Wild Writers in the field

Students of the Wild Writing MA at the University of Essex enjoy spending seminars outside the classroom as well as in it. In the video below, students brought examples of nature writing to share with the group in the beautiful Colchester campus in the autumn.

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The turning time of year

Cycling the same route each day, Ruth Bradshaw maps changes in the trees of South London.

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It’s the turning time of year, time to turn back the clocks and turn on the central heating.  All around me, as I cycle to work, the leaves on the trees are turning from green to red, orange, yellow and brown. I’ve been cycling this route since the Quietway opened at the start of the summer but only now do I appreciate properly how many trees there are in this part of South London. Perhaps it’s the vibrant display that alerts me or maybe it’s because I’ve been reading Roger Deakin’s Wildwood.

Some of the trees I pass have been hard to ignore, particularly the weeping willow in Folkestone Gardens. Until it was given a trim a few weeks back its unkempt locks trailed across the cycle path forcing me to bend low over the handlebars to get under them.  The tree’s new look is definitely neater and makes it much easier to cycle past but in some ways I’m sorry that the willow is no longer such a feature of the ride.

Then there’s the London plane tree I once waited under in an attempt to shelter from a sudden summer downpour so heavy it felt as though someone was throwing buckets of water from the sky. And further on where the new cycle path rises up and passes between Millwall’s football stadium and the railway line, a group of tall trees create a shady spot where I would sometimes pause for a drink of water on the hottest days.

So over the summer months I’ve valued the trees I cycle past mainly for their shade or shelter. Now as the background greenery gives way to the multicolours of autumn, I pay more attention to their form as well as function and am aware of trees everywhere. Close to home, the sycamore trees along the railway embankment have sent their seeds spinning far and wide on windy days.  Just round the corner,  the holly trees outside St Peter’s Church are covered in big red berries –  a sign that a harsh winter is on the way if you believe the old tales or more likely because of all the wet, warm weather earlier in the year. The gardens of the conservation area flaunt half a rainbow of different colours as the various species of tree take it in turns to show off and even the stark greyness of a car park is transformed by red-leaved maple trees.

Often the bell is ringing as I pass Deptford Green School and I have to dodge students as they rush across the path without looking and are drawn like iron filings to a magnet through the school doors.  But this week all is half-term quiet, the bell is silent, the students probably still in bed and we cyclists have Fordham Park to ourselves except for a line of gulls standing guard along the top of one of the goalposts, watching over the empty playing fields and a line of trees just appearing through the hazy sunshine. Later there are more flashes of bright red from the leaves on the creeping plant that covers much of the chain link fence on the approach to South Bermondsey station.

The fallen leaves transform the ground I cycle over too. In one well-sheltered section of the cycle track, the passage of numerous wheels over scattered leaves has created a kind of natural crazy paving. In other places, the wind has blown leaves together in small heaps. For now the dry leaves scrunch beneath my bicycle tyres but if it rains heavily they will become a thick wet slick with the potential to send my wheels skidding.

In a few weeks all the leaves will have fallen and most will be swept up and tidied away, but for now the trees are putting on a big showy display to remind us of how dramatic they can look before they settle down into elegant repose for the winter.

Having spent most of her career in a range of policy and research roles in the public sector, Ruth Bradshaw now works for an environmental charity and has recently begun studying part-time for the Wild Writing MA at the University of Essex. She likes to spend as much time as possible outdoors, undertaking conservation volunteering in and around South London where she lives and walking and cycling in the surrounding countryside.

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The River

On the Wivenhoe Trail, Barbara Claridge watches the tide at the place where “sea and land meet.” Photo © Barbara Claridge.

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Location: Latitude 51.8686; Longitude 0.9442

Date: 12th October 2016; Time 16:08; Temperature: 14° C

The tide low and the shadows long: I have never lived so close to a tidal river.

Today low tide was 15:35 at nearby Brightlingsea and the coefficient was 72 (high).  To explain, the tidal coefficient is the difference between the consecutive high and low tides in any given area and they vary in amplitude following, amongst other factors, the phases of the moon[i].   I have been consulting a tide timetable for a while, drawn by the continuous and predictable rhythm of tidal change.  On Sunday 16th October full moon is 05:23, and as a consequence, there is to be an exceptionally high coefficient of 114 (120 is the highest coefficient possible).

So now the mud banks are exposed.  I sit down to write facing south west and the sun is closing onto the horizon: for October, it is warm with no wind.  The river water still drains away although the tide has turned, the outflow being stronger yet, than any incoming tide.  Soon the balance will shift.  The slippery slopes of soft river deposit gleam in that dipping sun.  The particles, so fine and worn, make a surface that would be treacherous for me to walk on but a rich larder for so many birds.  Sea and land meet here.

The gulls, plentiful and raucous dominate; I recognise the curlew call.  Other waders are new to my species knowledge as yet.  I observe they move confidently across the silt, jabbing long beaks deep into softness.  Small ducks with pretty heads explore the exposed edge, the margin between wet and dry.  That curlew call is clear, shill, repetitive.  An egret takes to wing.

Rivers usually erode the landscape, carving V-shaped tracts in valleys and cutting back the banks.  You wouldn’t think of this as a valley as the landscape is flat and wide, but it is.  And just here the river channel is deep and different between high and low water: the standing water brackish.  I wonder if the twice daily, perpetual effect of the tidal ebb and flow causes the river to release its fine deposits, carried from the soils inland, to build the silty muddy banks.  You might think a high-tide, full-river is more attractive than the brown, slushy rib-exposed margins but these muds have their own attractiveness in contours, ridges, pools and tiny tributaries.  And all the time the water flows.

The look of the landscape changes dramatically when a layer of cloud closes in on the sunlight.  Suddenly the foreground emerges and the many stems of the faded yellow sow-thistle clearly become red-tinged where the strong light before disguised their colour.

A rare silence.

The seed heads of the plants are a fluffy, bursting froth of grey down; will be the food-taking for goldfinch as the winter advances.

The beginning of Wild Writing could not have been better placed than by the Wivenhoe Trail, nor better weathered in these first few October days.

I feel uplifted and swept in and out with the tide.  It all changes, the water dances and I have so much to learn.

 

Footnote
[i] Data from www.tides4fishing.com/uk/england/brightlingsea

Barbara Claridge has just begun the Wild Writing MA at the University of Essex. Following a long career as a primary school Headteacher, where outdoor learning was a passion, she moved to Brittany with her husband and began a five year renovation/construction project of a longère and garden.  She has completed short-term voluntary work as a Primary Education Adviser in Ghana and Namibia and with the British Council in Beijing and Pittsburg on the International Headteacher Programme. She tweets @56190bjc. 

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Rolling Back with the National Coast Path

Helen Chambers walks along a vanishing path in Suffolk. Photos © Helen Chambers.

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The River Stour is a metallic ribbon, lying horizontal across the faded yellow of harvested fields; fields edged with wild oats and vivid late-blooming poppies. Passing the interestingly-named Crepping Hall and emerging at Stutton Ness (‘Ness’ in Suffolk and ‘Naze’ over the river in Essex, from the Norman), we face directly across to Wrabness. It is an uncharacteristically cold day for August, and we shelter from a rain shower under the canopy of an oak.

We are walking a small part of the long-distance ‘Stour and Orwell Walk,’ but despite its name, this path detours inland eastwards from the Ness, as the land is privately owned, until returning to the riverside at Harkstead. The OS 1:25 000 explorer map, (here), names the rows of rotting posts protruding from the mud as ‘Graham’s Wharf’. Only visible at low tide, this wharf would have serviced the heavy traffic of barges travelling up and down the Stour to Sudbury. The shower passes and we watch rain bleed from ragged cloud edges to our east, and we turn west along the riverside. A kestrel hovers over the field to our right, and sand martins dip in and out of the sandy cliff falling away on our left.

Last time I walked this way, a couple of years previously, the path was balanced perilously between a field edge and a cliff (‘cliff’ in Suffolk is perhaps lower than you might expect, unless you are local, but a steep drop to the foreshore, nevertheless). Today the path has entirely crumbled away. We scramble down onto the foreshore, which we share with a lone lugworm digger who paces along, head down, plastic bag at the ready. We follow his cycle tracks along the beach towards Brantham. Later, I look online and discover that the path on the foreshore is now an official diversion. Not a walk to be attempted at high tide, presumably.

I am a fervent supporter of the new National Coast Path, which promises ‘roll back’ if a section of coast erodes or slips the path isn’t lost, it simply moves back with the new coastline. Someone needs to explain the concept of roll back to the farmer here. And already today we have experienced the two main problems facing the National Coast Path plan. The Rambler’s Association has been fighting the issue of access for decades. Landowners are not likely to embrace the opening-up of their private land where no rights of way currently exist. Farmers already facing loss of land due to erosion will surely oppose the concept of roll back if a footpath will eat further into their land. Especially as it is their responsibility to maintain that path.

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We manage to walk along a wooded section of the path up on the cliff, but the salt-damaged trees bear stark testimony to the river’s power to erode. Further on, a ‘permissive path’ is signposted back inland, where we are headed for a lunchtime pub stop. My usually amenable father refuses to follow it, resolutely insisting we stick to the right of way marked on the map. Permissive paths have no legal rights, councils have no responsibility to maintain them, and if landowners succeed in persuading people not to existing paths, they could attempt to prove they are no longer walked.

We duly follow the public footpath which passes through the garden and front drive of beautiful Stutton Mill, its manicured lawns and rose gardens incongruous after the reeds and grasses of the seawall. Walking through someone’s garden feels uncomfortable, but it is marked on the map, and it is correct. Two women prune a clambering rose, but only one returns our cheery ‘Good Morning,’ the other keeping her back to us and remaining silent. Through the gate at the other side of the drive, we look back at the ‘private’ signs and agree that, without a map and prior route knowledge, any walker may feel discouraged and turn away at this point.

The view over the river to Mistley is spectacular: the river reflecting the tower in a cold shimmer. The haunting cry of oystercatchers drifts towards us and late-summer swallows skim above the mud. We are so lucky to have such beautiful and varied coastline on our doorstep, only a few miles downstream from the Stour’s more famous Constable-related honeypot at Flatford. Here’s hoping that the National Coast Path scheme maintains, and even improves, access for us walkers!

Helen Chambers holds an MA Creative Writing from the University of Essex. 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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The Wasp Spiders

Stephen Rutt walks a familiar landscape and reflects on the meaning of a pair of wasp spiders and the power of ignorance. Photos © Stephen Rutt.

The Suffolk coast is soft. Between the waves erasing chunks of shoreline shingle and sand, and the wet marshes that hang just back from the beach, the dunes hold a record of what’s happened here. The Suffolk coast is hard, hard enough to hold on to that record in the face of war, tourism and sea-level rise. Fossilised shark teeth wash up here from the primordial North Sea sludge. Strings of pebble-dashed concrete blocks, anti-tank defences from invasions that never came, dot the coast around here like ellipses from a paranoid past. Tern colonies spring up on the shingle and dwindle away to nothing. Thistles burn out and smoke their thick grey seeds into the breeze.

There’s one particular sentence of Barry Lopez’s to which I keep returning. He claims that “In forty thousand years of human history, it has only been in the last hundred years or so that a people could afford to ignore their local geographies as completely as we do and still survive.”1 It troubles me. Ignore? How do we measure ignorance? I visit these dunes every year, in every season, and have done so since I was a child, kicking soft sand at sharp marram grass and watching the stonechats hanging from the top of thorny bushes like fruit, plump and orange. Of what was I ignorant?

It took a man called Steve, stooping under the weight of his camera, to show me an ignorance of mine. One ignorance, twice repeated. He parted the long grass on the edge of the dunes. A wasp spider hanging, inches from the sand, motionless in its web. I forgot to check the edges, but this might be because I have no knowledge of the knots, or the steadfast holds by which a spider’s web sticks to the blades of grass. The spider herself was the length of my thumb, an abdomen the size of a 50p piece and striped with wavering stripes of lemon and chrome yellow, intersected by smudgy, black ink lines. She looked hand-drawn, almost.

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The second spider was just behind her. Unerringly well-disguised for something so large and bright, betrayed only by their stripes being horizontal in a world of vertical grass. She had a male — a tiny brown spider — on the edge of her web. He will mate with her before being eaten by her, in an act that leaves me confused as to whether it’s an absurdly generous self-sacrifice on his part, or excellent Darwinian opportunism on hers.

But I anthropomorphise. It’s hard not to, when your head is in the sand, looking up at the spiders. I imagine it was the same pose for the naturalist who, according to Steve, discovered the species in England at Rye, East Sussex, in 1922. And I wonder, if 94 years ago, they were in ignorance of what it was and how it got there, and how it would — enabled by global warming — spread along the south coast before heading north to East Anglia. Steve says, as he leaves us, that they need three months of a hot summer and a mild winter to survive, thrive and breed. They’ve had that so far. The future looks to be their’s too.

Like a word that, once learned, you notice used everywhere, it is the same with animals. Once you start noticing them, you notice them everywhere. It is jarring, uncanny, and not a little unnerving to realise your own ignorance to what exists. A practical enlightenment to your own environment. Maybe I am ignorant of my own local geography. As Lopez says, I’ll still survive even if I’d never noticed the wasp spiders in the dunes I had walked for most of my life. The spiders would probably survive too — barring a catastrophe like having their dunes turned into a golf course. I’m not sure if we can ever not be ignorant of our geographies — as diverse and full of mystery as that word, and its attendant meanings are — and I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing. I’d hate to walk those dunes and know everything they had to offer.

Footnotes

1. Barry Lopez, About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory (London: The Harvill Press, 1999), 135.

Stephen Rutt has just submitted his thesis for the MA Wild Writing at the University of Essex. East Anglian by upbringing, Stephen has spent six months in Orkney, been tick-bitten in a Hungarian marsh and floated in a boat in the mid-Atlantic in search of birds. As well as an obsession with winged things, Stephen has a BA in English from Stirling, and has had writing published in Earthlines, The Harrier and the East Anglian Daily Times. He blogs at stephenrutt.blogspot.com and tweets @steverutt.

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Reflections on Fingringhoe

Following her work placement at at Fingringhoe Wick nature reserve – organised as part of the MA Wild Writing – Kirsty Groves reflects on a memorable night in the badger hide.  Photos © Tilly Renyard.

As Essex Wildlife Trust’s flagship site, Fingringhoe Wick has its own special kind of magic. Many of the visitors are regular, and they treat the site with the type of reverence and respect more commonly found in churches. The bird hides where they patiently sit for hours become a place of worship; hushed voices and intense concentration being the order of the day. This patience allows visitors to see things that others don’t notice, the slow pace unlocking a different world. As I learned to be patient myself, I have been rewarded by nature. Modern society causes us to rush through life, rarely having the opportunities to appreciate what exists around us. Spending time at Fingringhoe has made me slow down, and enjoy the (clichéd) little things. The stories I have from my time at the reserve are numerous, but I will share one of my favourites…

As the day faded into dusk, I returned for a late night visit to the site. Excited, but trying to keep our voices hushed, my colleague and I took the shortcut to the badger hide. This was not the first time we had tried to have an encounter with these nocturnal scavengers. Six unsuccessful visits had happened prior to this, but we had been unlucky with weather. Badgers are creatures of comfort, and will often choose to stay in their sett rather than brave the wind and rain. This time though, it was still warm from a sunny day, and my hopes were high. I settled into the hide with my thermos of coffee, and began the long wait.

As night draws in, the site becomes surprisingly loud. The lack of people allow the natural world to take over. It even smells different, muskier, earthier. This late in the season there were no nightingales singing, but many other birds filled the gaps. I have often heard two tawny owls calling to each other, an old married couple, one hooting at a low pitch, the other screeching a harsh response. Further away I could hear a muntjac, making its awful choking bark sound. Bats circled the clearing in front of the hide, darting in front of the large windows, suddenly invisible when they passed the trees.

I was beginning to get restless, silently complaining to myself that it was getting too dark to see. But then, emerging from the greyish-green of the bushes to my right, I spotted a white shape. A little face, snuffling close to the ground, trying to locate the peanuts we had scattered earlier. It is hard to put into words the sense of wonder and joy that I felt. I had only ever seen badgers as a flattened blur on the side of the road, and now here was one metres away from me. The badger is a curious creature, a combination of majesty and comedy. Although only one graced us with its presence this night, I know the badger to be part of a family group. The strong bond and connection between these creatures has been commented on by other badger-watchers, and, at the risk of anthropomorphising, nothing beats seeing a mother teaching her child how to be independent. I watched until I couldn’t see, as the badger trundled around the clearing in front of us, apparently oblivious to any human presence. The long waits had paid off. A real badger!

Some of the experiences that I have had at the Wick will stay with me for a lifetime. To watch the place develop throughout the spring and summer has been incredible. But equally important to the place is the people. The dedication of the staff and volunteers, and the deep love and respect for nature that everyone embodies as they go about their work is inspirational. The vital importance of both protecting the site for future generations, and passing on the knowledge that has been gained whilst doing this is, to me, core to the ethos of Essex Wildlife Trust. As I look back on my time spent at Fingringhoe I also look forward, excited to see the site in the autumn and winter months. Even on the darkest January day, I know there will be something to look at and something to learn.

 

Kirsty Groves is an MA Wild Writing student at the University of Essex. She has recently spent three months on work placement at Fingringhoe Wick Nature Reserve, which has provided unlimited inspiration for her creative writing. She is now beginning a career with Essex Wildlife Trust, educating children about the natural world. 

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Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human

MA Wild Writing course director James Canton finds literary delights amongst the science and psychology in Vybarr Cregan-Reid’s book about running outside. [A version of this review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 8 July 2016].

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Footnotes: How Running makes us Human
Vybarr Cregan-Reid
352 pp. Ebury Press: London, May 2016. £16-99.

The experience of travelling through a landscape – be it countryside or city – is commonplace enough to us all. What determines our sense of immersion in that environment is a combination of factors ranging from our knowledge of that landscape to the speed with which we traverse that fragment of the earth. From the English Romantics to the French Situationalists, writers have delighted in recording their wanderings through worlds known or unknown, natural or not, wild or tamed.

Much of this delightful book is another of those memoirs — a form of psychogeography at pace: or ‘psychojography’ as the author has it; a heightened faux sub-genre born from the fact running creates a ‘psychobiological frenzy of sensual reflectivity … certainly not found in walking.’ Not surprising, as Cregan-Reid is a senior lecturer in English Literature, Footnotes is always a very literary jaunt – bookish anecdotes and epigraphs liberally scatter the work. Neck and neck on the opening page beside Virginia Woolf strides William Blake and then hot on their heels there’s Keats, and Wordsworth, of course; and Hazlitt and Thomas Hardy are there, too, making the running. And there are welcome appearances from lesser-known nature writers like W. H. Hudson, Richard Jefferies and, even, nineteenth-century Sussex labouring poet Simeon Brough.

Yet Footsteps also sets out to investigate the science and psychology of running. Cregan-Reid prefers his running barefoot and in Boston, Massachusetts, at the Spalding National Running Centre, he learns more of the biomechanics of running and the mantra of minimalist footwear. All that padding and cushioning in running shoes builds a false base for the foot to fall on – the reason why up to 79% of runners get injured each year. He heads off down the road to Harvard University where he meets Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology, whose thesis is that running played a key role in our evolution. Humans have short toes which probably explains our ‘greater locomotive efficiency’ than other apes. While ‘a good runner basically needs a Palaeolithic body’ – super-strong core, gluteals and lower leg muscles, most runners today possess a weak core, overstretched gluteals from sitting down too much and flat feet. Our bodies have gradually become those of a ‘knock-kneed and hunchbacked Anthropocene hominin.’ We were born to run; but today many can hardly even manage to walk.

A crucial aspect to being human which we are missing out on if we don’t venture into the natural world is the sensory intelligence experienced by the mind and body being in motion across a landscape. Of course, the Romantics understood that well enough. Cregan-Reid reminds us of the ‘revolutionary shared literary endeavour ‘ of Lyrical Ballads where Wordsworth was ‘determined to be the lead singer on these power ballads and so relegated Coleridge to the maracas’. He follows Coleridge’s footsteps in 1802 from Greta Hall to the waterfalls of Moss Force in the Lake District – running rather than walking. He tells of the notion of attention-restoration theory: simply put, that we operate better when in natural environments. We’re less stressed and healthier outside – it’s scientifically proven. Coleridge (‘the ADHD Romantic’) was never happier than when tramping for miles across Britain’s wilder parts.

Cregan-Reid meets the Green Exercise Research Team at the University of Essex where Mike Rogerson explains that for both mind and body a slightly ‘lower intensity’ exercise is actually most beneficial. Rather than running flat out, a fast walk or a decent-paced trot is best – so long as it’s in a natural environment. By contrast, there is the experience of running indoors: treadmilling – the modern ‘junk-food of exercise’. Its nineteenth-century invention and implementation was specifically to punish the bodies of criminals, including that of Oscar Wilde who was forced to work the treadmill for up to six hours a day.

Footnotes is most entertaining when on literary trails. On the cliffs of North Cornwall, Cregan-Reid traces the steps of a young Tom Hardy, retelling Hardy’s meeting with Emma Gifford at St Juliot where she welcomes him in a ‘staid brown dress’ to the rectory he is there to visit regarding work on a church restoration. The wildness and sublimity of those cliffs is made plain as Cregan-Reid then runs that landscape relishing its intensity: ‘like the stones crumbling and tumbling off the cliff path, life falls away in moments like these and the possibilities seem endless.’

Such enthusiastic personal narrative coupled with the rich literary episodes which scatter the book make Footsteps always an enjoyable read. Keep running — whether shod or not. That is the vital message here. The health gains of regular exercise are well documented; yet most of us do nothing like enough, nor do we exercise in green spaces where we get most psychological benefit.

 

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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Witnessing Wick

Halfway into a three-month work placement at Fingringhoe Wick nature reserve – organised as part of her MA – Tilly Renyard reflects on the ways in which humans respond to the natural environment, and how her own attitudes and knowledge have changed. Photo © Tilly Renyard.

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I have been volunteering at the Wick for around seven weeks now, and it is fair to say I am feeling Fingringhoe. Each day, and every involvement, offers a new familiarity; being able to recognise the patterns within nature bonds together self-discovery and old knowledge. It is an exciting place to be.

As a university student, aged only by conformity, I walk as a lonely representation of youthful eco-attitudes; ones that each day I aim to affect. Being here has proved that appreciation grows not only with time, but with exposure and guidance. There are many tastes of man, but the flavour of dirt is a dish we should all try. The will to dissociate with one’s organic origin is something that is becoming definitive in what it means to be human. Magnolia walls and virtual communication. Certainly for the younger generations, the apple has been given a capital and you can reprogram with a raspberry.

It is not dramatic to be concerned about the future of Essex’s green spaces. Fingringhoe has the right idea. Weekly, up to one hundred tiny humans swarm its some two-hundred acre terrain seeking adventure, exploration, and a day out of the classroom, but mainly snacks. As a volunteer, I try and involve myself in every aspect of the business. Especially the schools: if a child has as much as half the excitement I have witnessing a spider pounce on its prey, I will feel satisfied.

Volunteering at the nature reserve has unlocked my perspective. The same drab journeys that offered no more than a relentless grey now reveal birds of prey lining crop fields like drones. I notice how the hawthorn adopts a pink singe once the petals have parted. I used to look at the floor, to check my footing, but mostly to accept a state of ignorance. To avoid any stares. Now, I still look at the floor, but I am looking for things, I am looking for one of the three hundred and fifty species of ground beetle I have not yet seen. I am looking for speedwell, for vetch, I am looking for any opportunity to show-off and to relate. I can also hold my head up. I can interrupt intimacy to discuss sense. My favourite moments have been flicking through field guides with a stranger trying to decipher the landscape.

There is a lot to be said about the naming of things. About identification and about how proud I am of what I have absorbed in such a seemingly short time. I can aimlessly enjoy, however recognition and distinction emphasise variety, something which graces Fingringhoe with very little effort. There have been moments where my efforts have felt futile. With each confident identification, the eye spies ten times you have been wrong. Now I recognise the knot, it seems I have lost sight of the dunlin.

In relation to the naming of species, I find it interesting how I dress nature’s similes with the mechanical and the manufactured. No matter how much time spent outside, my most immediate point of reference is falsified meteorology and carpeted corridors. I remember the first time I heard a clock, alfresco, standing by Fingringhoe’s Great Lake, from deep within the woodland. Or the likeness of oystercatchers and domestic rodents, each rattle a rise and fall with the same incessant squeal. Though I should not be surprised at the case of comparison. It is true everything comes from the same material. It is generous and versatile. So why is not our love?

Spending time with the children has taught me that disgust and fear toward the organic are both things that are picked up later in life. Perhaps from bad experiences, or perhaps from lengthy detachment; either way, such emotions are obviously intensified by a very adult world. More often than not it is to the supervisors of a visiting group that I have to explain, “Living things tend to want to be alive.”

The food chain is one of science’s first lessons. Invertebrates are rarely big, scarcely cuddly, yet function as a huge supportive base for the remainder of that particular ecosystem, of which we see ourselves the top of. “Stamping on that ant is like cutting off your own fingers,” I tell them, all too aware of how absurd I sound. So if this hatred is something later adopted, or in the process of forming, it is the responsibility of folk like us to nip it in the bud.

Before they have seen too many adverts for weed killer in the television, before they have discovered bug-spray and pesticides, before nature becomes something to be twisted and dominated, we will teach them to appreciate it. I will tell them all the least desirable processes are cool. I will tell the children slugs are my favourite and that dandelions are beautiful, and I won’t have faked it.

I was once asked, “What’s this?” I made a mistake and a friend in honesty, blurting out that I didn’t know.

“I thought adults knew everything.”

So maybe I am creative with some aspects, I seem to be getting away with being an adult. And so long as I read quicker than I am asked questions, I seem to be getting away with being a naturalist too.

 

Tilly Renyard is an MA Wild Writing student at the University of Essex. She has recently completed a three-month work placement at a nature reserve, where she found infinite inspiration offered to her through observing the motions of nature. Tilly has always loved the outdoors and uses it as an integral part of her creative method. Studying the masters has taught her the importance of perspective of place, not only from the eye of the human, but from whatever may contribute to that specific system and beyond. The world is immense; Tilly can’t wait to see it.

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Map of a City

As part of the MA Wild Writing Memory Maps module, Miranda Cichy wrote a sequence of poems on space, place and the meaning of home, centred around the areas of London she has lived in. The two poems below are the second and last in the sequence. Photo © Stephen Rutt.  

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Bone

The city has gifted me a bone.
Stone-grey, scooped clean.
Severed and served
on a doormat, a bristle-brown plate.

The city sniffs at the warm.
It taps the air above my shoulders
where I am stooped, eyes to the bone.

Rabbit femur, perhaps. I don’t know bones.
As short or long as a wave goodbye,
a quick finger. I don’t know this city.

I throw the bone to the bushes.

Next night, on the doormat, the bone.
A Neanderthal tool, clue
from a wrathful god. Bone dry.
Bone stupid. White porcelain

of extraordinary strength.
The city is grinding me down
to sip gin from its china.

The bone’s hollows hold purples
of an early winter evening
and I am chilled to the bone.

I throw the bone to the bushes.

The city sleeps on the doormat,
a soft clenched fist
with a bone at its centre.
It is fox-small and eternal,

an orange ouroboros.
The door startles it.
The bone is fleshless, sucked fresh,

a meal well eaten.
Its arrow points outwards,
to the tail flick of dawn.


The Journey Out

On the journey out you can’t imagine
the coming back

it is dawn-break

the train urges itself on                     the grass rises like a submarine
crows whirl across wheat seas

the city stutters into silence

London is an ocean liner
seen through sunglasses from land

you’ll try

to trick yourself to knowing how you’ll feel
                                          on the coming back

but the sun is gold                 dust floats above the seats
                           your face is half-caught by the glass
printed with other people’s hands

and you won’t come back
                        the same
                                          maybe you’ll never come back

behind you the city
spacespacespacesssstips

over the horizon

you want to remember every shiver
of the journey out

but the hours sweep past tighter than trains
and the days flick out dark as tunnels

and the years              when you get there

disperse like pigeons
fluttering on spiked rafters

in the vast stations they make home

 
Miranda Cichy is an MA Wild Writing student at the University of Essex.  She has a BA in English Literature from the University of Cambridge (2006-2009), where she was awarded the Brewer Hall prize for a collection of poetry, and she came second in the Poetry Book Society’s 2015 National Student Poetry Competition. Miranda’s poetry has been published in The Salt Book of Younger Poets and her prose on Caught by the River. She tweets @mirazc

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National Moth Night

Helen Chambers and Stephen Rutt discover the moths of Essex at a trapping event held by Wivenhoe Watching Wildlife. Both photos are of a cream-spot tiger moth, © Stephen Rutt. 

Tiger

The Virgin Moth-er 

The 10pm start allowed a pub visit first, and we arrived somewhat later to the WWW National Moth Night event in St Mary’s churchyard, Wivenhoe. We had spoken to the irrepressible Greg, Chris and Jude earlier, as they set up the traps, and when we got back, they were in full moth-catching flow, the men wearing what can only be described as modern versions of miners’ headlamps. They moved from trap to trap, explaining and identifying to an interested group. In fact, Greg, with butterfly net and Indiana Jones-style hat, seemed like some Victorian explorer setting off into undiscovered realms. Moths are an undiscovered realm to me. In my ignorance, I considered most moths small, brown, and to have a foolish fascination with my bedside lamp. I’m the ignorant one, of course, as Butterfly Conservation thinks there are around 2,500 different species of moth in England.

The actual traps, despite sounding fearsome, are humane and Heath-Robinson in design. A UVA light (in fact, different traps had different specifications of light in order to attract the largest variety of moths) is fixed in the centre of a box, with two panes of glass sloping downwards leaving a gap in the middle. Below the glass sheets, in true Blue Peter style, are upturned egg boxes, which provide the trapped moths somewhere to shelter overnight, before being examined, identified and released the next morning. Attracted by the light, some moths trap themselves and others are caught in plastic containers allowing the opportunity for closer examination.

We began by appreciating the subtleties of moth-markings with a marbled beauty, which indeed it was. All moths’ wings are covered with scales and hairs, and the markings on a ‘fresh’ moth will be clearer and more distinct than on an older one. The marbled beauty is an attractive butterfly- shaped moth, and I learned that the distinction between moths and butterflies is arbitrary and resulted from the Victorian cleric-naturalist’s preference for studying the latter. It’s a preference I shared, until now. Certainly, moths are as reluctant as butterflies to remain still to allow easy identification. Moths fall into ‘macro’ or ‘micro’ definitions, as well as moth-traps, and I am astounded by the delicate beauty of some varieties. Many still only have Latin names; it is thought that many more have yet to be identified. Some moths appear to be shaped like miniature white butterflies, some are more like skippers and another group are altogether more reminiscent of a fly.

This last group was how I imagined all moths would look: crumpled brown leaf shape with large, hairy heads and wings folding back onto their bodies. I was excited to see a cream-spot tiger, which, I was thrilled to learn, manages to scramble the sonar messages of bats to evade capture, quite apart from displaying ferocious red markings. It has a bulbous looking eyes like a fly (moths see though hexagonal lenses in the same way many insects do) and, along with all moths, can see UV rays invisible to humans.

I leave Greg, Chris and Jude to another hour of moth trapping, and the morning ‘opening’ of the traps. In the few days since ‘Moth Night’, I have noticed day-flying moths in my garden. Butterfly Conservation state that there are more day-flying moths than butterflies. I am also investigating those brown bedroom visitors. In fact (with apologies to Greg for stealing his joke) I am no longer ‘the Virgin Moth-er’.

Helen Chambers holds an MA Creative Writing from the University of Essex. 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. She also enjoys listening to, and writing, radio drama. Her short play, Revolution, was performed at the University of Essex Homecoming Weekend in 2014. You can email her at helen.ch9@gmail.com.

IMG_2119

The Tiger

Everybody expected me to watch the football. I went mothing instead.

I arrived late. Dusk had set, small brown moths were kicked up from the grass by my footfall. The bright lights and boxes of the traps were already set up and shining off the flinty church wall. I arrived late to an appreciation of moths. I confess, for much of my life spent interested in nature, I regarded them as small brown things: food, basically, for the small brown birds I find captivating. That seemed logical at the time. Times change. Thoughts change.

Moths are a deception. The genre boundary between them and the butterflies is arbitrary and unscientific. The distinction between the macro moths and the micro moths is likewise – grouped by what people were interested in at the time, and that distinction is something that can’t quite be shaken off, even now. Mothing is a deception. The bright lights confuse their navigation. They’re supposed to fly by the position of the moon. Our man-made moons mess with this. They try to keep a constant position to the light until they land in the trap, and spend a night of rest tucked away in an egg box.

Moths are a deception. When the night is done the traps are turned off, the moths are removed from the boxes and placed in clear plastic pots for viewing. We trapped two marbled browns – different in shade and tone from each other, but sharing the same inscrutable markings. They looked like flakes of bark, but delicately, attractively so. For the greater bulk of their population, passing themselves off as bark must work. Their pretence is a design for life. We unearthed a light emerald, a moth that pretends at being green through the way light reflects of the alignment of their scales. An iron prominent: chunky, fluffy and metallic grey, with rusty markings running across its wings. A common swift: a small, primitive and misnamed moth. The suggestion of speed and ability at flight was not matched by the reality, as it flapped frantically away, careering through the air into the long grass, where it would spray eggs and hope that one of them hatched on the correct foodplant for its caterpillar.

We had hoped for a hawkmoth. We were disappointed. What we trapped instead was a tiger. Glistening black and spotted cream forewings cloaked its dazzle camouflage of tiger orange and black blotches and blood red fluffy body. A cream-spot tiger moth: as bright and beguiling as any butterfly. The star of the show. Chris talked about it, engagingly, to 25 locals, young and old, who had come to see what lurks in the churchyard at night. They all took turns to hold the pot, and coo over it. And hopefully to spread the word. Aldo Leopold writes that ‘we grieve only for what we know’ (p.48). It is knowledge and experience that makes us care and want to conserve things: hopefully Wivenhoe had gained a new set of people, ready to care and conserve and love the often too unappreciated moths of the neighbourhood.

Stephen Rutt is an MA Wild Writing student at the University of Essex. East Anglian by upbringing, Stephen has spent six months in Orkney, been tick-bitten in a Hungarian marsh and floated in a boat in the mid-Atlantic in search of birds. As well as an obsession with winged things, Stephen has a BA in English from Stirling, and has had writing published in Earthlines, The Harrier and the East Anglian Daily Times. He blogs at stephenrutt.blogspot.com and tweets @steverutt.

 

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