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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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.

arboreal_trees

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.

silent-spring

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.

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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.

river-stour

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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