Untitled

Six year old girl, blonde hair, green eyes, hovers over a dead body. Her first dead body. There is no rule book for this situation, there was no picture book to tell her what to do or prepare her for this.

My sister, two years younger, had run away at the sight of the rusted fur but something tied me to the fox. Its body lay sprawled at the base of a horse chestnut tree. One of many that made up our wood; the envy of classmates who dreamt of tree houses and conkers.

Above, in the protective canopy, white and pink candles proudly declared Spring’s presence. I remember the man we found in our driveway staring at the waxy peach cones, amazed, full of questions about this abnormality. Questions we had no answers for, this was just how they grew, with their darker, smaller leaves and empty spiny shells that disappointed our friends. They had expected the rich smooth gift of a conker.

A glassy eye blinked. A muscle reaction I would later find out.

I stood watch over the body; chestnut tail, russet body, milky ruff and charcoal tipped ears.

There was no blood. The small creature lay seemingly as peaceful as a cat basking in the sun. It was not the fox I feared, it was not the death I feared, but I did fear leaving it alone. It felt wrong to witness death and walk away.

We buried it, my Dad and I, under a beech tree. Near the family pets but not so close that the fox would terrorise the guinea pigs, the chickens or the cats in the afterlife.

Thumbnail Nature

At a recent workshop with Amanda Tuke, I was introduced to the wonderful phrase Thumbnail Nature. Essentially, something about 50 words long that is nature themed!

A forest glade thick with honeyed sun beams. Bees lazily hum and bob on the breeze. A deer and her fawn rest softly amongst moss cushions…

NatureTM. Yours from £29.99 a month1.

Not actual footage.

1. Terms and conditions apply. 

Ancraophobia, fear of the wind

Ancraophobia is the extreme fear of wind.  This is not a word for me.  I don’t fear the wind. But I am not comfortable with it either. I feel attacked by the wind. I feel small. I want to retreat, hide, and escape.

Ancraophobia is never present at birth. The fear of wind most often arises as a result of a negative experience in the person’s past… Most often an ancraophobic person experienced a situation where the wind was blowing heavily and they found themselves afraid that the wind might destroy or kill them.
Wikipedia, accessed 29th January 2020

When I was 7 or 8, there was a horrific storm.  It was Christmas Eve and the power cut out.  For some reason that I no longer recall, my dad had to go outside.  The wind was screeching, lightning striking and the sky was crashing almost in time to the flashes.

I was terrified for my dad.  He was out in this hellish tornado, surrounded by trees, and who knows what was caught in the wind.  I had seen Wizard of Oz a few times.  I knew about hurricanes. 

He had been outside for years.  Hours at least.  I was scared.  I opened my mouth but fear held back the words. It took a few tries before I could raise my concerns with my mother. 

Looking back, I can see she was also afraid. But she snapped at me.  Told me off.  Made me more terrified. My teeth bit down on my lips and my fingers curled, nails in skin. Eyes kept on staring into the storm.

I was already petrified, unable to move from my place, on guard at the window.  I didn’t need someone to yell at me and tell me not to be so stupid.  It had taken so much for me to ask. To ask if she thought he was ok. I didn’t need to be knocked down.

I had visions flashing through my childhood imagination.  My dad knocked unconscious.  My dad trapped under a tree. My dad squashed by a fallen wall. 

I needed to be told he hadn’t been gone very long.  I needed to be told he was ok.  I needed her to be the adult.  To act unafraid, even if she was.  I needed to know that in a fight between my dad and the wind, he would win.  Not to be shouted at to shut up.  I went quiet, silent and alone with my fears.  And that silence was filled with the bawling wind and the cracks of trees just a couple of metres from the house.

I stood between window and curtains, trying to turn the shadows into familiar shapes. Peering into the darkness, knowing I couldn’t have seen him even if he was there. 

I am not afraid of the wind. I am afraid of the power it has inside my imagination. The destructive whirlwind that rips through my imagination and decimates my safety net.

I am not afraid of the wind.

I am afraid my dad might lose the fight.


Written as part of the Wild Words: Place and Environment Writing course.

Wild Words: Place & Environment Writing

Because I’m not already ridiculously busy, I thought I’d start a writing course in January. It’s called Wild Words: Place and Environment Writing and is going to be a mix of considering texts and writing our own responses to the topics. We’ll be considering ideas such as nature, dwelling and wilderness and ahead of the course, we’ve been asked to reflect on any previous reading which relates to place and environment.

A close up photo of a grassy meady with flowering heather and unidentifiable yellow flowers

Any long term readers of this blog will probably have realised I have done a lot of this. I spent a year or so following my own loose curriculum around nature and writing and reading formed a large part of that.

There was Tarka the Otter which captures animal calls so well, Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us which is a great example of her ability to translate potentially difficult, scientific ideas into a language of poetry, and there was the incredible book from Elizabeth Tova Bailey – The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating – which makes the everyday experience of illness seem so much more inspiring.

It is hard to choose just a few as I have read so widely about nature and place and environment over the last few years. And so many different kinds of books as well. There’s the question and answer format from Dr Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation which offers agony aunt (or should that be ant?) style help to different creatures. There’s the wonderful series from Reakion which looks at animals predominantly through a human lens and considers how we have integrated them into our cultures and beliefs.

Of course poetry has featured in my reading, including Isabel Galleymore’s Significant Other, The Lost Spells from Jackie Morris and Robert MacFarlane, and Basic Nest Architecture from the lovely Polly Atkin.

I read books about nature writing itself, and eco-criticism, and how to guides.

And diary style formats as well – such as Mile’s Richardson’s Needwood – and collections by different writers such as The Oxford Book of Nature Writing which also takes you on a journey across time.

I read articles such as Death of the naturalist: why is the “new nature writing” so tame? by Mark Cocker, and a responding article from Robert MacFarlane, Why we need nature writing. There was also a post about the two articles considered together.

And I read myths and legends. And magazines. And journals.

Essentially, there’s been a lot of reading, about different aspects of nature and environment, and I love the variety of forms and approaches. I love the many different topics that are covered, the passion of the authors and the new ways of seeing that they introduce me to. I hope that each one leaves a trace of itself in my creative mind, a glimmer of a snail’s track, and that I can weave some together to create my nature writing. Whilst I love and admire many different writers, I aspire only to be myself, to be my voice.

An untitled poem about autumn

Her Midas touch
turns all to gold:
                the light
                the leaves
                the conker’s sheen.
All honeyed under rich veneer.

Palette of pumpkin spice
               and kicking leaves
               in smoky air.
A mask.

Cracks in the façade reveal
threads of decay,
and Autumn’s truth.

She’s Winter’s catalyst.
The cog that turns
warmth cold,
bright dark,
hope harsh.

Sets the stage for
Winter’s empty monologue.

Nettles

A grey-purple stem stands solid in the cool breeze, connected leaves fluttering.  Overhead, the sun darts behind a cloud, then peeks out, half hiding like a shy child behind his mother’s legs.

The leaves of the Nettle are elongated hearts, cut with pinking shears.  Even it’s hearts wear teeth.

I can just about see the stingers, fine hairs that look soft, but experience tells me they are deceptive.  They are the sharp pins from the same sewing kit that held the shears.

As I sit with the Nettle, the air brustles around us and it seems to wave to me.  Or is it pushing me away?  It feels like it’s leaves are frantically ushering me to go.  

I heed it’s advice and scurry inside, out the wind, but shortly after I wonder, should I have stayed?  Was it pushing me away as a self-protective measure?  An extension of the boundaries the stings set?   I wonder if I should have stayed, earnt it’s trust, pushed through the harsh outer layers? 

And I wonder, what would I have found under it’s tough armour?

A nursery for caterpillars?  A buffet for insectivores?  An all-inclusive resort for bugs?

Or all of the above.

Butterflies and moths lay their eggs on the Nettle’s leaves; Small Tortoiseshell Butterflies, Peacock Butterflies and Burnished Brass Moths.

Once hatched, the caterpillars feed on the leaves as they grow, protected from predators whilst they make their magical transformation.

DSC_0097web

Carrot Flies, Black Flies and Aphids eat the Nettle, then in turn, they become food for Ladybirds, Blue Tits and other birds.

It’s thought that more than 40 kinds of insect shelter on and around the Nettle, enjoying protection from grazing animals.  These insects in turn draw insectivores such as Hedgehogs, Shrews, Frogs and Toads, turning a nettle patch into a food court.

It’s flowers offer pollen and nectar for butterflies and the seeds offer autumn food for Chaffinches, Bullfinches and House Sparrows.

The nettle is also home to Jumping Plant Lice, Tarnished Plant Bugs and more.  These creatures are not put off by the Nettle’s sting, they welcome it, they embrace it.  They see beyond the defensive bristling, the measures the Nettle employs in order to avoid being vulnerable.  Where so many others see malice, they see potential.

***

A day later and I pull a few of the more unwieldly plants from my patch of ground.  I would rather I tamed them gently and sparingly than the council tried, with brutal force and unrefined machinery. 

Despite two pairs of gloves and knowledge of how to approach a nettle, I still get stung.  A grey pin prick amongst the whorls and swirls of my fingertip. 

When the tiny hypodermic needle brushed against me, the tip broke off and the remaining hair pierced my skin, injecting an elegant cocktail of irritants.  This included histamine which I am especially sensitive to, and is likely why my one single nettle sting was still throbbing and swollen hours later.

I can’t think of another plant whose identity is so wrapped up in it’s sting, in it’s self-defence.  Other plant protections are utilised, taken for human use – whether it’s the nicotine that protects the Tobacco plant or salicylic acid produced when herbivores bite Willow or the Cinchona trees which use the bitter taste of quinine to repel predators.

***

There is an old belief that a nettle in your pocket will keep you safe from lightning and give you courage.  Perhaps this is a self fulfilling prophecy, not everyone would pick the nettle in the first place…

Or, perhaps it is the gift that comes from knowing the Nettle.  Of knowing there is more to a book that it’s cover, more to a nettle than it’s sting.  Of knowing the Nettle is more about protection than defence.

The dawn chorus, and pain

It’s 4.15am and I am in so much pain that I am nearly in tears – something that takes a lot for a pro like me.  As I’m slowly breathing in and out, I hear a bird.  Closing my eyes against the pain, I focus on the melody.  Phrases repeat and change and reappear making a tune that feels slightly off familiar.

This time of morning is one I know well.  It is my secret segment of the day.  A rare alone time.  Often, I read to distract from the pain, or listen to an audiobook but now, as dawn edges into the night, I find myself smiling.  This in-between becomes my own special moment, a time when the birds are serenading me alone.  Sharing their wisdom for the day ahead.  In those notes, I hear hope, even knowing that they may well be territorial shouts from male to male.


Another morning, another 4am, another bird call; a song thrush this time.  A song, then a space.  A space filled with hope.  Another call, another wait, no reply. But it’s early in the season, there’s still time for a female to hear and accept the invitation.

I wonder who else hears the songs, perhaps a fox, or a hedgehog?  I know there are bats nearby.  I have seen them at dusk swooping under a bridge and diving for insects over the lake in the park.  They are most likely Pipistrelles; flitting across grey-black night.  Perhaps other creatures stir in the night with me, eyes half open, ears filling with the music of the dawn.


There have been so many early mornings when the birds have been my comfort, my companions.  Unable to sleep, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing tweets and calls and song, and they have, and continue, to offer me solace in my pain.

Bird song and coronavirus

Some evenings the bird chatter – the kaa ka kas, the pep pip pips, the alarm calls- grate on me.  During the day I love hearing them and it grates on me that it grates on me and thus a vicious cycle spins on.

This is a new thing.  Normally I love hearing the birds as I settle into bed so I wanted to interrogate this, to try and understand what is going on.

My initial thoughts were about time of day; come evening, I am much more tired, and right now I am more likely to be fed up and despondent by the time I get into bed.  This is also the first time I am really alone in the day and I sink into my subconscious whirlings.  I don’t feel naturally aligned with appreciation, appreciation of anything, at this time of day.

I spend the day noticing and loving but by night I need distraction – tv, film, reading – something I can escape into.  And whilst the birds are incredible, they are inevitably out there in the world, right now.  And my mind will not let me forget that I am not, and will not let me forget that I am hearing them so much clearer because of the global pandemic. 

The birds do not give me the escape I need in this phase of my daily cycle.  Their caws and cacks instead pull me away from the fantasy world I plunge into and remind me that my escape is just an illusion.  That however hard I try, I am still living in a world with a virus that could kill me and the people I love.  A virus that has already killed. 

I am still living in a world where the reckless acts of strangers ignoring the rules could turn out to kill.  They could be carrying it, walking bombs waiting to be detonated.  I am still living in a world where disabled people are being devalued repeatedly in clumsy attempts to get through this crisis, where we are told we may not get the care we need to stay alive (1). And that now that able bodied people are stuck home too, suddenly technology can be used to meet up, to do courses. to offer talks online.  And suddenly working from home is perfectly possible.

The calls of the blackbird on the roof pulls me back into a world where people with a week or two of being stuck home under their belt, are suddenly experts on loving nature from home.  Despite their daily walks, possibly through countryside and woodland, and their good sized garden, they speak with the authority of a housebound disabled person who has lived this for years.  Our voices, those with lived experiences and expertise, are still not heard.  We are shouting and going unnoticed because we are disposable, literally right now.  Worthless.  Valueless. (2) 

I have shed many shackles since becoming disabled; the idea that my value is about my economic contribution and my productivity; that my self worth is tied to doing… Is the evening bird song grating against another shackle?  One where I cannot be a nature lover, or a nature writer, if I cannot always appreciate it and embrace it?(3)

The nightly scrabble and scramble of starlings on the feeder doesn’t seem as endearing as it did hours before.  And all that has changed is me.  I have moved through my day, and now I want to tune out the world, and all the noise that tries to tell me I am unimportant.  When the messages scream so loudly, so constantly, they cannot help but echo and reverberate around my soul.

By the time I get into bed, I need to escape.  I need to live in a different world or a different time.  And those birds that I love so deeply and dearly, peck through the bubble I am trying to build.

Come the dawn chorus, I am back to noticing, caring, loving and appreciating.

Notes

(1) A recent RIDC survey found 50% of people with care support needs are no longer receiving health or personal care visits to their home. Disabled people left off coronavirus vulnerable people list go without food. Ministers warned coronavirus bill threatens services for disabled people.

(2) ‘I feel like I don’t count,’ says man with MND. Disabled people ‘forgotten’ by government strategy.

(3) This already feels a harder label to claim with the ableism within the environmental movements and the wilderness ideal excluding disabled people

The thick taste of petrichor

This is a fragment of my writing from the Emergence nature writing course I am currently doing.

The thick taste of petrichor

Microorganisms in the soil – actinobacteria – decompose dead and decaying matter, turning the no longer living into nutrients and life – the fantastic, eternal, circle of life. 

And as they do this, they create a kind of alcohol called geosmin, to which our noses are very sensitive.  This is one of the compounds that creates the smell of rain, earthy and nostalgic.

When it is dry, they are less active, when the air is humid and the ground is moist they speed up, releasing more geosmin.  So what we are breathing in is the recycling of life, the cycle of life and death and rebirth, the cycle of ransformation.  We are smelling the process by which a tree becomes food for a daffodil and the bones of a rabbit become a nutrients for a carrot.

It is also a signal, a sign of a symbiotic partnership that has played out over and over for almost 500 million years.

The bacteria release the odour to attract a specific arthropod, a Springtail, which responds by eating it.  This is less suicidal than it appears.  Bacteria spores stick to the Springtail and get relocated, as do those excreted in faeces.  This helps the bacteria to spread and create new colonies.

Next time you smell the lush, slightly salty, tang of rain, spare a moment for the minute lives whose drama is plays out beneath our feet.

Nature writing

At the moment, I am finding it hard to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. I have many fragments of writing, notes scribbled on scraps of paper but I find myself unable to connect them cohesively. I know this will pass but in the meantime I thought an easy to write post would be a list of nature writing books and articles.

What are you reading and enjoying at the moment?

Edited to add… if that’s not enough reading for you, check out Katherine Hauswirths list