Nature Revealed + Caring Together Nature Writing Workshop: Migration
As part of the Nature Revealed: Tracks, Traces and Trails project, Dr Lucy Rowland delivered a pen-pal style nature writing workshop for the Caring Together over-55s community group in the Summer of 2020. In this series, Lucy reflects on the writing that the group members produced, drawing out several recurring ideas, themes and motifs. In this post, Lucy explores how stories of migration – both animal and human – appear in the writing submitted by the workshop participants at Caring Together.
One of the core themes of the Nature Revealed project, from its inception, has been migration. Often, we experience migration in the natural world in flashes – as something fleeting. We might catch a glimpse of swallows gathering together at the end of summer as they prepare to make their way back to Africa, but we don’t directly witness the incredible journey they undertake every year. In London, we might hear about the European eel that frequents the Thames, or even see them in their jellied forms for sale in chip shops. However, we know very little about the ins and outs of their mysterious journeys to the Sargasso Sea, over 4000 miles away, to spawn. As well as finding new and creative ways to bring migration journeys into the light, then, with the Nature Revealed project we wanted to learn about how people can relate to these wildlife migrations through their own experiences.
Alongside prompts that covered the seasons, the nocturnal, and the subterranean, ‘migration and journeys’ were a key theme that informed the materials I produced for the Caring Together + Nature Revealed nature writing workshop. Fascinatingly, migration was one of the most clearly present themes in many of the written pieces that were submitted by the group members. There were accounts of permanent migrations from a country of origin to a new life in the UK, migrations from the North to the South and back again, and narratives of smaller journeys experienced alongside the comings and goings of migratory birds. These different facets of migration journeys – some big, some small, and some incremental – all cropped up across the written pieces in different manifestations.
One of the most resonant images that featured in the writing submitted for the workshop was the link between human journeys and those of migratory birds. In one piece, the writer describes a particularly vivid scene: on moving from the North to the South for the first time aged 18, she remembers working on the first floor of a building, at eye level with the upper branches of some rowan trees. From this vantage point, she could watch migratory waxwings, which arrived from Scandinavia for the winter, as they feasted on the rowan berries and ‘strip[ped] the trees bare’. However, it wasn’t only the waxwings that proved entertaining: she also writes that ‘below, “twitchers” arrived with lenses extended on large cameras. I didn’t need such equipment’! From this memory, we learn that ‘the birds came and entertained me for a time, then left – I was only a small moment in their journey’. What I found fascinating about this particular piece is the acknowledgement of how human lives and journeys are both alike and unlike those of the migratory birds. These journeys may occupy different timelines, but when they intersect, they can have a lasting impact on our memories of the natural world.
These connections also came up in a poem by another of the workshop members: titled ‘Migration and Movement’, this poem describes a migration journey from the Caribbean to the UK, arriving on a ‘cold grey December morn’, ‘into an unknown life of changeable weather / fronts, the hostility of winter / the realisation that life won’t be the same’. In this poem, many images of birds in flight materialise. The speaker in the poem is ‘scooped into the bulbous belly of the huge metallic bird’ of the aeroplane, remarking ‘I too am like a small bird on its maiden flight / from the nest’. There is a sense of both trepidation and possibility that arises in this poem, which mirrors the long and uncertain journeys that migratory birds must take each year to reach their destination. Here, migration is not seen as a simple transition from one place to another. Instead, the journey itself is indicative of an important shift in the speaker’s life, a shift that marks a permanent change from familiarity to the unknown.
Another piece describes the transformative possibilities of travel and journeying in a memorable way, through the medium of weather, climate and skies. In one of the prose pieces, the writer articulates the powerful image of snow and ice in winters gone by, from days spent in a small urban garden, tracking bird trails through the snow, to army training spent in northern Germany, where the 8-foot snow drifts told stories of animals and foxes travelling across the land. From northern Germany, the writer travels across the sea to the Ascension Island – where, despite the landscape seeming ‘barren’, the ‘scuffling’ sounds in the dark told of unknown animals. The sea voyages were ‘escorted by pods of dolphins, whilst seagulls would follow in the wake of the ship’, and ‘the night skies were crystal clear’, before the approach to the Falklands was marked by choppy seas and misty rain.
In the range of fascinating migration journeys described in these three pieces, the recounting of experiences like travelling to ‘different areas of the world from the sunbaked prairies of Canada to the windswept hills of the Falkland Islands via the jungles of Belize’, are always accompanied by careful attention to the landscapes, seas and wildlife that the writer encountered along the way. Some of the journeys articulated here echo those of migratory birds, and some cross paths with the tracks, traces, and trails of other animals. It is clear, however, that the ways these journeys are narrated is always informed and shaped by their relationships with the migrations and movements of the nonhuman world.
by Lucy Rowland