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

New networks for nature: time for nature

The past few days I’ve been at the 11th annual New Networks for Nature event and it has been amazing! It was in York for the first time and that meant I was able to go without too much stress and physical health impact. The venue was mostly accessible – the internal ramp was apparently broken so I had to go outside to get between levels to use an external ramp. That was ok although I did get rained on heavily but at least there was an option. Outside of the main venue, there were I think three venues for other aspects and two out of three of those were accessible. In order to manage my energy and pain levels, I wasn’t planning on joining those events but it’s nice to know I could have done a couple.

Anyway, venue accessibility aside, the speakers were wonderful, engaging and so diverse! There was so much information and it was really well communicated – rare is the event where all speakers are engaging! I’m going to mention some, possibly many, of my personal highlights but the entire agenda was fantastic and you can find that online – if you are interested in nature then I’d recommend having a look as many of the speakers have books available.

We kicked off Thursday night with a wine tasting, hosted by Ryedale Vinyards who had some lovely white wine. This was followed by an introduction and welcome from Amy-Jane Beer and Ben Hoare. Then there was a mix of music and readings and then I took an early leave so I could face the early start on Friday!

Friday and Saturday were jam-packed days, with scattered coffee breaks and lunch which allowed me to have a bit of down time and to compress all the wonderful things I’d heard. It also meant I got to visit the Fox Lane Books stall and part with a chunk of cash…

As an aside, I’ve met Fox Lane Books at a number of events this year and they always have a fantastic array of relevant books, including those of the people speaking at the event.

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I can’t mention all of the speakers as this would become an epic post but if any of you happen to read this, you were fantastic!

Robert E Fuller kicked off Friday by talking about his wildlife photography, painting and the inspiring camera system he has set up in his garden. We were honoured to see some footage as well and his entire set up is inspirational and perhaps if I win the lottery I’ll seek his advice and create my own version!

As the theme was time, we had a session about nature in deep time which looked at the idea of what is natural in Britain from a deep time perspective and how the time frame we focus on affects our idea of native and alien species. For example, the ubiquitous brown hare, probably arrived in the 2nd century BC. This session also looked at ice age art and past woodlands.

There was a session about activism which saw a woman only stage – apparently the overall conference had 50% of female speakers which is great! And yes, I’m starting to reuse my superlatives but it was such a good conference…. We heard from Ruth Peacey, a filmmaker, Sally Goldsmith, a poet and campaigner involved in the Sheffield trees campaigning, a Hatti Owens who is a ClientEarth lawyer. They gave three very different approaches to fighting for change and I think that is really vital. We see a lot of media coverage of traditional protests and marches but they aren’t accessible to everyone. I know I feel that I am not being a ‘good activist’ because I can’t engage in those activities but it was a great reminder that activism has different strands and that you need all these threads to come together to create a strong rope that can enact change.

The Jewel of York, or the tansy beetle, gave us a bit of history of this incredibly rare creature and charted it’s rise from obscurity to a conservation icon which can now be found as a mural on the side of a building in York. This was followed by three very different children’s writers discussing using nature in children’s books. Then after a coffee break, we got the joy of a comedy session!

Simon Watt, founder of The Ugly Animal Appreciation Society, Helen Pilcher and Hugh Warwick made us laugh before we headed off to a gin tasting with Sloe Motion. It was a wonderful way to end the first day.

Saturday was equally as interesting and included a session about “the tiny majority”; flies, bees and crickets in particular. In part it was about the role these smaller, often overlooked animals have in our world, but it was also about celebrating them for themselves. Erica McAlister, a true fly enthusiast, spread her joy and interest for these little critters. We often see flies as a generic species and in doing so, pay no attention to their individual wonders. Without a certain species of fly, we would have no chocolate. Ditto for black pepper and many other things we take for granted. They clean up the planet, they recycle waste, they pollinate, they eat the things which eat our crops, and they inspire technology.

A session turned our eyes to the uplands, space where gods once dwelled and humans dreamed of, rarely visiting. Today of course we visit much more of the land but the land still holds it’s secrets. Prof John Altringham shared with us some research which reveals the vast numbers of bats which live under the surface of the uplands, in the caves. They have also been able to work out what makes a cave attractive to bats! This session also included Dr Isla Hodgson talking about conservation conflict between different groups in respect to the grouse shooting debate and the factors which underlie such conflicts.

The New Directions for Nature Writing was another diverse session with Katharine Norbury, Anita Sethi, Zakiya McKenzie and Richard Smyth. Despite discussing intersectionality, gender, race and class, the word disability was missing. And this, for me, reflects the barriers that disabled people often face when engaging nature more broadly. Inevitably nature writing reflects those people who are able to “go into” what we typically think of as “nature”. This is not to do a disservice to the speakers, they were great and made a lot of relevant comments.

However, I felt it absolutely necessary to make a comment. My hand shot up faster than it probably should given my shoulder has a propensity to dislocate! I made a point of saying the word disability and went on to say that one of the most powerful experience I’ve had with nature was when I could barely get out of bed for six months. And how even though it was a powerful experience, the image of nature portrayed in Nature Writing and writing about nature more broadly, made it feel harder to own it.

It is because of this that I am writing more and more about nature and disability and I have a pile of notes about this which I plan to spin into a series of blog posts in the next couple of weeks.

In the meantime, remember that you don’t have to “go out into nature” to connect with nature:

I’d like to leave you with an image from a couple of years ago:

I am laying in bed, incredibly ill.  Every time I move I am violently sick.  But my bedroom window is open and through the net curtains I can hear a blackbird singing.  When I last made it into my kitchen, I saw a female blackbird repeatedly gathering nesting materials and flying up to a vent in a wall.  I do not know, but I like to think, that this is the male who was with her.

A wood pigeon coos the repetitive ‘coo coooo coo cu cu’ and I am reminded of the two, with their soft grey jackets and peach breasts, that perch on my fence, day after day.  Occasionally interacting, often just coexisting quietly like an old couple in companionable silence sitting on a bench in the sun.

I cannot leave my bed, I can barely sit up to look out the window, but I am nature and I am with nature.

Love is in the air!

Spring is coming and soon love will be in the air!  Whether it’s the pheromones of animals or the pollen of plants, the air around us is positively brimming with the scent of reproduction.

Winged creatures like butterflies often engage in courtship flights, dancing around each other as part of a pre-copulation ritual.  The courtship ritual of the bald eagle involves locking talons and tumbling toward earth…  And then there are insects which engage in aerobatic sex, mid air, such as flies and dragonflies.

When it comes to humans (and other animals) we all have a unique smell, a chemical signature that we refer to as pheromones.  They play a role in who we are attracted to which I think is fairly well known, but also, probably lesser known, is that they also help us to identify people we are related to – useful if you want to avoid sleeping with your secret cousin that no one knew about… Having different genetic make up means healthier children and less inbreeding which is why we’ve evolved to detect this.  Couples which are more genetically similar have fewer orgasms which sounds pretty rubbish but things go one step further and couples who are more genetically alike also have a higher rate of cheating…  Basically, evolution is doing everything it can to reduce the chance of inbreeding.

Pheromones are also used to help a guy to detect where in her menstrual cycle a woman is and his body releases testosterone according to ovulation status.

However, the use of hormonal contraception appears to be changing how humans react to these chemical signatures.  When taking birth control pills, the natural ability to distinguish between males who are genetically alike and genetically different is disrupted and instead, women are attracted to the males who are most similar.  Verdolin gives a great example:

“I was discussing this with my friend Stacey, who exclaimed, “That must be why I couldn’t stand the smell of my ex-husband!”  She went on to explain that when she met her first husband she had been taking birth control pills.  Several years into their marriage, after she discontinued the pill, not only was she unable to get pregnant, but she no longer cared for the smell of her husband.”

Aside: pheromones are found in underarm hair and public hair so maybe go au naturale if you’re seeking a partner?

Animals use pheromones to communicate with each other, to mark their territory and to induce aggression.  They are also used in parental bonding, to keep group behaviour in check and of course to attract mates – some creatures can even smell out virgins.  They are also used to mark your mate in order to keep away other potential mates.  Squirrels secrete pheromones onto their partners onto their partner to tell other males that she’s taken.  Queen bees use pheromones to control hive behaviour and stop workers from reproducing.  Plants use pheromones to attract pollinators, for example a kind of orchid can mimic bee pheromones to pollinate them.

Male lemmings can not only sniff out a female who’s ready to mate, but they can also distinguish between those who have mated already and those who have not.

“From beetles to bees and lizards, females do give off a different scent if they have already mated or if they are ready to mate.”
– Verdolin

A large number of male creatures will include anti-aphrodisiac pheromones in their bodily secretions so that the female they are mating will have less interest in sex.  The pheromones can also make her less attractive to other males.

What of other ways that love is in the air?  Well, plants can reproduce in a couple of ways, both involving the air; insect pollination and wind pollination.  The latter means that large amounts of pollen are released to the breeze in the hope that they find another plant to fertilise.  Whilst this does mean hayfever for many of us, it’s nice to think that it’s all in the aid of making baby trees and flowers!

Suggested reading:

The holly and the ivy (part two)

So, I sat down to write a post about holly and ivy… And then realised I did that last year… In my defence, I was very ill and very starved so my memories of that period are a bit vague…

That being said, I have got new books and new sources and so on since so I thought I would revisit this seasonal topic anyway, possibly focusing more on the mistletoe instead.

Holly

Holly is a plant of lightening, eternal life and the White Goddess (before it was co-opted by Christianity).  The berries, being scarlet, could be used to repel witches and Pliny the Elder went a step further and said that holly trees around the house prevent sorcery.  Self seeded holly plants would bring good luck as well as protection from storms and fires.

There are two kinds of holly, the male prickly version and the female smoother type, and according to a Derbyshire tradition, they should be brought into the home at the same time.  This would ensure that the year ahead would be prosperous.  If you accidentally brought the male holly in first, the master of the house would have absolute rule in the year ahead and if you brought the female holly in first then the mistress would be in charge.  Despite this, there is also a tradition that says that holly shouldn’t be brought indoors at all.

Whether you decorate your house with holly or not, you shouldn’t harm a holly tree.  One explanation is that holly was the tree on which Jesus was crucified and so hurting the tree would lead to his blood and tears flowing out of the wound.  Another is that holly sprang from Christ’s footsteps.  Holly is also said to be representative of his crown of thorns, the red berries his blood and the white flowers a reminder of purity and his virgin birth.

Ivy

Like holly, ivy has a mixed reputation.  During the 19th and 20th century, some people considered it unlucky and wouldn’t bring it into the house at any point in the year, possibly because ivy is associated with graveyards.

“Anyone who wishes to dream of the devil; should pin four ivy-leaves to the corners of his pillow”
– Cornish Folklore, The Penguin Guide to Superstitions of Britain and Ireland

Other uses for ivy in divination include popping a leaf in your pocket before you leave the home and the first male you see will be your future husband.  Ivy can also be used to foretell death.

Ivy leaves have been recommended as a cure for various ills including corns which could be treated by wrapping the leaf around the corn.  Cups made out of ivy wood were thought to cure whooping cough.

Ivy was said to be sacred to Dionysus and Bacchus, gods of wine, and thus was hung outside inns to show that good wine could be found there.

“In ancient Greece it was called cissos because, according to a mythological legend it was named after the nymph Cissos, who, at a feast of the gods, danced with such joy and abandon before Dionysus that she fell dead from exhaustion at his feet.  Dionysus was so moved by her performance and untimely death, that he turned her body into ivy, a plant which graciously and joyfully entwines and embraces everything near it.”
– Folklore and Symbolism of flowers, Plants and Trees

Ivy growing on a home would protect the inhabitants from witchcraft although if it starts to wither, watch out for disaster, infertility, infidelity or financial problems.

Ivy has become associated with love and fertility, possibly as it clings to all it touches…

Mistletoe

And talking of love… I don’t mean to put you off kissing under the mistletoe but…

The toe of mistletoe meant twig and mistel may be connected to the Germanic word for dung… Possibly because a common belief was that mistletoe didn’t grow from seeds but instead was the result of bird droppings, because it only grows high in trees and never on the ground.

In Scandinavia, we have stories of the gods and the much loved Balder began to have nightmares.  In order to try and ease his fears, his mum, Frigg, stepped in:

“Goddess Frigg made all swear never to harm Balder the god of light, but she overlooked the insignificant mistletoe plant, deeming it too young to swear the oath.  Loki, spirit of evil, gave a mistletoe dart to Hod, the blind god, who, unseeing, threw it and killed Balder.”
– Discovering the Folklore of Plants

The idea of kissing under mistletoe in Britain at Christmas was first reported in 1813 and may well be the result of misunderstanding that dates back to Pliny the Elder in AD77…  With this in mind I’m not going to look at the idea that it has links with paganism and druidy, this is covered in detail elsewhere and may be part of convoluted information initiated by Pliny…  That said, one article I read (I accidentally deleted the link) suggested the shape of mistletoe was reflective of a certain piece of anatomy and thus might be the reason for the link with sexuality and love…

In terms of superstitions and traditions, there are limited associations beyond kissing, however:

“It is considered very unlucky for a house unless some mistletoe is brought in at Christmas.”
– Derbyshire tradition recorded 1871

“If you want to have extra good luck to your dairy, give your bunch of mistletoe to the first cow that calves after New Year’s Day.”
– Yorkshire tradition recorded 1866

“If you hang up mistletoe at Christmas, your house will never be struck by lightening.”
– Staffordshire tradition recorded 1891

In Herefordshire, mistletoe was thought to be associated with dark magic and wouldn’t have been taken into the home lightly or used to encourage kissing.  So think carefully the next time you find yourself under a sprig with someone else…

Resources:

  • The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland
  • Discovering the Folklore of Plants, Margaret Baker
  • Folklore and Symbolism of flowers, Plants and Trees, Ernst and Johanna Lehner
  • Folklore Thursday

Campanula

          When I grow up, I want    |     When I grow up, I want
to be a campanula, growing     |     to be a campanula, self
tight to rocks     |   sufficient, hard, persistent
to stones     |   resistant
to walls.    | resistance.

         Spreading and reaching     |   Reaching and spreading
into the crevices of the     |  roots creeping though
humanmade world.      |  cracks in domesticity.

Patiently establishing myself;    |    Weakening structures
dainty, delicate lilac petals     |   forcing a new perception,
– miniature stars.   |  a new perspective.

When I grow up, I want
to be a campanula, a paradox.
Lover and fighter.
Darkness and light.
A fairy-flower-wall-tumbler.

And no one to expect any less from me.


I struggled with wordpress formatting this.. I tried all sorts but it wasn’t playing friendly with me… The first three stanzas are two columns, side by side, the left column is aligned to the right so they butt up against each other.  I’ve used |’s to separate the sides.

Add your own seaweed pun here

Moving up a little in the oceanic plant world, we get to algae. There are two categories, micro algae which are, as they sound, tiny, and macro algae which is where seaweed fits it and is what I’ll be looking at.

We tend to think of seaweed as the annoying, slimy stuff which litters the beach and wraps around our feet as we try to paddle in the sea but seaweed is a very diverse term. In general, seaweeds need saltwater, light to photosynthesise and somewhere to hold onto.

Algae are used in so many ways and can be found all around us. In the late 17th century it was discovered that soda and potash (important to the soap and glass industries) could be extracted by burning kelp. Today, we find algae in cosmetics, in soaps, in paints, as fertilisers, in foods as well as as a food item itself for both humans and animals.

Like with other marine life, algae may also have useful scientific properties. For example, some have developed protection from UV light and understanding the process and chemicals involved may help develop new protective products. Algae can also help open our eyes to other ways of being, pushing our thinking, our expectations and our world view. As a species we are terrestrial centric and macro centric, focusing heavily on land based large species such as trees and lions but there is so much we can learn from other species, including the under appreciated algae.

And talking of underappreciated… Seaweed allowed women to carve out a tiny niche in the scientific world in the 19th century, a realm dominated by men.

Whilst the hobby of collecting seaweed can be traced back to the 17th century, it grew in popularity in the 19th century. And in doing so, it created space for women to engage in science and, to a limited extent, to contribute to science.

Male seaweed collectors were able to join in with scientific endeavours but women were encouraged to see it as a hobby. Seaweed scrapbooking became popular and it’s alleged that even Queen Victoria dabbled in it. It was framed as a hobby rather than a scientific undertaking and the social aspect was emphasised for women. However, some women managed to make a name for themselves:

Amelia Griffiths, 1768-1858

Griffiths was an ‘amateur professional woman of science’ who specialised in collecting seaweed and who raised awareness of the diversity of marine plant life in Devon where she lived.

Her reputation proceeded her and a species of red seaweeds was named for her in 1817. She was also able to correspond with leading algae experts which I suspect was a significant honour in her day.

Margaret Gatty, 1809-1873

Gatty was a children’s book author who took up seaweed collecting when she was convalescing by the coast in 1848. She eventually published an illustrated field guide to British seaweeds, an endeavour which took 14 years and included 200 specimens.

However, instead of placing herself as scientist, she framed herself as interested in seaweed because it was an expression of God creating beauty in nature.  She would also use her children’s books to preach this message, teaching that god and nature were not to be treated separately and she argued against Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Anna Atkins, 1799-1871

Like Gatty, Atkins published a book about seaweed but this is also of note as it was the first photo illustrated book ever. She used cyanotype prints to document different species and part one was published in 1843.

And today?

Women still play an important role in seaweed collecting; in most developing countries, the majority of people involved in seaweed farming are women.  In Zanzibar, for example, it’s estimated that 80% of seaweed farmers are women.  The seaweed grown and gathered by these women becomes our toothpaste, food additives, shampoos and medicines.  Definitely food for thought next time you find yourself on the beach getting tangled by its slithery ‘arms’!

When did you last thank the phytoplankton?

“Every breath you take you need to thank the ocean for generating oxygen and capturing carbon. We should respect the photosynthesis that feeds small animals, that then provide sustenance for the large animals.”
– Sylvia Earle

In our oceans there are tiny plant-like organisms called phytoplankton which are eaten by tiny animals called zooplankton.  And so the food chain moves up.

These phytoplankton float along at the mercy of the sea’s tides and currents and indeed, the word plankton comes from the greek for wandering.

Despite their size, some are invisible to the human eye, the entire* ocean ecosystem is reliant on phytoplankton.  As photosynthesisers, they introduce the sun’s energy to organisms which live below the waves, and many organisms who live above the waves as well such as humans.

*there are some very deep sea creatures which live off vents which aren’t but there always has to be a rule breaker!

It’s not just their role in food production that we should be thanking phytoplankton for though.  They have a huge impact on the air we breathe and the climate we live in.

As part of photosynthesis, phytoplankton release oxygen into the water.  This oxygen is estimated to make up between 50 and 80% of the earth’s oxygen. So as you breathe in, don’t forget to thank this overlooked little plant.

But it’s hard work isn’t over, it has the job of controlling atmospheric carbon dioxide to do as well.  By holding on to carbon, they reduce the amount that is in the atmosphere, storing it even after they die; they sink to the bottom of the sea where they accumulate and eventually turn into oil.  So that’s another thing we need to thank the humble phytoplankton for!

But some phytoplankton have a darker side…  There are over 5000 species worldwide and about 2% of those are harmful or toxic.  They produce these toxins as a strategy for dealing with predators, competitors and parasites.

When these phytoplankton bloom, the chemicals are are released.  A lot of these blooms are red, creating phenomena which has led to the name of the red sea, the vermilion sea and a term called the red tide.  These blooms can have harmful affects on fish and other marine life.  For example, causing harmful changes to development, affecting reproduction and impacting on the immune system.  In 2004, 107 bottlenose dolphins died in Florida because they had ingested affected fish.  Other more direct ways of being affected are through ingesting the toxin itself or through inhalation.

The summertime feeding grounds of the Right Whale coincide with seasonal blooms from one of the toxic phytoplanktons.  Zooplankton eat the phytoplankton, become contaminated with neurotoxins and are then eaten by the whales who experience altered feeding behaviour and altered respiratory capabilities.  This then impacts on the overall population of a whale which is already endangered.

Sea turtles may feel the impact of toxic exposure as lethargy and muscle weakness which can lead to them being washed off course or washed ashore.

Humans are also affected if we eat contaminated fish and because of this, blooms are carefully monitored.

11.30.18 Edited to add: I stumbled across a phytoplankton poem and had to share it!