Nature and writing, the prep

On the full moon in August I did a tarot reading to shine some light on my nature and writing project. The eight of pentacles came up which, astrologically, corresponds to the sun in Virgo. Which just happens to be about the time I was planning on diving in. It feels like a nice reassurance that I am following my path.

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I also selected a crystal I was drawn to to help me hold my intention around this project. I’ve talked before about this (although I can’t find the post) but essentially by doing this, the crystal (in this case rose quartz) acts as a reminder, a touchstone, an inspiration and something to turn to if I need help.

I also recently got a message from the lovely Crystal Cornwall UK saying they were having a summer sale and was instantly drawn to labradorite and ended up buying three stones as well as some other lovely crystals.  They have amazing names, are fascinating to look at and are a beautiful part of geology. Different parts of the world are home to different gemstones. For example, Whitby is well known for its jet.

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Other preparations I’m making include writing up a month by month vague curriculum as well as creating a poetry jar as words call to me.  It’s a great way to warm up if you’re going to write but also little gems come straight from the jar without too much polishing.

Winter magic
twists sun beams
to night

In terms of my plans (which are entirely flexible and reactive to both my health and what I find along the journey), I am currently thinking of the following:

  • September
    • Starting the Future Learn: William Wordsworth – Poetry, People and Place course.
    • Starting the Future Learn: Learn about weather course
    • Hopefully a day trip
    • Focus on: What is nature writing?  Why do we read and write it? How has it changed? And what makes good nature writing?  Looking at all genres.
  • October
    • Future Learn: Environmental challenges – rights and values in ecosystem services course
    • Local one day course – From Ovid to Oz: A Brief Cultural History of Werewolves
    • Marking Samhain, or Halloween, 31st October
    • Focus on animals in (human) society – their roles in our lives, our roles in their lives, how we interact, how we complement each other and how we see animals?  And then honing in on animals (living, extinct or supernatural) as scapegoats.
  • November
    • Future Learn: Environmental challenges – human impact in the natural environment
    • Local one day course on the human history of York
    • Focus more on plants and/or geology this month.  It may be winter and cold and dark and it may feel like everything is closing up and going into hibernation but what are plants up to and which plants are in the spotlight?
  • December
    • Local seasonal traditions
    • Mark the winter solstice
    • Focus on weather
  • January
    • Poetry focus – reading, analysing, looking for themes, writing it…
  • February
    • Focus on rewilding.  It keeps crossing my path so I’m gathering reading and links and videos as they find me.

As always, I’d love to get to links and references and suggestions and opinions and ideas!

Writing and nature, part 2

For an introduction to my project, check out the intro post.

Having decided I want to do a longish project around nature and writing, my first step was to narrow that down.  There are so many ways it could branch out and take shape and I have lots of exciting ideas but I know that I need to have some sort of focus.  Looking specifically at Yorkshire is one way I am doing this.  I am also collecting articles and videos which sound interesting and naturally themes are starting to emerge.

However, all of this is getting ahead of myself.  First, perhaps I need to ask what is nature writing.  And then why do we write about nature or read about nature.  Quickly followed by this I hope to look at how has nature writing changed over time.  This will probably look at style, content, intent, audience, who is doing the writing… Has there been a recent resurgence and if so, why?

At this stage, I’ll probably just be skimming the surface of these topics so that I can go broad and shallow to start with and get a sense of what works for me and what is of most interest.

To inform my planning I have been looking at courses about nature writing and their outlines for inspiration and directions which I might not have come to organically.  For me, part of learning is other people’s thoughts and views and areas of interest and that is something that I know I will find hard to replicate.  One of these outlines set aside time to look at what makes good nature writing and that is certainly something I want to consider.

I’m thinking I will alternate reflective essay or blog post style writing with creative writing and theory with practical.  So perhaps one month a piece of factual writing about rewilding followed by a month about poetry, a month getting outside and submerging myself in the environment and a month that is more computer or reading based.

I’m trying hard not to dive straight in now and try and do everything at once.  It’s tempting but August is busy and I know that that approach will lead to me being flat out exhausted and burnt out.  This is the key reason I want a bit of a curriculum, probably a rough outline focusing me each month.  That way instead of feeling I need to read something as soon as I find it, I can jot down the details for the relevant time.

To hold myself back for now, I have been engaging in some gentle, sort of related reading and watching:

  • Walking through History: Bronte Country
  • Tree of the year – 4OD
  • Charlotte’s web (the film which is on Amazon Prime at the moment)
  • Extinct
  • Bridge To Terabithia – technically not a nature film but it is great for stimulating the imagination and is on Netflix
  • Again, not exactly nature writing but this series about fairytales from Jen Campbell is interesting and I want to look at how nature is portrayed in fairytales and what that reveals about the natural world and our relationship to it.  As an example, think about the role that forests often play in fairy tales.
  • A Yorkshire Miscellany – useful for titbits and language and ideas for exploration at a later date
  • Yorkshire Rock: A Journey Through Time – this promises to be a really interesting book which is aimed at children and thus is very accessible and talks about the geology of Yorkshire and how it varies and how it was all formed

As per my previous post I would love suggestions of reading, viewing, resources and people or ideas to look into.

Writing and nature

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I was looking online at an amazing sounding poetry and nature course.  It was really energising and inspiring and I was nearly at the point of signing up when I remembered that I don’t keep up well with that sort of thing… I can do the reading mostly but it’s the thinking and having enough energy to be creative and poetic that I know I would struggle with.  And that then gets into a vicious circle which ends in me being sad.

So, I have decided, from September, I shall be following my own, self guided version.  I have various books I want to read, talks I want to listen to, exercises I want to try and things I want to ponder.

To narrow down the focus a bit, I am thinking local for my “assignments” and global for my reading.

I am hoping to challenge my own ideas and find new ways of thinking and I know that this is going to be the hard part.  As such, if you have any articles, comments, questions, books etc that you feel may be relevant, please pass them my way.  The internet is wonderful but it does have a tendency to be an echo chamber.

Alongside my own planned stuff (which is still very vague), there are a few one day courses locally which I want to do and some free online courses which complement my current direction.  In particular, I’m thinking Learn About Weather and William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place.

I am also pulling together a list of day trips ranging from nature reserves to local natural history museums.  I want to get to know not just the area as it is today but how it has been shaped and transformed and changed by time, by climate and by humanity.  I hope to be able to identify more birds, more animals and more plants by the end of this project.  Right now I don’t know how long I’m thinking this’ll be.  But it ties into some bits of work I’ve already been doing since I retired.  2016 was the year I focused on trees in my art, this year is butterflies.  I have written my animal and plant posts and reflected on what fog has to teach me.  And I have pondered ways of bringing nature into my life despite the wheelchair/sometimes housebound thing.

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I’m hoping to use my blog to help me unravel ideas and thoughts and opinions and to share resources and articles and my writing.

Whilst I’m trying to not throw myself in too fast and too this month (August is busy by my standards), there are a few bits and pieces I want to share.  I haven’t read the articles critically but I have bookmarked them to return to.

In terms of books, I’m trying to start with those I already have (but I do love an excuse to buy books…) which includes:

  • World Enough and Time by Christian McEwen
  • Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane
  • If Women Rose Rooted by Sharon Blackie
  • The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
  • Speaking With Nature by
  • Whispers From the Earth by Taz Thornton
  • The English Year by Steve Roud (about local traditions)
  • The Seasons: A Celebration of the English Year by Nick Groom

And there are some youtube videos that give a glimpse into some of what I want to dig deeper into (all except the first are less than ten mins).

I would love to hear any ideas anyone has for exercises or things to read or watch or do.  I am hoping to return soon with a post which narrows down my focus a bit more, or at least provides a jumping off point.

My day in strangers 

I’m good at people watching and my flat is helpfully located for such things.  And the vertigo means I have been spending a lot of time staring out of my window.

There are the people you only see once.  There is a doctors surgery across the road and you can tell who’s hardly ever been by their slight confusion about where to go.  And their inability to get out again – it says the door is automatic but for exiting, you have to press a button which isn’t intuitively placed.  I see so many people pushing and shoving the door and getting frustrated and confused. I mentioned this to the receptionist once, suggested they put up a sign, they still haven’t.

There are the people who work in the doctors and the doctors themselves.  There are the regular patients.  The people I think I know but don’t.  I actually said hello to one of these once because I thought we had met before.  We hadn’t.  I only knew her through my living room window.

As I type, the really awful doctor is parking up.  She is as bad at parking as she is at medicine.  She has a small car which she regularly bumps as she does a ten point turn.  She parks on double yellow lines and over drop kerbs, preventing access to the surgery she works in.  She has left her car lights on twice in the year I’ve lived here and bumped someone else’s car once that I’m aware of.

Then there are what I consider the locals.  The people who I see regularly, who aren’t here for the doctors.  The people who must live or work around here.  People I feel I know but who have never or rarely seen me.  I live in a bubble.  I do not claim these strangers as friends but I do feel some sort of comradeship with them.

And it is these people that I am memorialising today.  As the day passes, I will add my word portraits to this post and celebrate the strangers who keep me company in my illness.

A tall, stringy man walks past, dirty and ragged but with a bounce in his step.  He is normally alone and normally carrying something; a plank of wood, a metal pole, a carrier bag filled with who knows what.  Today though he is empty handed and talking to a woman I don’t recognise.

A bearded man bound up in layers and a woolly hat.  His tan coloured dog wanders, leadless, ahead of him.  There is something rough and ready about both of them and also an air of gentleness.  The dog is never on a lead and sometimes it strays far ahead of the man but never too far.  There is a trust between them, a bond.

It’s raining and cold and dark and as such it’s a bit of a slow day in terms of people watching…

Dogs seem to feature heavily in my people watching.  There is a woman who pushes her dogs in what appears to be a special dog pram.  There is a dog in the dog pram and a dog in a plastic box on top of the dog pram.  The one in the box has black curly fur and wears a little collar that lets people know he is blind.  Today he was also wearing a bright pink coat.  Sadly I only saw the tail end of this group as they went past when I popped to the toilet!  Sometimes the woman is on her own with the dogs but more often, like today, there is a man with her.  I think they are at an early stage in their retired life and seem incredibly committed to the dogs.  It makes me sad to think that there are these two dogs who can’t walk who get taken out at least once a day and there are two dogs who live upstairs who can walk who hardly ever get taken out.

It is getting on for lunch time and I haven’t seen one of my regulars yet.  I am fairly certain he lives alone and I do worry a little for my tribe of strangers.  The one I’m thinking of has a wild mop of dyed astringant red hair and is pulled along by his two black and white collies.  The dogs walk the unsteady man everyday, several times a day.  He feels chaotic, his untamed hair flies in the wind.  His clothes are scruffy and he appears unkempt and uncared for but again, his dedication to his dogs is amazing.

The slightly hippy looking man who also looks like he could easily be a boxer or something has just gone past with his boxer dog.  There is an element there of looking like ones pet… Both are stocky and big and tough looking.  Well built.  Strong and made of muscle.  He was in his regular clothes, a loose shirt, possibly shorts – I couldn’t see but he normally wears shorts.  Sometimes I see him in a royal mail uniform, not the one that post deliverers wear though.

I feel far more connected with my postman than I’m sure he feels to me…  He has close cut hair, greying stubble and a friendly smile.  He parks his post trolley thing opposite my flat and quietly gets on with his work.  There is something very reliable about seeing him at roughly the same time most days and it’s also a cue for me that lunch is soon.  I feel like if I needed help, like opening a bottle, I could ask him…

I’m sure that not all of my strangers have dogs but I guess the walking of them explains why they are such regulars – my flat is near a park where I expect most of them are heading to and from.

No need to panic, the wild haired collie owning guy went by whilst I was eating my lunch.

The woman with her pram has a far less energetic pet.  She slowly walks the baby and the wiry old dog.  Sometimes her partner accompanies her, sometimes a friend and her baby.  Sometimes it’s just the partner with his baby strapped to his chest trying to get the dog to go at a faster pace.

It’s been a slow day in terms of people passing by but the man and the leadless dog from this morning are back.  Meandering slowly past, the dog keeps running into my view and then looking back to see where his friend is.  He then disappears from my window, presumably heading back to the man, before returning again.

Written Monday 24th April.

 

What can we learn from the fog?

I went to the coast last week.  It was a bitterly cold day, icy rain slicing into you and wind that cut straight through you.  On the way home, we spent a while driving through thick fog, unable to see more than a few metres in front of the car.

Whilst I was sitting in the passenger seat, straining to see ahead, a question popped into my head: What can we learn from the fog?

This is partly because a book I’m reading talks about nature in a similar way.  It’s about listening to nature and learning from it.

Dear Fog,

A lot of people see you as scary, a nuisance, a problem. They fight your veil, pushing through and straining and fighting against you. They see you as something to overcome. But I think you are there to slow us down. In our fast paced life, a reminder, or even having no choice, is sometimes necessary.

People don’t like the lack of clarity that comes with you. It’s part of our society – we want to see where we’re going – literally and metaphorically.  We rely heavily on the sense of sight, we are a very visual culture.  People have life plans and their careers and their journeys all mapped out. And you add an uncertainty to that. You take away our main sense and we can no longer see the path in front of us. We know it’s there but we can’t see it and that makes us question and doubt; we do not trust that the path will appear.  But you teach us that it will, when it’s time.

You can confuse us. You can alter our perceptions. Drivers feel like they are going slower and sound travels differently in fog*. Things look different in fog; close trees stand like black skeletons against your presence and paler plants disappear.

You are not like other weather, you are much harder to pin down – you can see the rain, hear the wind through trees, feel the warmth of the sun but you, you are a lack of sight, you have no sound, no taste, there is nothing there to touch or feel. And that perplexes people who are so used to tangible things. Who want to grasp hold of things, control them. Rain can be tempered with an umbrella, the cold with layers, the warmth without layers but you, there is nothing we can do to manage your involvement in our life. Except slow down.

You are different depending on where we are. From the outside, you’re a nebulous cloud, inside you’re a veil across our eyes, towards the edges you just seem to dissipate. Perhaps the same is true for life or projects. When we take are starting out we can look at the whole picture and we can form a vague sense of what we want to achieve, when we’re in the midst of it, it can be really hard to see the next few steps or even know if we’re heading in the right direction, it can be hard to trust that we’ll ever reach our destination and then once we’re almost at our goal, the clarity returns.

Thank you for teaching us that the unknown does not automatically leap to dangerous, to something being hidden from us, the unknown can be a magical mystery as much as it can be fearfilled one. How we approach you will depend on how we interpret what we sense. Head in with anxiety and every movement will be danger.

Thank you fog, for teaching us to trust in our journey, to trust in all our senses to guide us.

Thank you for slowing us down so we can see things differently.

Thank you for teaching us that everything we need is still there even when we can’t see it.

Helen


*”Much of how our brains judge speed is by the contrast in our surroundings such as trees or buildings flashing past in our peripheral vision. But in foggy conditions, contrast is greatly reduced giving the impression you are driving slower than you actually are – many drivers actually increase their speed as a result” – Met Office

What’s your creative process?

Knowing your creative process is really about knowing yourself. Taking the time to engage in self-reflection is a powerful way to cultivate your creativity—and to live a fulfilling, meaningful life.

From Make A Mess: Everyday Creativity

The article includes a list of questions to help you explore your creative process:

  • What is your ideal working environment? Home, library, cafe?
    Because of my pain, I have to write on my laptop which limits me to home.  That said, I did get a keyboard with my new tablet and whilst I don’t think I’ll be able to type for long it might open up public spaces.  I used to write everywhere and anywhere, back when I could write by hand.  When it comes to art and craft, because of the materials involved, at home is generally best although I have started doing a little bit of art in public.  This week for example, I did some work in my art journal using watercolour pens and a water pen whilst I was having coffee.

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  • What do you see, smell and feel in this ideal environment? Firstly, my sense of smell is awful so it’s not a sense I really notice much… There would be little details of beauty, flowers or the way the light shines on the trees.  I like the outside but I am always cold so somewhere inside with a good view would be best.  I would feel safe, safe enough to actually create and write.  There would need to be a very precise number of people – too many and I’m overwhelmed, too few and I feel like I’m under a microscope.
  • Do you need to be surrounded by inspiration? Or do you prefer super simple, even stark spaces to create? Probably somewhere in between.  Too messy and I find I get stressed and anxious, unless it’s a work in progress kind of mess where I know where everything is.  Too stark and I feel stiffled.  I have a table which has my art stuff and my laptop on.  There’s lots of materials and bits of paper and it looks a mess most of the time but I tend to know where everything is and because I live alone (and my cleaner and carers have strict instructions not to touch my table) it works.

  • Do you prefer to work in silence? Do you need a playlist or white noise? I need some noise.  Nothing too specific otherwise I get distracted by lyrics or the mood of the music.  The sound of a cafe would be good I think.  Although not a noisy cafe.  Loud noise makes me anxious and on edge.
  • Do you prefer to have deadlines? Do they motivate or paralyse you? I don’t know.  To be honest because I am an amateur artist and writer I’ve never really had deadlines.  The only deadlines I’ve really had is when I’m working on something I want to gift to someone and I tend to allow plenty of time for that.

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  • Do you need weeks of lead time? I do find that I will have an idea and it will mull around in the back of my mind for a while until it becomes more concrete.  That said, I also have days where an idea comes more formed and I jump right in.
  • Do you prefer to work slowly or quickly? Maybe it depends. If it does, what does it depend onI have to work slowly because I have chronic hand pain.  A lot of my art is made up of layers.  I can do a bit, then rest, then a bit more. This is a technique I have developed to overcome my desire to keep working and then ending up not able to do anything for days…
  • What tends to distract you, to take you away from your work? Pain, low energy levels and depression are the main reasons I stop creating.  Lack of inspiration is another.  I also find I am more likely to procrastinate with writing than with art.
  • What’s your favourite part of the creative process? Getting ideas and feeling in flow.  I also love using recycled materials, rubbish, in my art.  I find delight in making books from amazon packaging or using empty sellotape rolls to print with.

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  • What challenges do you run into? Time, pain, energy, lacking inspiration…
  • What are some solutions for these challenges? For inspiration I find its creating regularly.  Creating creates creativity.  So good habits are important.  When it comes to my art journal, I tend to do a page most days but I’m careful not to insist on everyday otherwise if I miss a day I feel bad and the more days I miss the harder it is to go back.  I’m still working on solutions when it comes to writing but I schedule time into my diary and try not to procrastinate my way out of it.  I also only write for 10-20 minutes at a time.  Partly because of pain but also because otherwise I find I write a lot and then stop when I get stuck.  This means when I come back to write more, I am still stuck and it’s so much harder to then get started.  I’ve also had a few projects on the go and from the start decided they would be long term.  This means I always have something to dip into.
  • What are your least favourite ways to work? Hmm… I don’t know!  Maybe under strict instructions?  I don’t like being told what to do.  I’ve been doing an online course this year and some of the videos are giving inspiration and techniques but others have been very prescriptive, down to which supplies you use and colours.  I don’t want to make something that’s already been made…
  • When are you most energised and inspired? I don’t really know.. I guess when my pain levels are managed and my fatigue isn’t too bad…

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  • When are you in the zone? What does being in the zone feel like? What kinds of conditions help you enter your zone? Again, I don’t really know.  I think a lot depends on pain and energy levels but being surrounded by inspiring and interesting objects as well as doing things like the online wanderlust course help.  As I’ve said before, creating creates creativity.  The more you do, the more you get inspired.
  • Why do you create? I create to process things and express myself.  I create because it’s therapeutic.  I create because seeing something woven by your hands is a powerful feeling.  I create for the satisfaction of making.

A writers workout

Recently I did my second workshop with Sue Cooper.  The first was a few years ago and was writing inspired by artefacts in the Yorkshire Museum.  This one was called a writers workout and was about getting imaginations going and getting words down on paper.

She had a great selection of exercises to get us thinking and inspired.  I had a great time and was sad when I had to leave early because of pain (boo!).

The first exercise was to write for 60 seconds on a word she gave us which was a great way to start the day:

edited for spelling and grammar only

Stolen

He had stolen her dreams, her heart, her soul when he had left that day. She had always prided herself on being a strong independent woman who was more than her relationship to her man but that day, when he walked out, she realised she had succumb to him. She had let him steal her heart, her soul, her dreams, her hopes.

Roadkill

Her eyes flicked involuntarily to the corpse by the side of the motorway, a badger possibly, she couldn’t let herself look long enough to identify the rotting flesh. Her stomach heaved but she kept driving, eyes straight ahead, heart blocking out the pain.

A Vietnamese hat

A Vietnamese hat hung in the corner of the room, a reminder of a previous life, a time of travel and adventure, a time of excitement now sitting, getting dusty.  A relic of another life, a part of her that she couldn’t bring herself to get rid of yet every time she spotted it, she felt her heart sink. She would never again know the unfettered joy of discovering a new place, a new culture, new people, new food, the delight of turning a corner and finding a temple or a beautiful sandy shore. The Vietnamese hat would forever be bittersweet.

We then did an exercise where we wrote down a list of nouns and a list of adjectives and swapped them with someone else (so you have your list of nouns and someone else’s adjectives).  We then used the pairs to spark ideas.  Some were really interesting; bitter keyhole, skinny bollard, pallid wheelchair… The one I used to write about wasn’t actually that strange:

The yellow pencil

Nostalgia is a remarkable thing, triggered by the most insignificant of things. The yellow pencil that she turned over in her hands rushed her back to primary school, the smell of the electric pencil sharpener grinding the stick to a point. The simple joy of writing on a clean sheet of paper in your best handwriting with the sharpest possible pencil. She remembered sitting there, thinking as hard as a six year old can, she knew that it was important to write something really good on the first page of her new notebook.  In the end, she had given in to the pressure and simply put down her name and the date in her finest joined up lettering.

Holding it to her nose, she inhaled the strange smell of graphite and wood shavings and sighed.  How many words had it written, this pencil which was now little more than a stump?  Perhaps if she had followed her dream of becoming an author, it would have scribbled down notes for a bestseller or ideas for a children’s book.  Instead, this particular pencil, had probably scratched out shopping lists, reminders to herself and parents evening dates in her diary.

We did a range of other exercises and talked about what we’d written. all in all an excellent day!