‘A Museum of Modern Nature’

Molly Shrimpton finds hope in the unusual at the Wellcome Collection’s current exhibition  ‘A Museum of Modern Nature’. 

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In Spring 2017 the Wellcome Collection asked members of the public to bring in objects that ‘tell a story about their relationship with nature’. The objects received were then carefully sorted through and selected by a team of individuals who all work with nature in varying ways: from a horticulturalist to a mountaineer, a dairy farmer to a shaman.

The objects received ranged in an astonishing diversity. For some, such as a pair of binoculars, a Ladybird biology textbook, and an elderflower sprig, the logic seems clear. But for others, such as a pack of PG Tips playing cards, a shopping list, and an oxygen cylinder, the story is more complicated. For me, there was no clear route through the exhibition. You enter the large white room and find yourself lurching from one direction to another, moving sporadically towards interesting object after interesting object, whatever the eye snags on next. It reminded me somewhat of the experience of walking through a forest, in which multiple paths spiral off in different directions and the senses are bombarded with new dimensions of sound, smell and touch; the eye is drawn to random totems of sylvan life: a branch, a feather, a husk.

One of the clear, overarching themes to be found in many of the objects – which likely attests to the location of the exhibition and the demographic of its contributors – is the experience of urban life, and the struggle of connecting to nature whilst living in the city. A Thermos flask speaks of a woman’s agony of being ‘trapped’ in London, dreaming of a life ‘in the country with a garden of my own and ideally a dog.’ The flask enables her to have her own space in nature, liberated from the demands of others. It is a symbolic facilitator of the solace that time alone in nature can bring to the harried, the stressed, and the unhappy. A particularly touching entry is a homemade suncatcher, which consists of coloured jewels strung onto a clothes hanger with scraps of ribbon. The creator, Ikuko, explains: ‘I’m living in a second floor flat, I haven’t got a garden, so the window is for me the lookout into the nature around me. (…) the window is an interface to nature and the suncatcher is representing the window to connect me to the outside world, surrounding nature.’ These words capture the quiet longing of someone who is painfully aware of the distance that circumstance has forced between her and the natural spaces of the world. The suncatcher is a labour of love, a humble collection of unwanted domestic articles, which acts as a refractor, taking the light and colours that lie beyond the mediatory window and spilling them joyfully over into the intimacy of the apartment, naturalizing the interior space.

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The material, industrial culture of the modern city engenders other surprising reactions to nature: an artificial yellow chick, a clothes brush and a carton of Princes 100% Pure Apple Juice. A young woman speaks of two old photographs taken by her grandfather of the view from his house, before and after the construction of a motorway. We expect the melancholy and nostalgia of the grandfather, grieving for the loss of his natural surroundings. What we do not expect, is the reaction of the granddaughter: ‘the motorway actually reminds me of the seasons, because as a child I would look out at the motorway when I was visiting my grandparents and in winter, when it gets dark about 5 or 6 o’clock, the lights of the motorway actually looked like Christmas tree lights. So it really reminded me or Christmas and the fact that winter was coming. And I used to kind of watch for the Christmas Coca Cola van on the motorway. So yeah, that’s why it reminds me of nature.’ Industrial development and commercial capitalism – industries we associate most with environmental degradation – here create a surprising access point. Perhaps what this highlights is the remarkable ability of humans –especially children – to adapt to their surroundings, and to find imaginative routes and pathways to nature, even in the most unlikely of situations.

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The creative tenacity evidenced in this story reflects the wider perseverance of the natural world, whose wondrous capacity for regeneration many contributors captured in their stories. An elegant sculpture of cast bronze and silver birch stands in this light, the latter of which the contributor uses for its capacity as a pioneer species to regenerate damaged or polluted areas, creating the right conditions for other species to follow and grow. A piece of plastic turf tells the tale of an urbanized city farm smothered in concrete, which the owners decided to turf over in order to encourage people to visit and engage with nature (belying an ironic belief in the capacity of plastic to reconnect us to the natural world). Over time, plants started to grow through the turf: ‘it wasn’t just grass that was growing, it was… there were little bits of kale coming up and little nasturtium seeds’, the contributor laughs as she speaks. Hearing the story, one imagines a kind of green patchwork, in which delicate shoots needle through and interweave themselves into the wider membrane of the plastic lining; a dystopian metaphor perhaps for the future of our planet, in which plastic will become as ubiquitous as grass, inseparable from the raw structure and strata of the earth in the age of the Plastocene.

Other items speak of the importance of the home in our relation to nature. A Dukes mayonnaise jar is filled with soft cotton, into which pecans and pine cones nestle. The objects have been sent from the contributor’s mother, who still resides in her native Alabama. The contributor speaks of the comfort that the jar brings her, perhaps conjuring visions of the shimmering prairies and golden light of the forests of her home. But she also speaks of the pain and longing that alienation from this landscape brings. Her words point directly to the importance of the home environment on the creation of the self, and the way that the self corresponds to the exterior world: ‘I think maybe the influence of the nature of home is maybe underestimated. When you move to a different country, a different climate, you are in a different habitat. The trees are different, the smells are different, the flowers are different, and I miss them. I miss the smells and nature of home. So there’s something about having a connection with almost the deepest part me of me, the part when I was a child, when I could go outside, pick up pine cones, pick up pecans and crack them open and eat them with my grandmother, stop on the side of the road and go into a cotton field and pick some. It makes me feel a bit less lonely and a bit more like my true self.’ The natural surroundings of childhood forever enmesh themselves into our identities; to be alienated from the native landscape for many brings a profound sense of dislocation. One thinks of the numerous indigenous communities who have suffered this displacement, whose cultures, languages, and belief systems have disintegrated with the loss of natal land. What they are, as Barry Lopez says in Arctic Dreams, ‘is not finished at the skin’, they are attached to the natural landscape ‘as if by luminous fibres’, the severing of which is a form of cultural genocide.

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Childhood features throughout many of the objects in the exhibition. A vast display of model Volkswagen Beetles is produced as an unconscious longing for the collecting of beetles and insects that the contributor undertook as a child in his native Australia. The difference between these two types of beetles highlights the changes that have passed in recent environmental law. These temporal junctures are also evidenced in a display of shell and silver jewellery, which the contributor was gifted from her own children after it became illegal to take the shells from her local beach, as she loved to do as a child. Indeed it is the entries from children that are among the most interesting, and often the most insightful. An amethyst flower crystal was sent in by ten-year-old Dyala. She is clearly an avid crystal collector, and was attracted to the stone for its beauty, but there is more to her story than this. She explains that the flower crystal gets its name ‘after its shape because its got like little spikes coming out, and its nice to think that like some, it might have been growing one day. I like to think of it that way.’ Her words exhibit an awareness of the vast interconnectivity of organic forms, and a capacity for imagination that allows her to appreciate the correspondence of the natural world in a way that most adults are unable to.

There were many children present at the exhibition, and they were all unusually quiet, absorbed into the items on display before them. Some children sent in creative compositions that highlight the connections between nature, imagination and play. Two young girls sent in the paper coffins that they made for the dead crabs they found whilst walking on the Thames Estuary. There is ‘a (rain)bow and arrows’ from seven-year-old Mia: ‘Making things with sticks, its fun. Nature’s a playground to me.’ Similarly there is a wonderful display of weapons from brothers Felix, Vito and Gulliver, whose axes and hammers are made out of fragments of natural materials found in their local park: ‘We tied the concrete onto a stick with some string and it ha a bug living in it but its dead now.’ The discovery, wonder and joy involved in this imaginative childhood play is encouraging. It provides a stark contrast to a recent memory of a young boy at a campsite in the Lake District, who spent his holiday marching between tents with a disturbingly realistic replica of an AK-47.

Several adult contributors also used creative practices as a method of connecting with their natural surroundings. A beautiful scroll drawing of a loomery is unfurled under glass, the astonishing detail attesting to the long period of time that the artist spent observing the guillemot colony. He writes: ‘It’s a drawing of wildlife and that’s my way of connecting to nature.’ For many, the most poignant object in the exhibition will be the Trench art paper knife, made by a soldier from brass shell casings whilst in the trenches in WW2. As the contributor writes, ‘this object is symbolic of the human impetus to create art in times of unimaginable suffering (…) [it] summons an image of great contradiction, a lone soldier-craftsman working intensively in a decimated landscape of mud, rain and blood. I have speculated about this beautiful shiny fish crafted from the very stuff of war, made in a place where plants and animals had all but disappeared. It is an object that is profoundly connected to the earth, death and life. Its material substance was extracted from rock and formed into a bullet whose intention was to send men back into the earth.’ Paradox and juxtaposition abound in this story. The bullets, intended to sever, maim and kill, are reformed into an object whose purpose will forever be the opening of letters, connecting people and places by the words of love and warmth they contain. It is a totem of mortality, renewal, and perseverance. But most of all it speaks of hope, and the urge to turn to nature and creation when all that is human and humane appears to have vanished. In such times we perhaps reach to the order from which we came, and attempt to leash ourselves back to its security through creativity, beauty and story.

 

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A yearning for the natural world in times of emotional trauma is not unique to this story. A pair of trail running trainers sit quietly alongside a mammal trapping bag and an oxygen cylinder. They are unassuming, not out of place in an exhibition about connecting to the outside world. Worn through to the soles, they are rubbed bare in places. The loose threads, thin patches and eroded heels tell the story of a young man called Adam, who found distraction, peace, and ultimately recovery in the natural world at a very dark time in his life. Being out in nature gave him space to think, and ‘a purpose to keep going’. Rosa, 38, sent in a wooden Hand Plane, used for body surfing; a friend made it for her after her brother’s suicide. In the aftermath, she set herself the task of completing 32 wild swims in 32 days to mark the life of her sibling, swimming into the wake of his death as a way of coming to terms with her loss. She began to feel strongly the pull of the ocean, and to experience ‘the power of the sea and water and nature to heal.’ Rosa carved her brother’s name into the hand plane, and every time she catches a wave with it she is lifted into her memories of him, and is comforted to know that she carries him with her.

For me, the most striking thread that wove through all of the items in the exhibition was the precedence of the subjective; the favouring of emotion, aesthetic, and the personal over the cold hard science that – though undoubtedly important – traditionally dominates the nature we meet in museums. A woman sends in her prayer mat as evidence of the way in which she makes contact with the natural world through her faith. The consistency of her ritual makes her sensitive to the seasonal changes that fluctuate around her. In prayer, she is aware of the world; she is physically close to the ground as she takes herself down into sajdah, with her forehead on the floor, where she feels ‘close to the earth and very close to God.’ The importance of ritual in an awareness of the environment is solemnly evidenced in the traditional Bangladeshi Fakah (fan), sent in by Khoirun, who notes that such cooling methods are no longer needed as the climate of Bangladesh has changed so drastically even in her own lifetime.

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A large jar of feathers was sent in by Kitty. When listening to her story, you can hear hesitancy in her voice as she tries to explain her object, as if she is also being asked to explain herself: ‘Oh, its just one of those kind of magpie impulses, isn’t it? It’s just you see something lovely and can’t help but pick it up (…) I’ve always picked up feathers just because, you know, they’re lovely. And so it’s not really scientific at all the jar of feathers’. She sounds vulnerable to criticism, to the idea that an aesthetic, felt appreciation of the natural world –often associated with femininity – is meaningless and trivial, less valid than one founded upon scientific understanding and fact. She acknowledges that the feathers she likes best are those of the Parakeet: ‘I know they’re invaders and they are probably… they’re probably quite invasive, aren’t they? But they’re just so magical, seeing them flying around in our grey sky, so they’re lovely really.’ I feel a strong affinity with this woman, and a sadness that she has not been made to feel more confident in her emotional connection to her surroundings, as if wonder, joy and awe are less valuable reactions to nature than correct identification and analysis.

The intention of the project, was ‘to create a collective snapshot of how we think about nature in the 21st century and [to] explore how the health of our planet is intricately bound up with the behaviours and values of the people who inhabit it.’ By creating this snapshot, this cross-section of social thought about nature, the trust hoped to create ‘a different kind of museum of nature’, one focused not on science, but ‘which celebrates our everyday relationship with the world around us.’ By taking nature out of the cabinet, the textbook, the glossy brochure and the fenced reserve, the trust aimed to reconnect the individual and their natural environment.

 

 

The exhibition begins with copies of the book, ‘Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Organizing Nature: A Picture Album’, which was published by the Trust for this exhibition, with an introduction by birdwatcher and writer Tim Dee. It is a handsome book, with many fascinating examples of the strange ways in which our species has learnt to approach and understand its natural surroundings, including maps, taxonomic charts, comparative diagrams, collections, nature prints and cyanotypes. Each of these pieces is a work of art itself, and in the book, contributes to the careful elucidation of the fine line between appreciation and mastery that taxonomic science treads. However, whilst flicking through the text again after experiencing the exhibition, it occurred to me that what the curators had done was to completely bypass the scientific frameworks that traditionally structure our understanding and perception of nature. Instead they had collated a collection of objects that spoke entirely of the personal. Each submission is based not on the correct identification of an organism, or an understanding of its life and purpose, but on an emotional, aesthetic, personal, subjective, embodied or individual approach to nature that is entirely human. They represent the ways in which everyday people manage to overcome the increasing distance placed between them and their natural environments, and begin a dialogue with their surroundings. By allowing members of the public to create the material for the display, they speak back to the detachment that a pane of glass normally forces between viewers and natural exhibits. The objects are totems, vectors, vehicles for contact and communication. They tell intimate stories about the lives of real people, and in so doing, place the human back into the picture we paint of the natural world, undoing the centuries of work that has been done to separate us from nature, and confronting us with the degradation, humiliation and loss that this has facilitated.

The exhibition teaches us –and importantly teaches children – that there are lots of different ways to know nature, and encourages a search for a unique personal connection to it. It demonstrates the vast ubiquity of the natural world; that nature is not just the trees in your garden, or the mountains you see on holiday; it is to be found everywhere, in a fan, a slice of bread, an oxygen cylinder, a garden gnome, a thermos, in you yourself. The diversity of objects collected reminds us that nature is not a static entity, but a web of flux, change and multiple dimensions; it means something different for everyone, indicating that an individual relation is not only possible, but critical. The Trust writes: ‘the environmental challenges we face are global but the solutions to them start with the personal and the local’. Antipathy is perhaps the biggest obstacle facing the prevention of environmental degradation. In order for people to feel genuine concern for the natural world, they need to have an authentic, emotional relationship towards it, which does not allow them to ignore its destruction. By celebrating the wonderful variety of highly personal ways in which people relate to their natural surroundings, the exhibition encourages us to seek out our own natural spaces, to explore and revel in the personal reactions they provoke, to create stories, and to treasure the wonders that we find.

The exhibition ‘A Museum of Modern Nature’ is open at The Wellcome Collection until 8th October 2017.

All images copyright to The Wellcome Collection. 

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Othona Radical Writing Retreat

It was early April when Essex Book Festival hosted their inaugural Radical Writing Retreat in partnership with The University of Essex and Radical Essex at the remote Othona Community in Bradwell-on-Sea. It attracted a vibrant mix of people who were treated to an equally vibrant mix of inspirational and experimental workshops, readings, walks, performances and critiques, to broaden their writing. Afterwards they were invited to submit up to 200 words each, inspired by their retreat experience. The results include poetry, prose and song lyrics – a reflection of the eclectic sessions. Contributors are Claire Pearson (CP), Josie Jones (JJ), Judith Wolton (JW), Larry Mindel (LM), Namita Elizabeth Chakrabarty (NEC), Ruth Raymer (RR), Sandra Neill (SN), Wendy Constance (WC). Photos by Wendy Constance

Othona 1

Othona – Retreat and Advance

On approach, Othona opens its arms,
wrapping them gently around me as I enter the gate.
I welcome everyone,
share out beds, towels, sheets; repeat.
Grey-backed notebooks open and fill with the colours of poetry and prose,
incited by the place,
and the common purpose,
which concentrates efforts.
Food is shared,
badgers interlope,
birds are watched,
swimming in the sea is wild.
In the chapel where a child once counted 42 panes
Later to be the answer to the meaning of life,
Stories are told.
Thursday comes, I await important news.
The group is a community that comforts me,
shares in my disappointment when the news arrives.
I feel humbled.
I need to hide and lick my wounds.
I leave quietly as music plays inside Othona’s arms.

RR

Othona 2

A Terrible Beauty

Othona, Bradwell.

Behind me the marsh mud
spittles and whispers, breathes
as the tide recedes. The cockle beach
chatters and dries in the sun.

Sun warms my back,
gleams on fields of green wheat,
clouds of white blossom,
with leaf buds just breaking.

My sudden eye is caught –
two intruders glare out –
stark cubes shrink-wrapped in silver,
giant larvae mothballed for now.

They shadow the light and music of spring.

Only the peregrine can call them home.

JW

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Othona is a secret retreat near the chapel of St Peter-on-the- Wall. The buildings are hidden behind the sea wall at Bradwell-on-Sea. Residents from Othona can pray or meditate inside the simple, ancient chapel made up of some stones from the Roman fort.

I felt apprehensive when I arrived. What would the other people be like? At first I sat on my own to drink a cup of coffee, it seemed everyone belonged to a group. However, after the delicious dinner served by friendly, kitchen volunteers and a glass of wine provided from a fellow guest I felt very relaxed.

It was good to be with other writers of all ages, who all loved the Essex countryside. The talks and workshops were interesting and well researched by the enthusiastic speakers.

I have to confess that during writing periods I wandered off to Chapel Cottage. There I rested, in the unkempt garden, caressed by the welcome sun as I listened to chirping birds. Many of these birds fed from the hanging feeders. The most spectacular were the Great and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers that I saw and heard tapping in the surrounding trees.

Here the spirits of the early Christians embraced me.

JJ

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Shingle beach                     Thirsty marsh                       Bleached shells
Dry sand
Roman fort                          Saxon church                       Unearthed gifts
Enduring land
Salted breeze                       Noisy trees                             Russet sail
Thirsty bee

Twoskylarks
Trill and bubble
Smoothing
Of ancient teeth
Stretching out to sea
Waymarking stories

Shared ground                    Unearthed church                   Enduring peace
Quiet Othona

CP

 Othona 5

DOWN (lyrics with link to sound below)

White blossom                   on a blackthorn tree
Red admiral                        sitting on the breeze
I”m going down, I’m going down

Marsh harrier                     twists and spins
A dog on the dune              is digging in
I’m going down, I’m going down

Down to the sunken quay
I’m going down to the hidden sea

Anchors slip                        through the Mayland clay
Blackwater drips                in and out the bay
I’m going down, I’m going down

Down to the sunken quay
I’m going down to the hidden sea
Down, down

Heads up                             hands around
past is breathing                water sounds
I’m going down, someday I’m going down

The moon will shine          The sun will burn
The marram grow             And the mud will churn
We’re going down, always down

Down through the sunken quay
We become the hidden sea
Down, down, down

LM

 Othona 6

Wrinkled sand                    mottled mudflats                             eroded saltmarsh
shifting patterns
Cockle-shell beach             sunken barges                                  barnacled driftwood
wind-scoured strandline
Nocturnal badgers             tunnelling underground                 gnarled trees
Roman remains

On the horizon
the old chapel
stark, solitary
touching
forget-me-not sky
soaringsoaring skylarks
heavenly songsters

Seeking wisdom                  finding friendship                             freeing imagination
telling stories
WC

 Othona 7

Writing in Essex

After years – at Othona in a quiet room – I wrote a poem about racism.

But first the group worked on a poem together – of birds and crosses –
Near the ancient chapel, in wild green Essex;
But even then it was me who said, ‘Unloved birds’, and saw a ‘prayer mat’,
Where others saw loved birds and a carpet.

Between my poem about race – really just a list of horrific racism experienced
Over the years – and the world, a bridge grew in the quiet countryside,
Radical retreaters absorbing the brutal hate spent.
To listen is to love.

Back home, the Shard towers above me, but the metal and glass pyramid vanishes
As I turn, gazing down to the river Thames, then up
Into the glorious sky, happy,
Wondering whether you’re gazing too.

A week later, in Essex again, walking through Wivenhoe, taking her dog for a drive,
A familiar Othona face, calls out, ‘I thought it was you!’
In London friends walk their dogs and don’t drive, but there too I bought cut
Flowers, to bring to the Essex countryside, for you.

Waiting, flowers in my arms, and then you, a poem grows in my heart, about love.

NEC

 Othona 8

Lines

True to the line on the map the road to Othona
wound for ten miles. Soon after the town we found
the little community. Simple and safe, it welcomed us
smilingly, drawing us in like the smell of warm bread.

We observed the plain lines of the chapel, standing alone,
guarding the land; and the broad horizontal lines
of this seascape of Essex: Dutch-made dyke, the stony
beach and grey North Sea curving round to be
joined by the Blackwater estuary. Starkly marking
the sun-sparkled scene the black-painted barges lay –
carefully placed like printers’ blocks on the shore.
Invisible skylarks called in a vastness of sky.

Various lines of enquiry were gently suggested:
we were encouraged to ponder the history of landscape
and urged to start digging for tales, like the badgers who nightly
excavate stones from the crumbling Roman wall.

At Othona I found myself moved – to observe and to listen,
to pause and to breathe, in the space between the lines.

SN

Othona 9

The Dengie peninsula, a meeting place of vast skies, green fields, river mouths and sea. It’s here you will find a group of dwellings beside a startling shingle beach. Powered by sun and wind, the Othona community runs on group endeavour. It grew from a desire to offer healing to a world ravaged by wars. Rooted in a deep faith, it’s mission remains to offer sanctuary, connection and fellowship to all visitors. Birds swoop the marshes, butterflies and insects weave busily through pungent angelica. Putting self aside to simply be, put pencil to page, grow stories, this is radical Essex.

CP

Othona 10

Othona

The Romans came ready for battle, to defend the land they’d claimed as theirs.
The monks came for peace and prayer, to spread the word of their god.
We came for myriad reasons, unsure what to expect, looking for escape, for change, for something different – all of which we found.
We also found:
Peace and solitude, but companionship and shared experiences too
A place to be re-energized, but also for reflection
Somewhere to engage with nature – little egrets, badgers, skylarks,
redshanks
Seclusion from the outside world – albeit fleetingly – to walk alone along a shell                 beach
But there were also towering wind turbines; grey blocks of the nuclear power station and monochrome photographs of dark times
Radically, we found the time and means to unleash our creativity – to discover our own stories; how to look for other stories; and to find the universal story within all of us.

WC

Othona 11

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1000 words on Orford Ness

One cold wet February day a group of students arrived for a tour of Orford Ness. Several weeks later they were invited to write exactly 100 words reflecting on that visit – a memory-mapping group derive. The result is 1,000 words by the following ten contributors (listed alphabetically by first name): Alvin Rindlisbacher, Barbara Claridge, Ben Thomas, Claire Pearson, Elelia Ferro, Judith Wolton, Liam Xavier, Molly Shrimpton, Ruth Bradshaw, Wendy Constance. Photos by Barbara Claridge and Wendy Constance.

Orfordness.

Cloud sat down on the Ness that day. The ferryman took us across the Styx to an island scarred by planned aggression. Dead weaponry lies around rusting, degrading, still hiding seeds of destruction. Bomb-test labs collapse – an atom bomb nests like a white egg. This is a restless island, shaped by the sea which mouths its edges, sucks and spits its stones, rolls them down the coast.

There is an eerie beauty too – lichen shawls the swales, geese call on the marshes, hares run free of fear. The stones camouflage plovers’ eggs. New life breeds beside memories of death

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Moonscape under sodden sky
Asbestos poisoning
In cold bunker rooms
Twisted oxidised metal.
Am I the only one to see the broken jackdaw
Fallen from the electricity box
Desiccated body kicked upon the concrete floor?
Reels of razor wire imprison
intricate sage grey creeping lichen
in case it invades the ruins.
Useless gesture,
we know who will win that war.
Padlocked
A child’s play table juxtaposed with the bomb.

Men absorbed
in a Blue Danube that won’t waltz,
never did.
Chinese water deer in Orford hare-land.
No one asked the stones for their story.
And we never saw the sea.

Orford ness 2

Rain smudged, weirded buildings emerge from the fog, squat, rotting; monstrous monuments to the equipage of conflict. Sentinels of concealment in managed decline. Constance Robson, her faded gaze reaches from 1919 through the chill damp glass. A woman working among men on this barren shingle spit while prisoners laboured and aviation took flight. Here they strove to command wild, deadly forces. Weapons were birthed, technologies perfected for freedom; but now, among the shingle, wind gusted birds forage where horned poppy thrives. Fear fades into rust as Chinese water deer stray. Nature dissolves the memories of war to a fragile peace.

Orford ness 3

A bomb intact
a son unborn

summer on the castle
lawn

broken bones and
unworn boots

shiver cries and
splintered blood

a wire of softness –
this boat glides

Let me leave the Ness behind

by the castle
baby waits

reaching for
the blackened-hangers

counting hares
instead of sheep

counting hours
deadly sounds

counting pebbles
broken shells

rusted cables –
salted silver

knitted tarmac
slatted woodrails

bloated sitemaps
splashed with fungus

floating feathers
ruffled lichen

tracing over
snakeskin shingle

out to places
never spoken –

atom splitting
craggy outland

aluminium
autumn water

dragging over
broken aircraft

pealing pebbles
over Aldeburgh

Orford ness 4

Managed

Orfordness

Degradation

‘Managed degradation’ – a term describing this desolate island abandoned to corrosion and decay – crumbling buildings scarred by what happened here – bomb-blasted walls blurred by drizzle and mist – a sombre saturation of greyness – the backcloth to landscape ravaged by mankind and his pioneering experiments for atomic weapons.

A host of greylag geese straggle along the murky marsh – hares dash warily – Chinese water deer dart over the horizon. Silvery blue-green leaves of yellow horned-poppy; bright green moss; yellow lichen; white flash of a little egret – glimmering gems which shine through the gloom.

Mother Nature – undefeated – returns and revives

Orford ness 5

Like a portal into the otherworld, mist laid over fields, creeped between trees, created an eerie atmosphere, mystical yet ominous. The journey left a ghostly impression as we took in Gothic horror made real. Like the narrator’s description on his journey to the Usher Estate, written by Edgar Allan Poe in The Fall of the House of Usher, Orford Ness felt desolate, unreal, but captivating and serene. Life and death juxtaposed as ruins with metallic skeletons told of the past, animals and alien looking plants took over what has been forsaken by humans, its nature so real and yet melancholic.

Orford ness 6

Broken, Away.

A soft mist covers the outskirts
Of a nigh on deserted spit,
Life, just visible,
And I am reminded
That this place,
Stillness and degradation,
Is special.
Even the rain feels different here,
Like even it is afraid to land.
Like it would rather hang in the air,
Just floating in uncertainty,
Not able to return,
But too scared to fall.
Yet,
As time passes,
Slowly,Quickly,
I can’t tell,
I see its beauty.
In its quietude,
In its tamed temper
In its bleakness.
I feel so far from civilization,
And that, oddly, perhaps sadly,
Comforts me somewhat.

Orford ness 7

I remember Orford Ness as a strange land of shingle and secrets, of Cobra Mist, salt-tinged wind and endless, cold rain. A small museum with fading pictures of the farmers and fishers who made a living on this almost-island long before testing out new ways of killing became the business here. Now the military are gone and nature restates its claim. There is moss on the walls of crumbling concrete buildings, a bird’s nest in a rusting cabinet in an abandoned weapons lab, unfamiliar plants on the shifting stones beneath our feet and wildfowl in the watery marshes we pass

Orford ness 8

The desert shingle glints like gunmetal; a bleakness of silver, grey and brown, it reverberates with the frequency of flint. A round of curlews sputters forth from the reeds like gun shots. Further on, a war of words rages still: block capitals in red and black, bequeathing the presence of things best forgotten. Pagodas squat and shimmer on the horizon, their secrets sealed in with a grave of concrete and shingle. Whilst longshore drift dropped pebble after pebble, man dropped only bomb after bomb. The spit split first, and later the atom. The Ness: a sacred site of elemental despair.

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What can be said about Orford Ness in only 100 words? A place that was full of mystery, confusion and secrets. A place that felt like a wild post-apocalyptic setting. A place that probably changed all of us when we visited that day.

Heavy rain invited us on to this barren shingle spit on the coast of Suffolk. Once the place of bomb testing and military radars, it had now become the home of oversized hares and information centres. Once we left, more than 100 words could be said about our trip, but one stood out more than any: transposed

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A Relationship with Rock.

Molly Shrimpton explores her experience of rock climbing, and what it has taught her about the natural world and our place within it. 

I am not a good climber. In fact, for a long time I was distinctly unwilling to lift even a tentative toe from the stability of the ground. Preferring the freedom of hiking, striding easily over hills, up mountains and across open country, I found myself thwarted, frustrated and perplexed in front of the imposing rock face, those views and panoramas it obscured limited only to those who could scale its heights. I could not understand why my partner was so determined that I should undertake, and even enjoy this pursuit. However, over time, I have learnt to enjoy it, and to be enthusiastic about the abilities it has afforded me, and the places that it takes me; I have learnt to appreciate the access to those secret and magical locations which can only gained by the ancient dialogue of hands, feet and rock.

Despite my lack of experience and skill, I have been fortunate enough to have climbed far and wide. I have stood amongst hundreds of neon-clad others at the famous gritstone crags of the Peak district. I have breathed deeply the warm, salty breeze that strokes the white cliffs of Portland. I have struggled against the splintering, chaffing schist of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, as well as the notoriously sloping limestone crags that rise alongside the cool waters of Payne’s Ford. I have been caught short up a multi-pitch gone very wrong in the crags of Northland, anxiously watching a storm breast the skies towards us over the towering Kauri trees. I have had the breath torn from my throat whilst looking down the thundering Yosemite Valley from a modest ways up one of its iconic granite faces. I have been grated, grazed and sliced by the murderous stone of the Joshua Tree Desert’s bizarre boulder piles, watched by the equally bizarre, frozen forms of the Joshua trees themselves. I have sweated and sworn in the searingly hot gulleys and dusty folds of Arizona’s astonishing Red Rocks canyon. And I have found wonder on the spectacular rock formations of Lone Pine, with the Sierra Nevada soaring on the horizon in one direction, and the dark lowlands of Death Valley stretching out in the other.

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Each experience has offered unique opportunity and insight into the strange world of climbers. I have learnt about the different types of rock, and the different ways of engaging with them that each demands, all unique in ways only my fingers and palms can attest to. Slowly I have stopped feeling like an alien. I have learnt a new language, understanding the use of each of the many different pieces of equipment: slings, nuts, cams, karabiners, belay plates, gri-gris and tat, as well as adding to my repertoire phrases of the climbing vernacular, such as ‘beta’, ‘bomber’, ‘run out’, ‘pumpy’, ‘crimpy’ and ‘on-sight’. I have come to understand the rationale behind buying climbing shoes that are intentionally five sizes too small, and to expect and sympathize with the wails and groans of the wearer.

I have gained an appreciation of what rock climbing can offer, apart from pain, laughter, fury, joy, and wonder. My muscles have strengthened, my fear subsided, my back pain has alleviated, and I have learnt to trust and to know my body.  It has also become very apparent to me that climbing in a gym and climbing on a rock face are two completely different pursuits. Unlike indoor climbing, where every hold is highlighted in neon paint and virtually every move mapped out and dictated for you, outdoor climbing requires much more problem solving, and offers an opportunity for exploring the ways in which our minds work. Faced with the obstacle of its verticality, climbers must tune their brain to the minute detail of the rocks character, examining it for potential holds, analyzing it for patterns, and devising new sequences of order from its apparent chaos. It is no coincidence that many mathematicians find themselves drawn to climbing as a hobby. Jon Krakauer points to this in his account of meeting the father of bouldering, research mathematician John Gill. Gill explains to Krakauer that both pursuits require ‘quantum jumps of intuition’, and a ‘natural inclination to dig for something, a strong, completely inner motivation to be on the frontier, to discover things. The reward, in both activities, is almost continual enlightenment, and that’s a great feeling.’[1]

Climbing has also given me a wider, more important understanding of the ways in which I experience and participate in place and environment. Each rock face, cliff and crag gives voice to the enormity of geological time. Its form inscribed with the stories of its existence. I have spoken to many climbers, and among some have noted a recurrent appreciation for being in touch with something beyond the human, for reaching a mental state achieved only through vital contact and physical closeness to something far larger and more immense than we can know. To climb is to communicate with the bones of the Earth. To journey up the reaches of rock is to read one of its many histories, and to begin to know a version of its primal story. Of course, climbers do not pretend to be geologists or archaeologists, but they have an appreciation for the diversities of rock, and the subtleties of its different architectures that many are not afforded. Climbing is a sport, but rather than providing contest between humans, it offers the opportunity to measure oneself against the immensity of the Earth.

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I recently climbed at Chepstow. Perched on the border between England and Wales, it is home to a mecca of quarried limestone cliffs, which tower above the brown, muddied waters of the River Wye. It was early April, and a pair of peregrines had chosen an adjacent cliff for their nest. Our powers of attention were tested when they flew over us, one of them carrying the lumpen body of a pigeon. Lifeless in the quenching talons, its size attested to the formidable power of the falcon. After feeding, the pair circled above us, gliding on silken thermals, agitated by crows they swooped and swerved, curled round and soared across the cloudless sky. Small and inconsequential, we clung on to the cliff far below, squinting up, blinded by the sun and the heat radiating off the rock, yet unable to tear our gazes away from the luminous sky.

Climbing has put me in contact with my surroundings in a very different way. It has taken me to places that I never thought possible, and along the way it has taught me to wonder about what is beyond. It has outlined to me the limits of my strength, and the vulnerability of my body in the natural world, and in parallel has encouraged me to recognize the boundaries and borders of my understanding. Some consider climbing and mountaineering forms of conquest, they see recreation as mastery; they climb to claim. In reality, these pursuits offer an opportunity to correct what Robert Macfarlane calls our ‘amnesia’, which allows us to believe that ‘the world has been made for humans by humans.’[2] Climbing is an opportunity for exploration, of the world, of the self, and of the self in the world. Regardless of where I am, I never feel more mortal than when struggling up a rock face, and never smaller than when at the top.

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[1] Jon Krakauer, Eiger Dreams: Ventures among men and mountains, (London: Pan Books, 1998), pp. 16-17.

[2] Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind: A history of a fascination, (London: Granta, 2003), p 274.

Molly Shrimpton is currently studying the MA Wild Writing course at Essex University, after completing a BA in English Literature at the University of Kent, and having spent five months travelling. She is happiest when under canvas or in the mountains.  

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A group dérive

Returning to Epping Forest: A different view

Unlike John Clare I am returning willingly to Epping Forest, coming back to my roots from where he walked away. He was unrooted in my childhood forest, unsure of his mind’s wanderings.

Then the trees were tall, close and welcoming. We ran and tumbled in fallen leaves, shuffled them into piles, climbed the trees wherever we could find a foot hold, played hide-and-seek with red squirrels.

That was many years ago, those trees are much older now, as I am. Looking into the forest from below the Pillow Mounds, and later as we walked in John Clare’s footsteps, they too are showing their age. The beeches and oaks are threaded with strands of silver birch, at once the queen and the weed of the forest – anorexic models soon to be dressed in light spring green; too tall, too thin, ready to succumb to wind and weather – unsteady they pose, wavering.

Too many noble trees have fallen, top heavy with age, their strength diminished, roots wrenched out and drying, huge branches snapped and torn off, bark scarred and peeled away leaving them embarrassed in the sun. No hope of leaf this year. The spaces between these trees seem wider now. As a child I felt enclosed, wrapped round; today these spaces are disturbing, I feel death approaching.

The forest is still beautiful and haunted, surely there will be new growth.

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In Epping Forest

 Spring is everywhere this mid-March morning. There are clouds of cherry blossom in the suburban streets and not a cloud in the sky. On my way to meet the others in the forest I pass a series of ponds, at one a heron is taking off, its long legs stretching in to flight and at the next a group of ducks come in for a fast landing, sending shoots of water spraying out behind them. Most of the trees in this part of the forest are gnarled, old beech trees and many have hollowed out trunks and missing limbs. But new life is starting to appear amid the old; flashes of bright green emerging at the ends of brown branches as leaves slowly unfurl in the spring sunshine. The remains of last autumn’s beech nuts crunch beneath my feet as I walk up for a closer look. Above the noise of aircraft engines, I can hear birdsong and the voices and laughter of other visitors. Two magpies chase each other overhead. Two for joy, I think, a good omen.

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Epping Forest on the Trail of John Clare

Rabbit pillows of richly coloured sand

A nineteen-mile spring-day view

One oak blown like gelled hair into the branches of another

Tangled and entwined

Hoof-prints and

Trees with stories to tell

Expanded carved initials of long-past love

And cracked cellophane bunches tied

By blue plastic twine

Wretched glitter hearts and red-topped plastic pins

 

The trees are old Clare

 

Beech buds silver-creeping unfold

As only beech buds can

Knobbled roots emerge in distance from oak through moss

Like rheumatoid old-lady fingers

This first warm day is awoken only slowly

Searching the walking way

Already the underfoot is cracking

Every part of earth already footprinted

A group vocalisation of nuthatch magpie and crow

What defines an enlightened asylum?

One lone seedling

Against the clay

Germinating cotyledons

Pulling from the mire to the light?

 

Look up – sky French blue

All dérived and writing drifting thoughts

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John Clare in Epping Forest

Wandering alone in these unfamiliar woods

I see so many paths, they lead

in all directions, my head spins.

I cannot think, cannot choose

which path to follow, do not know

which will lead home.

 

These are not my trees,

although I know their names

they do not know me.

These trees are tall and brave,

they shelter me, but

these are not my old familiars.

I stroke their bark and do not

recognise their scars.

 

Birds sing to me, and I know their voices well,

I can tell who they are, but they are not my birds

whose nests I knew so well, whose music calls me home.

 

Men tell me I am safe here,

I do not feel it.

I am not rooted here.

 

So I walk, write on scraps of paper,

follow this little stream,

sit against St. Paul’s Chapel

and dream of Mary.

 

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HIGH BEACH, EPPING FOREST – Ponderings

As our small group walked away from the Pillow Mounds car park we were momentarily mesmerized by a host of small bees, busy burrowing in and out of an array of bee-sized holes in the ground, each hole encircled by a mound of rusty-orange sand that had been excavated. Or should I say mined? The bees were moving too fast for us to identify their species, but they were most likely mining bees, probably Common Colletes – Colletes succinctus. Mining bees are said to be solitary, living as individuals each with their own nest, no need for workers, unlike the large nests of their social cousins. But that doesn’t mean they live solitary lives; some live in vast colonies with thousands of nests underground; above ground thousands of entrances grouped closely together. A bit like humans? Who rush back to the front doors of their homes, which are tightly-packed in rows or closes within large estates.

The mined sand served as a reminder of how High Beach earned its name, according to the sign in the car park, though High Beech is an alternative spelling which references the profusion of beech trees in that area. It was this vision of so many beeches that gave me what I acknowledged as ‘tree envy’ as we walked through the dappled light. After Barbara introduced us to the pungent peppery aroma of elder leaves when rubbed, without further words we wandered off separately, each desirous of our own brief encounter with the forest. Not that we lost sight of each other – apart from not wanting to get lost there was a time limit to these solitary saunters before the rest of our party arrived, and we’d all set off seeking traces of John Clare’s footsteps.

The forest floor was a tweed blanket of dried leaves and desiccated bark fragments – mottled-browns and silvery-greys – which scrunched as I walked. The scrunching stopped as I stopped – to listen to the medley of birdsong which chorused down from the tree canopy with the distant-but-almost-constant background hum of planes soaring high above, bequeathing their vapour trails to the blue sky. Short-term legacies as the vapour trails soon evaporated. I returned my gaze to the ground, where layers of decaying branches and entire trunks rested in memoriam. Vibrant green and ochre mosses and lichen clung to them bestowing bright accents to the brown-grey floorscape. Hollow trunks stood amid the new growth of sapling birches, some apparently as old as 350 years, stripped of their bark, their naked surfaces ridged and gnarled. Nature’s sculptures – some looked like mythological creatures – a dragon’s head maybe. Or a proud stag with antlers.

group derive 4Less proud were those that had suffered from human ‘offerings’ – a bright green drinks can wedged in one hollow, a vodka bottle in another. This area was accessible from the road, hence the frequent signs of human intrusion, including initials carved deeply into trunks, to be there ever-more like swollen tattoos. But the worst instance of human desecration was the tree that had been turned into a shrine to a dead dog – “Millie Moo” – complete with photo and “We will always miss you” message, laminated and pinned to the trunk, along with paper hearts, a red padded heart and two bunches of long-dead flowers encased in cellophane wrap (an example of what’s happening in the Anthropocene through human overuse of plastic without considering its long-term effect on the environment). I’m a dog lover, but I’m also a tree lover. And so was John Clare. In his pogroup derive 5em, A Ramble, he wrote: ‘Arise my dog and shake thy curdled coat / And bark thy friendly symptoms by my side’, and The Hollow Tree starts: ‘How oft a summer shower hath started me / To seek for shelter in an hollow tree’.

I’m sure John Clare would not have left any sign of his inhabiting hollow trees where he sheltered from the rain. He trod lightly on the earth, intent to be at one with it so that its inhabitants – birds and other wildlife – might not notice him. Our group reassembled to walk back to the car park, to find the others. Whilst following in Clare’s footsteps we must do as he did – leave nothing more than a trace.

 

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Forest Memorial 

Standing on this hill covered with trees looking westwards, I can see out across the Lea Valley towards Enfield. This is High Beach, Epping Forest. We begin at Pillow Mounds, rabbits were farmed here long ago. They were encouraged to make their homes in the soft sandy artificial mounds that exist to this day. Ravens feed greedily on bread behind the parked cars while men in Lycra congregate and drink tea. This is the hottest day of the year so far. The earth is warming up and at ground level bees are emerging from their burrows creating modest mounds of fine earth. They stay close to their dwellings for now, hovering in low circular flight paths above their mud village. I sit on a fallen tree and listen: bird song, the hum of an aircraft, the slam of a car door, the rhythmic snarl of a chain saw, laughter. I look up, Constable clouds. A silvered crucifix catches the sunlight as it travels on through the pale blue sky. I look down and trace with my toe the metal circle of a bottle top embedded deep in the leaf litter, white on black ‘Corona Extra’, a plastic bottle, red and yellow, the long thin shapely shadows cast by bare beech trees, even the twigs close to my feet cast strong deep shapes – but as a cloud moves across the sun I am plunged into deep cold shadow. Two young men pass, one smokes, weaving their way towards the road, the sharp tang of burnt tobacco lingers in the air. A man is crouching close to the earth. He is answering a phone call: “No no, yeah that’s fine”. His posture shows his desire to stay connected to here and now. This is where people hope to escape.

Passing a laminated photograph of a dog fixed to the trunk of a tree, two deflated balloons sway dejectedly in a light breeze while a plastic pink heart gently revolves – ‘We love you Millie Moo’. The tree is now a memorial.

We are practicing psychogeographers, memory mappers, tracing the footsteps of the poet John Clare, who, in July 1841 escaped a lunatic asylum and walked the 81 miles to return home in search of his first love.

Buzzards glide on thermals high above the place where John Clare was once a patient. Dr Mathew Allen took a progressive approach towards mental illness. He owned three asylums here at High Beach. Lippits Hill Lodge no longer stands, but Clare would still recognise the quiet road that curves sharply beyond its boundary and the track where he first set out through the forest. Patients were allowed to wander beneath the trees and it was here that Clare drew inspiration for his poems, reading lines aloud as he walked. The small chapel of St Paul’s once stood a short distance from Lippits Hill Lodge. Clare enjoyed its tranquil interior.

group derive 6Attempting to connect with the spirit of this place, we disperse like spores on the air intothe embrace of the forest and wander alone for a while. Bird song again, the rhythmic rustle as my feet wade through last autumn’s leaves. I am too hot, I have too much to carry. Figures melt away from me into the trees. I don’t want to get lost. I won’t see anything special; but then my eyes rest upon a small clump of yellow flowers, miniature narcissus. Are they growing here? I reach out to run by finger beneath the stem’s origins. They are cut flowers, resting between two thin tree stumps, a dressed stone placed in front secures them – another forest memorial? Slowly a hollowed horseshoe emerges from the forest floor around me and now I’m standing before an altar while behind me I imagine a tiled aisle once lay and brushing aside the damp soil we discover three mossy bricks.

‘Here is the chapel yard enclosed with pales’.

We have found Clare’s chapel.

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Ruth Bradshaw, Barbara Claridge, Wendy Constance, Claire Pearson and Judith Wolton are all mature students on the Wild Writing MA at The University of Essex. Rounding off a module on Psychogeography, they undertook a ‘group dérive – searching for synchronicity’ on a recent field visit to Epping Forest on the trail of John Clare. Walking and writing, the group collection was created with their individual accounts.

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Epping Forest – in the footsteps of Clare

Liam Xavier and fellow Psychogeography students lose themselves in Epping Forest in pursuit of John Clare. Photos © Ben Thomas

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Wednesday 15th March  saw a class of Psychogeography students attempt to follow in the footsteps of poet John Clare through Epping Forest on an abnormally sunny day. As a log line, it may not be the most convincing introduction to a film or a book. There’s a sort of failed semi-thriller, semi-coming-of-age vibe to it but it correctly sums up the day. The rare but welcome appearance of sun and warmth started the trip off to a good beginning. What’s more is once we – we being one of a convoy of cars – arrived at Epping Forest, we were told by our other budding walkers that we had just missed a visit from none other than Prince Harry himself.

Ah, you see! Rare sun, the missed appearance of a prince, all very dramatic stuff to forebode the rest of the walk!

In fact, our original concerns over bad weather and overt muddiness, later contrasted by the eventual beauty and peace, was a rather appropriate collection of emotions to our tracing of John Clare’s footsteps.

Clare’s story is a tricky and upsetting one, but is ultimately full of passion. Having read some of his work, in particular the work we were using as our metaphorical satnav through the woods, it was easy to feel his spirit. We began by observing the site of what would have been the asylum he first lived in from 1837.

We spoke of how walking the wood was meant to be used as a natural medicine to the patient’s problems. As we walked through the entrance of this forest, though mine and Clare’s lives are different, I couldn’t help but feel a similar relief that I imagine he may have felt. Pardon the theatre in my description, but it’s an essentially magical moment. In the same way that leaving a sauna and entering a cold bath in a spa gives you a physical detox, entering the wood was giving us all a mental detox.

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As we walked, we noted the stream Clare talks about, the silent allure of which helped clarify why Clare was so intent on following it through the woods. We spoke of the fallen trees, their colouring showing the slow descent into their old age. We fell over, and sunk into muddy crevices, we climbed, we ducked, we jumped. Away from the humour of trying to avoid what mud there was and the ninja-like appearance of thorn branches, we also took a moment of solitude. We spent five minutes separating ourselves from the main group and finding our own individual path.

What was surprising was how quickly the experience changed.

There was even more silence, not just of the forest, but of ourselves and our friends. At one point the noise from my footsteps even seemed to disappear. I found myself standing by a tree, a seemingly natural amalgamation of surviving trees and fallen trees. Something in its complications and artistic dysfunction, along with the quiet backing of the stream, helped me to imagine how Clare, in his emotional state, might see the beauty in it. As we reconvened we further found another mystery: a piece of stone and fresh daffodils that had been placed on the site of a former chapel. It was positioned almost perfectly where the altar would have been, and we felt there must be some link to Clare. Using the ultimate historical tool of Google and racking our creative brains we came up with several reasons but none that solidified any certainty and so we continued, albeit with a mystery in our minds.

As is typical of a journey into the woods we were briefly lost. We knew we were near some sort of a road, and there was probably an exit … somewhere. But we weren’t sure where and toward which direction was best to go. Though we obviously found our way out there was a wish, at least within me, that we would not leave so early. There was a craving to be lost a little longer and have to discover the woods for some time more before appearing once again toward the ‘normal’ world of cars and the M25.

Away from Epping Forest it is insightful on a larger scale, to understanding others and their behaviour, to be able to retrace the footsteps of a creator. John Clare had an understandable preoccupation with the past, and a gorgeous affinity for reflection. Following his footsteps was a journey that not only brought relaxation and humour, but a further appreciation of his strength and determination to never stop writing.

After completing his BA in Film and Creative Writing at The University of Essex, Liam Xavier is now studying an MA in Playwriting. Having grown up in rural Maldon he has spent much of his time finding comfort and interest in discovering the nature of his surroundings. Coming, also, from a mixed-race heritage he has spent a large portion of his life and time at the University of Essex looking into different cultures and traditions. This is what drew him to not only take the Psychogeography module, but also to focus on nature and culture in much of his writing. He blogs at liamxavier.wordpress.com, tweets @LiamXavier95 and publishes poetry on Instagram @LiamXavier95

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Ornith-ology: The Poetry of Birds

James Canton finds a variety of ornithological offerings in this celebratory anthology produced by Poetry Wivenhoe and Mosaic, Colchester’s Poetry Society Stanza Group.

ornithologycoverAs humans, we are drawn to birds. We delight and wonder in their ways and we have done so for all our existence on earth. Some of the finest poetry written is on birds. Think of John Clare. Think of Keats and his nightingale. Think of the ecstatic prose-poetry of J. A. Baker glorying in his hunt for what he thought were the last peregrines of Essex. Then there’s the diary poetics of Gilbert White whose simple journal entry on the return of the swallows to Selborne on April 13th 1768 exemplifies that sense of birding glee: ‘Hirundo domestica!!!’

In Ornith-ology, there arrives the latest anthology of bird poetry in this finest of ancestral traditions. The poems are a spry and sprightly collective of pieces all gathered from the pens of Poetry Wivenhoe and Mosaic, Colchester’s Poetry Society Stanza Group, under the watchful eye of editor Tim Cunningham, whose own poetry often holds bird-based themes. Six sumptuous illustrations work wonderfully to frame the poems.

In ‘Crow’, Karen Dennison offers a depiction of a shamanic transformation as ‘I pull on the shape of the crow’s/ silhouette, wear it like a hooded coat’ and we feel the sense of a self-shifting. In ‘Curlew’, as in other offerings, there is a feeling of the local meeting exotic distant worlds. We step into lands where ‘the wind soughs across the Baikal steppes’ and there in the forbidding foreign soils of Siberia hear the same haunting cry of the curlew we hear on the marshes and estuaries of the Essex coastlines: ‘coorr-li, coorr-li’. Some of the poems show a welcome playfulness with gentle tales of avian adventures. In ‘He kept calm and carried on’, Stewart Francis glories in the pigeon who ‘hopped/into the Tube/at one station where we stopped.’ In ‘The Nightjar and the Swift’ by Candyce Lange, those two birds of the title meet ‘for lunch under the eave of a sixteenth century pub/in the tiny village of Nowhere, Norfolk.’

For many birders, the notion of capturing and captivating birds is quite wrong. In ‘Chained’ by Judith Wolton, the falcon only ‘flies as though free’. She is ‘head hooded/feet tied – the jesses clasped/ in the falconer’s hand.’ Yet the relations between human and bird are not always so badly bound. In ‘Benjamin Britten Walks Out in Spring’ Pam Job sees the composer with ‘ears that pick apart the songs of birds’ who catches snippets of a nightingale and ‘hears a cadenza; a cello perhaps’. In ‘Duck Removed from Gresley Tribute Statue at Kings Cross’, Mike Harwood remembers engine designer and duck fanatic Sir Nigel Gresley  whose ‘garter-blue Mallard’s distinctive livery/matches the duck’s iridescent purple blue flurry’ and whose duck-less statue at Kings Cross will tell only half his tale until ‘pro-duckers … will place duck tributes/ at the foot of the statue.’ So it should indeed be. For birds are our daily companions — in observing their ways our lives are lifted and enlivened. We should celebrate them and their various ways just as Ornith-ology does.

James Canton is course director of the MA in Wild Writing: Literature, Landscape and the Environment at the University of Essex. His book Ancient Wonderings: Travels in Prehistoric Britain is forthcoming with HarperCollins.

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Wild in Manchester

Recent MA Wild Writing graduate Tilly Renyard recounts the nature lost and found in her move from Essex to Manchester. Photo of a common darter ©  Tilly Renyard.

common-darter

There is a lot to be said about what is wild in Manchester; in part it is my decision to move here.

I recently moved from an estate in Essex, where tawny owls howled through my bedroom window at night, and by day, there were at least five species of butterfly on the ten-minute excursion to One-Stop.

One-Stop is not the only thing that appeared to stop up north. My pessimism could be fuelled by the near two-hundred mile shift, but more fairly by the transition from summer into autumn, even if I did always claim it was my favourite season.

From June to September I would wake in Essex to the colour of my curtains and instantly know it was a good day for dragons. A track length away sat three modest sized trout pools. All attracted insects in equal bounty. Darters were the most common, yet I had seen hawkers – southern and migrant – and emperors from time to time; even a four-spot chaser. Its short, stout ‘body’ visually sets it apart from the others. The slight yellow-gold glow on the wing, as though stained from exposure to the sun, looks remarkable surrounding the four bold spots that gave it its name.

For another version of wild beauty try behind the trout pools, where the Colne runs narrow and shallow. This is the perfect place to be pleasantly surprised, by British wildlife and by insects, two seemingly uninspiring notions.

The banded demoiselle favours the stream with a gentle flow. The female is slender and bronze, like a brass needle, she rests on blackthorn that overhangs the water and is almost unrecognisable until she takes flight.

The male exhibits the name. His wings, as though blotted with ink, darken before the tip, which is translucent in poor lighting. He is also metallic; his colour changing dependant on angle and light, but it is something between emerald and teal.

It had been six days in the city when I realised I had not seen a slug. There have, however, been a few countable moments that remind me of home. Or rather, remind me that I am home.

I remember the feeling of every butterfly sighting I have had in the city of Manchester, because they were intense and I am dramatic, yes, but mainly because I can count to four.

There was a speckled wood, appropriately, amongst the trees in Heaton Park. It was beating the air where dust caught the light. A vast contrast to the first time I had seen a butterfly in Manchester, a sight that almost knocked me hopeless.

It had been a miraculous sighting of the red admiral. Down a busy A-road, lined with outlet and trade-only stores. It was caught in a whirlpool of traffic movement and fumes, whisked around and sucked into the path of a heavy goods vehicle. It was caught up and against will. A colour-break that excited and saddened me in equal measures.

The second admiral, a few weeks later, in the final days of October, had been basking in a block just parallel to my own. This one was in impeccable condition. It was still, resting on buddleia, and made me late to work.

It was captivating. I saw the city with white spots and tangerine tips. I almost saw the city as beautiful until a gentleman tripped me up to investigate a pill packet discarded in the gutter. I have had moments of romance but overall the city offers an alternate wilderness – a wildness.

By far the wildest creature here is man. At night, he is as active as a city rat and far braver. It has taken time to adjust, to move from Essex, a place where opportunities for intimacy with nature were abundant. I should say farewell to old ideas of nature, and be ready to embrace what it may mean to the city. The word still exists, I just have to describe it.

Tilly Renyard is a fresh graduate from the University of Essex, where she achieved a distinction in the MA Wild Writing. The degree enabled her to complete a work placement at a nature reserve, where she found infinite inspiration through observing the motions of nature. Tilly has always loved the outdoors and uses it as an integral part of her creative method. Her recent move to the city has challenged her previous conception of the word “wild.” Whatever it may mean, she continues to enjoy writing.

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Litle Baddow – retracing Baker

Heidi Crowell and the MA Wild Writing group head to the Essex village of Little Baddow on the trail of J. A. Baker. Photos © Ben Thomas.

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The MA Wild Writers were off out again on a field trip on Wednesday 23rd November. Our destination was the village of Little Baddow, near Chelmsford, Essex. The aim was to retrace the footsteps of J. A. Baker, as recounted in his classic work of nature writing, The Peregrine (1967).

We looked to find Baker’s wisdom for the day, only to find that there is, in fact, no diary entry for November 23rd in The Peregrine. Perhaps that was Baker’s way of telling us to go out and find it ourselves. Nevertheless, his presence remained excellent company. If you had a penny for each time someone said, “Baker would have known what that was,”you’d have been able to afford the huge red house behind the trees.

dsc_1001We were looking for clues in the landscape, for echoes, small-mirrors of the words that Baker left us nearly fifty years ago. The drive from the university took us as far as a layby beside the chapel, but we chose our feet by no accident, knowing our search would take us far off the road.

The ford and the creek were central to our wanderings, as two of the major placeholders of our route. The bridge was sturdy enough to fit us all, and we spent just one precious moment in silence; ten of us there, gathering the space, trying to use every sense at once.

The favourite sight of the day was the lonely crow perching atop the “gnarled and twisted oak”, like an extension of its silhouette. Don’t tell him, but he was our peregrine that day.

If the New Nature Writers have taught us anything, it’s the importance of finding the sublime in small spaces. This was my thought when I looked over to Wendy, who was sporting a grey feather she’d hand-picked from the ground out of all the gems of Little Baddow. She beamed and said, “This is my finding for today.”

Mine were three golden leaves out of the autumn carpet strewn by the great wall of Lombardy poplars that divided the fields from the site of the old orchard.

After a wander through the site of the old orchard, we made a short lunch stop in the company of Baker’s favourite bench and paid our homage to the grave of Billy Wildman at the Parish Church. We visited the local history centre behind the chapel. It was quite a delight to hear that the locals also knew of J. A. Baker, writer of Essex worlds. The words of Chris, the curator we met that day, make a fitting conclusion for our trip:

“He became the bird.”

He did. And he can still be seen there in his homelands.

 

Heidi Crowell currently studies the MA Wild Writing at Essex University, after completing her BA in Literature with the university in 2016. Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Heidi is an American student who has lived in East Anglia since the age of 7. The experience of having two homes has inspired her passion for Transatlantic literature, art and philosophy, all of which deeply inform her studies of the complicated relationship between human culture and the natural landscape.

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Walking the Sailor’s Path

Helen Chambers walks the Sailors Path from Saxmundham to Aldeburgh, and the sea, on one of the coldest days of the year. Photos © Helen Chambers.

The East Suffolk Line passes through the loveliest countryside in the region, in my opinion, and our walk to Aldeburgh along the Sailor’s Path, on one of the coldest days of the year, began at Saxmundham Railway Station. Members of the group had joined the train along the way, some from as far afield as Stowmarket in west Suffolk. I cheated: driving to Woodbridge and catching the train at the pretty riverside station. A community rail partnership group has published walks linking all of the stations on the line, between Ipswich and Lowestoft, eliminating the need to drive. Today’s walk was a midweek guided linear walk of 9.5 miles, requiring return to Saxmundham by local bus.

Suffolk Coast and Heaths provide a guide to the intriguingly-named Sailor’s Path, suggesting starting at popular Snape Maltings, but our route south from Saxmundham enabled us to see a primary school with unusual thatched roof at Benhall Green, and to cross the village ford before climbing up onto Red Lane into the space and openness which characterises this part of Suffolk. Puddles were rigid with ice and a heavy frost traced delicate patterns round leaf-edges, all lit by a low-hanging sun in the bluest of skies. Cold nipped at our fingers and toes, but brisk walking kept us warm. Soon, the path converged with the long-distance Sandlings Way, and much of the walk was on hard surfaces, making the going easier – excellent winter walking. Turning east onto the Sailor’s Path official near Snape Warren saw a more heath-like landscape.

The name Sailor’s Path is the stuff of romantic smuggler’s tales which abound here, but a more prosaic suggestion is that sailors, stuck on mud banks around Snape at low tide, abandoned their boats and walked back along the path to Aldeburgh. However it gained its name, the path leads through an attractive mix of marsh, reedbed, wet woodland, heathland, grassland and scrub, and has panoramic views across the Alde estuary. Nearby Snape Marshes are run by The Suffolk Wildlife Trust, and Snape Warren Nature Reserve by the RSPB, so the area is well-managed from a wildlife perspective.

Further along the trail, beautiful Black Heath Wood comprised mainly bright-trunked silver birches casting long shadows in the low angled light. Fly agaric toadstools were past their best, but fresh-looking bracket fungus grew at right angles to some trunks. Boardwalks were welcome through the marshy reedbeds, until we emerged on the heath near Aldeburgh golf club. The footpath cut into the verge here is ‘licensed’, and necessary, being beside the busy main road. We left this direct path into Aldeburgh, choosing the optional longer route north past the Red House, famously inhabited for many years by Benjamin Britten.

Crossing the marshes at North Warren provided clear views to the purpose-built holiday village of Thorpeness, and its House in the Clouds, and beyond to the golf-ball outline of Sizewell. In the foreground, flocks of lapwing fed, greylags flew in V-formation overhead and charms of goldfinches and long-tailed tits flitted around in scrubby trees.

No trip to Aldeburgh would be complete without visiting the shingle beach and our route took us there, conveniently close to Maggi Hambling’s Scallop sculpture, golden in the afternoon sun and for once free of scrambling people. The lines from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’ are punched out of it, and display a stark reminder of the sea’s power. Today, it slept: docile in the sun.

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In Aldeburgh, we wandered around the town and tea rooms (and even the ice-cream parlour) before returning to Saxmundham station by bus. The walk could be done in reverse, beginning with the bus ride, but we agreed there was something satisfying about walking towards the sea. The cold twenty-minute wait for the train was made worthwhile by spectacular sunsets. Dismounting at Woodbridge and facing rush-hour traffic on the A12, I envied those walkers returning home by train.

Helen Chambers holds an MA Creative Writing from the University of Essex and is a member of Wivenhoe Writers. She recently won the Felixstowe Literary Festival Short Story Competition, and in 2014 the Hysteria Flash Fiction Award. She took ‘The Wild East’ (an option from the MA in Wild Writing) as one of her modules, and is always more pleasant to know once she has spent time outdoors. You can email her at helen.ch9@gmail.com.

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