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

Othona 3

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

Othona 4

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

Orford ness 1

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.

Orford ness 9

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

Orford ness 10

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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.

DSC_8521WP_20160227_09_20_42_ProWP_20160220_12_38_31_Pro

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.

Group derive 1

<-><-><-><-><->

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.

 <-><-><-><-><->

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

group derive 2

<-><-><-><-><->

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.

 

group derive

<-><-><-><-><->

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.

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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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Falsely remembered beasts

Ahead of Remembrance Day for Lost Species on 30th November, Miranda Cichy reflects on extinction, mourning and memory.

The Dodo

The Dodo used to walk around,
And take the sun and air.
The sun yet warms his native ground—
The Dodo is not there!

The voice which used to squawk and squeak
Is now forever dumb—
Yet may you see his bones and beak
All in the Mu-se-um.1

Hilaire Belloc

Extinction began when I was six years old, with Walt Disney’s Fantasia. To the notes of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring I watched the earth emerge from the Milky Way: a violent planet, heaving with the fire of volcanoes. When it calms, the first creatures begin to writhe out of ocean darkness, one wriggling into a fish as it swims across screen, growing larger, brighter, more intricate, until it sprouts legs and crawls onto the land of the dinosaurs. Pterodactyls swoop across lakes catching prehistoric fish, in turn stolen off them by prehistoric crocodiles. Baby Diplodocuses play in shallow water. But the planet is still unpredictable. The dinosaurs’ world soon returns to hostility. Sky turns sickly orange; air is choked with dust. Swamps that had been fought over by the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Stegosaurus now ooze with grey slime. Trees are barren. Hungry and weary, the dinosaurs trudge towards a low, burning sun. Their bodies fall to the ground, one after the other. When the earth’s surface begins to rupture again, the dinosaurs are already bone.

This was my first view of extinction: the event of a distant past, and a different planet. I understood that mass destruction of the dinosaurs was necessary to the creation of the modern world – after all, we could not live side by side. And then, a few years later, I read a very different view of extinction in Hilaire Belloc’s short poem ‘The Dodo’ from The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts. The words seemed to belong to a funny poem, one that had to force the final rhyme of “Mu-se-um”, but the accompanying images suggested a different agenda.

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In the first drawing the dodo is “tak[ing] the sun and air” while peacefully watching two eggs, but it in turn is watched by men with weapons. The dodo looks like it could belong in the Jurassic era, but the men are in relatively modern dress. And then the poem exclaims “The Dodo is not there!” and both bird and eggs disappear off the page.

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Dodos have become an icon of extinction. The sale of a “95% complete” dodo skeleton – for £280,000, plus auction house fees – has just made national headlines. The birds are captivating for their flightlessness, their comical faces, for the way they appear both mythical and familiar. There are said to be only twelve genuine dodo skeletons in existence, a fact confused by convincing scale models that make them seem more common. At the Horniman Museum in south-east London, visitors are fooled by an early twentieth century dodo, made from plaster and chicken feathers, that sits alongside the museum’s genuine taxidermy. Unlike other extinct animals, the dodo feels like a creature that I’ve always known. Did I first learn of it from Hilaire Belloc, or from the dodo in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? At what point did I know it was real, and that I would never see one alive? The dodo has always been there as the dream of a falsely remembered beast.

horniman-dodoPerhaps what is most captivating about the dodo is our culpability in its demise. We can attribute the extinction of the dinosaurs to the climatic and geological changes of – as it seemed to a six-year-old – a capricious planet. The extinction of the dodo is due to humans – those who hunted it, destroyed its Mauritian forest habitat, and introduced animals such as pigs and dogs who ate its eggs. The last sighting of a dodo was in the mid-1600s. These humans are our near relatives.

The dodo is an early example of our direct role in extinction. This is a role that has exacerbated in the last few centuries, and accelerated in recent decades. In the last ten years, animals that have been declared extinct include the Yangtze River dolphin, the Bramble Cay melomys (a small rodent), Ridley’s stick-insect, and the Alaotra grebe. A recent report warns that by 2020 we are likely to have lost 67% of the wild animals that existed in 1970. The main causes for such extinction include destruction of habitat, hunting, and pollution: all down to humans.

Last week, an article in The Guardian asked why we didn’t grieve for extinct species, referring to the lack of rituals available. Our mourning is further complicated by the vast number of deaths that there are to grieve for – an act that has proved similarly difficult when the deceased are humans. On 1st July this year, young men wearing World War I uniforms appeared in public spaces across the UK. They were at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow; at Queen’s University in Belfast; I passed by them in London’s Waterloo station on my way to work. The cards they carried detailed their name, regiment, age, and date and place of death. The last was always the same: 1st July 1916, the Somme.

The men – 1,500 of them in total – were part of a project by the artist Jeremy Deller, who had been asked to commemorate the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, when almost 20,000 British men were killed. Deller was clear in his aims: “I quickly realised that what I didn’t want was a static memorial that the public went to to be sad. In the 21st century I felt we had to do something different […] I wanted to take it to the public.”

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Photo of ‘We’re Here Because We’re Here’ from The Guardian.

The project became a kind of “counter-monument”: a monument that seeks engagement from its audience and negates indifference. Yet responses to Deller’s work are helped by the relative proximity of the First World War, and personal connections (my great-great uncle William Pickard was killed in it). Commemorating the mass death of non-humans is complicated by the prospective mourner’s lack of emotional attachment. A named individual – Martha the last passenger pigeon, Cecil the lion – can help to provoke a stronger response. The imagining of such an individual occurs in David Quammen’s 1996 book The Song of the Dodo, where he depicts the sad demise of the last dodo on earth, “a single survivor, a lonely fugitive at large”, her last egg eaten by a monkey, her mate clubbed to death by a sailor. Ursula K. Heise has noted that it is only through this depiction that Quammen can translate the loss of an entire species into a narrative, and that using a female “allows him to portray her in the well-worn elegiac clichés of the bereaved mother and wife.”2

As with Deller’s feeling that “in the 21st century […] we had to do something different,” recent years have seen the introduction of new ways to mourn for extinct species. In 2011, the first Remembrance Day for Lost Species took place. This day now occurs annually on 30th November. It was devised by members from arts organisations including ONCA, the Dark Mountain Project and Zoomorphic, and artists and writers from across the globe.

rdls_logo-copyThe Lost Species Day website maps events that are happening around the world to commemorate this year’s Remembrance Day.  In Colorado, a tattoo artist is offering to tattoo participants with a selection of extinct animals, each marked with an hourglass (a similar project in 2009 saw one hundred species “ambassadors” tattooed in Salford).  In Brighton on 30th November there will be a parade and an evening of storytelling; at a yoga hall in Montana, a bell will be rung 108 times. The Montana event takes inspiration from Buddhism, while a suggested ‘Extinction Grieving Prayer’ on the Lost Species Day website has been devised by a Christian minister.

As the Lost Species website itself states, “there is no single ‘right’ way to hold an event to mark extinction.” Perhaps one way could simply be to take Belloc’s advice and visit “the Mu-se-um”, to see the bones and beaks of creatures that will never take the sun again.

Footnotes

1. Hilaire Belloc, The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts (Dodo Press, 2008).
2. Ursula K. Heise “Lost Dogs, Last Birds and Listed Species: Cultures of Extinction.” Configurations v. 18, no. 1-2, (Winter 2010): 62.

Following completion of the MA Wild Writing, Miranda Cichy relocated from London to Essex. This year she came second in the Poetry Book Society’s National Student Poetry Competition and had a poem shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. Miranda’s poetry has been published in The Salt Book of Younger Poets and Zoomorphic (forthcoming), and her prose on Caught by the River. She tweets @mirazc

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