It’s been unbearably warm all day – too warm to go outside – so I have been sat by an open window, reading and moving as little as possible. We decided, once it started to cool down in the evening, to go for a cycle ride to Attenborough – down to the river.
There is something romantic about summer evenings and the idea of going down to the water. Perhaps because of a youth spent listening to Bruce Springsteen sing plaintively about a river. I sang that song to myself as we cycled along, cooling off in the evening air.
As we cycled through the village we encountered what at first looked to be a thin dusting of snow, but was in fact poplar catkins that had been blown everywhere. The grass was thick with them and they clung to everything else, including walls, bushes, and gates. I’ve never seen this phenomenon before, but apparently most of the streets of Moscow are lined with White Poplars and the catkins are a big problem in summer.
We stopped and took pictures of the poplar snow. I picked a ball of the fluff up and rubbed it between my fingers. It was so soft and frail. At that point I didn’t know which tree they had come from but I knew the fluff had to be seeds. I did spend my childhood picking dandelions and blowing at them to tell the time. Rubbing the poplar catkins between my fingers, I couldn’t help but think how often nature surprises me.
Last Saturday I read an article in The Guardian by Steven Poole (Is our love of nature writing bourgeois escapism?) that really got me thinking (and slightly riled up). I was intending to write a blog post response, pointing out all the ways in which the author of the article is completely wrong. I’m glad other things got in the way and that I didn’t just publish my heat of the moment thoughts. As Sharon Blackie says in her own response to the article:
It was an article with many flaws, and typical of what has become an unfortunate but seemingly essential feature of British journalism these days – the inability to ask an important question and address it without being factious for the sake of being factious.
So it’s probably best not to give it too much air time. However, the question of nature writing and escapism and whether nature writing is a form of escapism, has been going over in my head all week. It came to mind as we were cycling through Attenborough Nature Reserve. I thought to myself how good it felt to see water and overgrown verges; to see butterflies, beetles and bees; and to not hear cars. Is this escapism?
It is an escape of sorts. It is an escape from crowds and roads, cars and concrete. But actually, on a day-to-day basis these things don’t really bother me. Walking along a road I’m more likely to notice birdsong and trees, than the cars and concrete. So, perhaps escaping is a more complex concept than that. Perhaps it is not just about escaping from, it is also about escaping to. It is not so much the place we leave behind, as the place we go to. I love the city I live in, but I love Attenborough too.
Steven Poole has this to say about nature writers:
Nature writers do tend to whitewash the non-human world as a place of eternal sun-dappled peace and harmony, only ever the innocent victim of human depredation.
But I don’t recognise the nature writing I read, write and believe in, in his description. The writings of people like Kathleen Jamie, J.A. Baker and Richard Mabey. Perhaps at one time I would have. There was a time in my life when I believed in the idea of nature as peaceful, harmonious and perfect. A time when I could describe something as natural without wanting to dig beneath the surface. Then I did an MA in Nature Writing, which changed all that. For me, the process of becoming a nature writer has been a process of learning to see things differently. It has been a process of learning to notice the things around me, even when I’m in a city. Instead of dreaming about some far-off, Arcadia, I have learnt to love the near-at-hand.
Since I moved to Nottingham last year I have been going for near-daily walks around the lake at Highfields. Sometimes I barely noticed my surroundings, but by being there everyday, by committing to a place, I’ve been rewarded with some interesting sights. I’ve seen my first ever vole. I’ve seen rabbits, herons and teals (I miss them now that they are gone for the summer). I once sat and watched a moor hen building a nest in a tree, picking through the undergrowth for twigs and then scrabbling up the trunk of the tree with the help of its wings. This is what nature writing is about. Commitment, dedication to place and love. Yes, love. It is about entering a space, getting to know it intimately and appreciating it for what it is.
I have no desire to write about far away, exotic locations. When I tell people my MA was in nature and travel writing, they always seem to hone in on the travel part and say something like: ohh, travel writing. That would be nice, getting paid to go travelling round the world. But it is not travel writing, so much as staying writing that I am interested in. If I could write about Attenborough, the way Baker writes about his small corner of Essex, I’d be very happy indeed. Perhaps I’m not thinking big enough. I wish I could say I was scared. But the truth is, I am happy simply to be here and see all that here has to offer.
After all, here there are poplar catkins.