteristics of the new nature writing – authenticity, narrative and originality – Barkham examined the significance of the author’s own involvement in their story in contemporary nature writing, its tangible emotional quality, but also the possibility of superfluity and the lack of rigorous editing within the genre. Discussing his own book, Islander, and the trajectory of his new book Wild Child, Barkham noted his shift in focus from research and pedagogy latent within his texts, towards a more implicit conveying of information, backgrounded by the focus of children and nature. Concluding by returning to his earlier remark on the focus of new nature writing, Barkham stated that he is “excited for the future that nature has in writing […] A hopeful sign is other species impinging upon our creative works”. He ended by posing a question: whether this shift will aid nonhuman species in taking up more power in the real world.

Continue reading “Land Lines Conference: Nature Writing’s Future Pasts – Report on Proceedings”