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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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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Arboreal: A Collection of New Woodland Writing

Stephen Rutt finds both a hopeful and elegaic picture of British woodland in the latest release from Little Toller. Photo of book jacket from www.littletoller.co.uk; photo of Wivenhoe Woods © Stephen Rutt.

Last week walking by the River Colne, I came across a spread of fly agaric mushrooms. They had — for it was a couple of days past their best — pushed through the ivy-covered ground, in the shade of a string of birch trees, under a fence of warped and wrecked barbed wire. The wire ran directly through the heart of the birch trunk. There were many ways to look at the scene: literally, metaphorically, botanically, mycologically and economically, amongst others. A new book, released by Little Toller, concerns itself with all of these essences.

arboreal-2Arboreal, edited by Adrian Cooper, is an anthology that describes itself as “a collection of new woodland writing”. Across 300 pages, forty contemporary writers as diverse as Germaine Greer, Evie Wyld and Zaffar Kunial, and four visual artists come together to explore the roots and branches of what woods and trees mean today. It is a book that comes at a vital time. Since Oliver Rackham — Britain’s most high profile and intellectually rigorous spokesman for trees — died last year, ash dieback has continued to advance over the country; the spectre of emerald ash-borer and other scourges of our native trees hang over forestry policy, like gothic monstrosities. It is in his memory that this book is dedicated.

According to a 2011 report from the Woodland Trust, woodland is a “resource that covers only 13 per cent of our land area”, compared to 37% for EU countries. The word resource is a thorny one: it can mean sustainable coppicing for firewood or, as also happened in 2011, the government’s attempted sell off of the national forestry stock. Fiona Reynolds writes of her role in the aftermath of the U-turn, sitting on the committee to determine future forestry policy, while also detailing past battles within various conservation organisations and poorly planned plantations. This is most notably in the politically pyrrhic victory won by the Nature Conservancy Council in 1988 to stop the generous tax breaks that lead to the blanket bogs of Caithness and Sutherland being planted with pine trees. The NCC stopped it and the government dissolved them in revenge. This could sound dry but the material is emotive, the writing concise and clear, deriving its energy from the recounted childhood experiences of returning from the woods “filthy, wet, tired and happy”.

This is more than a book about the 13%, although it is too diverse to merely be about one thing in particular. It is a defence and an elegy, a speculation of the future, and praise for past and present. The best writing in Arboreal resists an easy explanation of what makes a tree a tree. Jen Hadfield explores Shetland’s wooded ancient history, the few relict trees that remain and a gardener’s attempt at planting exotic trees, about which “nothing could be more typical of Shetland than… this global web of horticultural correspondences”. Her piece begins in Canada and ends with wind turbines. It doesn’t settle in the meantime. Jay Griffiths’ piece about birdsong in Welsh woods is as exuberant and expressive as its subject matter, her sentences like a chain-reaction of cadence. Away from non-fiction, Arboreal includes haunting fiction, speculative interviews from the future about the impact of rewilding and a small scattering of poems — Simon Armitage’s short and deceptively simple elegy for the ash tree is a particular highlight for its ability to get straight to the emotional heart of the tree in peril.


A frequently made criticism of nature writing is that it is somehow removed from nature, or doesn’t engage with those whose daily lives involves working with nature. One of Arboreal’s strengths is that it brings to a literary audience the words of those working directly with woodlands, writers familiar with the rub of tree bark and the feel of dirt under their fingernails. There is an understanding of the woodland as ecology and economics: when to chop a tree down and when to leave it, a living, working relationship with the landscape that goes deeper. Or in Robin Walter’s words, “I am drawn to the spruce… If we felled them all now it would be simple and cost effective, but we would lose our protective canopy and leave our precious woodland flora at the mercy of invasive bramble, bracken and grass”. The hard-edged pragmatism of such prose might not be to everyone’s taste, but it is as worthy of being heard as any other.

Arboreal is not all perfect. The drawback with the anthology format is that for every piece you love there will be a piece that leaves you cold. That is inevitable and down to personal taste and I won’t name here the ones that disappointed me. The visual art is a highlight but more would have been good — I was startled to see a picture of a green man from Iraq, and would have appreciated being able to read about it. For an anthology dedicated to Rackham, it would have also been nice to see some of his words, interspersed with the words about or inspired by him. His list of actions from the conclusion to The Ash Tree would have been a perfect fit — amid all the doom, sometimes we forget to tell people what to do, even if, as many of the writers state, Rackham was often in favour of doing nothing.

Britain’s woodlands are, for all their cultural significance, in a poor state. They are contested, misunderstood, and after Rackham, lacking an obvious figurehead. Arboreal suggests new ways, new paths to appreciation. It deserves to succeed.


Stephen Rutt recently completed 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 Zoomorphic (forthcoming). He blogs at stephenrutt.blogspot.com and tweets @steverutt.

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The Moth Snowstorm: an environmental call to arms as powerful as Silent Spring

MA Wild Writing course director James Canton finds a vital environmental message at the heart of Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm. [This review originally appeared on The Conversation on 25 October 2016].

There are few more pressing 21st-century issues than the threat to the world’s natural environment. Yet how can we halt the loss of wildlife across the Earth? How can we balance economic development and population growth against ecological concerns? In The Moth Snowstorm, one of Britain’s leading environmental writers, the journalist Michael McCarthy, presents a timely reminder of the state of the destruction of the natural world.

The Moth Snowstorm has just been published in the US – and it is worth remembering the impact Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had on its release back in 1962. Carson’s book opened our eyes to the damage that agrochemicals such as DDT, dieldrin and aldrin were inflicting on wildlife populations. In the US, public outrage following Carson’s work directly influenced the banning of DDT in 1972.


In Britain, nature writing has seen a dramatic surge in interest in recent years – Nielsen Bookscan indicates that sales figures in the category “animal and wildlife” rose from 426,630 books in 2012 to 663,575 books in 2015.

Poignant memoir often now serves to ground tales of the natural world. Recent successes such as Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life and Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun have all offered vital and often visceral insights into the author’s personal lives and battles.

The great thinning

In The Moth Snowstorm, McCarthy gives an equally affecting private backdrop to individualise his tale. He dedicates the book to the memory of his mother Norah and frames the work around his mother’s mental breakdown in the early 1950s when McCarthy and his brother John were young boys. At the time, McCarthy found solace in nature. He still does.

But the wildlife population of Britain has halved in his lifetime, he tells us: “This was the great thinning”. We need such statistics to see the extent of ecological destruction wrought through the second half of the 20th century. Yet as Homo sapiens – “Earth’s problem child” – we so often seem to sit apparently impotent and useless in our response.

 the-moth-snowstormMcCarthy’s love of his home turf of the Dee estuary, near Liverpool, is detailed and contrasted against the example of the far vaster tidal flats of the Yellow Sea at Saemangeum in South Korea, once home to millions of migrant birds, now a “deadscape” of unused, reclaimed land measuring 40,000ha enclosed in a wall 33km long.

McCarthy peers spellbound at the satellite photo on Google Maps – at the “thin white line in the sea” of the wall. The entire estuary has gone. “Extinguished. Rubbed out. The whole thing”. The emotive thump of those three short, stepped sentences – one word, two words, three words long – is typical of McCarthy’s powerfully effective style.

Blizzard of moths

To have experienced the actual occurrence of a moth snowstorm in Britain, you need to be at least 50 years old or so – for the term refers to the effect whereby, as McCarthy writes:

The headlight beams of a speeding car on a muggy summer’s night in the countryside, turn[ed] the moths into snowflakes [that] plastered the headlights and the windscreen until driving became impossible, and you had to stop the car to wipe the glass surfaces clean.

For those who have known such sights, it is a poignant and vibrant memory of the abundance of insect life that once filled the night. But moments like those are now gone. Blizzards of insects are a thing of the past. So how can these rose-tinted instances of nostalgia serve us? McCarthy’s answer is simple. We must learn to recognise such losses to our wildlife populations yet see too that “our bond with nature” is unbreakable.

McCarthy’s own memoir of loss, emotional torpor and eventual recovery exemplifies the deep peace we can all experience by seeking joy and wonder in the natural world. His tale is told with heart-rending honesty. Only our “belief in nature’s worth” is going to save the world’s green places and its wildlife. We must learn to recognise our “ancient bond with the natural world”.

We must remember to celebrate that eternal tie by observing and glorifying those natural phenomena that seem most wonderful to us as individuals – be they the spectacle of a clump of snowdrops, the inscape of magnolia or bluebell flowers, or the sight of a mad March hare. This is the vital message of The Moth Snowstorm. McCarthy’s words ring out as a rallying cry which is not only a delight to hear but one we should all seek to follow.

Books really can change the world. Here’s hoping that McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm, like Carson’s Silent Spring, is one such work that truly starts to make the world’s human population shift the way we see, experience and act towards the remaining wildlife that we share this planet with.

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 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.


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.


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.


[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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