Jennifer Chante lives near the north Essex coast and is currently studying MA Wild Writing. Her dissertation will explore how embodied experiences inform a sense of place (and vice versa) at the Naze. She enjoys beachcombing and watching the wildlife in her garden. You can find her on Instagram @velvet_atoms
“I came to see myself as growing out of the earth like the other native animals and plants. I saw my body and my daily motions as brief coherences and articulations of the energy of the place, which would fall back into it like leaves in the autumn.”
– Wendell Berry
The Naze is a good place for contemplation. I don’t know of anywhere else locally where the temporality of things (geological periods, marine organisms, human-made structures) is so immediately evident. Here you will find iron-stained seashells, recently released from their fifty-million-year stint in the red crag cliff layers, next to WW2 pillboxes sinking into the shore. With each visit, I’m reminded that time is ever marching on; that ancient sea creatures evolved into us, and that, in turn, our concrete structures of war evolve into habits for sea creatures.
These pillboxes were originally built on top of the cliff around 1940. Their position shows the extent of the cliff’s erosion since that time. They’re left sitting quietly on the beach while the land retreats, retreats, and the sea reclaims the clay.
Once the home of anti-aircraft machine guns – artillery designed to shoot down metal and men – the pillboxes now provide a home for seaweed, barnacles and limpets. Sometimes you will see Turnstones running about them, flicking over rocks and clumps to find food.
Even the last remaining pillboxes on top of the cliff are being reclaimed by nature, most notably by the delightfully named Maritime Sunburst lichen. Lichen is formed via a symbiotic relationship between fungus and algae, whereby the fungus creates a safe structure for the algae to live in, and the algae, through photosynthesis, provides carbohydrates to the fungus.
Through this cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship, the fading, crumbling war structures are splashed with bright, cheery yellow. And for all my writerly ambition, I’m not sure I could ever write better poetry than that.
This series of reflections was written following a visit to the writer Ronald Blythe only days before his 100th birthday by the New Nature Writing class (LT904) in November 2023.
Ronald Blythe aged 99 years 362 days old is the oldest person I have ever met.
The famous author lives in a secluded cottage in the heart of the North Essex countryside, bordering on the rolling hills of Suffolk. Our group followed the trail from his home, the beautifully called but unknown meaning, Bottengoms, to his parish church at Wormingford.
He used to travel this path regularly to act as a lay preacher at the church on a Sunday until his age took its toll.
It was a dismal afternoon but at least it had stopped raining and our leader James, promised us it would not rain that afternoon. He must have a direct line to the rain gods because it stayed dry. The clocks had gone back four days before so we all knew that it would get dark earlier but we made the most of it.
The paths were muddy and we made our way slip sliding along the public footpath up and over stiles and through kissing gates, all the time being parallel to the Stour valley. We took the obligatory selfie at one of them. The mixture of autumn colours of the yellow, gold and green fields, woods and meadows of Suffolk were on the horizon along with the odd farmhouse and church spire.
My mind kept wandering to the Tudor time when Queen Elizabeth 1st is recorded as hunting deer in the valley staying at the long since disappeared hunting lodge.
The stop at the church was made more memorable by us being escorted by Barry the bell ringer. His proud stories of the history of the church and his nationwide journeys to ring the bells in many old historic churches rolled off his tongue in the lilt of his broad North Essex accent.
Our trip back was getting darker and darker. We were greeted on the way by a magnificent ram, his horns curling from his head like mirrored whirling fireworks. He was guarding his harem, looking over his fence as if he was expecting us to pay a toll to get through.
It was a great bonding session for our group and we all took the chance to have conversations with each other. Mine ranged from cricket and football with Ibrahim, bird patterned back packs with Anupa to comparing studies with Charlotte.
Kamakshi our expert photographer has sent us the photographs from the day, strangely the lighting seems a lot brighter than it actually was.
There are these leaves I saw, right at the end of our walk, and amongst its weathered
brown features were these thick textured veins, on a human I would have called them
varicose, but on the leaves they looked like the dusty paths back home, the swollen
rivers and winding leaping brooks, all damaged by the very feet that held them precious.
I remember having to take a picture of it. It wasn’t a choice, it was a reckoning. The
broad tapered edges of the leaves were damaged as well, disintegrating, breaking
away, leaving only memories behind. I registered, in slight jealousy, that enough time
had passed for them that they could return to a part of the world I could only half way
occupy. It’s almost rude, how, when you grow up in nature, you are eventually taught the
cruel lesson that you must one day be ‘civil’, that staying out and sleeping on trees is for
little girls who don’t have to be “more”. As if the idea of more couldn’t be the earth that
raised them. That swimming with snakes is for someone who is not an adult. There are
trees in my memories that have given me more than my father ever could. There is rain
that has washed away more tears than any flimsy promise the world has given me.
I had to kneel down in the wet grass to get the right angle, to properly frame the
strongest equalizer, the circle of life. The green healthy leaves on top, and their brown
dying brethren at the bottom. One day the green leaves would too fall, turn brown, but
for anyone who paid attention in their biology classes there would no doubt, they too
would eventually grow again, their death would provide their life. And how could I not
capture that in my little box, such a clear indication of a cycle that has existed for years
before me and will exist years after me. I remember getting up from that picture with
sticky wet clothes and painful stones digging into my feet. I struggle to care. Of a
preconceived idea of civility, of an idea of being proper, that does not include the world I
grew up in.
The wooden floors in huge empty mansions are only a walk on death, you use broken
nature to build your homes, not caring that if you continue down this path, one day it will
be all gone. And it will take us with them. But don’t think of nature as your benevolent
friend. It’s like those varicose veins, twisty, lumpy, bulging, uncomfortable. It does not
know how not to hurt you, does not know how to be civil and proper, because it does not
care. But that is okay because when I go on a walk and drift past the gently floating
autumn leaves, the maps the feathery veins make, remind me of home.
On gala days, an unforgettable spectacle develops as Jimmy Measures goes into hyperproduction and performs wild flights of fancy. He plays variations on the theme of a given object and embroiders ‘formal extensions’ that amuse him for hours on end, to the delight of the non-figurative artist and the despair of the scientist, who is at a loss to grasp any common theme in the performance. Measures can produce ‘primitive’ simplifications, but is just as likely to indulge in ‘baroque’ deviations, – paroxysms of extravagant brilliance. Scientists were soon forced to admit that there was not the slightest prospect of communication, and that the entire process began and ended with the reproduction of forms.
“The idea of Forest Bathing is a simple one. The term is a direct translation of the Japanese practice known as Shinrin-yoku, meaning bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses. It’s one of the many incredible tools now available to help us connect back to nature and ultimately, back to ourselves.”[i] -Justine Clement
A day immersed in the forest begins with a trip to Tandridge parish church. I’ve told Justine Clement what it is I’m looking for: an expert Shinrin-yoku guide… and can we visit some yew trees? In the car, Justine is chatting ten to the dozen about wood and air, water and fire, and I have so many questions bubbling up, I’m struggling to contain myself. I’d been hoping we’d get along. I think it’s fair to say we hit it off.
We pull up at the church and head through the lychgate. My eyes widen and my jaw goes slack. “I’ll give you a minute,” Justine says. The Tandridge Yew is huge, its bole 36ft, according to Chetan and Brueton,[ii] and it’s noted on the Ancient Yew Group’s list of Ancient-Exceptional Yews.[iii] Partially hollowed, as all ancient yews are. I stand inside and I’m in the most beautiful cathedral on the planet; just me alone with the architect. Intricate carvings and ornate detailing all around, painstakingly created over thousands of years. The pope’s wealth couldn’t buy this.
Back outside, I dip under the ancient lady’s single prop, which extends at shoulder height to make landfall 20ft away like a gnarled old walking stick. New shoots reach skywards in constant regeneration so that the tree would carry on even if she was to fall ill. The other side, without an entrance, is a sheer wall of wood. Whorls cascade down and I begin to think of her like a waterfall. This tree isn’t in stasis; she’s pumping life and energy around her massive frame.
Justine re-joins me and we begin to talk —words more hushed than in the car. She suggests we engage all the senses. Or the majority of them at least. Taste wouldn’t be a good idea with a yew, the only part not poisonous is the bright-red flesh of the female yew’s aril. I approach the tree again: trace it with my fingers gently; breathe in deeply through the nose; lightly put my ear to the wood; press my cheek against it. Justine hands me an eye loop and, in quiet reverence, we view new universes through lenses a little larger than pupils.
We take a seat on a churchyard bench positioned to take in the yew. Justine talks me through a few more principles of Shinrin-Yoku. Our presence is reciprocal. We are here to engage ourselves with the trees. We should make offerings —leave a votive, perhaps, or let her know how grateful we are to have been in her presence. Justine has some dried rose petals with her for this purpose. We split up again and I take my time over another circumnavigation. My palms trace the whorls as I offer my thanks and, when I stand back, my eyes prickle. Emotion rises inside me and I am very nearly overcome because the Tandridge Yew, in this moment, seems to be the only thing that matters. My voice wobbles as we head back to the car.
“It’s not unusual for people to have that reaction,” Justine says. “It seems you understand.”
“I’m not sure I do,” I reply.
“That’s a nice answer.”
We park at our next stop a short walk away from the boneyard. The Crowhurst Yew is pretty famous, for a tree. It’s also listed as an Ancient-Exceptional Yew. A ledge-and-brace door was installed in an opening of its hollow bole, and it was once kitted out with seats and a table to host meetings of the Parochial Church Council. It’s 4,000 years old, according to Chetan and Brueton, 2,000 years older than Tandridge. A civil war cannonball was removed from its ancient limbs. I like to think of this as the work of a prankster as I’m not sure many civil war skirmishes took place here at the far edge of the weald.
Crowhurst is a male yew, and he’s been butchered, chained, and set upon over his long life. Like footage of the lads coming home from the trenches, he’s propped up, leaning on mere sticks, yet still straight-backed, proud and absolutely magnificent. The cylinder is the strongest object humankind can engineer, and I imagine that this hollow hard wood, peppered with open wounds, will still be standing long after humankind has ceased its reign of terror.
A small sign, partially obscured with bird droppings, reads:
THE TREE COUNCIL
IN CELEBRATION OF
THE GOLDEN JUBILEE OF
QUEEN ELIZABETH II
THE CROWHURST YEW
one of fifty
GREAT BRITISH TREES
in recognition of its place
in the national heritage
Supported by National Grid
We sit beneath the spread of his branches. We seek to zone into the peace of the churchyard, but the farmyard next door is carrying out some work with a pneumatic drill. I do manage to achieve some kind of peace in the brown noise and snatch a minute —a few seconds, maybe —before the aural chaos of the universe crashes back. We part ways and wander separately around the graves. I greet the juvenile yews in turn. Male yews release clouds of pollen, which drift on the wind to find ready flowers. The ripe aril is often consumed —they’re a particular favourite of song thrushes, with the pip passing through the digestive system or being regurgitated due to over-eating, and germinating in a pool of faecal matter. Just another one of nature’s symbiotic relationships. Each of these nearby churchyard yews would have grown from a flower pollinated by Crowhurst. Justine and I meet by the back gate, where a footpath extends across fields and we have a sour blackberry each. There’s no sign of the M25 but I know it’s there somewhere before the escarpment rises to Biggin Hill and Down House.
Sneaking a peek inside the simple but decorative church, Justine encourages me to close off visual input. It’s quiet, and the aroma of pew polish begins to take prominence. “We’re very visual creatures” Justine says, “but we can experience more without relying on our eyes.” Stand in a quiet, reverent space, close the eyes and wait. It doesn’t take long before I begin to feel unbalanced. We’re visual, yes, and we’re mobile as well. Take those urges away and muscles begin to wander on their own, searching for purpose. I feel like I’m going to fall over. I straighten up and mentally scan myself from the feet up. It works, but it’s still a relief to see again.
On the way out, we pay our respects to another venerable yew. This one stands by the lychgate, casting its branches over the church’s wheelie bins and a portaloo. We marvel at the bark slowly enveloping the stumps of limbs taken by the tree surgeon some years ago. Through the eye loop, the tiny cracks look like footpaths rendered on an Ordnance Survey map. The pneumatic drill continues to make its presence felt. We head back to the car.
Justine knows the spot to head for, but first she tells me about woodland tea. Bramble and hawthorn are tasty this time of year. Offering thanks to the plants for providing us with sustenance, she picks some choice leaves to add to the thermos. We then take a moment to offer our gratitude to the woodland for having us in its sphere. We tread lightly and with respect. It’s a short distance to an oak which must have been spared the WWII clearances. An oak is three hundred years growing, three hundred years an adult, and three hundred years retrenching, given the chance. This oak looks older than the eighty-odd years that have elapsed since the war, but then it’s another rule of thumb that trees are generally not as old as they look. The exception is, of course, the yew, which is usually much older than you can dare to think. We stand before this oak in its clearing. It is spreading its limbs evenly in order to capture as much sunlight as possible. Moss and lichen creep down its bole. The word ‘majestic’ is often used to describe oaks and it is clear why. This tree is utterly breath-taking.
There is a way of reconnecting ourselves with nature. Storytelling can locate our mortal, fallible selves within the seemingly consistent natural world. Our imaginations are powerful. We sit and describe what we can see. Justine is great at this, keeps it simple, draws my attention to detail. We then wonder what stories the tree would tell us. We know about the clearances, and the boys going to war, but we could go in any direction. Then Justine asks, “What do you see in the tree that resembles you?”, and with this simple question she creates a connection between the tree and myself, ourselves, because if we can see ourselves in nature then maybe we’d take better care of it. Maybe we’d value it for itself and not just for its potential profit.
I’m struggling, though. I’m not strong, I’m not wise, maybe I’m a bit gnarled, but then I’m struck by its branches: reaching out in all directions, diminishing, criss-crossing, leafy clumps the shape of soft sweetbreads, and the canopy begins to resemble a brain. Neural pathways pulsing with energy, going awry, short-circuiting but still somehow working. It’s reflecting neurodivergence back at me. I didn’t take my meds today, I mention, I wanted to let my mind fizz and absorb the experience, to make connections in its own way. And here I am, entirely surrounded and enraptured by the woodland.
The connection is made, and my next invitation is to engage the parasympathetic nervous system. The aim is to release the fight/flight/freeze response and engage rest/digest/recover. Justine suggests I sit with my back resting on the trunk. Get comfortable, then focus on a small area. Keep my gaze there until I see something move. Look softly and notice. Then alter the gaze further, nearer, to the side slightly, up or down, repeat. “I’ll leave you for a bit.”
I begin in the middle foreground, where my gaze would naturally sit, focus gently on the hazel at the edge of the woodland, and wait. A light breeze sweeps through, enough to sway the leaves. I look a bit further back. A cabbage white saunters past. I look up a bit and to the side. I notice a spindly shoot of birch dipping under its own weight. Then down. Tall grass heavy with seed, a cricket flits, a strand of caterpillar silk catches the light as it floats past, a tiny spider is walking unhurriedly across my thigh. The world melts away. I am part of the woodland.
After a time, Justine returns.
“How was it?” she asks, gently.
“Bliss” I eventually reply.
“Better check your legs for ticks.”
We wander slowly, quietly, deeper into the trees, noting both the decay accelerated by the drought as well as hopeful green shoots. Finding a spot beneath an understory yew, we lie down looking up into the canopy and the sky beyond. We take off our shoes and socks —the ground is soft and dry—and let our gaze enter soft fascination. Beyond the yew branches are beech and something else, taller. A tin bird in the further distance crosses my field of vision leaving a puffy white contrail. I imagine sinking into the welcoming ground to be enveloped by mycorrhizal fungi, embraced by yew roots, becoming part of the ecosystem. I don’t know where I end and the woodland begins: the soles of my feet, my fingertips, my tongue, or my lungs breathing it all in? All sense of time melts away.
I’ve no idea how long I was there, but I come to in a gentle awakening. The woodland tea is ready, the foraged leaves have been steeping while we lay. Justine pours the brew into Japanese porcelain cups. The tea is subtle and refreshing, made directly from the terroir of our surroundings. Someone stops on the nearby footpath, having a noisy and indiscreet phone conversation about her family while she waits for her companions to shuffle up the slight incline. She doesn’t notice us sitting cross-legged under the yew. We laugh about the chaos of the universe.
We leave our gifts for the woodland and head slowly back to the car park in near silence. I’m observing the surroundings more closely. We haven’t had rain in weeks and the woodland is stressed, but it functions still as an animated set of organs: lungs, brain, and parasympathetic nervous system. We stop, turn, and thank the woodland for having us. “I thought I was going to like it” I say, “but I didn’t realise how much I was going to love it”.
It wouldn’t be a rural car park without a stack of fly-tipped tyres and rubble sacks. This is somewhere in Albion, after all. We’re heading back and chatting again, and I’m the same as I was before, but ever so slightly different. I wonder if I do understand. I wonder if I even want to understand. If I’ve understood anything, it’s that I want to spend more time in the woodland, and more than anything, I want everybody else to want that too.
My grateful thanks to Justine Clement, my guide and tutor.
The LT-909 Psychogeography: Practices in Memory Maps class took a trip to Orford Ness.
Using a prompt from W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, we collected brief writings from the students and teachers:
“Where and in what time I truly was that day in Orfordness I cannot say,
even now as I write these words.”
Elizabeth Bennett, course lecturer
Where and in what time I truly was that day in Orfordness I cannot say, even now as I write these words. It seemed to be that my feet traversed that bleak landscape even as my eyes travelled over the many miles of marking that day, and my heart was with the walkers even as my body accepted the restraints of the desk chair. What I saw was an excel spreadsheet, what I felt was a grey horizon.
James Canton, course lecturer
A land of sky and stone. A place where hares gather, where deer tear free. To think, here – hidden away from the gaze of others – men once planned and plotted and prepared ways to kill other men. Best left for the hares and deer, and for the German Sea to edge away.
We stand on the lookout, meant to be admiring the craters,
where the lighthouse was just dis
I shut my eyes,
turning to the wind,
and hear a distant ringing…
Is it a classmate’s exhilaration
at the whipping wind
or displaced tinnitus
Orford Ness. Time’s lying around everywhere. It’s in the ridges (fulls), painstakingly built by long shore drift. One full marks the edge of the land, then the sea starts on the next, laying out time horizontal – you could leap across centuries if you didn’t have to stick to the paths.
Time’s in the stuff of the fulls too: ancient pebbles rubbing against flints rubbing against amber that, 40 million years ago, was resin dripping down a Baltic pine.
As is the way of these things, ancient twists with modern. Plants and lichens nestled down in the centuries, forming ridges of vegetated shingle along the fulls.
Then man found time for Ness. The air buckled with explosives, secrets and lies. Like any abuse, it thrived behind closed doors. Ness served, for decades, then men left. It lay silent, waiting. Ness, no longer useful, was passed from the MOD to the NT.
In the time I tentatively call now, we visit Ness. We carry our brief time spans over our shoulders (they don’t amount to much). Time is thick and rusting around ruined laboratories, firing ranges and the remains of ordnance. Moss makes steady progress in its bid to turn the tracks into green ways; hares dance, and balls of lichen blow across the shingle ages.
‘It’s soothing,’ says the NT woman. I’m struggling. I would like to smile in whole hearted joy at the games of the hares. I would like to shake my head at the folly of yesterday and be seeped in the relief of now, when we know better; but we don’t. Atomic Weapons Establishment Aldermaston continues to produce the ‘extraordinary product’; staff can raise ethical concerns.
It’s seems likely that Ness has nearly done. As we burn on, Ness will go under. The sea will slop into the bomb testing pits and rub out our shame. Ness time – will stop.
The tombstones of military progress crumble beneath the tendrils of Mother Nature, slow and persistent, reclaiming what is hers. She doesn’t recognise linear progression or time; she is cyclical. I find myself placed at her mercy, myself a crumbling tombstone, in no time at all.
It’s all about the sky
Lying flat to escape the wind raking off the sea and
in truth, to tether myself to the earth under this vast unsettling expanse of sky,
I stare up into the blue.
Skylarks rise where bombs once fell
(Dropping bombs from planes was a novel idea in 1914.)
Bombs are extinct on the Ness. The larks may not be far behind
(The UK population has plummeted by 75 per cent since 1972.)
How (on earth) can we contemplate a sky without Skylarks but not without bombs?
Even sandwiched between shingle and gravity, the thought cuts me adrift.
I place pebbles over my eyes for ballast.
amidst a liminal boundary that seems
unceasing and unending.
Orford Ness – oneiric, silenced
Where is the ferryman?
Goldless i stand,
and friended by distant hares.
Knowing hares, unperturbed and alert,
Just waiting with the horizon’s patient fixity.
All photos were taken by Madeleine Last during the field trip, unless otherwise indicated.
Madeleine Last is a Wild Writing student at the University of Essex, mother, nature lover, chocolate enthusiast, curious observer of all things great and small.
In the winter months, one learns to appreciate the night sky. But spring is here – April comes with stretched days and glistening, new verdure. My eye is drawn from the depths of crisp winter night skies to the soils of spring and its delicacies.
I’m in Colchester Castle Park and I am one of many. Mothers with buggies chat on benches and children kick a ball around on the greenery below. The sky is full of its usual trickery – larimar blue with hypnotising swirls. The outline of sky wanderers visible in the near-bare branches above. Vocal in their resting places. The perpetual drill of a Great Tit – my springtime morning alarm – drowns out all other efforts of song. Trees are gradually filling with unfurling vigour. I find myself kneeling upon the dirt, fondling tiny, soft leaves just out of the ground. Spring is so elegant – my clumsy frame an insult to this place. I fumble about on my knees and elbows, trying not to destroy anything. I think for a moment of J A Baker’s The Peregrine, and my ‘aimless stumbling ways, the tombstone whiteness of my face’[i] in the vibrancy of season. I smile.
The dainty petals of False Forget-Me-Not and miniscule bells of Grape Hyacinth spray this spot with pleasing purples. I touch a delicate stem. So thin and fragile yet in absolute defiance of gravity. It is steady en route to the sun. I think about the forces at play. Gravitropism causes roots to grow towards gravity and stem to grow against it. Something to do with cellular elongation, but it baffles me still. All of those hours spent contemplating the winter night sky – the gravitational pull of celestial bodies; orbital cycles and the very stuff of life so dependent on that continuity of equilibrium of force – thrown to the wind with this little spring flower and its brilliant brain of cellular instruction. So strong in its fragility. I find my feet; gravity is not my friend.
I move down the winding path parallel to Ryegate Road and turn right towards an empty bench. I become so aware of the weight of my step; of the everyday interactions with force, of weight and lightness. A cabbage butterfly flits by, jovial as always. A poem springs to mind: The Centrifuge: Weight and Lightness by Andrew Wynn Owen. I don’t remember it all but parts of it float about my mind.
‘Lightness is the mode of butterflies –
A mood to live in, hone, and improvise’
Weeks from now, the spread of leaf and petal will fill the empty space with glory. Light against the breeze, strong in defiance of gravity, and never weak until ready to fall. As I reach the bench, a couple sit, unaware of my presence. She laughs wide against the sky and he fondles the fabric of his jacket sleeve. Her hair is down and somewhat wild and moves rather like the butterfly at times. I pass. There is no shortage of places to sit here.
‘I side with lightness. Lightness always wins.
The eye is drawn to lightness first and last.
Weight’s interruptive brunt vibrates and spins
But lightness can deflect its strongest blast.
Lightness is the sail that pulls the mast!’[ii]
I find my bench and look down to children playing upon the green, framed by remnants of Roman wall and complemented with two grand maple trees. It’s hard not to look at people in love; a privilege to play witness to. The forces of the human heart dumbfound me. It beats before the development of anything. It is fierce, persistent, prevalent. There are times when you think it could stop, but it doesn’t. There are times when it feels heavy, and times it feels so light.
I read somewhere that the electromagnetic field of the heart is greater in amplitude than that of the brain. It extends several meters outside of the body. I do not know if this is correct, but I think about the way in which this force connects people; how we respond unknowingly to the heartbeat of another. It’s a frightening prospect; to be so vulnerable to force. I think about the frail spring flower, its stem rising in negative gravitropism, providing place for petal to bathe against the sky and call for pollination. It has to grow through that moment of fragility, vulnerable to the gauche movement of humankind; ‘the insanity of our flailing gestures and erratic scissoring gait.’[iii] We fear – in our destructive ways – an openness of the heart, yet it is perhaps in accepting this vulnerability that we are at our strongest, for butterflies are the mode of love.
[i] J. A. Baker, The Peregrine, (William Collins eds, 2015), P.92
[ii] Andrew Wynn Owen, The Multiverse, (Carcanet Press, Manchester, 2015), P.102[iii] J. A. Baker, The Peregrine, (William Collins eds, 2015), P.92
[iii] J. A. Baker, The Peregrine, (William Collins eds, 2015), P.92
Most of Aparna Kapur’s friends are imaginary, and she is happiest when she’s making things up. When she takes a break from writing (which is often), she can be found poring over a book or pouring herself a large cup of coffee. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Wild Writing at the University of Essex.
If you were to look outside your window, you may spot branches against the sky, or leaves and seed pods on the ground. When David Bird looks outside, he sees characters and stories in a magical land.
Wonder has always been a part of David’s life — as a child, running with his friends through the forest; as a designer at LEGO, making action figures for six-year-olds; and now, as the creator of tiny acorn-and-stick people he has christened the Becorns.
I first met the Becorns when a friend showed me an Instagram post. In it, a squirrel ate seeds from an acorn-bowl being held up by a smiling, wide-eyed figure made of acorns and twigs. What struck me, other than the obviously charming picture, was the expression of the squirrel. At best, I expect human-made things to be met with curiosity. This squirrel, though, looked friendly. The squirrel and the Becorn (who, I discovered from the description, is called Joonie) seemed to have been photographed mid-conversation — Joonie regaling the squirrel with an anecdote as she offered her a snack.
This is typically how the Becorns are photographed — spending time and uniquely communicating with creatures (mostly, in a fantastic case of nominative determinism, with birds). At first glance the photographs display a sort of communion between the Becorn and its environment.
Becorns are what Bird describes as “a collaboration with nature”. Taking a photograph like this demands attention to the flora and fauna who frequent the neighbourhood, and an understanding of their habits. “I get a lot of my ideas by just watching the animals,” explains Bird. “For example, I noticed that Eastern Bluebirds like to perch on the highest spot on their birdhouse. So I posed a Becorn in that spot, and lo and behold, they landed on the character’s head.” It is in these behind-the-scenes glimpses that the real relationship at the heart of this project can be seen: the one between David Bird and his environment.
“Becorns are a way for me to connect to the feeling of wonder that I experienced in nature when I was a child,” Bird says of his art. Growing up, Bird had an unbridled experience of nature — roaming the woods near his home in the suburbs, delighting in animals, and racing boats in the stream.
Between running around the forest as a child and looking for acorns in his backyard now, Bird spent time as a toy designer. “I studied Industrial Design at the Rhode Island School of Design. My first job out of school was as a designer for LEGO in Denmark in 2004, designing warrior action figures for their Bionicle line. I fell in love with the process of inventing characters and stories out of the abstract Bionicle robot parts.”
That love followed him home to the US when he left LEGO five years later. “One day I was sweeping the driveway and I looked at the pile of acorns and sticks at my feet. In a flash of inspiration, I realized I could build with natural materials, and apply everything I’d learned at LEGO.”
Binge-read his Instagram posts (yes, that’s a valid activity now), and another thing becomes apparent. The tiny fairy tales which accompany the photographs beautifully depict the spirit of nature. In the last decade or so, human understanding of nature is evolving from a ‘survival of the fittest’–competitive view to one that embodies kindness, cooperation and support. That magical spirit of nature is the one that’s present in Bird’s work. “Most of the toys I designed were intended for 6-year-old boys and featured conflict and good versus evil,” Bird explains, adding that he’s found himself “drawn to lighter, more uplifting themes found in nature such as wonder and generosity.
Below these tiny tales of enchantment, Bird always makes it a point to acknowledge the truth behind the fantastic: the components of his creation. Whether it’s a seed pod making up the body of a creature, or a Becorn’s bell pepper teeth, by mentioning them, he hopes to invite everyone to look at the world the way he does: “A lot of people think I use CGI or something, but if I say, ‘This is an acorn I found in my backyard’, it makes it more accessible.”
While he’s always paying attention to holes in the ground where animals might live, and crows that may let themselves be photographed, he has also learned to accept a certain degree of unpredictability. “I don’t have control over the outcome, and I’m always surprised,” he says. “It feels a little bit like surfing — I’m trying to react to what’s around me.”
Looking at Becorns and reading their stories, it’s hard not to come away feeling hopeful, enthralled and just a little less jaded. Reflecting on how the process has changed him, Bird says, “My appreciation for nature has deepened as a result of my work with Becorns. I’ve become so much more aware of the lives being lived right in my backyard. There’s so much more nuance and complexity than I had ever previously appreciated.”
Haley Down and Aparna Kapur are MA Wild Writing students who edit the blog, and remarkable circumstances led them to writing about this field trip two months late.
In late November 2021, the LT904 class (New Nature Writing) visited Little Baddow, the place where J. A. Baker spent ten years observing, and writing about observing, peregrines. He went on to publish this as The Peregrine, a seminal work in the genre of British nature writing.
After visiting the J. A. Baker archive in the University of Essex library, we followed the path Baker outlined in his maps. In addition to the module lecturer James Canton, we were guided by Baker enthusiast David Simmonds (of www.jabaker.co.uk) and local resident Margaret Martin.
Baker’s route often traversed the open landscapes east of Chelmsford; the village of Little Baddow was where Baker stepped to most regularly to see the last of the peregrines in Essex.
Before our expedition, we fuelled up with butter-pecan tarts supplied by a generous classmate, while David Simmonds read us an excerpt from The Peregrine to get us into the Baker mindset.
As we wandered, we paid attention to placing our feet where Baker must have walked, used our binoculars to look at the sky the way he must have seen it, and wondered about how the landscape had changed since the 1960s.
Currently, in the LT909 class (Psychogeography), we are studying Iain Sinclair’s book, Edge of the Orison. Sinclair retraced, then wrote about, the long walk Essex poet John Clare took after absconding from High Beach Asylum to his home in Northborough. It was interesting to discuss how Sinclair experienced his retracing, after we had done the same in Little Baddow.
On the other side of the bridge on Hurrell’s Lane, we walked by the ford. The field trip almost felt like a treasure hunt because even though the place was new to us, it had been so familiar to Baker that he didn’t leave too many clues to help his readers identify his landmarks.
We also spotted a peregrine in the sky — not sure why Baker found them elusive.
After taking a wrong turn, we made our way towards the orchard. We walked by feathery fields and horses in coats. (Some of us were jealous and wished we had packed more layers.)
Only a handful of plum trees remained from what used to be a sizeable orchard that Baker would often visit.
We stood awhile to admire the crossbeams, the pink structure they supported, and what James identified as an Indian bean tree framing it.
While wandering through the cemetery at the end of our walk, we stopped to admire a yew tree, a favourite of one of our classmates — warning us that yew berry seeds are poisonous!
It was memorable field trip. Our visit to Little Baddow enhanced our understanding as we also retraced the steps of a rather mysterious writer we admire — J. A. Baker. We ended our field trip where we began, carrying little bits of Little Baddow with us.
Haley Down is a current Wild Writing MA student from Ontario, Canada living in Essex. She writes environmental poetry and in her free time she can be found talking to the trees, at her sewing machine, or playing board games with her friends.
The sky in Essex is not like the sky in Ontario. When I’m feeling homesick or, more truthfully, friendsick, I watch the sky and pretend they’re seeing the same one.
I know it’s not true. While my sun rises through heavy golden mist, theirs rests low in clear, dewy dawn.
While my sun sets in this strange, vast sky, theirs is small and distant and shines directly on their faces. They don’t understand me when I say it has more colour — a whole spectrum from amber to violet, disclosing themselves to me for what feels like the first time. I don’t understand it either.
Back home, behind the house I grew up in, is a forest with a dead tree we named The Bus.
My parents took me there when I cried that my brother boarded the school bus and I was too young to go with him. They’d take me to the forest and we’d ride The Bus to “school”, studying maples all afternoon.
When I was old enough I trailed behind my brother like a baby duck, waddling up the school bus steps. A few times, he paid me to do his homework. I’d carry it with me to the river, proudly showing my work to The Bus.
That tree had long been hollow and lifeless but it had been a companion, a confidant as I searched for answers to the great mysteries…
That tree absorbed my tears when once a leech stuck itself to my pinky toe and clung so hard it took flesh when I ripped it off in panic.
I distinctly remember how the clouds over the forest flattened, grew wispy just before dusk began its descent. They looked like unspun silk. I imagined that if I could only reach high enough to tug on one end I’d wind myself in satiny white.
The clouds in Essex are firm, holding the same shape all day. They’re persistent. This, too, is a comfort.
Here, people offer me words like “pushchair” and “loo roll” and in return, I can only ask questions about these foreign shapes, turning them over in my mind, slowly tying them to more familiar phrases:
Cambridge Norfolk Burford London
Town names which also populate the landscape of my Canadian childhood, but these steady clouds ground me not in the familiarities of home but the particularities of this place.
I hadn’t visited The Bus in many years. I’d been too busy writing papers, reading books, driving myself to school. I knew I needed to visit my old friend before I left Canada altogether.
I sat on the wrinkly, rotted trunk and had a strange sense of my young self sitting beside me. I saw how she’d smiled with pride, holding up her brother’s homework. I wanted to hug her, thank her for the belief she’d had in us.
Instead, I patted the tree I’d sat on through all my ages. Had had my first kiss on, had grieved my first heartbreak on and every one since then.
My Essex sky is vast, close, thrillingly unfamiliar. I study it and tonight I confess. The sky in Essex is not like the sky in Ontario. It might be better. It will never be home.
Getting up and out the door before you have a chance to think about it is the knack. Not twenty minutes ago I was tangled in a duvet, the weight of the day already beginning to settle on me. Now I am floating on a mirror of blue sky, with fluffy white clouds far, far below. I savour the illusion for a moment, then spear my paddle into the water, pull and glide.
Suddenly, a blue ball is hurled, its aim straight and true. It glints past, a mere inch from the water’s surface, then curves sharply to land hidden among the reeds. Later, I see it perched on a willow branch – more beak than body, with the hunched shoulders of one used to waiting.
Hunkered down in a kayak, you get a swan’s eye view of river life. Needle-bodied damselflies hover like streaks of blue biro. Pond skaters dance on the water. House martins swoop for insects, close enough for me to hear the whir of their wings. Not seen but heard, a sedge warbler tries out a new set of bleeps and buzzes, worthy of any acid house DJ.
At this point on its journey, the river – my river – flows sedately through a wide, flat-bottomed valley of lush pasture, crisscrossed with ditches and canals. A parade of pylons marches along its southern bank. I have walked here countless times, but last spring, I decided to take to the water. The novelty of exploring my local area some way other than on foot provided a distraction from the fear, uncertainty and anxiety I felt as the pandemic unfolded. But it became much more. A daily ritual of sanctuary and discovery. This is where I learned to slow down, to watch and listen. To be not apart from nature, but a part of it.
The biophilia hypothesis, proposed in the early 1980s by Edward O. Wilson, suggests that humans have an innate need to connect with the natural world. We are moved, soothed and uplifted by nature’s colours, textures and soundscapes. As I immersed myself in the river’s comings and goings while the seasons unfurled, I knew this to be true. I felt a visceral need to keep coming back, to see what happened next – what would hatch or bloom, what would emerge from murky depths or arrive from distant shores?
I followed the river’s fortunes through to late autumn, when my paddle-calloused hands and bare feet got so numb one morning it took until lunchtime to thaw out. I reluctantly hung up my lifejacket for the winter. When I walked along the river after that, it felt like a stranger.
But now I’m back, dragging my kayak through long, dew-soaked grass to the river’s edge, sending clouds of craneflies into the air, their legs dangling like cotton threads. Like the British spring, I’m a little later than planned and the river is already a riot of life. The grey-green reeds and rushes that crowd the banks have made way for more colourful spectators: purple loosestrife, flag iris and meadow buttercups.
The breeze carries the heady scent of meadowsweet and the call of the cuckoo that has returned to the same bend on the river.
The water feels viscous and velvety today. It pushes back against my paddle strokes as I nose the kayak upstream, weaving between yellow water lilies that stand to attention on dinner-plate-sized pads, the wind lifting them like sails. A blue emperor dragonfly alights briefly on the bow of my orange kayak, inadvertently recreating the vibrant colour scheme of the kingfisher. His two sets of wings are like stained glass windows, his eyes like mirrored flight goggles. He is a thing of wonder.
I float silently with the current, allowing the kayak to bump softly into the bank and come to rest. It’s almost time to head home, but first I’ll sip coffee from my flask and cherish the taste of freedom.
AnneHadley reflects on the class trip to Bottengoms in Essex, on November 4, 2021, as part of LT 904: The New Nature Writing, led by Dr. James Canton.
‘Meet outside the theatre at 12’, said James.
Everyone’s there, and smiling. There’s an air of festivity.
We’re being let out.
Mandy, Aparna and I travel with Rick, one of our company’s generous drivers.
‘Army’, I say. ‘You must be good at navigation’.
‘No’, says Rick, turning on the sat nav. We overshoot our destination only slightly, and return to find Maddy and Jim on the verge, smiling and waving to indicate the parking place.
Ronnie’s drive is holed, rutted, and puddled, sunk deep by passage, cradled by hedges and trees. We walk with chatter and laughter, light-heartedly treading the path once negotiated by tired, working feet.
Bottengoms grows up from the garden, its long back roof mossed, and gutters bright with leaves. It is wrapped in quiet. Living amongst such beauty must leave a trace on its denizens; it must surely come out in their living. I think of John and Christine Nash, and Ronnie, and their long creative lives.
Ronnie would like to see us, we are told, and we tread in softly. Low beams, warmth and colour; paintings, and crammed bookshelves. Ronnie, 99, has an eager brightness, a gentle pride in a life well lived, and is keen to share his beautiful home with his visitors.
The brick floor undulates, as if the ground beneath has a gentle sea roll. I remember Ronnie’s brick music and wiggle my toes experimentally. The bricks move, clinking into their elfin music.
Then over the fields to the church: Ronnie’s way. I walk with dreams of autumn fire and psilocybin amongst the cow pats (lovely Aparna, with her sharp eyes and generous smile).
The church, quiet and beautiful, still has something of its ancient consequence. Ignoring the open gate, we take the old steps over the bulging churchyard wall, a stile for easy access when animals needed to be kept out, or in. Inside is the thick church air — a holy fug of decaying flowers, polish and prayer. I subside into a pew, the usual prickle of indignation at church control and club conditions, arguing with its sure peace, sure way and no worries (go on, you know you want to…).
I tut impatiently at myself and join the others around a pillar, where James is showing medieval graffiti by the light of an iPhone. Daisy wheels — circles filled with perfect geometric petals — were carved as spells, prayers and protection in days when evil was out to get you, and wouldn’t stop at the church door. These hexfoils, with their curving and interacting lines, were made to attract and entrap evil spirits. Nothing, it seems, can resist a path that twists and turns; only Romans want to go straight.
We wander from the church, along the lane, to a good viewpoint. Our eyes stretch out. James plots the boundary between Essex and Suffolk, then peoples the landscape — those are the woods where Deakin walked with Nash, and I wander off with them, only returning when the word ‘cello’ reaches me through the trees. James is pointing out a chapel on a hill where a cello once created magic by candlelight.
Back to the cars, talking still, but a quieter company now — replete after a day when time was taken to witness.