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.
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.
As part of my writing course we looked at a poem called ‘A Short Story of Falling‘ by Alice Oswald and were asked to write a poem following her structure. I don’t normally write rhyming poems, let alone rhyming couplets so this was a challenge for me. It took a lot of work and tweaking and editing but I enjoyed stepping out of my comfort zone.
A short story of the ones left behind
It is the story of the ones left behind between ebb and flow of tide
As waves retreat, new worlds emerge fleeting glimpses, soon submerged
Black rocks gleam, spray kissed, like jewels stand tall between impermanent pools
Acorn barnacles cling tight to mussels’ pearly blues and whites
Conical spirals of periwinkles littered through the seaside shingle
Bladderwrack entangles limpets cigarettes and fishing nets
Crab’s hermitage, a bottle cap first cosy home, then prison, trapped
Translucent sea jelly tentacles of vermicelli
Bag for Life, or Bag of Death? suffocating final breath
This is the story of the ones left behind by sea, and, by humankind
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the fantastic things about everyone else being stuck at home is the number of events that have gone online. As such I’ve been able to ‘attend’ so many talks and conferences that would have been impossible for me otherwise.
Urban Tree Festival – This was held in May and had offerings including talks, workshops and book clubs.
Hay Festival – The Hay Festival also went online during May but don’t worry if you missed it, you can watch a free offering of the week or sign up for the Hay Player to catch up.
Other online offerings I’ve attended have included… a talk about peacemaking circles in Native American communities, a workshop about nature and resilience and a virtual foraging walk. I’ve found these searching and browsing EventBrite.
One of the most amazing lockdown offerings I’ve found has come from America, from Emergence Magazine who have beautifully written articles, and that’s a wonderful way of connecting with nature in itself. But they have also gathered together a host of community offerings including book clubs, talks, seminars and a fantastic nature writing course which I have been part of for the last few months.
But of course connecting with nature isn’t just about courses and learning. It’s about experiencing. It’s about noticing. It’s about connecting.
We’ve been lucky in the UK over the last couple of weeks and have had some incredibly nice weather and I have managed to get out into my yard which isn’t the nicest place but is outside and safe right now. Normally I would be in the park with lots of nature and people and things going on around me. But instead, I was in a small space, no one but my carer visible and not as much nature. Or at least not as much obvious nature. The longer we were there, the more I tuned into the bird songs and what they were ‘saying’. I saw the ants erratically wandering over the paving slabs. I spent time looking at the greenfly that landed on my leg.
This is the perfect time to focus on place, on the small and slower things that are happening right now. Notice the fluffs of dandelions on the breeze and let your mind wonder where they are headed and what life lies ahead for them.
Point out nature, to yourself or to another being. Doing this helps you to connect for a moment rather than see something fleetingly and then move on. I’ve been doing this with my carers for ages now and I know that they now notice nature more as well which is fantastic! Or take a picture or make a note of how it made you feel to hear or see or smell that thing. Acting on it helps you to connect to that part of nature.
If you know people who are able to go out for walks safely, enlist their help! Get them to take you with them via video call. This is much more fun that pre-recorded virtual walks because you are in real time. And it gives you something to talk about other than the state of the world right now. I’ve also found it helps you get to know the place your friend lives in. If you were visiting in person, you probably wouldn’t see the local park or field, especially if you have mobility issues and said area is inaccessible.
Get yourself feeders, find blogs and books that inspire you to look closer and, most importantly, look out of your window!
I have loved hearing and watching the house sparrows that visit my feeder and obviously it’s the time of year for chicks. I have been trying to get pictures of them, and the starlings, feeding their young but every time something has interfered. I had pretty much given up when I got these images! These are just a select few, if you are as sparrow obsessed as I am, check out my flickr album for more!
The first few pictures are of a male House Sparrow feeding his fledglings and then a couple of him all fluffed up, which is so cute!
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.