Out There: MA Nature & Travel Writing Anthology 2021

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OUT THERE MA Nature & Travel Writing Anthology 2021


Copyright © 2021 retained by contributors. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without the written permission of the contributor. Published by Publishing Futures Lab, Bath Spa University Newton Park, Bath, BA2 9BN, United Kingdom Cover image: Northern Lights in Norway © 2021 Rebecca Gibson


Out There MA Nature and Travel Writing 2021 Anthology


Contents Patrick Barkham

Preface

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Stephen Moss & Gail Simmons

Introduction

xi

Jane Adams Broomfield Park Un-Forgettable Badgers Billie Ballard Massive Sun Death Millennium Pleased to Meet Yew Wolverton Community Apple Orchard Sahara Rachael Bentley Toad Grief is a Place Where to See a Murmuration

3 5 8 13 15 17 19 22 25 28 31


Maeve Bruce Where the Earth Meets the Sky Apples November in the Valley

37 49 41

Nicola Button Cast Adrift A Meeting in Monochome A Birding Debut The Feel of the Rock

47 50 52 55

Poppy Calypso Nature: A Review Special Sonder

61 63 65

Karen Christian Safe for the Winter Under the Bubbles Travels by Mouth Wild Swimming Ladies

69 71 73 76

Rebecca Gibson A Special Place Taking Off Whale Watching in a Time of Covid Deborah Gray Only in India The Snowy Notebook Pantone 18-3838

81 83 85 93 96 99


Jen Green Shooting Star Diary Starling Murmuration Signs of Autumn Anchor of Oak Clevedon Coast Nuno Rachel Henson

A Normal Day in Paris Three Short Pieces about Dorset

Mauro Hernandez A January Morning Walk in Calgary Deciduous Leaves Grandma’s House Richard Kitzinger Go Home Polish Call of the Kiwi Wild Hilary Macmillan Martens in the Mist Hoping for a Wild Party Trish Offiler-Conti There are No Doors in the Rainforest 1987 - Hurricane Weekend Explorer with Randi Skaug

105 109 110 111 113 115 119 123

131 133 136 141 145 153 159

165 169 171


Sharon Pinner Wells Worded Fake Views Lockdown Storm Not Just a Bird Mind the Gap Sue Rickard Rewe Mead Nature Reserve Surfing in Oz Chestnut Debbie Rolls Grandmother Spider Speaks Philharmonic Fan Learning on the Canal Snow Pause Autumnal Contradictions

179 181 184 185 189 193 196 201 205 208 212 214 215

Emma Russell Childhood Memories Woodland Walk Herne Bay Winter The One-Pound Bird Feeder From My Window

219 222 223 224 227

Abi Starr Zebra Jumping Spider Tree POV

231 237

Ella Taylor The Wild Flowers Free Falling Ocean Mind

241 245 249


Jennifer Thompson The Bay The Farmer of Westhill Crustacean Graveyard

253 259 262

Amanda Tuke 267 Suburban Wild Diary 271 Dying in the Rainforest Tweet-length #Thumbnail 276 Nature Acknowledgments

279

Picture credits

281



Preface The zebra jumping spider. The smell of an orphaned badger cub. A kiwi. Pine martens. Bluefin tuna having a party. Welcome to a ceaselessly fascinating and varied anthology about the world and its inhabitants. As well as wild animals, the human species is here too. Women who swim wild. Earlyonset dementia. Norway’s first woman to climb Everest. Parents, children, love, sickness and death. And there is writing about the places we’ve made, we inhabit and we pass through: bird tables, gardens, a canal up north, a river down south; Ukraine, Canada, Argentina, India, Australia. Nature writing and travel writing tend to inhabit separate spaces in bookshops and online stores. In Britain, the former has flourished in the past two decades while the latter, although still popular, has appeared to fade from prominence. The conventional travel genre has been weakened by the democratisation of adventurous travel, the popularity of social media influencers and, perhaps, a post-colonial loss of faith on the part of British-born people to believe they have a right to cast their writing over other peoples. In another sense, however, travel writing is thriving and taking on new forms, as every genre must to stay vital. Almost all viii


narrative non-fiction is a form of travel, looking out into the world or travelling in towards the self. Almost all ‘nature writing’ involves travelling to distinct places and writing closely about them. In a previous era, many of today’s nature narratives would have been shelved in the Travel section. This anthology shares the best qualities of both genres in that it is attentive to what is ‘out there’ while also acknowledging how the gaze of each writer, and our experiences, shapes what and how we see. The pieces are by 23 writers of varied backgrounds who share one common recent experience: Bath Spa’s MA in Nature and Travel Writing. This course, the only one of its kind in Britain, is run by the nature writer Stephen Moss, along with travel writer Gail Simmons. Over the past six years, its students have had their essays and writing published in numerous magazines and journals, from the Guardian to the BBC’s Countryfile magazine. Alumni Anita Roy and Steven Lovatt have had books published – and widely praised – as well. Some of the writers in this collection will undoubtedly become familiar names in the bookshops of the future. The variety and originality of the writing here is striking – how neat, for instance, to describe Wells in phrases encountered by chance in the small Somerset city – but I think that historians of the future will also be able to identify this writing as belonging to this moment in the early 2020s. Themes and patterns here reveal where we stand as a species beset by an extinction crisis, a climate crisis and a global pandemic. Experiences of lockdown are here, of course, and I’m also struck by how large trees are looming in our lives. ix


Several pieces are written from the mind of a tree (and one from the point of view of a toad) and this may be the most significant pattern of all. For this collection is not only an exercise in curiosity, but also in empathy. Facing the loss of so much life on a human-dominated Earth, many of us are straining to live more lightly. To do that, we must first increase our awareness and understanding of other animals and plants. Now we are seeing new writing emerging that seeks to view the world through the eyes of other species. Whether we call that nature writing or travel writing, it is deeply exciting and profoundly hopeful. Patrick Barkham Patrick Barkham is an award-winning author and The Guardian’s Natural History Writer. His books include The Butterfly Isles, Badgerlands, Islander and Wild Child. He’s edited an anthology of nature writing, The Wild Isles, and is currently writing a biography of the writer Roger Deakin.

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Foreword As Thoreau famously said, it doesn’t matter where or how far you go . . . the important thing is how alive you are. Writing of every kind is a way to wake oneself up and keep as alive as when one has just fallen in love. – Pico Iyer Nature writing and travel writing have much in common. Both are concerned with the world as we find it, and yet also reflect our own observations and experiences back to ourselves. Both are deeply rooted in place: sometimes far away, at other times – especially during the last year or so – much closer to home. Both require a careful blend of specific description and broader brushstrokes, to strike a balance between ‘showing’ and ‘telling’. And both have at times showcased some of the best writing in the creative nonfiction field – and occasionally some of the worst. Teaching nature and travel writing is sometimes simple and straightforward, and at other times like grappling with a particularly slippery eel. It’s often said that you can’t teach creative writing, only creative writers, and there’s certainly some truth in that. It is possible to improve someone’s writing, by offering guidance, hints and tips, and discussing what works and what does not, using their own and other writers’ work. And while it may not take Malcolm Gladwell’s famed ‘10,000 hours’ to reach the required standard, it is certainly true that, to paraphrase the champion golfer Gary xi


Player, the more you practise, the better you get. That’s certainly our experience when teaching the MA Nature and Travel Writing at Bath Spa University. Above all, we wish to take our students on a journey (yes, a tired old cliché, but it happens to be true). Like other creative writing courses, we use a blend of lectures, seminars, discussions, critical analysis of other writers’ work, and, most importantly, workshopping the students’ own work. First, we lay down a foundation, then we build on that to develop the students’ writing, working on their strengths and weaknesses, encouraging them to go beyond their comfort zone and, ultimately, to find their own distinctive voice. Unlike any other university course in the UK (and, as far as we know, anywhere in the world) we teach the MA in a very specific way. Known as ‘low residency’, this entails the students attending three five-day residential events, one at the start of the course, one in the middle and one at the end; the rest of the teaching is done online. This meant that when the first lockdown happened, in March 2020, we had to make very few changes to the way we teach. One major advantage of this approach is that students do not need to come to Bath Spa once or twice a week for lectures or seminars; they are able to live anywhere in the UK, or indeed anywhere in the world, as long as they can get here for the residentials, and have a reliable Internet connection. Over the six years we have been running the MA, we have had students based in Ireland, Spain, France, the USA, Canada and China, as well as all over Britain. Almost all the students now do the course part-time over two xii


years; this allows them the time and space to reflect on their writing, but also – and just as importantly – to fit the course around their busy and eventful lives. This combination of low-residency learning and a parttime structure means that the course is flexible and accessible. We have students with chronic physical or mental health conditions; with family responsibilities – including carers and single parents. We have had students in their 20s and their 80s, and every age in between, and many of our students have jobs or do voluntary work. In the vast majority of cases, these people would be unable to do a more conventional MA, taught in one location. The online platform also allows us to work with a wonderful array of guest speakers: including authors and journalists, editors and commissioners, agents and publishers. Again, because they do not need to travel to reach us, it is relatively easy for them to spend an hour or so to speak to our students. Their generosity in sharing their thoughts and ideas with us has been humbling. What all our students have in common is that they all want to learn how to improve their writing, get it published, and ideally be paid for their efforts; they are also willing to share their writing with their peers and tutors, and have it analysed and critiqued, in order to achieve these aims. We hope you agree that the results published here properly reflect their hard work and talent. Out There is the second anthology of pieces written by our students (after On the Wild Side, published in 2019), and covers the fourth and fifth cohorts on the MA. Like the xiii


pieces featured in that first collection, these are incredibly varied in format, style, tone and genre: the anthology includes poems, personal memoirs, fiction and opinion pieces, as well as more straightforward creative non-fiction. Each piece has been written by someone who has found their voice, has something to say, and now wishes to share their work with others. Above all, each tells a story – one that deserves to be read. Another thing that links many of the pieces is that they were written at a unique and (hopefully) unrepeatable period in our lives: the successive lockdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. For our travel writers, this was a particularly tough time: how can you write about journeys, and explore other nations, peoples and cultures, when you have to stay put at home? Nature writers perhaps suffered less than their travel counterparts: much ‘new nature writing’ is in any case based on the local and familiar. But they too felt the restrictions – practical, physical, mental and emotional – imposed during that bizarre time. What strikes us, though, is how creative our students have been in overcoming these issues: turning their attention to familiar places, or using past experiences to evoke the joys and wonders of travel and the natural world. As we write, in the spring of 2021, we do appear to be emerging into a new, and hopefully less restrictive, world. Travel will begin again, allowing our students to journey to new and exciting places, and write about them. Of course, things will be different: but, as we have seen to our cost in recent times, trying to predict exactly how is a fool’s errand.

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All we can say is that new opportunities are bound to arise; allowing them to write afresh about what matters to them and to their readers. What next for the students included in this anthology? Many have already embarked on careers as published writers: with articles in newspapers and magazines, and blogs; several also have books in the pipeline. Their work has appeared in the Guardian, Telegraph, the BBC’s Wildlife and Countryfile magazines and a host of other publications; while several have been shortlisted for the prestigious Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Award. We are very proud of their achievements, and wish them well in the future. Dr Stephen Moss, Course Leader Dr Gail Simmons, Course Tutor Stephen Moss is a naturalist, author and broadcaster. His books include Wild Hares and Hummingbirds, Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names, and Wild Kingdom, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Wainwright Prize. He writes a monthly ‘Birdwatch’ column for the Guardian, and appears regularly on BBC Radio. He is currently working on a new book, Ten Birds that Changed the World, for Faber. Gail Simmons is a travel writer and journalist. She has written widely for the UK and international press, and has broadcast for the BBC. Her first book, The Country of Larks: A Chiltern Journey, was published by Bradt in spring 2019, and was shortlisted for Debut of the Year in the Edward Stanford Travel Awards. She is currently working on her second book, to be published by Hachette in 2023.

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Rebecca Gibson © 2021


Jane Adams Jane is a London-born naturalist, photographer and writer now living in Dorset. She’s passionate about wildlife and wild places, and has been working professionally with UK conservation charities for nearly 20 years, communicating that passion. Her writing has been published in two anthologies, Autumn and Winter: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons edited by Melissa Harrison. She writes regularly for blogs, websites and magazines such as Wildlife Watch, the Land Lines Project and Mark Avery’s Standing Up For Nature, and in September 2019 she won the Daily Telegraph’s Just Back travel writing competition. www.janevadams.com | @WildlifeStuff


Broomfield Park ‘The park keeper spotted me,’ the girl says, hurtling to a stop with brakes screeching. ‘If he catches me one more time he’ll ban me.’ She’s only knee-high to a grasshopper but feisty. There’s no cycling in the park but she doesn’t care. I feign disapproval but chuckle inside. Being banned from the park would have been the least of my worries at her age. ‘Men rode penny-farthings through the park on Sundays when I was a nipper,’ I tell her, choosing not to mention the poverty, hunger and cold that was also part of my life. She gives me an old-fashioned look, eyebrows raised in disbelief as we pull identical paper bags from our pockets and shake monkey-nut cocoons onto our palms. I don’t know her name, she’s never asked mine, but this shared ritual seems to be a comfort to both of us. Broomfield has been the backdrop to my life, I guess you could say ‘man and boy’ – fishing in the ponds, courting Diane, pushing Christine on the swings. Simple pleasures. The manicured lawns, the squirrels, the lines of bedding plants look the same. It’s the people, the people I loved that have changed. Gone. The crumpling of paper bags attracts two greys. They hang from a nearby oak with back legs unnaturally long and 3


Crampon-claws prick their way up the girl’s yellow-check trousers climbing to the shelf of her shoulder. I watch her head tilt slightly as she tries to feel the squirrel’s fur with her cheek but it’s already crawling along her arm and stretching for food. She’s studying it as if seeing each hair, whisker and claw for the first time, even though I know she’s done this a thousand times. She’s lost in another world. ‘Aren’t squirrels amazing?’ she whispers. I nod.

4

Jane Adams

bodies stretched. Feather duster tails twitch in anticipation. The smaller, cockier one descends and sits on its haunches, nose twitching. Then it springs.


Un-Forgettable ‘You always feel better when you’ve been for a walk.’ I hate to admit my husband’s right. To walk in silence is a treat, with no phone, no email, just the sound of my feet and the feel and smell of nature – sometimes that’s all it takes to reboot me, to give the day some perspective. But something’s niggling. Not every walk is exciting or memorable. That might be fine for me, but what about the people I spend hours talking to each day on social media, trying to instill a love for our natural world, encouraging them to go outside and experience wildlife and then to help protect it? What if they go for a walk and don’t see anything? Maybe they don’t know what they’re looking for – maybe they hate walking alone – maybe they hate walking. Am I, in fact, putting them off? I read an article in the Guardian recently. Zoe Gilbert asked, “Must a walk in the woods always be meaningful?” Every wildlife-related article or book I read seems to be about having a meaningful ‘encounter’ with nature. But life – and nature – isn’t always so accommodating. I went for a walk the other day and it was 99% forgettable, or at least that’s how it felt at the time. For eight miles, I walked under pencil-lead skies and my overriding thoughts were how cold my feet were, how tired my legs felt and how walking 5


Jane Adams

in the rain with glasses on is acutely frustrating. Yet there were two things that happened during that walk that left a lasting impression. The first was a person, a woman. Walking beneath stagheaded oaks, she was dressed in a short, smart puffa jacket, blue jeans and walking boots – nothing out of the ordinary there, but it wasn’t her clothes that made her memorable. It was her smile. She must have been in her 80s but on this wet, miserable day she also wore the biggest smile and wished me good morning with the kindest voice. I remember her hair, thick and white and piled expertly into a bun, and her eyes, her piercing stone-grey eyes, that shone. There was no doubt she was beautiful, but hers was not a skin-deep superficial beauty. She had something extra, something special. She was loving life, her surroundings, even the rain. Being in nature isn’t just about wildlife – it’s about all animals, us included. It’s so easy to think of the natural world in terms of ‘them and us’, but seeing the woman with the white hair and twinkling eyes was just as memorable as seeing a roe deer or a rare orchid. It’s so easy to forget that we aren’t apart from nature, we are an integral part of it. The people I talk to on social media as part of my work for conservation charities are an integral part of it too. The second thing happened when I changed my route home. Tired, I turned onto a path I’d only walked once before in the summer. It was a shortcut of sorts and I was intrigued to see what it felt like in winter. The answer wasn’t profound: it felt muddy. The mud dragged at the soles of my boots and sent me ‘arse over tit’ on the slightest of inclines. 6


But four oaks stood on an old boundary bank raised a few feet above the path between the trees. Dark, glossy green holly dotted with red berries, stretched fifteen feet into the air, blocking the view to the field behind. When the bird flew at me, I gasped. My surroundings up to then had been still, without a breath of wind. The lack of movement had added to the melancholy of the day, but now this bird was flying right at me. Its wings were outstretched like an angel – white shivering feathers, with just a speckling of brown, and an orange beak shouting ‘tsak tsak tsak!’ Instinctively, I stepped back. It was guarding the holly berries. I’d never been so close to a fieldfare. They’re a Scandinavian visitor to our shores and in hard winters, when they have little food in their native lands, they fly south, sometimes in their millions. This one was alone and, if I’m honest, I could understand why. She had a definite attitude problem. I left her to her berries but the image of her outstretched wings, each feather perfectly outlined against the dark holly leaves, and her screaming in a landscape devoid of sound, stayed etched in my mind. How do we capture the specialness of nature? How do we show people how to hold onto the wild things they love before they disappear forever, and do it without turning them off? I wish I could take the people I talk to on social media for a walk, a boring walk, a wet walk, a local walk. I’d love them to meet the woman with the white hair who loves life and wet rainy days, and the bird with its outstretched wings protecting its food. I’d love to swap the dark messages of habitat destruction and species decline for a belief that we can save and nurture our natural world and make it a living, breathing part of our lives. Could I help them ‘feel better’? 7


Jane Adams

Badgers Nothing quite compares to the glorious smell of a badger cub. I’m part way through a wildlife rescue course and, judging by the strange looks I’m getting, there’s a good chance I just buried my nose in the fur of the orphaned cub for slightly too long. As the rest of the class move onto bottle feeding, washing and incubator settings, I’m still revelling in the cub’s musky, earthy scent as it sits on my lap guzzling milk from a bottle. I fell under the spell of badgers when I read Out of the Darkness, by badger whisperer Chris Ferris. I’d mourned hundreds of badger carcasses at the side of the road, but to walk in the footsteps of Ferris and meet a living breathing wild badger as she had, that was my dream. When we moved away from town to a semi-rural village, I thought my chances of seeing a brock – the evocative Old English name for a badger – might increase. After hiding in Joiner’s Copse for five consecutive evenings, staring at an empty badger sett, I had to admit my badger-tracking skills were decidedly dodgy. Talks, courses and several books later, my first encounter happened right under my nose. One evening, I was drawing the bedroom curtains when the security light burst into life. There, in a pool of halogen, hoovering up fallen birdseed, was a badger. 8


It was bigger than I thought it would be; sturdy Corgi size, rather than athletic Westie. It moved with fluidity when I thought it would plod, and the black and white stripes on its face were more defined, like a sad-looking Mexican bandit. But what surprised me most were its legs, quite long and surprisingly dainty; and its tail, wagging like a dog and not in the least bit stubby. Thankfully, this ball of trouble on my lap is good natured and, as yet, not too feisty, but that isn’t always the case. Five years ago, I heard about a bovine tuberculosis (bTB) badger vaccination project starting in Dorset, and signed up to become a vaccinator. The project is part of the government’s measures to control the spread of bTB in cattle and badgers. One of the other ‘controls’ is the controversial badger cull that, since 2013, has killed 67,000 badgers. I’ll just leave that number there. On the whole, adult badgers are pretty laid back when they’re trapped and vaccinated. Sometimes, you even have to wake them up before you inject them. But the cubs... I once arrived at a cage to find two spitting, scratching badger cubs hanging from the roof of their cage doing a very convincing impression of Spider-Pig from The Simpsons. Persuading two cubs to turn the right way up, and stay still long enough to be vaccinated, was like dealing with toddler twins having a meltdown in Sainsburys: stand back, let them rant, then try again. We got there in the end and they were back the next night, so it can’t have been too much of an ordeal. They love the peanut bait: badgers live for their stomachs. I pick some of the badger hairs off my jeans and I’m reminded of the first time I found one of these hairs in the 9


Jane Adams

wild. Kneeling in front of a cavernous hole with newly dug earth all around me, I found a single dirty white hair with a black tip. I rolled the hair between my finger and thumb. It was just how I’d imagined badger hair might feel: triangular, wiry. Unique. ‘Right,’ says our tutor. ‘Those of you with a badger cub – now they’ve finished eating you need to take the wet cotton wool and encourage them to poo.’ Whoa... hold your horses! I don’t remember that being in the course description. I look down at the cub and he looks mournfully back at me. I think about all the badger cubs that have been killed in the cull and desperately hope this one has a long life when he goes back to the wild. ‘OK, little one.’ I hold the cub up so that his waving back legs dangle down. ‘I sincerely apologise for the next five minutes. We’ll both try to block this from our memory. I’m coming in.’

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Billie Ballard Billie Ballard is a nonbinary, queer writer whose interests are focused on social issues; particularly mental health, LGBTQIA+ culture and inclusivity. Always a keen blogger, Billie has written a series of socially conscious blogs for the independent cosmetics company Pincerna. Alongside this, they maintain their personal blog ‘Congrats, it’s a black sheep’ which discusses their personal experience with mental health, as well as travel and nature writing pieces. Billie also co-hosts a mental health podcast ‘Mentality Matters’, which aims to have an open discussion about the stigma of mental health in society. Due to their own tumultuous relationship with the world, Billie prides themself on pushing boundaries in their writing. By exploring difficult topics and experimenting with form, they hope to give a voice to uncomfortable or unlikely areas of life.

ww.itsablacksheep.com | @BillieBallard19


Massive Sun Death I persist regardless of what they do. I mean, I wish they wouldn’t, but in truth it doesn’t matter. A war, another war. A disease, another disease that they brought back with them. Plant another, next to me. What was it my mother said as she put me in the ground? ‘Shade’ a single word lulled into loose earth scratched up for my bundle of roots. It was then, in 1667, that I learnt I was here for human convenience. Convenient I was. Conveniently tall and ‘wow, so beautiful’, and I stood there and listened to them, in awe of me holding paper cups of my brothers torn down, hands wrapped round them sipping at the foul brown, and I thought, ‘Well if only you fed some of that to me, you have no idea how well I’d grow.’ Ancient they call us, only because we are the proud survivors of Dutch Elm, Ash Dieback, Anthracnose and... there are more but I can’t remember. If only you could feel the anger I feel, being a surviving witness of the endless human violence. The ability to self-destruct again and again, but somehow to pull themselves back by a thread. A thread, usually, that’s tethered to us, strung around our roots and cast deep into soft soil and plump earth that they wish to make hollow. 13


Billie Ballard

Oxygen, take it. We make enough to feed them all and will continue to do so long after they’ve been swallowed by icy floods. Hot Amazon, hot Bush, hot heat-hardened hearts of my slain family over the world. We prepare ourselves to face the massive sun death – just because they won’t be here to enjoy it, why shouldn’t we? We have accepted our place in this, to fund consumerism, capitalism, communism, however they want to wipe themselves out. Plant your guilt, seed by seed. Build new forests of shame and slavery. It’s too late to stop what you’ve done, just try to treat the next ones better.

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Millennium ‘Don’t drop me, granddad!’ I’m sat on his knees, nervously anticipating the fall as he dunks me low to the floor, my almost-black hair brushing the carpet. He dangles me there for a second or two, my sweaty hands gripping his in fear of my life. He hoists me up as quickly as he let me down. The trust is restored. My mum is on the sofa soothing my brother and sister and explaining to my younger cousins what the Millennium is. I can’t hear her over my own shrieks. Adrenaline bounces through my ears and I know I’m going down again. ‘Don’t drop me, please.’ The fear seizes me. It’s too much and I cry for nana. Arthritic fingers pass me over into wobbling arms that hold me close, and her talcum-powder skin blooms in my nose to bring me peace. My dad wanders over and warbles something in my ear, a rhyme about fishes and fairies, but I wrap my legs around my nan and pretend he’s not there. ‘You’re too old to be held.’ He’s persisting, the green bottle in his tattooed hand winks at me, beckoning me to join the adults that are smouldering in their own drunkenness. I ask my nan to put me down. I go outside and clutch at the cold earth with grubby fingernails. My chest is heaving with tears that won’t come, but cousin Ollie finds me. He has a plate full of scotch eggs. 15


Billie Ballard

‘Countdown is in an hour.’ It’s been a long day, so I take an egg and melt into the dark grass instead, picking blades until they weave me into sleep.

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Pleased to Meet Yew I have fallen into a peculiar habit of introducing myself to trees that I find particularly striking. This afternoon, I met an English yew just inside the grounds of Corsham Court. It was situated in a small clearing with three or four others (which I ashamedly admit I ignored) but marching towards the object of my affections I refused to blame myself for being interested in only one. Hurried footsteps could be heard bolting away from me and back over the park, and I felt the flap of wings that followed suit. Evidently, I had scared off any resting wildlife, and was thankfully alone. The air was cold, and it rattled me. It smelled of nothing, just the way I have always remembered fresh air to smell. But when my shoes crushed the dead, sodden leaves underneath me, I kicked up the acrid scent of fir-needles when they rot after Christmas. Wicked roots peeped out of the mush that was the ground, the detachment between them and the tree was eerie, and I felt as if I were in a fairy tale. Before I reached the tree, it presented me with luminous red berries that hung from thin, waxy leaves. I took one of the arils in my fingers and plucked it. It was fleshy and felt like an over-ripe, miniature nectarine. I crushed it and felt regret as it bled with clear slime that clung to my skin. The seed was translucent and caved under the pressure of my nail. 17


Billie Ballard

Wet bark peeled from the trunk due to the recent rain. At the front of the tree, no larger than a piece of A4 paper, a section of it was rippled like corrugated cardboard. It felt the same too, not dissimilar to a sheet of paper left in a damp room overnight. The texture made my skin twitch. I did not have time to admire it, as I was disturbed by a wasp crawling in and out of a deep, black welt in the bark. It moved with intent, working on something important. All the while, a humming exuded from its body. It was me that was the intruder here. Close to the wasp I spotted a slug’s trail, still glittering and wet to the touch. It occurred to me that this yew is a shared house for many creatures. Above me hundreds of branches knotted together, ascending into the sky. Looking up at them made me dizzy. The wind had shifted – what was once a breeze now sounded like somebody was blowing air through a metal pipe right into my ear. As it grew in volume it brought movement back to the area. The place was thick with the swishing of leaves and a bird that had returned for a vocal argument with a lawnmower. Turning my back on the tree, my soles sank into earth so soft that I thought it would swallow me. For a second I was tempted to stay, but hearing the wildlife reconvening behind me I kept walking. It had grown colder, and it felt too bitter to be outside, but I left smiling, thinking to myself that for a first meeting it couldn’t have gone better.

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Wolverton Community Apple Orchard

‘We don’t usually get people your age in here, dear. What brings you to the orchard?’ I’ve been visiting the Community Orchard since I was thirteen. I love it here. It’s always quiet despite being popular with the Wolverton community – I think there must be a secret vow of silence amongst the frequenters. I have always admired how the apple trees are taller than me and their trunks slimmer than lampposts. And how the algae on the dragonfly pond is only ever yellow... did somebody steal the green? The common frogs that live at the pond must not mind it too much, they’ve been here for at least six years. I first came here fourteen years ago, after coming out to my parents as bisexual. I only live five minutes away, see. I didn’t know what any of the plants were back then, but I remember being stunned by the colours; I wanted to know how I could see so many pinks and purples in the middle of winter. Do you know the old white bench at the back? They took it out a few years ago because it was rotting. Well, that was the first place I sat. God, I thought my heart was going to wrench itself out of my chest with nerves, but I looked around and everything was so still. It existed regardless of what I was going through. The orchard didn’t 19


Billie Ballard

care that I was bisexual. The Victorian train carriage, the rusted sixpence stepping-stones, the green mangle in the corner: none of them cared. After that I made it a habit to come here as often as I could. When I couldn’t eat for days because of the stress over GCSE results the old tool shed remained half sunk in summer mud, just as it always had. When I couldn’t contain my nauseating fear of moving away for university the silver ragwort fought for pride of place in the middle of its bed of Asplenium. All I could think about is how much I would miss that white on green – how would London ever match that? And when I first fell in love, I brought her here. We kissed on our secret path behind the forcefield of chestnut trees at the back, where the wonder of the orchard is broken by garden sheds. When she broke my heart, I sat there again, choking on air that tasted of grass. Then there was that day. The worst one of my life. When I got home from London I went to the orchard every day for three weeks, consumed by my need for something familiar. My parents thought that they would never get me away from there again. I sat in the patch of long grass by the allotments. They had just planted the cherry tree. It was so twiggy, and I couldn’t stop myself snapping the branches until I had handfuls of the thin, red sticks. It was the first new thing I had seen in the Orchard for years, perhaps that’s why I was so eager to destroy it. But the cracked ground it grew from fostered so many of my tears in those weeks that I must have helped it grow instead.

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I’ve been neglectful in recent years, and when I come here now I can’t help but feel as if I’ve betrayed this place somehow. I am happier than I was then, and so much in my life has changed, but everything here is the same. I can stick my fingers into the grass and know that it’s been growing here for as long as I’ve been visiting. When the ivy flourishes in the summer I’m overcome with respect, knowing that it’s seen me at my worst and yet it still comes back. They had a fundraiser last year to paint the train carriage and despite its improved appearance I find myself wishing they had kept it the same. At least the fleabane that grows in the cracks of the stone paving around it is the same weed that they have been battling for fourteen years. Try as they might, the orchard only obeys itself. How long has it been? The elderly volunteer next to me is smiling with such sincerity, waiting on my answer. I won’t tell her that my pain is what brings me here. I’ll tell her it’s the orchard’s persistence – its ability to exist year after year, even when our worlds around it cannot.

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Billie Ballard

Sahara Four years ago, I lay down in the Sahara Desert. I closed my eyes for ten seconds and convinced myself I was floating on water, but eventually the North African heat cut through unbelonging high-street polyester and I was forced to move onto a rug. Cracked camel skin and turmeric-stained wool stopped me from falling through sheets of silken sand and into the pips of Africa. A fat, slate-blue sky beckoned me, and I remember taking a handful of sand to chuck up at it, hoping to leave a mark. By the time my hand left the ground most of it had gone, slipped back to its indistinguishable family. I knew then that the moment would never come again. Today, I lie in a local dog-walking field, cradled by damp moss and thick mud that slaps back when I throw my palm down on it. My clothes are soaked through with yesterday’s rainwater and piles of burnt charcoal clouds tell me that it won’t be long before they soak my world again. There is a panic, briefly, for the winter insects that may surface from the curly dock or dandelion leaves, but today they have stayed in their marshy camp-outs – our soggy earth can provide for them better than I ever will. I try to close my eyes and to exist in a passing moment. But it is England, and a cold, ashen raindrop appears on my face and rolls, unpleasantly, across my cheek, telling me that it is time to go home. 22



Rachael Bentley Rachael is a freelance writer based in Leicestershire. As a keen naturalist she loves to write about our native flora and fauna, people and places, and specialises in British birds, plants and herblore (Rachael has an RHS general certificate in horticulture). She strives to live slowly, celebrating the seasons and sharing stories along the way. When she’s not writing, you’ll probably find her in a field somewhere with her camera, producing images to accompany her articles. Rachael’s work has appeared in a variety of online and print publications including Bumble, Countryman and This England.

freshairwildhair.co.uk | @freshairwild


Toad

I wake slowly, amidst the warmth of rotting leaves, in a world of damp and decay which smells like musk. Geosmin No.5, earth scent, my scent of choice, a bouquet of soil-dwelling microbes and well-rotted plant matter; water, air and earth; animal, vegetable, mineral. This is the smell of fertility. A smell which stirs something inside me. My heart is slowly awakening too, the long semi-sleep is hard to shake off. Somewhere to my left, I hear a small brushing noise. Wooooorrrrrm, my mind mouths the word huskily, in a long, silky smooth, stretched-out breath. I listen more carefully. Yes, the minute bristles along the worm’s body are scratching the soil like taffeta skirts. Then I can smell it, meaty, moist and succulent. I sneak my left eye open a chink. A pink pointy nose is dangling from the detritus above my head, just a couple of inches to the left. It is too much. I loosen my tongue and in a flash I have breakfast in bed, my first for a long while, gulped down in a couple of swallows, my left hand squeezing the dirt from its guts. My skin senses the soil around me warming, coming alive, things are moving through the humus, the woods above are humming, the sap rising, the world is tingling with life. There is an energy, a new vitality in the woodland and 25


Rachael Bentley

within me. I stretch slightly. Had I not just eaten, I might have considered venturing out to find food, maybe tomorrow. *** The cool, damp evenings after waking make hunting almost too easy. There are slugs by the dozen and there are larvae to be found. There’s a noticeable plant-life stench that accompanies every movement, mycelium and something more subtle, aqueous. I breathe deeply and start to feel unsettled. My body senses the subtle changes in the air too; beyond the need to feed there is something else calling – the pond. Under darkness I start the long journey, stepping free of the trees. I walk, I crawl; I rarely hop, for slow and steady wins the race. There’s nearly half a mile to negotiate before reaching the pool of my birth. From the cover of the trees, I follow hedgerows and crawl through pastures. I follow my nose and the contours of the land, retracing my steps from the previous year. All the while the smell grows stronger and I feel an unusual urge for company. As I travel farther, I start to see others, toads in varying shades of leaf, soil and shadow, all heading in the same direction. Finally, I clamber from a ditch and wade through verdant grasses which are already arching overhead. They are lush and vital even in the moonlight, the smell sweet with an acrid undertone that momentarily masks the more subtle aroma of algae. I freeze as the earth trembles beneath my feet. Something huge is moving. Lights flash like sunlight and then they are gone. I am close now to the stream of 26


stone. A barren strip of unforgiving land that has to be crossed to reach the waters, waters which are now calling a sweet siren song. I rise, readying myself for on-roading. I appear an inch taller and walk steadily out onto the tarmac. There is one of my comrades, or what remains of him. He lies, rolled flat and shining in the moonlight, now gilded onto the road’s surface, a grimace of death choked by the green bile that had once been his innards, forced outward through his mouth into a gloopy puddle. There are others like this too, some mangled beyond recognition, some with limbs in the air like cries for help. But I have no reason to pause, no emotion. I step on a flat face as I walk on, nothing takes my attention from the smell of water and weed. Nothing shouts as loud as the urge to breed.

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Rachael Bentley

Grief is a Place How many times have I said, ‘Dad, I love you’ to the clouds while driving? Grief bites in the car, when I’m tired or when I’m low. It occurs to me that when someone who has been absent from much of your life dies, you’re left wanting forever. When Dad died, I went swimming with basking sharks. I needed to feel small, free and battered by the wild elements, but first I went to a comedy festival – which sounds awful – I didn’t even have an awful time, though it wasn’t exactly not awful either. I just ran away from it all. Cancer had taken my dad from me, it was like I’d been holding onto a tightrope, keeping it taut to hold him. Then he died, the tightrope snapped. I fell too, becoming untethered but carrying a sense of guilty freedom. Grief is a strange, liquid thing. I had good periods when I thought I’d unpacked it, only to discover that I’d still been carrying it around. It lurked at the bottom of the bag and took me by surprise in ordinary situations: paying for a sandwich in Pret A Manger, or innocently cooking mushrooms at home. Some people have their church, others their partner, I had neither, but I had nature. Whenever I felt tugs of fear or pain, I went to ‘my place.’ There I felt calmer, I could 28


breathe. I went often, through the cold, harsh days of winter and through the unfathomable spring, which raunchily oozed with life. Somehow it soothed me to feel nature’s occupations were more pressing than mine. My place was a small parcel of land that held no memories of Dad. It was just a field. Once a low-lying water meadow, it was flanked by ash trees, alders and shrubby hawthorns. These hedgerows funnelled the eye towards the old watermill where a kingfisher would sometimes perch in a large willow. Weaving its way, the length of the field, was a red serpent. The Gilwiskaw, a brook sliced from its mother, the River Mease, by the harsh roar of the A42. The road formed an unwelcome boundary and I turned my back on it. I preferred the bucolic brook snaking back and forth through the rusty clay. The sinuous waters wound through wildflowers, and something about their meandering calmed my mind. Where the waters met tough patches, they simply found their way around and continued, tinkling near silent breaths in passing. Sometimes you don’t realise the depths of your emotions until it’s too late. I feel like that as I grieve for my grief plaster. I’ve come to say goodbye, but it’s a painful reunion. It’s not how I thought it would be. For the first time, I see the cancer. We are the cancer. There used to be water voles in those red banks, loud plops, like large stones dropped into the water to mark their exit. The voles have long gone. They followed the kingfisher, who followed the stickleback. There is little life here now, and yet this place is still beautiful. It holds the promise of what could 29


Rachael Bentley

be if only we kept the waters clean. When we take away from nature, we make it less of itself. We also take away its ability to cure us; so, it might seem strange that I found any comfort in this depleted place. Maybe the sense of loss felt right when I was bruised by life. There was always hope too. Hope that a flash of blue would once again dart above the waters. Now I weep for the place itself. Every hedgerow with its fieldfares and flocks of finches will go. The Gilwiskaw is to be buried, no longer offering the possibility of Ratty’s return or refreshment for the fox. The willow that overhangs the waters might make it, but no kingfisher will grace its boughs. My place is to be encased in concrete. Its headstone will say HS2. I don’t bring flowers, I take them away, to press and to save, to remember.

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Where to See a Murmuration The sky is black with life; dark specks move overhead like smuts from a bonfire caught on the breeze. The sound of waves is all around. A quiet crowd lines the gravel pathway between the reed beds. I am one of many who have assembled to witness the greatest wildlife spectacle in Britain; a starling murmuration. A sight that inspires birders to the chase just as storm-chasers track tornadoes. We greet the starlings with quiet reverence. Like an apparition, the first wobbling lava lamp blob of birds slides in from nowhere and hovers over the bleached stems below. Then, as one shape, it slips towards the reeds. Only then do the birds break formation and jostle noisily for a spot to bed down. Gradually, as the light dims, more birds arrive. They come from beyond the waters that lie behind me, and as water they come. The air directly above becomes a never-ending river of birds. Wide and constant, as if the dam’s burst. The sky is bespeckled as the chest of a starling, a million wings beat. I stand looking up for so long that my neck aches. I suddenly remember to close my open mouth, a necessary precaution when standing beneath the busy flight path of so many birds. 31


Rachael Bentley

Everyone talks about the spectacle of a murmuration, but with so many birds moving the air, it is the sound I notice. It is the noise of the sea at night, swells that lap the beach in the dark. Every twist and turn of the whole, creates another breaking wave. It’s soothing, and it mesmerises the crowd of people, each gripping smartphones or binoculars, or stooping behind tripods. It’s hard to accept that the mass above is made of birds, each smaller than a blackbird; shapes appear as a singular living creature, breathing in and out, reshaped and moulded by some unseen hand. Some birds form a dense cloud, and a murmuration takes place. Not the dramatic aerial ballet that a predator might stir but a calming surge to the left, then the right, as each bird reacts instinctively to its neighbour. There is safety in numbers, like sardines in a shoal. More birds arrive from the east, and these come as a narrow stream which funnels into the reeds. I don’t know how long I stand here – time has been stolen – but on they come until the weak winter sun melts into an orange puddle on the horizon. The reeds now look as black as peat. Hardly a stem remains visible. The roost is so condensed, that after much arguing about who has the best spot, a black rainbow rises in one sinuous arc as birds give way and relocate to another reed bed. I have seen more birds in half an hour than I’ve ever seen, making it hard to accept that starlings are on the Birds of 32


Conservation Concern Red List. But these birds who sleep in the Avalon Marshes are not all ‘ours’. Many have flown here from Northern Europe for the winter, swelling the numbers temporarily. While they are here, it would be rude not to admire their performance.

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Rachael Bentley

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Maeve Bruce Maeve writes about nature, culture and the invisible landscape. She is interested in the role of myth, memory and folklore in binding us to place. She has moved house more than 50 times in 50 years but is trying to stay put for the time being, in an old stone house in the Oxfordshire countryside. Her work has been published across a wide range of print, digital and broadcast media and has been nominated for Best American Travel Writing 2021. She is Writer in Residence at the Wychwood Forest Trust. She is currently writing a nature memoir while working towards a PhD in Creative Writing, engaging with the intersection of narratology, mythology and ecology.

www.maevebruce.com | @Maeve.Bruce


An extract from

Where the Earth Meets the Sky Like many Hungarian things, not least the language, the spirit of the puszta is elusive, difficult to pin down. It is the stuff of legend. The line between the real and the imagined, fact and fiction, is a little blurred. Writers and artists have been inspired by its romance for generations. Hungarian novelists like Móra and Móricz celebrated the simple but impoverished lives of the peasantry. The English writer Patrick Leigh Fermor famously recalled riding across the plain at Hortobágy on a borrowed horse, sleeping under the starry skies and camping with a band of gypsies. Even the death-defying stunt we had witnessed at the end of the horse show, was in origin an imaginary scenario depicted by the Austrian artist Ludwig Koch in 1923. By the 1950s, the csikós had learnt how to do it, adding it to their impressive repertoire of horseman skills with which to delight the tourists. But there’s another chapter to the puszta’s long history that Hungarians would rather forget. After the Second World War, during the dark days of the Soviet regime, 10,000 people were herded into forced labour camps on the puszta. For a while it was Hungary’s Siberia. Unsurprisingly perhaps, no-one mentions this at Hortobágy. By the time we had finished wandering around the exhibits, the day was drawing in. We made our way to the Hortobágy csárda, a wayside inn dating from 1699 and much celebrated in 37


Maeve Bruce

Hungarian culture. In 1842, the poet Petőfi wrote The Landlady of Hortobágy while staying as a guest and the famous gypsy fiddler Rimóczi used to regularly walk twenty miles across the plain from Nádudvar to play at the inn. Situated by the Nine-Arched Bridge – the longest bridge in Hungary – that spans the River Hortobágy, originally the innkeeper was charged with collecting the toll for travellers on their way to Debrecen. Now it houses an excellent restaurant and small exhibition about its place in Hungarian folklore. We ate outside at long tables – fried breaded cheese, chicken stuffed with peaches, the obligatory goulash – while two moustachioed men serenaded the diners with traditional violin and cymbalom music. A group of herdsmen began to congregate, greeting each other affectionately with a kiss on both cheeks. There was much laughter and back-slapping, and then the singing began. Although I did not understand a word, it was clear that these were the old folk songs of the puszta, tales of love and life on the Hungarian Plain. As the evening went on, the singing got louder, the music wilder, and the men in their billowing blue skirts danced together, stamping their boots and waving their hats. It was easy to be swept away by the romance of the place. In the mellow glow of candlelight after much plum pálinka, a lone csikós sang a melancholy lament accompanied by the haunting strains of the gypsy violin, tears coursing down his cheeks. In that moment under the starry sky, I understood something clearly: Hortobágy and its rugged cowboys might put on a good show for the tourists, but the centuries-old pull of the puszta is no trick. 38


Apples At my childhood home in Somerset, we had an acre and a half of old orchard, bound on the west side by the churchyard, on the north by a brook. In the spring, snowdrops and daffodils grew under the trees and when the weather got warmer, I took root there too, back against the bark, book in hand, dreaming beneath the leaves. I read of saints and soldiers, wolves and witches, lost worlds, golden days. Those stories are bound in my memory with lichen growing on gnarly branches, the smell of wood and grass, earth and apple. The harvest brought us all together. When it was fine, from the youngest to the oldest, we went out of the house in the morning with ladders, chattering and picking, gathering up windfalls, loading the trailer and hauling it back, calling across the field and bagging the yield into hessian sacks. We sorted the good fruit from the bruised, the eaters from the cookers, the bittersharps from the bittersweets. We ate bread and cheese on plastic plates without napkins at a trestle table in our wellingtons, normal rules suspended for one day, for just this one shining day in the orchard. Afterwards, good apples were wrapped in paper and spread out in rows in the loft in the barn, gifts for the year long. The cinnamon scent of apples simmering on the 39


Maeve Bruce

stove filled the house, as my mother in her apron stewed fruit for the larder. My father made cider from the imperfect apples, the disappointing ones, with a press he built from a Land Rover jack before he chopped the end off his finger splitting logs. I remember his shout and searching in the rough grass by the woodshed for a bit of flesh with the nail still attached. We never found it. Some of the apples went to a big cider-maker at Burrow Hill. The man gave us a pound a sack and said they weren’t worth any more; apples were two a penny in Somerset. Any dreams we had of making our fortune quickly faded. He has gone now and the cider press closed and they built over our orchard, the people that came afterwards. But the apples stay ever sweet in the memory and their names remain, wonderful, strange, like an old incantation – Beauty of Bath, Dunnings Russet, Curry Codlin, Fairmaid, Hangdown, Hoary Morning, Slack Me Girdle, Tom Putt, Sack and Sugar, Kingston Black, Rough Pippin, Whittles Dumpling, Green Pearmain, Mealy Late Blossom, Burrow Hill Early, Sheep’s Nose. Published in Words for the Wild, November 2019.

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November in the Valley

As I step out at dawn, a lone song thrush is piping. I follow the track that runs past the house up the side of the valley towards Pintle Woods. It feels, in the quiet and the halflight, like slipping away to meet a lover. The trees are thinning. In another couple of weeks, they will be winter-bare. Underfoot, the earth is still wet from yesterday’s downpour. A pheasant cockles from the other side of the valley. We call it the valley, but really it’s a gentle combe, not quite a mile long. Its proper name is Clark’s Bottom which makes the children smile, but we call it the valley. Just ‘the valley’. Aside from the odd dog walker or horse rider, it is undisturbed, this quiet hollow surrounded by woods where I walk, where I live. The cart track is well worn. Feet have cleaved this trail for centuries long before my boots trod here. There are many of these paths criss-crossing this countryside, joining up the hamlets and the villages with the markets in the towns. This one leads beyond the valley past Grim’s Ditch to the old Saltway, where downy woundwort grows on the way to Stonesfield and Woodstock. 41


Maeve Bruce

The yellowing hedgerows are thick with dogwood and hazel, hawthorn and blackthorn, bindweed and spindle. Wayfaring trees and a few blighted sycamores are covered in ivy and elder and brambles. I walk the fringe of the big field at Hundley, planted with neat rows of stubble turnips, and look out past the old oaks over the wide green vale. They bring the new lambs here in the spring, with the ewes. The day they come, and for some days after, the valley rings with their bleats as they settle in and get their bearings. And then, short months later, when they take away the fattened lambs to slaughter and leave the fussing ewes behind, the valley rings again with terrible bleating. Later in the year, the first cattle come, brown and red and black and white, ordinary cows. And they let the bulls in. And they do their loud thing. And then they are gone. In autumn, the White Parks arrive, chalk-smudged with black eyes, soft noses, broad horns. They are quiet and keep to themselves. They eye me now, unconcerned, as I go by. They will be gone soon too, and then we’ll haunt the woodland edges of the valley, gathering firewood and kindling, ready for the cold. When the snow comes, the valley shines. The landscape feels familiar but unfamiliar, like a friend in a new dress. For a few short iridescent days, the village ventures up our way to descend the slopes by the big oak, on sledges and toboggans, tea trays and bin bags. The air resounds with their shouts and echoes of the laughing and the calling and the falling off. It is only momentary, but waiting for the valley to fall quiet again always feels like an age. 42


Sometimes, we hear the sound of a bugle and the hunt streaks through, the dogs braying and straying into our yard, up the stone steps right to the top lawn, round the orchard and back down the bank, sniffing through the yew bower where Tess is buried, past the line of chestnuts and out the back gate, and off, off again up the lane, streaming across the valley to Shilcott Wood. But this morning all is at peace. I walk on towards Pintle Woods, where once at the edge I disturbed a dog fox asleep in the long grass in the afternoon sun. I step now into the woods a little way, through the brown bracken, just to feel the shadows where the deer run. The woodlands are where I am most in my skin, among the beech and the ash, the oak and the yew. These spinneys, the copses and thickets scattered between fields and farms, are fragments of Wychwood, the ancient forest that covered this land before the enclosures. These woods were known for poachers and thieves. One hundred and sixty years ago, a John Hall fell out of the Royal Oak one night, quite the worse for liquor, and stumbled into Shears Copse looking for deer, where he shot a keeper named Moulder in the moonlight and killed him. A pheasant goes up ahead rattling his alarm as I head back to the track. And then, there he is! A buzzard comes suddenly right out of the tree beside me, swoops low over the hedge in a lazy arc and lands, legs extended, on open ground. He belongs to the valley. On bright days he circles high over the house calling. His cry is as familiar as my children’s.

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Maeve Bruce

I walk along the bottom of Coate Hill where pheasants pick over the stubble and hay rolls still lie from late summer. Beside Widdows Woods I hear the starlings, faintly at first, whispering and wittering like a distant waterfall. As I draw closer to the roost, a line of trees at the end of the valley, the air is alive and loud with whistles and trills. The sun is up now and bright, and with it all the birds. I hear the ‘chack chack chack’ of fieldfares and the hedges froth with flocks of finches, flashes of twittering yellow and green. They are feasting on haws, sloes and spindleberries, rosehips, bittersweet, rowan and black bryony. On the far bank the rabbits are out and a lone wisp of mist fades into the earth. All is well in the valley. I turn for home.

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Nicola Button Nicola Button has always been drawn to the nomadic lifestyle, forever yearning for the next chance to pack up a few, small possessions into her converted campervan and let spontaneity take control. Untamed landscapes of mountainous alpine regions and rugged coastlines are her preferred muses, as she seeks out a rewarding mix of adventure and tranquillity. Having studied literature and worked in publishing her whole career, Nicola has invariably held storytelling close to her heart. She enjoys writing about places which evoke emotions and encourage a connection.

www.nicolabutton.com | @nicolajaynebutton


Cast Adrift

I start off slow, momentarily beached on thick kelp the colour of rust, which tangles itself around my paddles as I try to push forward. Like a mantra, I repeat in my head the instructions on what to do in the event of capsizing as I break free of the weeds, and become increasingly unsteady on the open water. I take a moment to acclimatise to my new wobbly form before heading deeper, away from the safety of the lakeside. I paddle across the sky, my kayak momentarily disturbing the reflected clouds, which disperse and undulate before slowly reassembling in my wake. Staying close to the shoreline, I lazily drift along, charting a meandering perimeter on the Highland loch. There’s a slight chill on the autumnal breeze, but the sunshine bouncing off the lake’s surface warms my exposed face and cold nose. It only takes a few moments of paddling before I spot a shy otter on the nearby bank. Bringing my kayak to a halt, I sit silently on the surface and watch intently as the otter dips in and out of the kelp, searching for his lunch. With each dive he disappears for a surprisingly long time. His bright white chest flashing in the sun as he emerges is the only way to find him again. I sit and watch for a moment longer before losing sight of him entirely.

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Nicola Button

Loch Nedd is a small sea inlet on the north-west coast of Scotland. Despite its proximity to the infamous North Coast 500 route, it remains a secluded and tranquil landscape, teeming with curious wildlife. The thrashing of tempestuous waves, breaking at the mouth of the loch, can be heard faintly across the shore like a siren calling you to sea. The surrounding verdant hills protect the loch from the worst of the wind, creating a serenity only occasionally disturbed by the horn of a passing car as it approaches the single-track road’s blind summit. I push further up the loch, inching ever nearer to that turbulent sea, before I decide I’m closer than I would like to be. Diverging from the protection of my loch-side route, I cut across the exposed centre, paddling fiercely against a strong crosswind. Tired and panting, I eventually reach the calm shelter of the opposite shore. This side has steeper banks of jagged rock and there is far more kelp. There’s a vibrating rumble as the bottom of the kayak drags across the knobbly seaweed. A small flock of red-breasted mergansers start and take flight, a frantic blur of wings leaving behind a trail of violent splashes as they struggle to gain height. Suddenly, I feel an inquisitive gaze, jet black and wide-eyed. A friendly harbour seal is studying me from several metres away. His glossy face, speckled with long, handsome whiskers, is all that protrudes from the water, the rest suspended perfectly still below the surface. We continue to hold each other’s gaze for a moment longer before he slips out of sight, into the depths of the lake. I have barely a second to appreciate my very first encounter with my new

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saltwater friend, before his sweet head pops back up above the surface. He is the other side of me now, assessing me again, and I feel delight at the thought of him gliding just below me, hidden in the murky water. Like a wary puppy, he plays this game of hide and seek with me for a while longer, before I have to continue on with my watery voyage. This is the feeling I ache for; to be cast adrift. Sat motionless in the middle of a loch, with no immediate responsibility or designated path to take. Completely at the mercy of spontaneity. The wind dances lightly upon the surface, creating small but orderly rows of ripples that flit across the water. The faint, monotonous lapping against the side of the kayak is soothing. As I float and bob, I try to mimic the movement of the water below my kayak, using my body to extend every motion. Each twist of the hips or redistribution of weight has an effect on my position in the water. After a while, I feel I begin to coalesce with currents of Loch Nedd.

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Nicola Button

A Meeting in Monochrome White knuckles feverishly grip to metal handrails. If I loosen my grasp, I’ll sink. Disappear into the bottomless blue that surrounds me. The safety of the harbour is far behind, out of reach. No turning back. Focus on the horizon, that’s what they said. Focus on the horizon, as the boat sways and your head spirals. Rise and fall, left and right, port and starboard. I bend my knees to the ocean’s rhythm, but my sea legs are still missing. Icy droplets slice at my exposed face, with every plunge comes a drenching. People stagger across the deck. Adjusting with every change of direction, avoiding the sea’s cruel spray. But I am still. I am cold, I am wet, but I am still. Stomach churning, lunging, clenching. In through the nose, out through the mouth – even breathing makes me nauseous. I stumble to the stern, unable to control. A regal Icelandic flag quivers in the wind beside me as I heave.

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Then they appear. At five o’clock, now eleven. There, right there! I’ve forgotten the layout of a clock face, endlessly rotating with every shout and gesture out to sea. We keep our distance; we don’t disturb. Trespassing on their winter home. Powerful dorsal fins, slick and ebony, pierce through the surface. The sickness forgotten. They are all I feel, all I experience. Camera abandoned, I invest everything into this oceanic introduction. Falling tears mix with the salty sea. Indistinguishable.

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Nicola Button

A Birding Debut Brilliant, electric blue paired with burnt orange. Fire and ice coming together in the form of one magnificent little bird. Our crisp morning outing to Titchfield Haven in Hampshire was my birding debut, and this unusually friendly kingfisher was determined to make it memorable. The Titchfield Haven Nature Reserve sits on the south coast, cradling the River Meon as it joins the Solent Strait. A brisk sea breeze enveloped us as we stepped out of the car, and I felt momentary regret at relocating from coastal town to landlocked county. Suitably layered up, we headed for the reserve and almost instantly spotted a fellow telescopewielding birder. He was standing on a small bridge, scope angled towards some low-hanging riverside vegetation. We peered over the parapet and identified our morning muse. Perched contentedly on a nearby branch, this vibrant beauty was mesmerising. I asked how we determine the sex and our neighbour informed us this was male, as there was no reddish hue to its lower mandible. We’d stumbled across this find so quickly I hadn’t even had a chance to remove my binoculars from their case. Once in hand, I aligned them with the bird, and so began my winter meeting with this handsome chap.

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‘He’s quite used to people, this one. There’s another that flits about, shy and restless, but this male is happy to settle close by,’ our new companion informed us. Dad had begun to sketch the kingfisher. He’d originally left his sketchbook in the car, not anticipating we’d see anything he would want to immortalise in soft, graphite lines. Within seconds of setting up the telescope for me, however, he was running back to retrieve it and I knew then that this was a sight to be excited about. Sensing my inexperience, the bird sat astonishingly still, his long, obsidian bill trained on the water below. I was treated to the clearest view, right down to his neon-blue speckled head and the purest white patch on his chest. Entranced by the vivid colourings, so starkly different to the surrounding pale shades of winter, I was taken by surprise as he abruptly dive-bombed the surface below. The lightest plop and a brief disappearance before he emerged, and fluttered to the opposite side of the stream. The kingfisher proudly presented his catch, a silvery fish the same size as his body, making sure we got a good long look at his triumph. He’d chosen to land and consume his lunch atop a ‘fishing not permitted here’ sign. I couldn’t help but smile at our brazen little friend’s act of rebellion. In the harbour behind, black-headed gulls screeched with laughter at the kingfisher’s show. Satisfied with the audience’s response, he swallowed down the fish and reverted back to posing as we gazed, photographed and sketched in awe. Later, over a coffee and a cake in the reserve’s café, my dad commented on our luck. ‘I can’t remember ever having 53


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better views of a kingfisher in my life.’ With his 35 years of birding experience, the magnitude of this statement was not lost on me. The birds of Titchfield Haven Nature Reserve and their winter resident kingfisher had most certainly spoiled me.

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The Feel of the Rock I reach behind me and slip one hand, then the other, into the chalk bag hanging from my harness. The netted ball within compresses slightly as I squeeze, loosening some of the fine powder it contains. I cover my hands in a generous dusting. Right away, my sweaty palms become dry. I focus particularly on my fingertips, concentrating the chalk here to increase my grip. I rub my hands together and feel the increased friction created by this second skin; the familiar sensation of a ritual that begins every climb. I gaze up at the limestone labyrinth which looms over me. My impending route is virtually hidden to all but an experienced eye; mine is not honed enough yet. Other than a few white patches on the wall, indicating where those before me have been, I’m climbing blind. I give my figure-of-eight knot one last check, pulling the rope so tight it chafes and tugs at my skin. Secure. I approach the base, find my four starting points, and begin. My ascent is slow but precise. My fingers guide me up the wall, reaching for, and feeling, each hold before trusting it with my weight. Until you clutch at a ridge, you do not know what leverage it will provide. Climbing on limestone is challenging, the surface shifts continuously. Sections of polished stone, smooth to the touch, interweave with craggy outcrops. While one offers no grip as your feet 55


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desperately seek out purchase, the other sends shooting pain through your fingers as you cling to its jagged edges. Climbing and discomfort go hand in hand. Dangling all your weight from a sharp rim, or pinching the smallest jut of rock until your fingertips are numb, all to progress that little bit further up the wall. One small mistake and the stone will jump out at you, its rough, weather-beaten face grating any exposed skin. Bruises, scrapes and cuts; the compulsory accessories of a climber. About halfway up the wall I can feel my forearms getting too pumped, my strained tendons screaming with every pinch. I search for a substantial hold, something I can really wrap my fingers around. Even the feel of the rope pulling at my harness doesn’t quell the rising fear as my muscles tire. All of a sudden, the ground seems implausibly far away. Eventually, the wall obliges and I am able to hang, arms straight, from one hand then the other. I dangle the resting arm behind me, shaking off the aching cramp into the empty air below, occasionally dipping back into my chalk bag for another layering. Repeating this switch a few more times, I regain enough precious energy and confidence to carry on. After an age scaling the cliff face, I reach the pinnacle. One final stretch and I grasp the rope’s anchor and tap, signalling to my partner below that I have triumphed. I momentarily rest my forehead against a sleek patch of limestone as I wait to be lowered. In the hours after the rigorous climbing session, my hands sting at even the lightest of touches. My skin is dried out from the countless coatings of chalk and there is blood 56


from a torn hangnail. The coarse stitching along my steering wheel rasps at my palms, all the way back from the Peak District. The strength required for my fingers to squeeze the cold, rigid petrol pump is painfully mustered. The scorching water of a shower, while soothing the rest of my aching body, burns my tortured hands. Sometimes, if I’ve climbed particularly aggressively, the skin on my palms will start to shed a few days after. Even so, the sensation of hanging forty foot up in the air, having conquered the route, will always be worth the pain.

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Poppy Calypso Poppy Calypso (she/her) is an illustrator, designer and writer, focussing on people, the ocean, and East Asian travel. She combines her design work with her writing to create visually striking and engaging pieces, and is in the process of writing her first fiction travel novel set in Hong Kong. She likes to inject a little humour into her work, and hopes to inspire people to see the small joys of life.

www.poppycalypso.com | @poppy.calypso


Nature: A Review When I was 13, I was afraid of zombies. I would stay up until sunrise so I could count the cars that passed my house. If there weren’t as many as I’d like, panic ensued – the apocalypse is here! Ten years on, I’m no longer afraid some old fool will rise from dirt and take me down, nor am I worried about hoards of the undead rounding the corner. But, sometimes, when I’m alone, that familiar sense of dread that there aren’t any humans nearby creeps up on me, and suddenly I’m thinking about becoming Neighbour Nancy’s next meal. I don’t consider this before I decide to walk to the lake on my own. I take my shoes off. I pretend to be the type of person who enjoys the feeling of the wet grass beneath my feet, the smell of damp soil, and the tranquillity of a solo stroll with nothing but geese for company. The ground is sprinkled with wild mushrooms, all shapes and sizes – flat, round, or stringy. The beginnings of autumn peek through the trimmed garden hedges – the natural colour palette shifting from vibrant greens to burnt reds and smoky greys. A robin hops along a nearby fence. She watches as I stumble by. The romance lasts maybe half a second. Perhaps there is no romance at all. Predictably, I’m uncomfortable. I have pink hair, a tacky pink fur coat, an obnoxious pink bag. 61


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I’m all too aware of my clash against the English scenery. Pretty sure the robin thinks I don’t belong too. The soggy ground squelches between my toes. As I navigate the uneven track, I kick up the scent of an animal’s digested dinner. I don’t care for the silence, broken by the occasional squawk from some angry bird. All I can see are winter greys and ashy browns. The cold air pinches my ears. There’s a bird corpse hiding between the grasses. I’m claustrophobic surrounded by empty fields. I reach the lake. The opening I find isn’t supposed to be used, and stays concealed behind a long hedge. The cold breeze eases, and I feel less tense as I reach the water. Two cans of Stella lay abandoned at the shoreline. The geese rev their voices like engines, and amount to a final high-pitched imitation of a foghorn. I start to feel sick and uneasy again – the abandonment of human activity contrasts against the lack of real life, alive humans. I don’t go into the water. Neighbour Nancy is coming. In the distance, the groundskeeper’s lawnmower softly roars. I see a car pass on a faraway road. I go back. I eat a pasty and finish an episode of The Walking Dead.

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Special special /'spε∫(э)l/ adjective 1. better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual. 2. belonging specifically to a particular person or place.

How could I possibly choose one place? To me, a special place is somewhere you own – somewhere so privately yours that other people would simply overlook such a place. It’s the song that was sung, the feeling in your chest, the hands you held, the emotions pulsing through your body. The places you feel the most. A special place would be a dingy karaoke room in a quiet Tokyo district. Smuggling a 400¥ bottle of sake up your sleeve, slamming it triumphantly onto the sticky table, enhancing sugary sweet melon soda. Slipping out to the bathroom, the echoes of Japanese businessmen wailing to a cute pop song ricocheting off the thin plaster walls. Holding hands and swaying to songs about friendship. Stumbling to hostel beds at 4am. A special place is where you locked eyes with a girl at the bus stop in Kyoto. There was something enchanting about 63


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her. Her short blonde hair, the yellow and pink scribbles on her tank top, the tattoos on her shoulders. You jumped as the engine revved. When you glanced back as the bus pulled away, she was smiling. You smiled back. Three years later, you still think about her, but you never saw her again. A special place is the table you were at in Italy as your best friend texted you your A-Level results, and knowing you got into university. Perhaps it’s the bed you laid awake in, exchanging glances, anecdotes and early morning kisses, when you realised you didn’t want to go at all. A special place would be the street corner you were on when you heard your grandfather was dying. When you pass it now, you hold your breath. A special place is the bench behind the Nicholson Street Greggs where you finally had the courage to break up with your ex. A special place is the place you fall in love with someone better. A special place is the place you feel the most.

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Sonder When I lived in Edinburgh, I’d open the window wide and watch as life passed by. I’d watch the leaves of the tree outside my flat, and listen to the frozen branches creak like a cat on old floorboards. Or, I’d watch people walking across the meadows. A guy shrieking with laugher as his friend impersonates a crab. A girl walking briskly past them, arms folded, headphones in. I would keep an eye on them until the laughter dissipated, obscured by the tennis courts. A few years on, with a cat curled on my shoulder, I listen to the street outside my bedroom window. The most notable sound is the constant, low murmur of water as it flows down the kennel. Apparently, fish used to flow through the town in the gutter-rivers, and if you were lucky, you could grab one with your hand. The cat stretches his paw and touches my face. Perhaps he’s dreaming about fishing in the leats too. The sound is interrupted by the clacking of heels on the pavement. It’s 5am on a Wednesday morning. I wonder if they have any idea that there’s someone only a few metres away, listening to the way their footsteps impact the ground beneath them. I wonder if they’ve ever considered the idea that their shoes can be heard from inside a house.

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I wonder who this person is. Perhaps it’s someone called Sam, who wants to express their style and wear heels. Perhaps he only feels comfortable doing so when no one else is around. Or maybe it’s someone called Esther on her way back from a big night out in Helston town. Maybe she’s chowing down on some chips with garlic sauce from Helston Grille, humming her favourite song so quietly that only the leat-fish could hear. I wonder if she’ll pass anyone on her way home. I wonder if she’ll mind. The clacking fades away and the whoosh of a car gently brushes through the early morning. Where are you going? To work? Where do you work? Who do you work for? Are you driven by money? Do you have any pets? Does your cat touch your face too? It’s a funny feeling to realise that every person’s life is just as full and whole as your own. They formulate thoughts and words like I do, like you do. They have parents, and their parents have parents, and they’ve all had complex lives, full of nuances and disturbances and laughter. Maybe they all lie in bed at 5am on a Wednesday morning, and listen to the sound of the kennel too.

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Karen Christian Whether she’s seeking the coldest water to swim in, walking the longest path or simply finding the quietest space, Karen is always on the lookout for something to write about. She hopes her writing will educate people about the need to escape the noise in our lives while enjoying the enchanting sounds of nature. With a background as a blogger, science communicator and social media guru, Karen enjoys creating compelling content to further the reach of her writing. Karen is a trained walking instructor, qualified wino and is currently learning Norwegian – in the hope that she will one day live there.

www.chafing-thighs.co.uk | @Chafing_thighs


Safe for the Winter Peeling back the curtain, trying to minimise the light creeping around the edges, I hold my breath. Is it? It can’t be. It must be a leaf. Then the leaf starts to run across the lawn, tiny feet barely keeping up with the foraging nose that has found another pile of dried mealworms. It’s so small; I know what I must do. Trainers on, coat on top of raggedy pyjamas and tea towel in hand, I gently open the patio doors hoping the WD40 is still doing its job and no errant squeaks will alert my prey to my presence. Squatting by its side I swiftly scoop it up, experience has taught me not to faff around or give them time to scarper. ‘Ow, you little…’. Spikes pierce through the tea towel into my skin. ‘Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean to shout.’ The little ball in my hands tightens up, nose snuffling deeper into the short fur on its belly. It’s so small and fits easily in the palm of one hand, there’s no way it would survive the winter. I turn and apologise to the lurking mother. She’s used to me kidnapping her young. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll bring them all back in the spring.’ I say as she huffs and dashes off into the hedge. I imagine the tales the hedgehogs must tell each other of the oddly dressed giant swooping out from the big box, taking their young and returning them when the weather has warmed, and what were once babies are now the size of 69


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baked potatoes. Am I a saviour to the hedgehogs or a tale of warning told to young hedgehogs if they wander too far from their mother’s side?

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Under the Bubbles The water’s poured to a level my husband says is ‘too high.’ The window is open, just enough to release some of the steam, not enough to give the neighbours a shock. One foot in. A bit hot? Nope, just about manageable. Second foot, kneel, get used to the heat, body in. The release is instant as the bubbles swarm over my chest, shoulders and neck. It’s early. The blackbirds, magpies and pigeons are awake, skittering around the trees. We have four baby magpies in our garden that like to make their presence felt, crying and mewing for food. Last night I put extra food out for the hedgehogs, knowing they wouldn’t eat it all, but the leftovers would give me respite in the morning from the squawking, red mouths. All is calm in my watery world. Book in hand I slip down deeper, one foot resting on the cold tap, enjoying the contrast with the steamy water below. Then a noise. A bark. Another bark. Then the accompanying owner screeching a name the dog never would have chosen. I could stand up and shut the window, but from experience of the relentless parade of canine walkers that patrol the otherwise quiet park behind our house, I know their caterwauling will penetrate the glass and find an unwelcome home in my head. The dog has no interest in the owner and is off doing its own thing; the more the human shouts, the further away the dog goes. Probably seeking some peace. 71


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My eyes read the same line of the book three times. Not once does it make it across the barrier of sound that is now encompassing my brain. I sink down, water lapping at my mouth and nose. The warmth enters my ears, whooshing at first, then mingling with tiny air pockets. Tilting my head, the air escapes from each ear with squeak. Then, nothing. Holding my body still, knees wedged against the cold sides to prevent any sloshing. Bubbles run along my back, seeking escape, they find a path through tiny hairs and up along my neck, spiny fingers writing their stories on my skin. I try to remain under the water, but my brain reacts to the quiet. ‘Is it good for ears to be in hot water?’ ‘What if my eardrum gets damaged?’ ‘Is that crack in the ceiling getting longer?’ Sitting up the world is still, muffled. The water runs out of my ears and the sound is replaced by crackles and pops as the bubbles react to being removed from their floating landscape. The quiet was brief, but restorative. My brain has settled again. My hearing is calm. The day can begin.

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Travels by Mouth Newquay is a tuna mayo and sweetcorn jacket potato from Spudulike followed by a knickerbocker glory at the Italian ice cream shop on the harbour. The Italian Alps was baby polpo sitting on top of a tomato stew on New Year’s Eve, classmates cheering on whoever dared to bite off a leg. Venice was a big bowl of whole prawns, when I had to dissect my grandmother’s for her because she thought the eyes were watching her. This is how I travel. I may not remember every castle, château and centro historico I’ve visited, but I can describe where and when I have eaten even the most mundane of meals. Paris, 30th December 2008; a tuna, onion and sweetcorn pizza in a busy restaurant with a cat named Réglisse, who climbed on our table hoping for a nibble of sausage topping. In a time before the Internet, whenever I booked a holiday, the first thing I’d do was buy a guidebook to the area. And not any guidebook, it had to be a DK Eyewitness. They weren’t cheap, best part of a tenner, and they were often bulky and inflexible, but they always had the best food section. What could I eat there, where could I eat it, how could I ask for it? And the best part were the pictures of the food; crisp schnitzel topped with lemon slices, cannoli stuffed to bursting and wonder of wonders – pasta that wasn’t just straight. Since childhood, holidays have been planned around the new foods I can try. Now I Google 73


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and find images and blogs telling me where to find the best vegan doughnuts in Berlin or what food is served after midnight on the Queen Mary II (lots of cake pops and muffins, if you’re wondering). It would be a cliché to say that I eat the regional food to better experience the people and culture. I just like food. And I really like trying new things. New chocolate bar on the market? Don’t bother buying it for me as a surprise, I’ll have already had it. Of course, I associate the food and drink with the places I visit and learn insights; it’s hard to sit in a musky cellar in Burgundy drinking glasses of Aloxe-Corton and not absorb the history and mythology of generations of vignerons who created the powerful red in my hand. And the meals don’t have to be culinary masterpieces or wincingly expensive glasses of wine. Fried spam in 40 degrees on a balcony in Greece. Not local. Not suitable for the weather. But just what I needed after an evening of ouzo and raki. They may also have been ethically questionable. Eating antelope steaks after spending the day watching them run through the savannahs on safari in Kenya. Ordering a large glass of vodka topped with a shot of Diet Coke aged 16 in Crete. Or thick foie gras spread on pain d’épices in a tiny hotel room in Paris, washed down with the best Sauternes we could afford. Sometimes the memories are lessons. Rouen, 2015, after a long day of driving from the Vendée, we ended up in the only place still serving food near our hotel. It had views of the cathedral, although it was dark and we couldn’t see much. ‘Plat du jour,’ my husband said. He didn’t bother 74


with the menu, putting his trust in the €10 or less option, starter or dessert, main and a small glass of house wine. Order placed, off went the waiter with a bit of an odd smile. The first thing that hits you about andouillette is the smell, something akin to body odour and cat food. Then the colour, like a body recently pulled out of a lake. Then if you get that far, the texture; sinewy, waxy. My husband kindly described it as pork that had been left out in the midday sun. A few years later I would watch a colleague order the same dish, they wanted to try something ‘local’, they wouldn’t be swayed by my advice to ‘try the moules frites.’ They ate one bite and hid the rest in a napkin. I enjoyed my bowl of garlicky mussels, soaking up the leftover sauce with slightly stale baguette. I’ve seen the Mona Lisa, climbed to the top of St. Peter’s, and sailed through stunning fjords. But all I remember is the €7 Diet Coke, the Stracciatella gelato and the cold waffles topped with lingonberry jam. Next, I’m looking forward to frozen yoghurt, deep dish pizza and New Yorkstyle cheesecake. I might try and squeeze in the Statue of Liberty or Brooklyn Bridge, if I have time.

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Wild Swimming Ladies Tits and boobs line the riverbank, the morning light highlighting their mix of colours of shapes. It’s 8am on a bright November morning and I’m standing in a field on the outskirts of Bath, waiting for my first foray into wild swimming. All around me, women (the activity seems heavily skewed towards women) are stripping off, standing on rags and towels, or balancing on one foot trying to put on neoprene boots without stepping in mud. They are changing slowly, unsure if the water is safe to swim in today due to a few days of torrential rain swelling the rivers. We are waiting for a couple of more experienced members of the troop to arrive and provide their assessment. They arrive shortly, look at the river, have a whispered conversation, shrug, and suggest we give it a go! This is not quite what I expected for my first time. I’m not a confident swimmer and being told to stay away from the weir in case I get sucked over is not filling me with hope. But I’ve made it this far, so underneath my husband’s old dressing gown I take off my outer layers, trying to not show the confusedlooking sheep in the next field any extra flesh. We move towards the edge. A small pool away from the weir has been identified as the safest place to go and we begin to lower ourselves down into the brown water via a 76


makeshift set of steps. There are squeals and giggles as the water inches up thighs, over hips and towards nipples. I’m still stood on the bank trying to dispel nerves. ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck.’ A woman in her sixties in a slightly saggy swimsuit and bobble hat has just submerged up to her shoulders and is sharing her dislike of the cold. I signal for the person behind me in the queue to go in front of me, but they insist I’m next. One foot. Two feet. The three millimetre neoprene boots are keeping my feet deceptively warm. The water splashes up my legs. Fuck. I try to bite my tongue but as the water works its way around my body, lapping up over my tummy I let out a tirade of expletives. A couple bobbing around near the bank laugh and give me a quick clap. I last a couple of minutes before pulling myself back on to dryish land. The water temperature is taken by someone holding a rubber-duck-cum-thermometer. Nine degrees. I don’t have anything to compare it to, but the hairs on my arms and legs are standing to attention while my feet remain oblivious in their snug boots. I try to get changed, again hiding away under the dark blue, slightly bobbled Sainsbury’s own-brand dressing gown that I bought my husband for a hospital stay and he hasn’t used since. The field is muddy and squelchy and my attempts to stay clean are soon dashed. How can this be so hard? Then I look around and see that there are naked breasts and bodies of all shapes and sizes all around me. Some are half covered in dry robes, the essential kit of surfers and wild swimmers alike, and much posher than my hand-me-down. And nobody cares. There isn’t a hint of the school changing room embarrassment that you get in public swimming pool changing rooms. A train on its way to London 77


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whooshes by, and a friend who I had previously thought of as rather quiet opens her robe and flashes the commuters ‘good morning.’ I realise a huge smile has been on my face for several minutes. Now dried and dressed, everyone starts to unscrew lids on Thermos flasks and hand around homemade cakes. I start to shiver and am told off for not bringing enough clothes to keep me warm. As spare scarves and hoodies are piled on top of me, I’m told that for 20 minutes after you get out your body continues to cool down so you have to do everything you can to keep warm. Flapjacks are thrust my way, and soon I’m chatting away and sharing a cup of delicious homemade soya milk chai, the cold leaving my body with the warmth and kindness of these strangers who, in the space of an hour, become my friends and kindred spirits. ‘See you next week?’ Absolutely.

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Rebecca Gibson Rebecca Gibson is a writer and photographer specialising in British wildlife. She moved to north-east Scotland in 2020 and can often be found with twigs in her hair as she watches red squirrels. Rebecca enjoys sharing her adventures on her blog to inspire others to connect to the natural world. Although Scotland is her greatest passion, she is also drawn to Arctic countries such as Iceland and Norway. Rebecca’s writing and photography have been featured in publications including BBC Wildlife, Oceanographic and Hertfordshire Life.

www.rebeccaonthewing.com | @rebeccaonthewing


A Special Place Naturally, the dominant sound here is the ocean. Waves come thundering towards land, smothering the beach and slapping against the rocks in protest. Burghead is moody and grumbling. The sky is a smudge of blues with faint threads of lemon yellow. Lounging along the horizon are mountains, diluted by distance, their peaks brushed over with snow. Winter waits in the wings. Occasional calls of ‘pew-pew’ break through over the waves – circling gulls anonymised by silhouettes. Bobbing like corks, red-breasted mergansers join cormorants in curving their slender bodies and diving underwater. Waves crash over their backs, shoving frothy plumes onto the shore. Plop. Plop. Plop. One bird goes and the others soon follow. Projecting north-westward into the Moray Firth, the town of Burghead was built on a peninsula and is surrounded by wildness. Everything man-made here is either silent or muffled, letting nature make all the noise. I sit facing what the Brochers (Burghead residents) call the Backshore and clench numb fingers into fists. But this isn’t an uncomfortable cold. It fills my lungs in icy gulps. Clouds are rolling in and my nose is running but I have no desire to leave. Leaving would break the spell, like making a bubble in the soapy handle of a mug and letting it burst.

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I turn to face north and gaze at the yawning ocean that will eventually reach Iceland, Greenland and the top of the world. Watching row after rotatory row of froth surging towards me is hypnotic and the view slips out of focus as my mind wanders. I want to stay right here. I want the snow from the mountains to tumble down and cover Burghead in an icy coat that stops time and cancels all flights back south. But the tide swells and retreats too quickly to freeze, sculpting the shore and its inhabitants with each new wave. This place is calm and chaos in equal measures.

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Taking Off It was definitely a wellie day. After almost a week of rain, the ground was the kind that squelched with each step. The thickest tussocks of grass were dry, but puddles had sprung up in all directions. That wasn’t a problem though, and by the looks of the oranges and yellows appearing to the east, the sunrise was going to make some wellie-wading more than worth it. Slinging my camera across my back and clutching a tripod in one hand and camping chair in the other, I threaded my way around the deepest puddles, leaving indentations in the grass behind me. Even from several hundred metres away, the chattering babble of thousands of greylag and pink-footed geese easily crossed the still bay, and in the gloom I could just about see them packed tightly together on a skinny sandbar. The tide was coming in so they didn’t have long. Neither did I, so I hastily set up the tripod. In minutes, the sunrise had transformed from a haze of yellow to a blaze of scarlet. That was where the geese would soon be heading – taking off in swathes and moving inland to browse in the nearby fields. As if someone had turned up the volume, the honking increased drastically and a small gaggle took to the air, triggering others around them to follow. Most stayed behind, leaving the ambitious few to form a loose skein that blew across the sky like a stray 83


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ribbon. They crossed from the pale navy light into the fiery sunrise and shrank to dots. A little while later, another group took off, then another, and over the next hour and a half the crowd on the sandbar slowly diminished. Although I’d come especially for the geese, there was an unexpected bonus display from a large group of knot that was swirling like starlings over the water. The tiny waders climbed high into the sky, and each time they twisted back on themselves the sunlight caught their white bellies and the whole murmuration flashed like a torch. As the tide continued to sweep in, the knot were pulled further and further towards me, until eventually they settled on the receding sand and began to forage among the oystercatchers. Eventually, all the geese departed for the day, and an unseen distraction had frightened the knot back into the air, where they circled several times before settling far across the bay and out of sight. In a fairly short time, the thousands of birds and their incessant chatter had gone, leaving the bay smoothed over by silence.

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Whale Watching in a Time of Covid

I leant back against the cabin and pushed my bent knees into the side of the boat, camera pointed towards the spot where the humpback whales had last surfaced. It didn’t look glamorous by any means, but it meant I was far less likely to fall in. Aside from the occasional slap of swell against the boat, I couldn’t hear a sound. It was a strange sensation – sharing a fjord with such massive animals and not knowing where they were. For all I knew they were right beneath us. A flash of silver caught my eye and I looked down to see a herring spring out of the water within arm’s reach of me. My heart squeezed as two more fish appeared. After only that brief warning, four colossal humpback mouths burst out mere feet from where I squatted, now frozen to the spot. I couldn’t move anything except my mouth which had opened wide in a shriek. This was a lunge feed – the whales had trapped the fish against the surface and were now enveloping huge shoals in their rippling throats and filtering water out through their baleen plates. It all lasted only a few seconds, and just before the whales sunk back under I broke out of my paralysis to finally take a photo. My long lens was far too cropped to capture the 85


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sheer vastness of the scene in front of me. Soon the frothing water was the only sign they’d been there and I realised I was physically shaking. That single moment had made the months of preparation and ten days of quarantine instantly worth it. Two weeks earlier our group of six arrived in Tromsø, northern Norway. After a three-hour drive even further north we arrived at our accommodation, which sat on the edge of a fjord and was framed on all sides by mountains. We were lucky the view was so pretty because for the next ten days we would be housebound in quarantine. It was essential that we followed Norway’s Covid-19 requirements exactly. Steve Truluck, who organised the trip to Norway and skippered the hire boat, contacted the Norwegian Institute for Public Health to ensure we knew all the guidelines before travelling. We would be staying near a small fishing village called Skjervøy which, at the time of our trip in October 2020, had only had one documented case of Covid-19 all year. The local community agreed that tourists were welcome as long as they followed the rules. We were all tested for coronavirus on arrival and received negative results, and the owner of our accommodation brought our food shopping so we didn’t have to leave the house at all. This may have driven some people crazy, but our quarantine was a trip all of its own. From the living room window we saw velvet scoters, willow tits, harbour porpoises and white-tailed eagles that soared right over the house. However, by the eighth day of quarantine there still hadn’t been any reported whale sightings. 86


In this area of Norway, the whales follow the herring, which are drawn into the fjords each winter from around late October. ‘The herring switch their preferred location every few years,’ explained Steve, who has been to Skjervøy four times since 2018. ‘The herring used to overwinter in Tysfjord. After a number of years, they moved north to Tromsø where they spent three or four years overwintering. Since November 2017, the herring have overwintered near Skjervøy. It is never definite that they will show up in a specific location.’ If the herring arrived late or gathered far offshore where we couldn’t reach them, we had no chance of seeing any whales. All we could do was finish our quarantine and hope that our efforts hadn’t been wasted. On 4 November, our penultimate day inside, we were working in our home office as usual when Steve shouted ‘WHALE!’ and the five of us dashed to the window. Far off in the distance was a tiny silver cloud against the dark base of the mountain. All whale blows are different but these were the unmistakably bushy blows of humpback whales. That distant puff of air meant one thing: the herring had arrived. Once our quarantine had ended, we wasted no time in getting out on the water. Within ten minutes of leaving the harbour on the first morning, a humpback whale surfaced near the boat. Its breath came in a burst like air rushing out of a tyre. Suddenly, half a tail appeared in a small lob and an involuntary scream escaped me. After so much uncertainty, it was finally happening. The whale arched its back and lifted its huge tail fluke out of the water, sinking into a dive and out of sight.

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In Arctic Norway, there’s another marine mammal that features high on everyone’s wish list. The largest species of dolphin in the world, orcas are perhaps the most easily recognised cetacean. I was longing to see my first orcas but so far there had been no sign of them near Skjervøy. On our fourth day on the boat, we were still searching. There was an uneasy feeling in my stomach from the lurching waves and the cold squeezed my hands and feet. But then there was a flurry of screams muffled by the wind and I saw something tall and dark protruding from the water a few hundred metres away. The boat rocked and I clung onto the handle, straining to get another glimpse. As well as huge male orcas with signpost dorsal fins, there were several tiny calves. Not daring to use my camera in such choppy water, I stood still and watched with wide eyes as the pod cruised past us and out of sight. For the next four days, we saw humpbacks and orcas every day, many times simultaneously and with a constant cloud of gulls and white-tailed eagles overhead. At the end of the last day, several humpbacks appeared in the reflection of a fiery sunset. Each time they surfaced and dived, their blows and the water from their tail flukes shone gold. As someone who had never seen orcas or humpback whales before my trip to Norway, I felt extremely fortunate to have had so many special encounters with them. As with all wildlife watching, the most important thing is to observe without causing disturbance, and Steve steeered the boat brilliantly to keep our distance and let the whales feed and roam as they naturally would.

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None of us had been sure if the whales would arrive near Skjervøy again this winter. For whales, birds and humans alike, success depends on the herring. The question now is whether they will return for a fifth time or arrive somewhere else next winter. The possibility of getting back onto the fjords next year is tantalising, but there will never be another trip as unique as this one. Published by Oceanographic magazine, December 2020.

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Deborah Gray Deborah Gray has had a career as a food writer and editor, to which she now adds travel writing. She aspires to be a verbal photographer, capturing the experience of a place and its culture with a few well-chosen words. She believes that writing should be playful as well as poignant and reflective; she loves to tell a funny story. During 2020, Deborah had features published in Good Housekeeping, Psychologies and Planet Mindful magazines. She won the weekly Telegraph ‘How was it for you’ competition and was longlisted for the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year competition in 2020.

www.deborahgray.co.uk | @deborah-gray-writer


This piece was longlisted for the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year competition, 2020.

Only in India It is a truism that India is a land of extremes. On one side of the street, in the savage sunlight, blues are bluer, pinks are pinker; on the other side those same colours are muted by grime and exhaust. The noisy bustle of the marketplace is balanced by the sanctuary of the temple, quiet as the motes of dust that hang in the air. As a visitor, these are the juxtapositions that charm and intrigue me. It is a country where I can find myself oscillating from immense joy to immeasurable sadness in an instant. I felt exhilarated driving around Mysore in our waspish auto-rickshaw. Its little engine screamed with each violent gear change and we cheated death, somehow squeezing between a decrepit bus and a brightly painted truck laden with watermelons. A brassy Ganesha charm hanging from the mirror, danced violently, protecting us as we swerved into the oncoming traffic on an insanely packed roundabout. Clinging on tightly, we rounded a corner and came to an abrupt stop in an unremarkable back street. It was good to be alive. The blood coursed through my veins causing me to laugh in delight. Springing from the auto, I stepped back to record the journey in a photograph, and then it happened, I plummeted through a deep crack in the concrete at the side of the road into the abyss. 93


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Now, an Indian drain is not a western drain that carries away excess water. Oh no, no. An Indian drain is full of black slime; an oozing stream of fetid sludge. Think of a putrid camembert lurking in the back of the fridge, this was worse. Hell hath no stench to compare with that which I encountered seeping from the darkness below. Years of yoga paid off and I found myself holding a modified warrior pose that allowed me some dignity. The trembling tour guide hauled me out of the pit, his brow uncreasing as I emerged more or less unscathed, but with my full-length, coral-pink skirt coated with something resembling sump oil. The noxious liquid dripped into a mandala around my tarred feet. I was mortified. Feigning insouciance, I limped behind our guide until we stopped in front of a time-worn door. As it opened, the scent of sandalwood and jasmine wafted past me on a cloud of fine smoke, smothering the rankness in my nostrils; the glory of it had the aura of Ganga’s shrine. We had arrived at a perfume factory – of course we had. I was handed over to a delicate girl with clear mahogany eyes; she could not have been more than 14 years old. She wore a cerise nylon sari embroidered with white flowers studded with sequins; one of those seen in heaps in the market. Her usual job was rolling joss sticks, but today she was given a less fragrant task. She led me to a tap embedded in the courtyard wall and began to wash me down. Her dignity humbled me. At first, she was gentle, but then she took a huge bar of homemade soap and rubbed my legs, my feet, my skirt – as if kneading dough for chapatis. 94


She breathed rapidly from the effort and her own clothes became soaked. The young girl avoided looking me in the eye, but her shy smile never left her lips. In time, the water ran clear and I was cleansed. She stood me in front of the rotating fan in their workroom to dry. The factory owner then took me by the elbow and led me into a room lit only by the shards of sunlight penetrating the slatted shutters. He chose a vial from one of the many on the shelves, opened it and rubbed the deep cut on the heel of my hand with lotus oil. ‘Tis an antiseptic,’ he declared proudly, binding the cut while instructing me not to wash it for two days. ‘I am pleased to help you. You are welcome here’. Before bidding me goodbye, he selected further flasks of oils and pushed them towards me, telling me to use them liberally. I entered this building smelling of shit and came out smelling of roses, lotus flower, jacaranda, neroli and waterlily. Only in India.

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The Snowy Notebook During the course of the MA, I have found myself using place as a vehicle for memoir writing, in particular I have written about the consequences of my husband’s early-onset dementia. My plan is to write a book about the first journey that I took with my husband, which was through Mexico in 1984. The idea is to retrace the route with my son. Through the stories I tell, my son will learn about the father he barely knew as an adult, and the reader will understand the lived reality of dementia. But this will not be a misery memoir; many funny and poignant things happened on that first trip and will doubtless happen on the second. It will be rich in detail and observation of that intriguing country and its people. The following is an extract from the prelude to the book about finding the memorabilia that made it possible for me to write about the original trip.

I am haunted by the row of diaries occupying a whole section of the bookshelf in my husband’s office. He was a diarist from his teens, and they sit in my house, spines facing outwards, tempting me. To read someone’s diary is a betrayal, although those of the deceased seem fair game. What about those of a lost soul? I return again and again to the diaries, running my fingers along the spines that mark out the years. I arrange them in date order. The stylish Moleskines that we bought as Christmas presents, the cracked red spines of the 90s, the flimsy exercise books of the student. It seems reasonable, I tell myself, to read the last few pages that Atherton wrote in order to gain an insight into how aware he was of his 96


dementia. How it felt to be him. Not knowing this distressed me when he lived at home. He couldn’t talk about it. It’s impossible to tell whether he was trying to maintain his dignity or if his addled brain couldn’t articulateor maybe even register the experience. This continues to be one of those middle-of-the-night riffs that sneaks into the dark voids of my mind. What I find on those last pages, written in shaky handwriting and half completed words, is not enlightening. Maybe that in itself is an answer. In the months following his move to the care home, Atherton’s office is turning into a shrine. There is mould on the wall where the guttering outside has rusted through, and cobwebs have obscured his collection of dragonfly skeletons, autumn leaves and the dulled stones that had once glistened on distant shores. One evening, I thought I could justify a peek. Gingerly, I pulled out the one dated Dec 83 - July 85, as if expecting him to appear in the doorway. I wanted to find the account of the first journey we took together. The one through Mexico that cemented our relationship and set the tone for our subsequent marriage. There’s an entry for Thursday 23 February 1984, then nothing until Friday 6 April 1984. Train from Colchester to London: End of first week back at work after Mexico. V tired & thin. Urinary frequency as still not handling fluid normally. And that was it. Ever the doctor, with his interest in bodily functions. Somewhere there were notes from the trip. I can picture him scribbling on the jolting train as it wound its way 97


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through the Sierra Madre mountains, south of Mexico City; again, under the vibrant jacarandas in Oaxaca, no doubt with a frosted beer glass in front of him. Perhaps the notebook is lost. It is inconceivable that he binned it. He didn’t throw his words away. Twilight continues to call me to the shrine. One evening, I find myself fanning out the oldest diaries, a collection of school exercise books in the faded grey-blue of the 1960s classroom. And there it is, wedged in behind a cover; a flimsy, landscape notebook with a lurid picture of a volcano printed on the front under the words cuaderno nevado; ‘snowy notebook’. In his familiar hand, he had scribbled the name of a coastal resort Potchula in the corner. And all at once, I remember. Curling up in his creased leather armchair in the warm pink light of the fading sun, I begin to read.

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Pantone 18-3838 With a sense of playful irony, I suggested they call her Corinna Violet, this nameless baby born in a pandemic. A pretty name for a harsh moment. My garden is laced with violets and I spot them lining the path through the woodland that hugs the river on my solitary, daily walk. Isaac Newton named violet as one of the seven colours of the spectrum. It sits between blue and ultraviolet, the last of the visible colours. To carry such a distinction seems a bold responsibility for the shrinking violet. The plant name came first, from Latin by way of Old French, the adjectival use isn’t recorded until the 14th century when it was used to describe diamonds. It is worth stopping and looking at the flowers of the common dog violet, they are little gems. Five densely coloured, overlapping petals arranged so that the bottommost points slightly downward, a perfect landing site for the orange-tip butterflies that grace my April garden. Violets provide larval food for several fritillary butterflies, including the rare pearl-bordered fritillary, with its beaded, white-trimmed wings. Dog violets attract bees, especially queen bumblebees during the process of establishing nests. Researchers have proven bees’ proclivity for Pantone colour 18-3838, the 99


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perfect distillation of violet – 7.5% sunshine yellow, 31.5% transparent white, the remainder dark blue. The yellow comes as a surprise. The colour is associated with looking forward, with imagination and the mysteries of the unexplored universe. It’s a colour of creativity, counterculture and sensitivity. Chosen with these connections in mind as the colour of the year for 2018, they are qualities I would happily bestow upon a newborn. Each of the top four flower petals have three parallel stripes of darker purple that act as landing guides for passing pollinators, while the base petal has seven almost black lines, runway indicators, drawing insects into a cave of whiteness flanked by stamen that hang like tiny bottlebrushes. These stroke the backs of visitors as they enter the grotto who, in turn, deposit pollen on the tip of the orange stigma as they nuzzle down to gather the enticing nectar. The violet has a demure habit, poking its head above the low-lying, heart-shaped foliage on a florist’s wire of a stem, usually keeping to the shade; a flower easily overlooked. Maybe this is why the violet is cleistogamous, meaning it can self-propagate from unopened, self-pollinating flowers; they also have a second flowering in the autumn. Perfection in a flower, you might think, but violets are not very fertile and often propagate through root spread. A belt-and-braces approach. Dog violets are unscented so should not be confused with the sweet violet or the Parma violet. The latter are remembered by those of us of a certain age for the eponymous sweets that came as little, pale purple discs with a dip in the centre for the tongue to explore; intensely

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sweet, they left a fragrance rather than a taste in the mouth. I remember, too, the crystallised violet flowers that topped the water-iced cupcakes at tea parties. It comes to me that Shakespeare likened Hamlet’s love for Ophelia to a violet, saying ‘that it’s quick to bloom but quick to die’, so maybe Corinna Violet, in spite of my affection for this little flower, is not the name to suggest for the unnamed granddaughter after all. Especially when frailty and love in the time of corona, is on all our minds.

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Jen Green With a degree in Geography, Jen is interested in ecology, rewilding and feminism. She has an insatiable curiosity for nature and culture with experience of travelling in South America and Europe, and a love of Spanish and French languages. Every assignment of the MA has helped her to find a writing niche, inspired by the metaphysical writing of Nan Shepherd and the prose poetry of Alice Oswald. She writes about the role that nature plays in people’s lives; of trees, parks and a view of the sky. Her writing has been published online by Elsewhere: A Journal of Place.

www.jencgreen.com | @jen_greentree


Shooting Star Diary Significant moments in a lifetime connected by shooting stars. August 2000 When we first saw one, we were standing in the garden, facing the dim form of our house. The kitchen windows were dark glass, where normally we’d be watching TV, oblivious to the drama of the night sky. We were silent, bored of the expanse above; mum, me the oldest at fifteen, my two sisters and my brother, the youngest at eight. Flat arable fields stretched to the west from the back of the house, giving us a wide sky and a horizon full of sunset. Mum kept her dad’s binoculars by the kitchen window for spotting buzzards, foxes and sometimes kestrels. That week, she’d been following the weather forecast avidly, and finally this year, there were no clouds nor a full moon to obscure our night vision. ‘Wowww! There, I saw one!’ We all turned to the north where Mum had been looking, but my sister facing east spotted the next one. I saw nothing for what felt like a long time, trying to scan as much of the 105


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sky as possible, my head aching from leaning all the way to the top of my back. And then, one second of a white light streak – not a flash like lightning, but a much slower line of light, as if the end of a firework was falling back to earth. A shooting star, a meteor speeding into the atmosphere of the planet, glowing hot, and disintegrating. August 2013 As the marquee doors closed, the sound of music and chatter from the wedding party was dulled. My skin cooled as I walked away, across the grass to the end of the garden, to the old ash tree which stood on the boundary of fields. After ditches had been dug out on two sides of the tree, one of the main branches never grew leaves again and, ever since, buzzards used it to rest. It was a lookout point on one edge of my old territory, where we played as children in the branches and nooks of the big trunk. Today had been a long, happy day as a bridesmaid for my sister. I’d cried at the seriousness of the vows, their faces breaking into tears of relief, with a pang of feeling protective. The garden had been a bright, sparkling green for the reception; my sister and her husband reeling between circles of family and friends. My life was different; I’d just moved to Bristol with little money, no job, no friends there, with some kind of easygoing, long-distance relationship and no big plans. Sitting on the roots, I kept my focus on the sky, clear of clouds except for a few long wisps. A shooting star joined my thoughts for the future.

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August 2014 The house is quiet, the lights are low. She opens the door to the garden, pushing past the ferns and coils of clematis, stepping onto the patch of grass and turns to face the house. Tipping her head back, she watches until her neck is stiff, scanning different directions over the house and directly overhead. The patch of sky above the row of houses is dark blue, with blotches of city streetlight orange and the soft noise of neighbours. She thinks she saw a flash, but it was too faint to be sure, perhaps it was wishful thinking. Not wanting to miss anything, but admitting to herself that she should have made more of an effort to see the meteor shower this year, she goes inside. August 2015 Light and sound spill out from the bar onto the street. People are dancing to the music that the band is playing, making big shapes with their limbs. When they’ve finished, the band join their friends, sharing an energy that comes from a good performance. Leaving the bar together, they pack themselves into one car and one van without arranging a destination. Following one of the main roads out of the city to escape the dirty orange glow, my friend drives us, her chatting, laughing friends who love music. With them, I have an anchor in Bristol. We stop in a layby where the darkness reveals the depth of space, the reality of human life on a globe of rock spinning through the universe. Wind comes out of the dark, pushing clouds ahead, vibrating the strings of an acoustic guitar held up into the air. Headlights from a 107


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passing car expose us, sitting in darkness as if waiting for the end of the world. With quiet chatter and gentle plucking of the guitar, our attention is turned to the sky in between sentences. An alarming line of light soars down, ending in fluorescent green as it approaches the horizon, all of us speechless. August 2016 I met my niece today. As I opened the kitchen door, she was there in the carrier on the table; eyes closed, delicate light brown hair and soft, cellular skin. As soon as I saw her, I felt that she was part of me; this feeling was as vivid as someone whispering it in my ear. One long, shadow shape of trees gently sways in the wind. A breeze brushes along the hair on my arm braced across the open window as I sit on the ledge. I’m the last one awake, as it always has been in this house. My niece will see this place before my parents move out, but she won’t remember the first snow she steps in, or shoulder rides round the garden, and her shouting ‘Running! Running!’ as I chase her. These will be my memories. This house has many portals of time from when I was growing up, in the corridors, the kitchen, the garden, that I will have to leave behind. How can I feel that I’ve made a pact with her already? Perhaps it’s an empathy for my sister, some kind of biological bond. A shooting star glides over the treetops and I feel content. That one was for you.

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Starling Murmuration After a residential trip to Avalon Marshes. A long arm overhead, reaching, into a snake Sound of gentle rain, wings From all peripheries of sky One body builds, Three aimed arrows dive into the mass Single, now multiple and single A dirt filled whirlwind A plague over the reeds Rising, flashing, turning, Roosting.

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Signs of Autumn September Equinox Just a hint of yellow in the trees, the softest and lightest leaves are wavering one by one. Bramble smell, black fruit swell, purple pastel dust on darkest blue skin. Tell your town friend to pop it in, the tartest tart taste. Over long grass, thistles fly fluff, acorn buds green, grow up in cups, and spiders spin string across every gap. I forget, my nose breaks a net. Bats chase the invisible, a slice of moon waxing, dark and light balancing, tonight we begin turning inwards for winter.

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Anchor of Oak

Across the short grass of open park, towards the woods of yellow sycamore and luminous orange of beech, there is a freedom to my pace as I walk north-east, which means walking out of the city. Those gold leaves are so bright they seem to give out light like a fire. A fire above, whilst under the canopy is a mess of strewn stems and veins layered with mud. I emerge at the edge of the grass field; a square slope lined by trees with one oak in the centre. Green foot-worn paths through long grass lead to the tree. Approaching the oak, I imagine the roots reaching out as far below as the branches above, the whole tree as an apple core shape with me entering the circumference of boughs. In a wider circle are oak offspring who will inherit the field. Looking up, the tree is full of dark green leaves with tips of amber; few have been lost yet. They are tannin-stiff; they turn and hit each other in the waves of wind, sounding altogether like swash on the shore. Leaves that have withstood heavy rain and strong sun, shading with an emerald filter. Leaves that will fall to become soil. Today the coffee-brown earth bears craters from the impact of raindrops, and smells like leaves soaked in fresh rainwater. 111


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I am a frequent visitor. Lying on the grass, talking with friends, in much-needed conversations. Climbing up to sit in the crown, to find that heights have become scary. Birthday gatherings and farewells, friends drifting in and out of a group sitting under the branches. Marking the time. Meeting here to watch the sun set, our eyes shining in the low rays of sunlight. Once, I almost fell asleep in the sun. I miss my friends who have moved away. I realise how things have changed in my life when I visit the oak. It is a touchstone, an anchor in time. As the tree witnesses part of my life, I wonder what stage of life it watches us from.

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Clevedon Coast

One half of a tattered flag is thrashing violently above the Bristol Channel. Wind, blowing over the rounded waves, rolling them in my direction from the Severn Estuary, is creating the sound I hear. The water of the Channel is a muddy tea colour from river sediments, but with reflected sky-blue on each side of the rolls. With the Severn Bridge in the distance, I scan across the wide plane of water to three rotating wind turbines, a cluster of industrial buildings at Newport and hazy lumps of land, topped by a procession of equally sized, round, white clouds. Unwilling to stand much longer in the cold wind, we decide to leave, stomping down the pier in our boots. I glimpse the water through the gaps in the decking; some wooden slats are a darker sodden brown than others and I begin to think about one foot falling through. I decide to look ahead as if I’m seasick. Embedded in the cliff are blocks of rock like giant bricks; modular and pink-brown. Later, I look up ‘Clevedon geology’ to find a mention of pink baryte and that the rocks are of scientific interest and protected. The rocks of the cliff have eroded to the egg-sized and egg-smooth pebbles of the beach, which move under my boot; a clatter of wet stone across wet stone. There is space and water between them so that each step makes a hollow ‘ch-omp, ch-omp.’ 113


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When I thought of visiting Clevedon, I remembered the hill next to the marine pool. A few years ago, I’d woken up on a blue sky Sunday without plans. Clevedon was the most accessible coastline from Bristol on a bicycle, and I took in the view from the hill. The sun of that day was amplified by the water, and I think that’s one of the reasons people walk along the coastline, as we do. Along the promenade, we pass through a few seconds of grease smell and cigarette smoke accompanied by the chiming piano music of the arcade. A tree trunk lies on the beach. Perhaps it’s been allowed to remain as a spectacle – where did it come from, how long was it floating for, almost saturated with salt water, turning over and over? Up on the hill with the wind in my ears, we stop by a bench, angled to show off the best view. A robin appears almost immediately on the fence, so close that I can see how the brown feathers of its back are green-tinged. The robin looks at me then hops down to my feet, I’m pretty sure the suggestion is that we drop crumbs, as is the custom of humans. We have no crumbs to drop. The bench recommends we look over the water, at the pier, at the coast where houses clutch to cliff steps, at the waves which now resemble the pink-brown of the Clevedon rocks.

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Nuno

‘One man had the idea of bringing tuk-tuks to Lisbon a few years ago and now they’re everywhere. I wish that had been me.’ Nuno had taken us to his favourite view at the Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, but we couldn’t see through the milling people and ankle-biting tuk-tuks. They really were everywhere, turning in tight spots, trading tourists; it had been an excellent business idea. We stood at the edge of the crowd for a few minutes, until Nuno turned to take us back to his car. With a sun-faded dashboard, worn smooth gear stick, and frayed upholstery, Nuno’s car was like a comfy old sofa. Leaning one arm on the open window, he drove us to our Airbnb, our conversation moving easily from small talk to more personal, interesting stories. When he laughed a big laugh from his stomach, it felt like we’d met a friend at a pub. He was finding the extremely hot weather strange, taking it as a sign of climate change. He had dreams of buying his own house with a swimming pool with his wife and daughter. Now, he lived in the outskirts of the city, far 115


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from old, cobbled Alfama where we were staying, where he worked for the landlady of the Airbnb. ‘I’d like to visit Bristol! But that’s just another dream of mine.’

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Rachel Henson Rachel Henson is a book-loving, often wondering, planetwandering, guinea-pig-cuddling, word-scribbling, biscuitnibbling primate enthusiast who lives by the sea on the south coast of England. She would like to write a book. She has a background in animal care and conservation. Her work has been published in Dalesman, Scottish Mountaineer, The Pilgrim and The Thinking Pen. Rachel is currently working on stories involving monkeys, and a non-fiction book about the Famous Five and the Isle of Purbeck. www.rachelhensonwriting.com | @rachelhenson


A Normal Day in Paris A man sits, writing at the table. There’s no cloth to protect the wood, marked by years of greasy forks. Wispy brown hair is combed over his forehead, where tortoiseshell glasses perch on a slanted nose. In a small notebook he scribbles. It’s half full of stories and ideas. His backpack keeps him company on the chair opposite, making it difficult for a lady to sit down at the next table. He doesn’t notice. The waiter doesn’t say anything as he stands alongside, waiting to place a teapot next to a stained espresso cup. ‘Ah, bonjour’. The fine liner pauses, hovering an inch above the paper. Easy listening hits float down from speakers on the ceiling; rock songs sung painfully slowly, more sighing than singing. A moving chair scrapes through the music. Sachets of Heinz ketchup and mayonnaise lounge on red paper napkins as upturned wine glasses wait for lunch to begin. Outside is a junction where four roads converge and somehow justify eight zebra crossings. A pigeon potters by the café window, beak inclining upwards towards an artisan boulangerie across the road. A neon tabac sign is dull and unlit. The pigeon and his friend poddle out from behind the bike racks towards the kerb on the corner of the Rue de 119


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Belleville. They wait to cross when the green man glows. Either the passing humans don’t notice, or they’ve seen it all before. The well-behaved pigeon pair makes it to the road island, but having checked for crumbs, it’s obvious that they will have to head back to the boulangerie. They about-turn and carry on pecking. The writer continues to decorate his pages. My frites arrive in an enormous bowl, along with salad and bread. I look up from my feast and the pigeons are en route again, scuttling behind an old man with a limp. He’s slow enough to keep up with and big enough to hide behind. He has a paper bag full of toilet rolls and a loaf of bread that peers over the top. Despite the red lights, a battered Citroën rolls around the bend. The old man and the pigeons speed up their last few steps, making it safely to the pavement. The old man gesticulates at the vacant space behind the speeding car. The pigeons concentrate on forgotten croissant crumbs. Above, shutters are folded back on the windows above the street. Pot plants loll over balconies, brightening the six storeys of iron railings. The sky is broken only by white cumulonimbus ambling downwards behind the grocery shop. Babies in prams are wrapped up and snuggled in hats and blankets. Coats are on. Three men stand on the corner swigging whisky, throwing some to the pavement behind them. The ringleader, or at least the whisky bearer, has a very good moustache. With a final flourish of hand gestures, they saunter off towards tower blocks visible through the gaps between old fashioned shop fronts. Pigeons weave between pedestrians. Everything is normal.

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*** As I turn the pages of my notebook now, I think of the man in the Parisian café. We were normal tourists, seeking normal coffee on what felt like a normal afternoon. Since then, both the UK and France have been in lockdown, and only now are things starting to get back to ‘normal’, although it still feels anything but. I visited Paris six weeks before lockdown. There had been a few cases of Covid-19 in France, but we all underestimated its virulence. Despite seeing how the outbreaks in Wuhan and northern Italy were progressing, it still seemed unlikely that we would end up in the same situation. We were told to carry on as normal. Paris seemed normal. We wandered beneath the Eiffel Tower, went to see the burnt-out shell of Notre-Dame and popped into an open mic night in a dimly lit side-street bar. We also visited the catacombs. This was my friend’s choice. I’m not usually one for looking at bones. I find the anatomy and the stories behind them fascinating, but I can’t detach them from the rest of the now decomposed bodies. When I look at human bones, I see an imaginary slide show of people they could have belonged to. The catacombs of Paris lie beneath the streets, packed with bodiless bones, gawping tourists and lost personalities wisping around us through cold, dark tunnels. The ossuary was built as a solution to Paris’ overflowing cemeteries in the 1700s. Towards the end of the century, in 1798, veiled hearses carried bodies across the city to their new resting place. This macabre tourist attraction is said to house parts of six million people, some dating back to 1348 when the Black Death claimed 50,000 Parisian lives. 121


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Looking at walls constructed of femurs, and cracked skulls arranged into decorative love hearts, I was an uncomfortable voyeur of death. I felt no better in the bright lights of the gift shop, and I couldn’t think of anything less respectful than buying a skull-shaped pencil case. Thank goodness we don’t have to worry about all those diseases these days. What a stupid thought. My mind drifted back to Paris more than once during lockdown. I thought of the street corner café in Jourdain, shuttered and empty. I thought of the pigeons going hungry without all the tourist-dropped street food. I thought of the writer and his notebook, and hoped he and his family were safe from this modern plague. And I thought of all the bodies stacked up in the catacombs, and the fact that, at last, they would have some rest away from prying eyes.

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Three Short Pieces About Dorset Oystercatcher A dozen birds potter on the shoreline. Their piercing calls give them away as a group of five split off and fly across the water, towards the car park and dunes behind the beach. The others stay put. One stands upright, his rusty feet leaving impressions on a carpet of damp seaweed, cushioning the boulder that raises him above the water. If it weren’t for the sunlight reflecting from the sea onto his white belly feathers, it would be difficult to spot his black shape in the shadows of the cliff. The waves lose their force by the time they lap at the base of the rock, but they’re enough to make him teeter backwards when the bubbles come towards him. His feet can stand the cold water, but it’s winter and it’s chilly, even on the south coast. More of his companions take to the air, on the same route as the first flock, but he stays behind with one other bird. He peers at her, but she pays no attention, not yet ready to depart. The rocks are sheltered at the end of the beach, where trees lean over to watch the birds feed. The high tide forms a sliver of calm, cutting them off from the hubbub of half-term children, the sand and the café. The oystercatcher isn’t on holiday, he’s a resident, and humans trampling his lunch spots make it harder to have a good meal. He probes at the ground with his beak, trying several places before he finds what he’s looking for. The cold morning breeze is starting to pick up, causing the rockpool to ripple. His feathers react excitedly. 123


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A cue, imperceptible to me, causes him to leave. Perhaps an offensive splash, perhaps fed up with the early chiffchaff ’s chatter, or perhaps he just has somewhere else to be. His friend follows suit, smart black and white wings cutting through the milky sky, orange beaks ‘meeping’ their way over oblivious humans.

Beach Everyone went home when they heard Storm Dennis was coming. Nobody wanted to be at the same party as him. Nobody, except the beach. It didn’t really have a choice, lying there stretched out between South Haven Point and Old Harry Rocks. It would just have to wait for old Dennis to calm down and go away. The morning had started with blue skies and its regular visitors, the dog walkers. By lunchtime, only the ranger was to be seen, leaving tyre tracks in the sand from the 4x4 buggy. There were no naturists in their designated areas, popping up behind the dunes as they do throughout the summer. A stranded sea gooseberry, lifeless on the strandline, was taken back to the water by an overenthusiastic wave. Rain pockmarked the dunes, leaving them looking like they’d been attacked by a miniature machine gun. Eighty years ago, they might have been. The beach is old enough to remember the war. Storm Dennis is no trouble in comparison. In quiet times like these it can remember its waves being set alight, barrels of crude oil poured onto the surface, soldiers creating a sea defence of fire. It still bears the scars of the Second World War. 124


War didn’t come as a complete surprise, as military activity became more common. Training exercises and suchlike. Now, creeping down between the beach huts, dragon’s teeth still break the surface of the sand, though some have fallen. Concrete tank traps to save Studland village, cornering enemy vehicles so that guns could obliterate them in the sand bowl. The beach preferred the last few decades. Summer could be intense, as National Trust wardens scurry to collect flotillas of ice cream wrappers and broken spades in the warm evenings. But off-season, the beach is in its prime, proudly lining the south coast, waving silently at the P&O ferry taking holiday makers back to France. The seaweed isn’t cleared as it is on the beaches of Bournemouth and Poole. They lie just a chain ferry away, but their blunt facades of hotels and apartment blocks stand in contrast to Studland’s natural dunes. Their rowdy nightlife can’t compare to the noisy peacefulness of evening waves crashing ashore in the curved bay, with ever-increasing force. The seaweed may look more dishevelled than usual, but the storm didn’t worry the beach. It had survived worse than that.

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Midsummer Insects hover as the lowering sun brushes the reeds on the water meadow. Tiny wings beat amongst floating dandelion seeds in the fading light of a midsummer’s evening. The owls have been busy, but they keep a low profile. The first barn owl flies into view. It soars quietly, keeping low over the grass, beating its pale wings powerfully. It vanishes behind a stand of trees. Flap, flap, flap, glide. Its rounded head leads the way as it reappears in the dusk light. Beside the river, the air is still. It is not alone. Joined by another, there are now two flying in formation, one above the other. The sun is just starting to set. It’s almost 10 o’clock at night. They peel away from each other. One of them carries on across the meadow, the other is leaving towards Woolbridge Manor, where Tess of the D’Urbervilles spent her fateful wedding night with Angel Clare. It could be a depressing scene, with Hardy’s gloomy story as a backdrop, and the superstitious associations between owls and all things spooky. They’re unfounded allegations though. There is nothing ominous about an owl, unless you’re a vole. The remaining owl is flying along the river towards a collapsed old farming bridge. It banks right, dipping one wing to steer across the water. Its eyes could be no blacker if they were dredged up from the nearby oil field on the coast at Wytch Farm. Its gaze is strong, yet its head barely

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moves as its wings make the small adjustments needed for safe flight. The plop of a fish at the water’s surface doesn’t distract the bird, for the owl is used to processing plenty of signals. A casual change in direction is made and it disappears as swiftly as it came. Its silhouette merges with the hedgerow as it passes into a neighbouring field. The shadow of its magic is left behind as the mist rises slowly from the grass.

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Mauro Hernandez At seven, in his home country of Argentina and without any knowledge of English, Mauro announced to his parents that he would move abroad when he grew up. Back then, he contented himself with browsing through photos of far-flung places in National Geographic magazines. He holds a B.Ed. (English) and a postgraduate diploma in creative writing from the University of York. A former secondary school teacher, certified translator, and cruise ship crewmember, he is now a Vancouver-based flight attendant and student at St. Andrews University. As a travel writer and fiction author, he looks at people and places with writerly eyes from ‘story-generating angles.’


A January Morning Walk in Calgary

‘If Calgary is Canada’s oil capital city and home to worldfamous rodeos in July, why is it that it has such a low population?’ my friend Carlos asked me this past January from the comfort of his hanging hammock chair in southern Spain. I looked out of the window and chuckled. ‘You’ve never walked around Calgary in wintertime.’ As a native of eastern Argentina, where the temperature rarely dips below zero, I also could not help cringing at the mere thought of venturing out, yet again, on a short morning walk to the grocery shop. In Calgary, the cold is everyone’s enemy; it knows very well how to keep even the most ambitious hearts and money-making souls from settling down in this western Canadian city. As I stepped outside, I risked skidding and falling. The purity of the snow loses its charm when it turns into an ice-layered trap, making the sidewalk look like wet crystal. Despite the January morning, I took my time to advance with calculated steps as if I were a soldier wary of any possible bomb planted ahead of me. I had to hunch under the camouflage of my hooded parka and still bent back and forth like a blade of grass humiliated by the almighty wind. 131


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Even though I never fell, I thought it best to keep my hands out of my pockets at all times to break my fall, just in case. A shiver akin to an electric shock ripped through my spine. In seconds, my whole body was trembling. Keeping my balance on a corner at -29°C (and a windchill of -37°C) while being pushed around by the whistling wind, I could feel the cold beginning to seep in through the fourchettes of my gloves and nibble at my fingertips. I tried balling my hand into a tight fist, then releasing, then making a fist again, and repeating the same exercise without stopping. But the more I flexed my fingers, the stiffer they became. A stinging sensation, like hundreds of pinpricks in all my fingertips at the same time, meant they were starting to go numb. I crossed the street, biting into the tips of my gloves and blowing warm puffs through the seams to avoid frostbite. Peering ahead through several layers of scarf over my mouth and nose became more difficult with every puff, though. My eyelashes caught the warmth of my breath and became stippled with specks of ice that sealed my eyes. There came a point when I had to stop and rub the brittle crust of ice away to be able to see my way ahead. My teeth chattering, I finally made it to the shop, which was just a few steps away from where I was standing. In fact, what felt like a trek in the Arctic was nothing but a block-and-a-half walk from my place. ‘Not everybody that comes here has the acrobatic skills to survive those January morning walks,’ I told my friend. ‘Neither do many have the heart to routinely bow to such an unwelcoming climate. Believe me, I’ve been here for ten years now.’

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Deciduous Leaves Had it been a burglar, the alarm would have gone off and the motion-activated floodlight outside would have turned on. None of that happened. It was the crackle of maple leaves outside my window that woke me up. In the dead of the night, noises tend to amplify and images magnify, which only heightens my fear. Last night, unlike previous ones, I cracked my bedroom window ajar to let the autumn breeze in against my mother’s recommendation. She just hates coming into my room in the morning only to find dead bugs lying on my bedcover and on the floor, not that she is scared of creepy-crawlies and the like. In fact, she has shown me on several occasions how bug stains don’t easily wash off even on a full hot washing cycle. It would seem like the smaller the bug, the deeper the stain. So it was around 1.30am when I woke up with a start. Earlier in the day, I had raked the fallen maple tree leaves into a huge pile, bagged them up and dropped the bulky bag in the compost bin. I sat up in bed, trying to think whether I had forgotten to put the lid on the bin and a squirrel had consequently climbed onto the bag and torn it open, or if a snake was slithering across the patio and crushing freshly fallen leaves on its way to my window. I hate snakes, even more so since I saw one dangling from the maple tree branch not long ago. That day, my cousin who is an amateur long-range shooter, had stopped by to 133


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say hello and just happened to have a gun on him. Without a moment’s hesitation, he drew his gun and shot the snake in the head. That thing fell to the grass like a dead leaf. Yesterday my cousin came over for dinner, without his gun. We set the dinner table under the maple tree and enjoyed the unseasonably warm evening weather. I kept looking up, fearful that a snake would appear, hanging down over my plate. Instead, we had to keep swiping with our rolledup napkins at little bugs that circled above our heads and swatted mosquitoes that fuelled themselves on our thighs and arms. My cousin winced and grimaced when a moth flew right into his glass of red wine. He had to toss his drink away on the grass and refill his glass only to chuck the freshly poured wine out once again when another insect plunged into it. Too tired from a whole day toiling away in the backyard, I excused myself from the after-dinner conversation and went to bed around midnight. My window overlooks the patio and backyard and I could hear my cousin and father playing poker over funny sounding hiccups and hissy cigarette puffs while my mother dispatched voice messages to her sleepless WhatsApp friends. By 1am the house was silent again, and I went to sleep shortly after. Scared, I groped for my mobile phone on the night table, hit the flashlight toggle, and pointed the beam towards the window. In the glare, wisps of smoke danced upwards outside my window. I sprang out of bed, hurried over to the window and thrust it wide open. I noted dry leaves scattered here and there on the patio; the compost bin,

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though, had its lid on. But a small fire had broken out on the grass, in the area where leaves had fallen throughout the evening, where my cousin had dumped his wine twice, where he and my father had smoked. I rushed outside through the back door, turned on the faucet, and began hosing down the patch that was ablaze. I put out the flames in seconds. Not mine, were my cousin’s words. Mine neither, my father’s denial echoed when I later questioned them about a cigarette butt I came across on the threshold. The wind picked up as he was leaving, I heard my cousin mumble as he hurried to cook up a situation that my father seconded. Both agreed on the spot to blame the wind for blowing things over. I chose to give a nod, pursing my lips not to shout my disbelief. My mother doesn’t smoke, and there has never been any other visible fire hazard around the maple tree – except for two smokers last night. Had I kept my window completely shut, I would have prevented insects from flying into my room and spoiling my bedcover. True, but I would have failed to hear the leaves crackling. Waking up to harmless-looking flames outside the window may perhaps qualify for a nocturnal anecdote; and yet the situation could easily have got out of control if the breeze had blown towards the dry, lower leaves of the tree crown, and the fire had spread to the wooden table and chairs.

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Grandma’s House

Grandma’s house in Argentina was home to many Italian tales and anecdotes of her youth in northern Italy. Today at 45, I still remember her tactically picking each of her stories based on which part of the house we were in at the time of our conversation. I loved standing next to her at the kitchen countertop and watching her knead dough. Protected by a colourful apron around her waist, she would tell me pasta tasted better when prepared with frico, a traditional sauce of her native region of Friuli, consisting of melted cheese, potatoes and other ingredients, which she had learned to make from her mother’s recipe book. The addition of frico not only heightened the taste of the spaghetti, but it also wafted out of the kitchen like quality perfume into all other areas of the house signalling to the rest of the family that lunch was ready. After lunch came nap time, usually from 2.00 to 4.00p.m. Lying beside her in her bed each afternoon led to a new discovery chat every time. She once told me how she knew she would be migrating to Argentina. It happened in her early twenties when she was at a get-together with some of her girlfriends. There, a clairvoyant read everybody’s palms. Unlike the rest of the women, my grandma heard a life-changing prediction: ‘Maria, tu vai in America.’ My grandma said it in so many words, in Italian. And I didn’t need a translation to understand: she was going to 136


America. I recall once asking her if she was scared of not being able to speak Spanish. She shook her head with a smile on her face; she learned early on to make herself understood through hand gestures and body language. And she would show me how she clucked and flapped her arms up and down at the grocer’s as she tried to buy a dozen eggs – listening to her mimic the sound made by a hen had me laughing and kicking under the sheets. In the late afternoon, we would sit at the living room table and play cards over a nice cup of black coffee. She would pour it from a Volturno moka stovetop coffee-maker which she had packed in one of several trunks that came on the ship with her all the way from Italy in 1952. I recall her glowing with pride when she mentioned her ability to trick her village adversaries while they sipped their coffees. When I asked her how, she wouldn’t say. Now that I think about our card-playing sessions, she was always the one dealing the cards. Most of the time she held the highest card. Back then I naively thought she was just a very lucky player; I never ever got to win a hand. Let alone a game. Evenings were great fun, too. We would come out to the patio and tune in on a portable radio to an Italian programme hosted by a man whom my grandma called her fellow countryman. I can’t remember his name now, but his voice is as loud and clear in my head today as it was back then. He spoke in Friulano, one of the dialects spoken in the Italian Alps that my grandma also used when speaking to my mum and uncle. But my grandma made sure to translate for me every time he played a folk song. Whether she made up the whole background story to the song or not, I really did not care. I knew after her explanation came some sort of funny dance. 137


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She would stand to her feet and twirl to the tune, her skirt swirling and swelling as she began circling the table faster and faster, just like she did back in her village. One summer evening I tailed after her, grabbing her by the waist from behind as I tried to keep pace with her zigzag. And she burst out laughing at my lack of rhythmic coordination every time she turned back. If I had told her I wasn’t dancing but swatting mosquitoes the size of small spiders on her skirt, she would have rushed back inside the house, and the fun would have stopped right there. I haven’t returned to grandma’s house since childhood simply because I don’t see the point of going back if she isn’t there anymore. There is someone else’s grandma living in it now, or so I’ve been told.

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Richard Kitzinger Richard spent eight years in Australia, keeping a blog which covered over 4,000 pages and more than 60 countries. His writing is inspired by experience; attending sports events, spotting wildlife or observing characters. Much of his travel and writing is driven by a desire to understand historically significant people and events. Richard’s writing has appeared in publications as diverse as The Cricketer and Vegan Life magazines, GAdventures and Yourlifeisatrip websites and The Sunday Telegraph. His story about travelling with a newlyorphaned elephant won inclusion in Bradt’s anthology, Beastly Journeys, alongside the likes of David Attenborough and Gerald Durrell. Richard now lives in Somerset and is looking for a publisher for his first book, The Farthest Pavilions, a cricket-related quest that takes him all over Australia. He completed his second, Six and About, during lockdown. www. aroundtheworldin18days.uk


Go Home Polish

This piece was written during the lunch hour of a mini-residential at Corsham in January 2019. It is a response to that morning’s stimulating presentation from Michal Iwanoski, a photographer of Polish origin who has lived in Cardiff for 17 years. Despite feeling very British – Michal has UK citizenship – he was moved to walk with his camera from his home in Cardiff to the village in Poland where he grew up. His motivation was seeing some graffiti in the inner Cardiff suburb of Roath which read ‘Go Home Polish’. His journey took him 105 days and he captured plenty of inspiring photographs, each of them with a thought-provoking story. Everyone present was suitably inspired and we left for lunch thinking of the notion of home and travelling home. I am, by nature, a list-maker. A starter-finisher. So much so that my daily bullet-point to-do list in my planner always includes ‘teeth’ so that, as soon as I have cleaned my teeth, I can tick something off and feel that progress is already being made. I can’t emphasise enough how difficult I find it to get my day underway until I have a to-do list. If ever I don’t have my planner with me, the list gets scribbled onto a scrap of paper, the back of a receipt, a napkin. Anywhere really – it just has to be written down. 141


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On the day in question, I’d awoken early. In terms of a to-do list, it was a big day; the day before my dear friends, Tim and Sarah, were due to arrive from New Zealand. Almost everything on the day’s list was to do with cleaning the house. It was frankly an embarrassing mess and there was no way I could receive my guests in such a state. Sarah was a neat freak and their Auckland home was spotless. I was up early, hoovering, scrubbing and dusting; putting things away, throwing things away and hiding things away. By mid-afternoon I’d ticked everything off the list. Phew! I was ready. I also needed a rest so I made myself a cup of tea and sat down at the kitchen table, exhausted but relieved. It was then that my eyes alighted on the one thing I hadn’t cleaned and the one thing that most needed to be cleaned. My table mats and coasters made of Rimu wood. Not only were these beautiful mats made from my favourite New Zealand tree, they had been a special gift from Tim and Sarah themselves. Now, though, they were tarnished with food smears and drink spillages; rings from mugs more prominent than the Os on the Olympic flag. Sarah would notice at once. To hide them away would cause offence. I would simply have to get them clean. I went online for advice. There was only one substance for cleaning Rimu; a special resin with just a single stockist in the UK, in a place called Splott. Imagine, the only place to go to get rid of a stain and it was called Splott. It was in South Wales. I called them. They had some in stock, but I would need to get there in the next two hours before they shut.

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I jumped in the car and headed up the M5, battled my way through the traffic, switched onto the M4, paid the departure tax to leave this green and pleasant land and ploughed on towards Splott. It was 4.58pm when I pulled up at the shop. The resin was only available in aerosols. I bought one, far bigger than the job would need but who was I to argue? I got back in the car and, for the second time that afternoon, wilted in relief and exhaustion. It occurred to me that I had been cleaning and driving all day and hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast. So, I made my way into central Cardiff for a bite to eat. By the time I’d had some dinner – a bowl of cawl, the famous Welsh broth of lamb and vegetables including leeks of course – I was far too tired to drive home again, so I called in to a convenience store and bought a toothbrush and toothpaste. Then I found a B&B for the night, not far from the city centre. My aim was to get a good night’s sleep and set off early in the morning to make the Rimu placemats look as good as new before my Kiwi guests’ afternoon arrival. In the morning I woke up refreshed. I washed, cleaned my teeth and paid my bill. I knew what I had to do that day but, call it an OCD, I just couldn’t operate without my written to-do list. I didn’t have my planner with me, I didn’t even have a pen. But there was a lovely white wall in front of me and I had a large aerosol. So I graffitied my short to-do list for the day. Go Home Polish 143


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Call of the Kiwi Wild

In New Zealand to cover the England cricket tour in 2019, I skipped a day of the Test match to write another, completely unrelated, piece which ticked off a bucket list experience. ‘A police roadblock,’ sighs Tali. I glance back at the transportation boxes strapped to the rear seat and wonder how to explain our unusual cargo. This is my ninth trip to New Zealand. I’ve been desperate to see a kiwi in the wild. This time I hope to see not just one but three of the iconic birds out where nature intended them to be. Tali Jellyman, kiwi courier, is part of the team at Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari, a phenomenal wildlife reserve in the Waikato District of North Island between Hamilton and Rotorua, known equally as many places are in the Land of the Long White Cloud by either its Māori or its English name. Maungatautari represents the future of the Western Brown Kiwi, one of five extant kiwi species, all of them endangered. Tali’s pride is evident in her voice as she points out the mountain, a long ridge swathed in native forest. It does look like a special place. 145


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In the event, the police officer doesn’t even question why we’re travelling with three kiwi chicks and onwards we continue to Sanctuary Mountain. Founded in 2005 by David Wallace, a local landowner with a conscience, Maungatautari’s territory grew through negotiations with other farmers, iwi (Māori tribes) and landowners in the vicinity, some of whom accepted offers of land swaps whilst others simply donated land to the cause. Up close, the scale of the project becomes clearer. The 3,400 hectare reserve includes a wetlands area in addition to the mountainous forest. It’s all enclosed by 47km of fence which cost $16m NZD (£8m) to erect and takes a further $1.6m NZD (£800,000) each year to maintain. Although the fence encloses a safe area for native New Zealand birds, the real point is to exclude the introduced mammal species which pose a threat. Stoats, rats, dogs, ferrets and rabbits are amongst the invasive pests which cannot go under, over or through the barrier. While our three kiwi chicks will technically be enclosed, to all intents and purposes they will live free lives on the mountain in a space twice the size of all of New Zealand’s other fenced sanctuaries combined. We roam paths through this ancient woodland and examine display boards where tracking cards show which animals and birds have been in the area. Tali is pleased to see takahē on one of them; the indigo wetland bird which, for over fifty years was thought to be extinct, is thriving at Sanctuary Mountain – a remarkable success that bodes well for the kiwi conservation project too.

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At the foot of a tree Tali shows us a scraped burrow, indicating the recent presence of a kiwi. My excitement mounts at the prospect of the three chicks I escorted to the mountain soon having a home like this of their own. The chief kiwi ranger, Craig Montgomerie, brings out the trio of soon-to-be new residents. Leonardo is quite placid whilst Krill is fidgety after his journey. Napolean clacks his beak which is a sign of disgruntlement – no surprise, given that he has been driven for an hour in a box, but Craig is pleased that there are no signs of distress. So am I, as we cannot release a distressed bird. Tali and Craig give me a closer look at Napolean, pointing out the kiwi’s tiny wings, incapable of flight, his whiskers and, at the end of his long beak, nostrils – the only bird known to have them. I say his – the gender of our new releases cannot be determined at such a tender age. He continues to clack, which sounds like cracking knuckles. We take the kiwis to the far side of the mountain. Krill is released first. It is a return to the wild for him, having been rescued from a predated nest where a stoat attack accounted for his sibling. Craig is thrilled because, at the moment of release into a burrow at the foot of a tree, Krill immediately probes his new surroundings with his long beak, something that even this seasoned ranger has never seen before. Next are Leonardo and Napolean, siblings from the same nest in the Southern Taranaki region. They are to be released together and Craig knows the perfect tree with burrows on two levels of a spongy earth bank covered in 147


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leaf litter, ideal kiwi territory. ‘Same house, different rooms,’ he grins, giving Leonardo first pick. Each chick is carefully lifted from its transporter box and placed in the burrow entrance. The birds are given the protection of fern fronds, affording some privacy as they explore their new homes. They now have a chance of a long life they would almost certainly not have enjoyed outside Maungatautari. The moment of their release is brief but it has a spiritual quality, underscored by the crooning of a karanga, a Māori call-cum-blessing acknowledging both the mountains that were the kiwis’ original and future homes. I ask whether releasing kiwis ever becomes humdrum. ‘Seeing the reaction of people coming in and witnessing the kiwi release is so cool,’ Craig replies. ‘They say, “Wow, that’s so amazing.” That makes all my work worthwhile.’ Tali tells me of her ambition for all New Zealand children to see their national bird and relates one experience when a school class was present at a kiwi release. ‘They were asked to be quiet and they were so good. They didn’t move a muscle, even though they are five year-olds and they all went “aaaahhhhhh” – I’ll never forget that chorus of quiet gasps.’ To sustain the release of 500 kiwis over five years, the project relies on widespread conservation efforts. ‘If we were to walk away it wouldn’t take long for this mountain to be swamped with predators,’ warns Craig. We leave the kiwis to settle into their new safe abode and head back through the forest, aglow with the knowledge that we’ve

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witnessed a wonderful event. Both Craig and Tali refer to the sanctuary as kōhanga, a Māori word meaning nursery but which also translates as nest, homeland and fort. All of these connotations are apt. Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari is a truly special place where, as Craig says, ‘Kiwis are going to live forever.’

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Richard Kitzinger

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Hilary Macmillan Hilary’s writing intertwines ecology and conservation with a strong and creative narrative, evoking the sensory nature of our connection to wild places and spaces. Her writing is hugely influenced by a career in conservation that spans nearly four decades. She is the author of two books and has written articles for a range of publications, including BBC Wildlife Magazine and Little Toller’s The Clearing. In 2019, she was also longlisted for the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year competition. She is currently writing a children’s book, combining science with story, based on the return of the pine marten to Wales.

@hj_macmillan


Martens in the Mist

In 2015, a landmark project was launched to restore the pine marten to the remote hills and valleys of mid Wales. Pine Martens are species close to extinction in southern Britain as a result of habitat loss and historical predator control. Monitoring of this native carnivore now firmly established in Wales continues and I went along to help. A January walk can invigorate one’s mind and body. Inhaling the crisp winter air and savouring the cheery blue skies is always uplifting. Unfortunately, January can also be cold, damp and dismal. Here in Cwm Rheidol, a landscapeto-die-for in mid Wales, I have woken up to the latter. I look out at the uninviting mizzle and then back at my still hot latte and comfy leather sofa. Where would I rather be? I hesitate for a moment, but I am on a mission. My hotel overlooks the valley of the Afon Rheidol, at this point a steep-wooded ravine that slices through the bleak and bare mist-veiled moorland above. George Monbiot had a point ecologically when he bemoaned the ‘sheep-wrecked’ hills, but the stark, treeless landscape above the valley draws you in. While it may be tough to eke out a living on the moors, I am envious of those hardy hill farmers. 153


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The Atlantic woodland below me is often described as Celtic rainforest, but I think Celtic cloud forest is more appropriate today. I stare into and beyond the Rheidol gorge. It is a canvas reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting of ‘Wanderer above a Sea of Fog’. I am that wanderer. It is Day One of my quest. Joining me is my colleague Josie Bridges from the Vincent Wildlife Trust and we are looking for signs of bele’y coed or pine marten, Britain’s second -rarest carnivore after the wildcat. The pine marten is a native mammal steeped in Britain’s cultural and natural history and today a new population is settling into the forests of mid Wales, as a result of a pioneering reintroduction programme. Martens have the looks other mustelids can only dream of − an endearing heart-shaped face, a rich chestnutbrown coat, prized by furriers in centuries past, a creamyapricot bib and long bushy tail. These solitary, cat-sized creatures are also consummate hunters. Small mammals are the food of choice, but a meal of fruits and berries is always welcome. Back in 2015, I was here in the Rheidol Valley, helping bring the first pine martens from Scotland to reinforce a local marten population heading for the exit door (the memory of feeding blueberries to a hungry, grumpy pine marten in a service station car park on the M6 will stay with me forever). More than fifty adult martens were translocated to Wales over a three-year period, and with successful breeding every year since, there is cause for quiet celebration.

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We join an old lead mining track just above the Afon Rheidol as it winds slowly along a classic glacial valley towards the sea. Surrounding me is a mix of dismal conifer plantation with much windthrow, and the more welcoming oak, birch and rowan of the Celtic rainforest. Slate-grey cloud engulfs the tree canopy. A kestrel hovers optimistically above an expanse of bilberry. We leave the track and head into the forest. Our mission is to find evidence of the reintroduced martens and we have two tasks. We must check the SD cards from remote cameras hidden deep in the woodland, and search for marten droppings known as scats. Marten scats have a distinctive aroma − well, sometimes. The problem is that martens are omnivorous and the smell of the scat is influenced by diet. If the smell isn’t conclusive, there is always the characteristic curled cylindrical shape. Or one can look at the colour, after all they are usually black − but scats can be brown, or even red if cherries are about. Sometimes scat-hunting just comes down to gut instinct. We spread out either side of the track. Progress is slow, concentration is high, hypothermia is lurking. Something catches my eye. A neatly coiled scat sits rather splendidly on a small rock at the edge of the path. It looks promising. I take a sniff and reel back from the pungent, musky smell of fox − and one that has not long passed this way. Foxes can wrong-foot the best scatologist. Trekking onward, we pass an avalanche of scree; a monument to this valley’s industrial past. A little further on I hear a shout. Josie has spotted a fresh, classically curled 155


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scat deftly deposited on a drain cover. So often, martens scat on features in the landscape: a tree stump, a boulder, a drain cover. Beetle cases bring a sparkle to this territorial marker, suggesting marten origin. This is our first likely scat and I am ridiculously excited. It means that somewhere close by there is a marten; one of our rarest mammals could be watching me right now. We scoop the scat into a plastic bag with the aid of two lolly sticks – no expense spared in terms of field equipment. It is important not to contaminate the scat with human DNA before it is lab tested. Safely stashed away, we continue our expedition in silent contemplation. Positioned near to our scat transect, mostly on impossibly steep slopes, is a series of ‘hair tubes’: sections of orange drainpipe wired vertically to a tree and each containing a tantalisingly tasty chicken wing. A remote trail camera is trained on each tube. No two marten ‘bibs’ have the same pattern and bib photos are particularly handy when trying to identify an individual marten – hence the cameras. What is meant to happen is that the marten, a supreme climber, squeezes through the tube to reach the chicken – leaving behind some tell-tale hairs on a sticky pad. In practice, however, the local martens don’t seem to want to put in the work needed to reach the chicken. The tubes are untouched. With the cold seeping through our numerous layers of clothing, we take a break and head for the local community Cwtch café. Ostensibly this is to check the remote camera footage but in reality, we need to defrost and enjoy some home cooking.

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The first SD card is loaded into the laptop. I have a sense of being watched by those around us; this is hardly one of those slick corporate venues where executives huddle over infographics and drink Americanos. ‘I think it’s PM04’. Josie stares at the laptop as if her lottery number has just rolled into view. Sure enough, the camera has captured a marten running around rather than through a hair tube − and it is still wearing a radio-collar. ‘It has to be PM04, the little rascal.’ It is difficult to articulate the joy at witnessing this event. All nearby conversation stops. Unable to hold back, a group on the next table comes over to see what all the squealing is about. I explain that PM04 is a pine marten. In fact, she was the fourth pine marten to be released in 2015 and one that went AWOL a year later, still wearing her by then inactive collar. Not seen on any cameras since 2016, it was assumed that she had either come to a sticky end or had left in search of pastures new. Now this errant marten will be re-caught to have her collar removed. Pine martens become the talk of the café. An elderly man from the village reminisces about seeing pine martens in his youth. Another visitor tells us he recently saw a marten while out collecting firewood. An animated conversation develops around the possible impact martens may have on grey squirrel numbers to the benefit of our beloved red squirrel. Much as I would love to see the alien grey squirrel annihilated, I try not to be drawn into this can of worms. To know that these animals are not just surviving but thriving is breathtaking. To see the reaction of people in 157


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the café is humbling. The locals have welcomed these animals to their woods and the martens have not let them down. Today, a species perilously close to extinction in Wales is enjoying a comeback, helping to restore a healthy, well-balanced ecosystem. With the plethora of gloomy headlines focused on species loss, habitat destruction and the catastrophic impact of climate change, this is one good news story that I felt I had to share. I leave the café and walk on, in search of more scats but also with that ever-present yearning for a pine marten to run across the track before me. I will keep walking.

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An extract from

Hoping for a Wild Party This piece, abridged here, was longlisted for the Bradt 2019 New Travel Writer of the Year competition. The theme for the competition was ‘Out of the blue’. As the Scillonian III sails through Crow Sound and past the uninhabited Eastern Isles, with their colonies of cormorants, fulmars and grey seals, the extraordinary magnetism of the Isles of Scilly pulls everyone on deck. A school of common dolphins performs a leap and greet, as if guiding us towards the dock at St Mary’s. There is a purpose to this particular pilgrimage to the place of my husband’s birth: we are booked on a sea trip to witness an extraordinary spectacle that has recently returned to British shores. Twenty-four hours after our arrival, we are back at the harbour ready for our five-hour ‘pelagic’ trip, in search of something special. Queuing with us are a dozen seasoned birders, swapping news of recent sightings. ‘Citrine wagtail spotted at Porth Hellick pool yesterday,’ reports one of the group. He is wearing the usual birdwatcher’s camo gear and I do just wonder if my marine-blue waterproof is not a better colour choice for a sea voyage. The open-hulled boat is designed to navigate the shallow inter-island waters but as we head away from the shelter of the Eastern Isles, the boat rolls disconcertingly. I appear to 159


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be the only one to notice. The eyes, minds and cameras of my companions are focused on the multitude of gulls that have appeared out of the blue. I grab a railing nonchalantly. Dangling in the water below me is a bag of chum, a mix of ground fish that leaves an oily trail in the boat’s wake. Chumming is an olfactory cue to shearwaters and petrels in particular, and a smell unlikely to encourage you to head for the local chip shop. The engine is cut and we drift silently, watching the aerial performance and the growing greasy slick behind. ‘Sooty shearwater coming in left,’ yells Bob, our guide and international seabird expert. There is a rush to port, lenses at the ready. It is easy to see why this species is so called. The shearwaters fly in low, slicing the waves and narrowly missing the throng of gannets diving Tom Daley-like into the depths. It is hard to imagine that these ‘sooties’ will fly another 8,000 miles to breed in the south Atlantic, before returning for next year’s summer vacation in the north Atlantic. That’s quite a feat to forever avoid winter. Scilly provides these migrating miracles with a much-needed stopover before their marathon continues. ‘Wilson’s petrel to starboard.’ This creates a sudden stampede in my direction. I have never seen this passage migrant, so any concern for the balance of the boat evaporates. I grab my camera, snapping Flappy McFlapflap as it flies in low. I have a Mother Carey’s chicken in the bag. Excitement over, we chug and drift for perhaps another hour or two, seabirds following us like the pied piper. The list gets longer: European storm petrel, Sabine’s gull, Manx and great shearwaters. Even if we cut the trip short now, this has already been my greatest seabird experience.

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I clamber round the wheelhouse to the foredeck and scan the horizon, watching a passing yacht heading for sanctuary. And then I, simultaneously with others, see the Holy Grail. Across the water, two or three hundred metres away, something is churning up the surface. It reminds me of a James Bond film and I expect to see a ‘Q’-designed craft appear out of the boiling ocean. Gannets, gulls and a host of other seabirds circle above. We head closer and then drift towards the seething surf. Dozens of fish, some well over 100 kilos, appear to be partying, riding the waves as they chase a shoal of herring or mackerel. The birds join in this frantic feast, catching the small fish catapulting out of the water as they try optimistically to evade capture. I am mesmerised. We are witnessing an Atlantic bluefin tuna feeding frenzy, a phenomenon absent from British waters for so many years. The endangered tuna, oblivious to our presence, are back and they certainly know how to party.

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Trish Offiler-Conti Trish is a travel and broadcast writer, based in the UK. At 18, she put on a backpack and never looked back. Her off-grid and true-to-life journeys have been featured in Lonely Planet Magazine, Intrepid Travel, Explorers Connect and several other publications, while her passion for broadcasting has seen her write for National Geographic, Channel 5, BBC and Fox. Trish is currently editing her first novel, based in Palermo Italy, about women in the Mafia.

www.trishconti.co.uk | @trish_conti


There are No Doors in the Rainforest Theodore Roosevelt once told a nation to seize the moment, a sentiment shared by Daintree’s own Crocodile Dundee. My guide Shayne is as much a part of the surrounding rainforest as the giant cane toad he holds in his hands. This place is not exactly on the tourist route, but if you make the arduous journey you’ll discover a lush landscape, where wildlife flourishes and people live without doors or windows. Flipping the toad onto its back, Shayne slowly strokes the creature’s tummy until it’s transfixed. The beast’s limbs are temporarily paralysed by my guide’s magic hands. He tells me that the aboriginal community believe that you live for the ‘one time’ and that’s how his mind is fixed. The spell is finally broken and we leave the dog-sized toad draped across a King Fern. Shayne confidently strides forward, whilst I worry about what might gnaw at my ankles. ‘Na, you’re alright. There’s nothing here that will give you more than a bad rash, unless you go swimming with the salties’. His comment, although jovial, comes with a serious warning. One of the oldest creatures to walk the planet, Daintree’s crocodiles can grow up to six metres in length. ‘Yeah, they’re top of the food chain here, well apart from us’. Again, this type of conversation is run-of-the-mill for Shayne. 165


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“You can survive here.’ There’s a twinkle in Shayne’s eyes and I play along. I am in his territory now and Google has yet to lay down her fibre fingers here, so I am left without my normal lifeline. The towering trees form their own sky of knotted brown clouds, foliage hanging from its ceiling like icicles. I can only hear the wildlife above; my human eyes are not powerful enough to keep pace with the treetop community. A flash of silver and an overbearing smell make me jump and then retch. ‘Here try this, but try not to touch it’. Shayne is laughing, his false teeth chattering against his bare gums. Despite his dominating character, Shayne’s relaxed manner and life mantra make me smile and maybe naively feel safe. The fruit on show smells like a cocktail of decaying cheese and a drunk man’s vomit. Apparently, durian is farmed here because it is in high demand. The forest seeps into my clothes, leaving me damp. I look like a traveller now. The raw honesty of Mother Nature making it apparent that the world is only disfigured by humans. For a brief moment, while my feet wrestle with the leaves, branches and thick stems, I feel sad. Will we ever learn to protect the natural world? But my wallowing is interrupted by a tiny musky ratkangaroo. The name is a pretty accurate description and we watch her leap from leaf to leaf as if she’s in a game of Dungeon and Dragons. I wondered if she has durian breath? But Shayne ruins the joke with the same look that I give my mother when she asks a question about technology.

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There no longer seems to be a path but Shayne pushes forward. The sore-throat squawk of a black butcherbird overshadows the vibrant yellow tones of a boatbill, which drowns out her Disney-like vocals. Several branch-whipped hours later we step into a clearing. It feels unreal that we’ve just popped out onto a dirt track. I had felt as if we had been in the centre of nowhere, rather than on the very outskirts of the rainforest. Shayne casually sits on the side of the road to wait, looking as if he’s on London’s High Road waiting for the 279 bus to Manor House. We stay there in silence until a wave of dust from an old Jeep engulfs us. We finally reach Shayne’s house; open holes occupy the spaces where windows and doors would traditionally be. Privacy is clearly not essential. The inside is basic, bare concrete, a couple of deckchairs, some blankets and a paraffin stove. It’s almost dark and Shayne is laughing and joking as if we were the oldest of friends. We join the rest of the community, about six households, around an open fire. The camp stories begin, I forget my insect phobias and lack of bed and relax under the open sky.

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1987 – Hurricane

I cannot remember if I recall the thick-framed glasses of Michael Fish from that evening in 1987 or whether it’s a later memory of a television re-run. However, what is imprinted in my mind is the stillness of the sky and the almighty thud of an ash tree roaming out of the ground like a drunk Tyrannosaurus Rex. Amongst the chaos my father led us downstairs, but as we reached the ground floor, our house imploded. My mum was thrown into the telephone table and my head was smashed against a glass panel. Between adrenaline and panic, my dad managed to get us all to the back of the house. He swept the kitchen cupboard of pots and pans and with a bleeding arm he shoved me and my sisters inside. He told us this was the strongest point of the house; don’t move and you’ll be fine. I’ve never stayed as still as I did on that night. I am not sure how many hours we sat there, but at one point the wind began to slow and we were offered a preview of tomorrow’s disaster. Nothing was left standing; the battle was nearly over, but the casualties were sprawled across the grass. I would later learn the great storm uprooted 15 million trees – snapping them in half or tearing them out of the ground whole. 169


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The wind whirled, mimicking a squadron of aeroplanes. Tree roots dripping with mud lay exposed. My childhood landscape was gone…forever. The haunting sounds of games amongst ash and oak brought a tear to my eye. What had made Mother Nature so angry? When my mum reached boiling point, it often came out of nowhere, but inevitably there was always an explanation for her sudden eruption. I wondered if Mother Nature had a reason and who was to blame for her hurricane? I clambered over the pitted ridges of an oak and lay on its sturdy trunk. The blue sky pleaded innocence. This was once a woodland, before the architects came; now there would no reminiscence of the giants that once owned this land.

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Weekend Explorer with Randi Skaug: Norway’s First Woman to Climb Everest ‘I didn’t realise the dead ones were this far down.’ Everest is an emotional journey as well as a physical one and I can see those feelings rise to the surface on Randi Skaug’s face as she takes a sip of wine, still wearing her Arctic base layers from our earlier hike. Randi’s positive attitude and huge smile almost certainly play a part in her strength and success as a modern-day explorer. At 44, she quit her desk job and changed her life forever – not only is she the first Norwegian woman to scale Everest, but also the highest peaks across seven continents. With 70 countries under her travel belt, her thirst for adventure has seen her ski across frozen tundra and paddle through icy waters. Randi Skaug’s ‘can do’ mindset is infectious and I feel deeply privileged to have been invited to her Arctic island. Just a week ago, I had never met Randi let alone shared her base layers. I was a stranger but I’m not sure Randi ever saw me that way, or at least that’s the way she made me feel. In 2015 Randi bought Naustholmen, an island located in Norway’s Arctic Circle just off the Vestfjord near the Loften Islands. Over the next four days she was going to share this remote destination and her unique experiences with me. 171


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But before I can step foot on the island, I have to battle the Arctic weather. I’ve travelled 15 hours from London, which included an ice road trucker style journey to the dock of Nordskot. It might be 11pm, but Randi’s radiating energy pushes us out into the dark Norwegian sea. My headtorch, which nearly blinded me on testing, barely bites though the sleet and rain. The northern lights dance above us, but the icy waters demand our full attention. Danger is all around. We wave our headtorches around desperately, hoping to catch sight of the reflective markers that would lead us to safety. Instantly we are a team. If we drift too close to the rocks it could be disastrous – we wouldn’t survive long in these freezing temperatures. Finally, my hand touches the dock and I cling on tight, while the waves fight to capsize us. Randi somehow manages to secure the boat. The only dry patch on my body is under my life jacket, but we are on land and the adrenaline, along with the company, dissipates any thought of danger. That’s the magical thing about explorers: their experience with the wilderness makes us feel safe, despite the possible danger. They let us believe that anything is possible. Dreams can become plans and you CAN conquer your own personal Everest. They have left behind the shackles of your nine-to-five, knowing they can climb higher than any corporate ladder. Away from the Arctic elements we sip wine, as if it is any other Friday night. Randi takes us back to Everest. ‘Light as a feather’. Just three steps feel like a hike in itself and with

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leaking oxygen tanks, Randi is at breaking point, but something inside pushes her onto the summit. I wonder if this island will find my weakness? A voice quickly interrupts my thoughts. ‘We can’t miss this opportunity to sleep outside’. I’m not prepared, but something drives me to embrace the challenge and before I can think about it too hard Randi is giving me her base layers, sleeping bag and balaclava. ‘You’ll need this one’. I want to keep my leggings on under the base layers, but I’m told I’ll be too hot and to take them off. As the novice, I obey and hope I’m not snapping off toes in the morning. It’s darker than night, more like the jet black of your iPhone when it runs out of battery. It’s silent and I can hear myself breathing. There’s no reason for us to be sleeping outside, other than the fact we can. We can share tonight with nature side by side, without harm, with a feeling of excitement and the moment we dared to live outside the box. Randi’s impressive exploits have led to a wealth of lifeshaping experiences of which I cannot help but feel a little envious. She has dared to turn her plans into actions and reaped the rewards. Now she wants everyone to feel what she describes as kongefølelsen: being king of your emotions and feeling like you’re on top of the world. Randi offers a slice of her wilderness adventures to enthusiasts like myself because she wants to inspire and help others. ‘When people come together there is an energy that begins to emerge, which makes us all feel good’.

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The sky is so clear, I expect to see a smudge left by my fishing line. My fingers have frosted over; my gloves are perfect for the British countryside, not Arctic sea fishing. The closest shop is a boat ride away (when the weather permits) so we’re hoping to pull up tonight’s dinner. My city roots seep to the surface – patience is not something I practise often. I have visions of battling a large cod and I begin to panic; have I oversold my expertise?

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Although all power sources need a host and Randi could fuel the northern lights.

To my relief, dinner comes from a previous catch, as Randi takes me on a hike around her island. It’s a wilderness paradise and I can understand why she feels so free here. I’ve only been here a couple of days and I am already reassessing my life values. Randi is a great adventurer, but now she is looking to create a new experience … one that she can share. For over 15 years Randi has broken records, become the world’s first and conquered more than most of us will in a lifetime and if that isn’t inspiring enough, she bought an island so she can share it with you. Plans for the island are continually developing, bringing the surrounding community closer and creating a small utopia. Even the night brings another opportunity to be an explorer. With our headtorches lacing through the trees, the path is the one our boots are making. The falling snow makes it hard to see the stone stairs placed here during the Second World War – my lungs are working hard as I try to remember Randi’s words, ‘light as a feather’. 174


The climb teases a magnificent view but the darkness keeps the landscape hidden from human eyes. But this hike was not about the backdrop, but the night sky and the feeling of owning your own destiny. It’s a sneak peek into an explorer’s life and a chance for me to climb my own Everest.

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Sharon Pinner Sharon shares her passion for nature, especially birds, through her writing. She also enjoys recounting her everyday experiences but with an element of quirkiness. Taking the MA in Nature and Travel Writing has spurred Sharon to look at everything with a writer’s head – travel writing was not something she had considered previously but she has since had several pieces included in the Guardian’s Readers Travel Tips feature. She has also been longlisted and shortlisted in online writing competitions and is published in an anthology, Autumn Colours.

www.wildlifeontherun.wordpress.com | @sharonpinner


Wells Worded ‘Where is Mango?’ I didn’t know. I didn’t know who, or what, Mango was. The question was neatly graffitied on a BT wiring box behind Wells Cathedral. The writer had plainly used a letter stencil. But didn’t have a question mark. The visit had started with ‘Anna the Llama’ - the moniker of the gingerbread biscuit I bought for the stroll. ‘If you stay too long you will be asked to leave’ – decreed the stern voice of the automated public toilet. ‘Two medieval misericords from a set of 65’, read the plaque next to two wooden carvings. Made a note to look up ‘misericord’ – word of the day! ‘60 steps towards being green’ – couldn’t pass that pamphlet by, halfway down the cathedral aisle. I took one, as a souvenir. Then: ‘Caution, these steps are worn and uneven’. Was that a tithe barn over there? Looked like an information plaque on its wall. ‘These items of playground 179


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equipment are intended for children under 16 years of age’. Not the anticipated information. I didn’t stay too long. Maybe Mango didn’t either.

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Fake Views

I am very familiar with artificial grass. I play for a football team in a women’s county league. We train on the astro, as it’s known, in all weathers, and occasionally play matches on it when the natural alternative is unfit for purpose. While I much prefer to play on grass, not least because astro-burn injuries are painful, I can see the advantages of the use of synthetic grass as a sports surface. But its use for residential lawns dismays me. The importance for mental health of connecting with nature is more at the forefront of thought than ever. But, counterintuitively, the popularity of having artificial turf instead of a grass lawn is ever increasing. A quick web search finds lots of suppliers extolling the virtues of plastic grass, lauding its low-maintenance, year-round appearance and ‘natural’ look. Some claim that their product is even ‘eco-friendly’ in that it doesn’t require watering or the application of damaging pesticides and lasts for 12-15 years. While my own lawn may not be suitable to grace the cover of any gardening magazine, it has recovered from the hottest summer on record last year, without the need for watering, has not had any chemicals on it in the 22 years of our tenure and has not needed replacing! 181


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The trend to see a garden as an outside room, an extension of the house’s interior, now involves an outside carpet. Aside from the impacts of the production of all this plastic and subsequent disposal issues, the environmental implications are alarming. One supplier actually states, ‘One of the major advantages of an artificial lawn over natural grass is that it does not act as a natural habitat for insects and common garden pests’ (Artificial Lawn Company). Insects are a necessary part of the ecosystem and yet are labelled here as undesirables. No insects or invertebrates means no worms to aerate the soil or provide food for birds and no bees which may have buried in the ground to pollinate plants. Invertebrates have been described as ‘the little things that run the world’ – the drive to eradicate their habitat affects birds, wildlife and ultimately us. A work colleague mentioned how a friend with a small child and dog had a plastic lawn installed to provide a playing surface that would be mud-free. Isn’t mud an integral part of childhood? And as for the suitability as a playing surface – I am sure I have already mentioned astro-burn. There is a new house on the high street nearby that has fake grass abutting the pavement. There’s a part of me that longs to lift it up. The desire for a flawless, close-cropped lawn is ingrained and drives the demand for the artificial alternative with its low-maintenance promise. There is a much better, truly ‘eco-friendly’ alternative way if we can get past the traditional expectations for our gardens: mini meadows.

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Instead of regularly shaving lawns, hold off mowing for a while – the RSPB advises that ‘longer grass provides shelter and egg-laying opportunities for the insects on which the birds and other wildlife feed.’ Let dandelions flower and help bees, butterflies and beetles. The RSPB suggests a number of ways of managing lawns under their project, ‘Give your mower a rest’ and the difficulty rating given is ‘easy’. That will be the aim for our garden this year – to live up to the name of our road - ‘The Meadows.’

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Lockdown Storm Thursday 30th April 2020 A storm is coming. Anxious trees mutter warnings. The wind picks up, gains in confidence, and wrestles the last of the blossom from the cherry tree. A defiant blackbird sings throughout, audible between rumbles and cracks. The clouds split and spit currents. The rain throws itself against the window I watch from. Charge. Excitement. Distraction. Rolls away and then somehow round again – and returns from a different side. Yet, soon after, the sun reappears, the blackbird is rejoined by other vocalists – thrushes, finches and chiffchaffs – and it’s a different day.

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Not Just a Bird I have lots of favourite birds – barn owls, yellowhammers and waxwings to name just a few. But there is one bird that really tops the list – the coal tit. Not nearly so well-known as its relations, blue and great tits, the coal tit is a frequent visitor to my back garden in a Cambridgeshire village. I often hear it before I see it. Its call is not dissimilar to that of a great tit but is higher pitched. I sometimes think it sounds like a less mature but much more playful bird, like an energetic, if bashful, younger cousin. Of a comparable size to a blue tit, it is the white stripe on the back of a coal tit’s head that makes it easier to distinguish from similar birds. A clear view of that is what enabled my sister and I to identify a pair of them in our garden, way back during the dry spring that augured the famed heatwave of 1976. It also heralded our enduring interest in the bird world. I was nine years old and she was nearly eight. It was the Easter holidays and we were sitting in the garden – I was trying to make a ‘Womble’ out of an old sheet. ‘Look!’ said my sister, pointing at the two small birds that were investigating the roof-overhang on the garden shed from this angle and that. It so happened that I had borrowed a bird book from the local library a few days before. The tome had dominated the natural history shelf in the children’s area, with its ‘pick-me’ 185


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scarlet book jacket. Each double page featured about half a dozen birds, explanatory descriptions on the left-hand pages and detailed pictures on the right. These clear, colourful depictions had prompted me to borrow the book. It turned out to be a fortuitous treasure chest. We were pleased that we succeeded in identifying our shed-dangling duo with the aid of this book. What we found more exciting was realising that coal tits and other such wonders could potentially come to visit us, even though we lived in a busy suburb of Luton. There was no need to be deep in the countryside to birdwatch more than just sparrows, blackbirds and starlings. Soon we could tell blue tits from great tits from coal tits and could identify any newcomers to our garden. And we were determined to encourage as many as we could to visit and linger. I made a rickety bird table, using bits of wood and tools I ‘found’ in the shed. My dad, a typesetter, worked away in Trowbridge all week and we didn’t have a telephone, so I couldn’t ask him which items I could use for my project. I was too impatient to wait until the weekend. I was pleased with the results of my first attempt at woodwork, but it was a strange-shaped thing. The table part was the backboard of an old mirror that had once been attached to the chest of drawers in our bedroom. It was in the shape of a sailing boat, roughly triangular. Posts of almost the same length were nailed to each corner for the three legs. It was a little unsteady but it did the job. And my dad seemed impressed with it when he came home. The birds that visited seemed to appreciate it too. Over the ensuing months, greenfinches, bullfinches and siskins made

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an appearance while we watched from the kitchen window. Benny, the name we gave to a blackbird with a permanently scrunched up foot, was a regular. He was partial to crushed Weetabix. We also hung out red-netted peanuts from the grocers around the corner and lard-lined coconut halves. I sometimes sat outside with my toy camera, which took proper black and white photographs on 120 film, hiding beneath an old curtain with holes in to see through. The satisfying click from the camera shutter was not conducive to remaining incognito and my subjects would fly off, meaning a long wait between photo opportunities. It was quite an exercise in patience and stillness. I mainly got pictures of starlings and sparrows like that. I renewed the library book several times. For my birthday that September, I was bought my own bird books. We did not forget what bird had prompted our passion and which day it all began. The day of our first sighting, 13th April, became known as ‘Birdsday’ – we made a point to celebrate it every year. We used to toast Birdsday by eating a chocolate creme egg – the proximity to Easter having an obvious influence. We still exchange ‘Happy Birdsday’ greetings each year, nowadays via Whatsapp. On reading The Natural History of Selborne last summer, I was quietly pleased to discover that 18th-century naturalist Gilbert White earmarked that very date as special in the bird calendar too. Following his meticulous observations, he suggested that ‘the thirteenth of April’ was the most likely date for his first swallow sightings of the year. Due to an exceptionally dry and warm spring and the ramifications of lockdown, I have spent a lot of time over the last few months observing the avian visitors to our 187


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small back garden. Visitor numbers have included coal tit appearances. When I see them, they never cease to give me an extra little jolt of triumphant excitement. That has not lessened in over forty years. But then a coal tit is my top favourite bird.

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Mind the Gap Saturday 30th May 2020 I was sitting in the garden, wondering what the distant bird was that I could see beyond the far corner. A few months ago, I wouldn’t have seen sky at that point. Since then, two gardens have been cleared in readiness for a pair of new houses. Our garden is small, so we rely on the adjacent properties for views of trees and large shrubs. It took a while to get used to the new gap. And then I was reminded of Marty South’s father’s reaction to a tree being felled next to his home in Hardy’s The Woodlanders, even though I’ve not read it in a long while. Some things stick, plainly. Already ailing and bedbound, John South fears the enormous elm tree outside his window, believing it will fall on the house. The doctor prescribes that its removal will cure his patient’s malaise. But the blank space Marty’s father sees after the tree’s felling is a such a shock that it prompts his death. What is it really? Is it just a general distaste for, or resistance to, change? Is it that the loss of a familiar object affects us because it becomes part of us and our routines or is it just sameness that we cling too – especially when other life events are challenging? Trees are particularly loved and their removal felt deeply – obviously for ecological 189


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concerns but familiarity or a sense of shared ownership are pertinent factors too. This doesn’t only apply to trees. The last chimney at Barrington Cement works two miles away was demolished in December 2018. For some people who worked there or live nearby, it was a landmark that is fondly missed too.

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Sue Rickard With a varied professional background in music and the arts as well as nature conservation, Sue has had academic work published in cultural studies as well as articles on the natural world, which have appeared in the local and national press. She hopes to show how paying attention to every detail of this amazing planet not only provides great joy but also offers deep and much-needed wisdom to guide us in the future. In 2018 Sue was longlisted in a Spread the Word national writing competition for an extract from her memoir on living and working at the Woolly Monkey Sanctuary in Cornwall, which she co-founded.

sue.rickard.16 | @SueRickard2


Rewe Mead Nature Reserve

It was at the end of the splendidly named Bug Hole Lane – Rewe Mead nature reserve, five hectares of species-rich wet grassland that gently slopes down to the River Tone. From where I stood at the higher end by the gate I could see a wonderland of frothy white meadowsweet, interspersed with sentinel spikes of yellow loosestrife, a carnival of abundance. These sweetly fragrant summer blooms were humming with insects succumbing to their perfume. I picked my way between the plants. A flash of colour at the edge of sight signalled the arrival of a pair of goldfinches. Balancing on clusters of prickly marsh thistle, their beaks probed for seeds in heads where imperial purple was turning to kittenish white fluff. Above, a mewling buzzard wheeled in big circles calling for her mate. In the middle of the reserve are the remnants of the old canal, around which a quite remarkable display of wetland plants were on show. I could see bog stitchwort, fen bedstraw, floating sweet grass, meadowsweet and purple loosestrife, but there are many more. In the canal itself are breeding frogs and common toads, as well as all three species of newt: palmate, smooth and great crested. 193


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These reserves are places of joy in a world where, in 2020, too often one might be grieving over loss. Nature is discretely singing and dancing here, feeling the beat, sending the pulse to whoever will listen. Catch the thrum, the buzz, the progression of life, both raw and profound and feel the power. There is astonishing beauty everywhere and a feeling, from a human perspective, of contented productivity. And yet here, at any moment, death can come calling from the sky: swifts dart like fighter jets, their scimitar wings enabling quick turns in pursuit of dragonflies, who themselves tour the old canal on the hunt for midges. Hawkers, emperor dragonflies, damselflies and what I think was a hairy dragonfly, with wings of finest thread on invisible silk, all are living life on the edge. Their exquisitely wrought, jewel-like bodies with delicately hinged legs could disappear in a second down a swift’s gullet. One creature dies to keep another alive – for now. This deadly progression along food chains can appear a savage business to some and yet, standing in this field, the atmosphere is one of harmony and accord, of creatures living life as they were meant to. Predation is an aspect of a well-functioning ecosystem and here life and death sit together, as necessary companions. Gods of creation and destruction working as one. Each requiring the other in a kind of evolutionary symbiosis. Musing on this, I walk quietly towards the River Tone at the bottom of the field. There are kingfishers and otters around here – secretive creatures living private lives, probably aware of my big-booted presence as soon as I entered the field. I peep over the edge of the bank – no otters, but a pair of dippers were balanced on rocks that

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edged into the water. The air seemed to vibrate with their high, keen trills. I sit just watching the river. The birds looked immaculate, Fred Astaire-smart with white bibs against dark, feathery jackets. The sun dapples the surface of the water. Senses pared back, peeled and stripped of pre-knowledge, open to the unexpected. This is how the magic gets in. After a while, I stand and look back at the field. Suddenly the air seems full of shimmering golden particles of light, pouring from the earth up into the sky. It’s either a vision or I need a blood pressure test– but in a moment it’s gone!

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Surfing in Oz

‘This is a terrible mistake.’ I was visiting my daughter, Kate, in Australia. I’d agreed, over the phone before leaving the UK and without very much thought, to go on an organised surfing weekend. But as we clambered onto the coach I realised this was not an event for your average, unfit 58-year-old. The coach was jam-packed with ravishingly toned and tanned young people. ‘These guys are teenagers’. I was horrified at the inappropriateness of my presence. ‘Nonsense’. Kate looked around the coach, ‘I bet some of them are in their twenties.’ I felt very old. Things didn’t improve when our instructors, Matt and Lee, arrived and I saw their mild shock when they spotted ‘grandma’ in the middle of the group. At that moment I wanted to apologise to everyone for my existence. But the coach was revving up and we were on our way. It was almost 300km to our camp, up the east coast to Seal Rocks, north of Sydney. Once we had passed the city suburbs, the rainforest near the Hawkesbury River leant into the road from either side. Further on, there was a long stretch where we drove through mile upon mile of uninhabited, sun-burned land that stretched to the horizon. 196


There was a bit of scrub close to the edge of the road and then desert, as far as the eye could see. I’d been amazed at the colour of the land when flying over central Australia: a strong, brick red, with swirls of orange and streaks of white, indicating where water may once have flowed. I’d stared, almost with disbelief, at the extent of this. Even after a sleep of several hours, I found that we were still flying over the same arid, red landscape, dry and with little or no vegetation visible from the air, but so impressive. There was a grandeur in its absolute commitment to being a continent like no other. It was getting dark when we arrived at the camp, consisting of a few cabins and a pool, surrounded by more rainforest. We dumped our rucksacks in our dorms and went to get something to eat in the main building. Afterwards, Kate stayed up chatting to the others while I, nervous of what challenges the next day might bring, headed off for an early night. The following morning I was up first and, keen to look around, wandered towards an area of forest. The air was already warm and had the promise of a very hot day to come. After the chill and dampness of February in the UK, it felt as though my skin was being caressed by the soft breeze. As I entered the forest the atmosphere changed. Initially, it seemed very still, as though there were hidden eyes watching. It felt alien but not unwelcoming. Unknown bird sounds, whoops, shrieks and sonorous calls echoed through the trees, the sounds bouncing off smooth, desiccated trunks that had fallen into bleached, sculptural forms. A little further into the forest the high canopy stretched 197


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upwards to create something like a vaulted dome of verdant branches. Sitting on a log I just looked and listened. Parrots and rainbow lorikeets flashed past, flying jewels of the air, and a large lizard appeared for a few seconds from behind a rock. I sat in awe and, despite my trepidation about the day ahead, just felt so lucky to be there. On returning to camp, I joined Kate and the others who had gathered in excited groups. After a quick breakfast, we were driven down to Lighthouse Beach, where continuous waves rolled in across acres of gleaming white sand. There was much struggling to get into our wetsuits (mine was particularly unforgiving, I felt) but eventually we were ready to receive instruction from Matt and Lee. The session started off with some press-ups. I was relieved to note that even some of the youngsters were struggling a bit with these, so that my inadequacies didn’t stand out too much. Those yoga classes had really paid off! Next, was a lesson on balance and Matt had his own way of stressing the importance of finding the ‘sweet spot’ on one’s surfboard. ‘If you don’t find that sweet spot you gonna fall off and eat shit’, he explained. ‘And watch out for blueys, ’cos them buggers sting like fuck.’ Despite their casual teaching style, the guys were fantastic – totally professional and responsible: we had lessons in oceanography, beach safety, how to get out of a rip tide plus lots of one-to-one tuition. By now, my presence among these lovely young people seemed to be accepted as some kind of friendly freak of nature and I was happy

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to settle for that. Matt and Lee’s dedication to helping me ‘catch a wave’ and stand up on the board made me suspect that they had some drinks riding on the outcome – and I did get up there for a split second and had much fun trying. On our way back to camp at the end of the day, Matt outlined the evening schedule as he saw it: ‘We’ll get back to camp and get on the piss’. His tone didn’t allow for any alternatives. ‘After dinner there’ll be the drinking competitions, and our team have to win and I mean HAVE TO WIN.’ It was clear that losing was not an option and, if necessary, cheating would be required. ‘If things aren’t going our way I’ll set off the fire alarm,’ he assured us. ‘And after the games there’s the camp Mardi Gras, so all you fellas gotta get into your gear. I’ll be in my arseless chaps.’ Unsurprisingly, and with much good natured shenanigans, our team won. I don’t remember much after having to ‘skull’ three beakers of sangria and flip a cup so that it landed upside down. This was my greatest achievement of the weekend, according to Kate. Matt embraced us all and several people fell in the pool. The next morning, despite a few hangovers, we were back down on the beach by 9.30. Sadly, the waves were so high we could only surf for a couple of hours, but that was long enough, really – we were all pretty exhausted. We sat under some trees and ate our sandwiches while Matt and Lee regaled us with horror stories about the various deadly creatures that surrounded us.

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‘Did ya notice that hammerhead out in the bay this morning, Lee? I’ve seen one of them buggers come right in to the shore.’ ‘I did, Matt, and d’you remember the time Stewie woke up with that spider biting his eyelid? Y’should have seen it. His head blew up to twice its normal size.’ On the way back to Sydney we stopped at a ‘real’ Aussie pub, with a live band playing outside on a hillside overlooking a dramatically deep, forested valley with craggy outcrops. The band was fairly ancient, sported some very dodgy mullets and didn’t have a full set of teeth between them, but it was great. I love Oz!

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Chestnut The armoured case splits open a pithy white womb-like purse of mahogany, marooning in its nest. A gleaming streak of russet, silken peel teases the eye. The desire to touch – too much to resist. The hard green thorns are no defence, now the split widens under thumbs; an impossibly smooth, oiled orb slips into a palm’s delight.

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Debbie Rolls With a professional background in education and disability, Debbie is passionate about inclusion. She has a thirst for knowledge and exploration, she has travelled to over sixty countries. She has been published by BBC Countryfile, Dive and Yorkshire Art. She is a regular writer for Leeds Living website, contributing reviews of cultural events, restaurants and articles about natural attractions. As part of her MA, she led food history walking tours of Leeds. She is currently combining her love of spiders and history with her commitment to social justice in order to write a children’s book.

www. leedsliving.co.uk/author/debbie-rolls


Grandmother Spider Speaks

There was a time when we were revered. The Hopi believed I was a goddess, that Tawa, the sun god, and I created the first living beings. My kind were mystical creatures, respected and valued. A Cherokee tale claims I brought light to the world. When acres of webs sparkle in early morning shafts, it seems that we have. As we spun our webs, humans learnt from us, developing the skills of spinning and weaving. In ancient Egypt, we assisted the goddess Neith as she wove the world’s destiny. The Babylonian Ishtar, Greek Arachne and Roman Minerva all took inspiration from our labour. The Koran praised our hard work and commitment. We are credited with concealing the Prophet behind our webs. Jews know that we performed a similar service for David when he was being sought by King Saul. Silken veils strung to protect the just. Anansi was known for his clever ways. Ghanaians celebrated his ability to trick mosquitoes. We have always provided protection, killing pests and preventing disease. When Africans were wrenched from their villages, they took with them stories of cunning and survival. A link to ancestors and tales of hope in the dark days of slavery. 205


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If we were seen at Halloween in Medieval times, we were believed to be the spirits of departed loved ones. To see a spider was lucky and comforting. Folklore taught respect for spiders, associating us with wealth and good fortune. A typical saying claimed: If you wish to live and thrive let a spider run alive. Then began our own dark days. We found ourselves embroiled in a campaign against animals and female humans. Women were labelled witches and alongside owls, bats and black cats we were accused of consorting with the Devil. To be spotted talking to a spider became suspicious. To be accused of witchcraft could lead to death for human and beast. Those elderly women who had collected the botanicals in which we lived were now heretics, not healers. The prosecution of witchcraft ended but the demonisation of spiders did not. We have been accused of crawling into mouths, biting arms and laying eggs in ears. We have been depicted as monsters and villains. The industrious spider has become the scary spider. All we want is to be left in peace to build webs and catch flies. Every Halloween, media images and cheap plastic trinkets provoke hatred towards us. There are those who have defended us. Elwyn White’s Charlotte demonstrated to children that we care for the world and the creatures in it. Ecologists have shown our value in removing pests that damage crops and cause disease. Scientists have been inspired by our silk, our webs and our ability to travel.

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Yet we still live in a world where people spray pesticide rather than relying on spiders. Where plastics replace natural materials. Where if nothing changes soon the world will become uninhabitable for spiders and humans.

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Philharmonic Fan

The audience was sparse. Just two of us seated in the central row of stalls. Most stall rows contained no more than four, apart from a complete line of Chinese tourists. The front and back were deserted. Perhaps there were more people in the gallery, but this was hard to monitor from below. The Lysenko Column Hall in Kyiv had seats on both sides of the auditorium. These lay in the shadow of the balcony, surrounded by the famous painted columns and gave poor views, but seemed fuller. To me the 400 UAH (£13) ticket was cheap for centre stall seats, but Ukraine is a country where average earnings are only £350 per month and unemployment is running at nearly 10%. I could see the attraction of cheaper seats. At precisely 7pm the prohibition of recordings and the need to turn off phones was announced. The orchestra filed on stage. As soon as the lead violinist took her seat, a stout, middle-aged woman stood up. She nudged her female companion. Both confidently strode from the far wing to the central stalls, settling three seats from me. A few others, more hesitantly, moved across. One young man tried to take up the seat adjacent to the two women. A raised eyebrow and a flick of the wrist shooed him away. Just before the conductor came on stage, the staff rushed around encouraging others to move from wings to centre 208


stage. No doubt wanting the hall to look fuller when the impresario gazed upon us. If audiences were always this thin then this movement might be common, but most needed encouragement. The woman to my left, who in my head was now called Olga, seemed to see moving as her right and duty. Olga is a firm, round, no-nonsense name which seemed to suit her. The white painted, red upholstered seats were in fact small benches, each subdivided into three seats with armrests. Olga had taken her pew at the end of a bench. Extra arm room acquired. As the musicians arranged their scores and tuned their instruments she readied herself. The contents of a bulbous black handbag were arranged, a large shawl laid on top. Smoothing the skirt of her two-piece suit she placed her sensibly shod feet firmly in the middle of the aisle. I imagined her having travelled here from work, a civil servant of some type. Maybe she spent her days in an office, museum or gallery. She certainly had the searching gaze and dispassionate look of the matronly museum staff who seemed to be constantly surveilling me on recent sightseeing visits. Applause sparked as the conductor entered. Most Ukrainian audience members seemed enthusiastic in their appreciation, clapping energetically. Many sitting with bouquets for the soloists. Olga clapped but at a slower speed, perhaps suggesting she was withholding judgement until the end of the performance? After the first movement of Bizet’s Symphony No.1, the doors were opened and latecomers entered. Most were young people, perhaps students who had purchased last minute discounted tickets. Two older women entered and were beckoned to our row 209


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by Olga. Welcomes were muttered, despite the orchestra’s imminent continuance. The symphony progressed, the audience sat, engrossed. A string section, in the third movement, acquired extra accompaniment. A mobile phone softly chirped. Olga calmly lent forward and rummaged in her bag, removing both shawl and mobile. The phone was silenced, but not turned off. Olga was attempting to hold a whispered conversation, using her shawl as partial cover. Eyes across the hall were turned to look at her but it was only the pointed stare of a sharp-faced German tourist in the row in front that seemed to connect. Even so, the word ‘concerto’ drifted my way before the conversation ceased. Her caller had been informed of her social engagement. The interval saw Olga leave the auditorium to make a phone call and then return for animated conversation with her two friends. Were they discussing the music, planning the rest of their evening or enjoying idle chat? Impossible to tell. I did not know whether Olga’s intentions were socially or musically driven. Although I do not understand Ukrainian, body language and tone inferred that Olga was the leader of this little group. She stood over the others, who took it in turn to respond to her remarks. The second half progressed without interruption. The harpsichord player was warmly congratulated at the end of a Poulenc concerto, leaving laden with bouquets. The conductor announced the final piece to a ripple of pleased applause. The familiar notes of Ravel’s Bolero filled the air. Halfway through I looked over at Olga. Her stern face had softened, her whole body seemed to relax. A further peek,

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near the crescendo, revealed eyes that were now moist, not steely. The performance was gripping. Olga was one of the first to take to her feet at the end. A standing ovation was given to the Kyiv Philharmonic. I learnt that Ukrainian audiences combine in a slow rhythmic hand clap to show their appreciation of a piece well played. Not our frantic English applause. I reassessed my view of Olga and gave her a warm smile as I passed her on the way out. She was too busy holding court to notice. I like to think she was discussing the beauty of the music. That despite the halfempty concert hall, we had both been treated to a performance we would never forget.

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Learning on the Canal This piece was entered into a creative writing competition run by the Canal and River Trust and made the runners up list. The shortlist was chosen by writer, poet and presenter of BBC Radio 3’s The Verb, Ian McMillan. Life is slow on the canal. Water that rushes in rivers, lingers here. We rarely travel more than three miles an hour. The destination is not important. Wherever it is, we will have to come back again. It is being here that matters. Here, ducking below overhanging branches, or admiring sweeping fieldscapes. We are accompanied by the dring of bicycle bells, thud of running shoes and towpath tittletattle. At times we hear roads running parallel. The chugging of the narrowboat engine a comforting counterpoint to the revving of cars and motorcycles. Spending a few days on the Calder and Hebble with a group of adolescents was an eye-opening experience. They started to observe, rather than see. They asked the names of trees. They noticed birds. The chatter of magpies, song of thrushes and call of blackbirds, not acknowledged in the school grounds. The ducks became characters, recognised as individuals. One group of mallards accompanied us for nearly an hour. A heron standing stock still on the bank brought a hush to the group, until we edged too near, and it spread its impressive wings.

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I noticed my charges physically relaxing. Spreading out in the sun on top of the boat, sauntering along the towpath. Normal social expectations relaxed. Richard chatted to Rihanna. He rarely spoke to anyone at school. Usually noisy Sean concentrated on helping to steer. Generally irritable Martin made everyone tea. I noticed they can live without mobile phones. Initially it was the danger of losing them overboard that persuaded my companions to stow electronics below deck. After a day the trips below were less frequent. The call of locks and nature equal to the need to check social feeds. Having seen a heron, we hoped to spot a kingfisher. We never did, but still enjoyed looking.

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Snow Pause The pause button was pressed. Ordinary life suspended, stillness enveloped the world. Precipitation stopped, the world left soundless and blanched after the manic rush home, silence reigned. Time to catch your breath. Lungs pierced by shimmering air, eyes stunned by luminosity. Gradually life returns. Foot, paw and claw marks indent the bulbous blanket. The new world required exploration. Flocks gathered, birds to gardens, Children to parks, fields and hills. The hem and haw lasts a day or two at most. In other lands white is constant, a seasonal backdrop. Here just a pause.

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Autumnal Contradictions A time of grey and colour Silky morning fog clearing to reveal ruby, russet and rust A time of drying and soaking Leaf litter crunching footsteps sinking into slippery sludge A time of decay and growth Rotting vegetation becoming nourishment for fungi foraging A time of flight and lock down Birds buoyantly bearing south while cities slacken and stand still A time of health and disease Winding walks and home cooking byproducts of pervasive pandemic A time of wealth and poverty Diving into harvest delights despite families flocking to food banks A time of love and anger Cherishing fauna, flora, family, friends Despising death dealing inequality 215


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Emma Russell Emma is a freelance writer based in deepest Somerset. As a lifelong traveller and collector of stories, she is fascinated by foreign cultures, food and traditions. Writing a monthly column about fiction led to providing content for community magazines in the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. A keen novice naturalist, Emma now writes articles encouraging people to discover ‘wildlife on their doorstep’. During lockdown she won Mark Avery’s Lockdown Nature writing competition with a short piece about a one-pound bird feeder. As a qualified secondary teacher, Emma is passionate about outdoor learning to improve mental health and wellbeing in young people and raise awareness of environmental issues.

bird-of-passage.blog | @erbirdofpassage


Childhood Memories Time has a different feel when you are young. When the weather is consistently warm you get an unreal sense of an endless summer. Living in the Middle East as a child was an echo chamber of days that drifted into one another, then stretched into seasons unhindered and unchanged. Each bungalow looked identical, bleached white against the drifted beige landscape, stucco castles arranged in a walled sandbox. Perfectly aligned in neat rows stretching across a few acres of desert. The interiors were colour-coordinated in tones and hues that do not exist within the good taste of any other decade. Avocado green, aubergine and our own home was decorated entirely in shades of burnt sienna. Those are the colours of my 1970s childhood. All the children in the camp were happiest when the crates arrived, not for the content but for the carcass. A world away from the green grass and tall trees of home, the large plywood box was a ready-made den in a landscape without wood to forage. One per household. These sturdy containers were big enough to hold children’s bicycles, mum’s kitchen appliances and dad’s tools. The bigger the family, the bigger the box. We planned to place a very large box against the eight-foot perimeter wall, so we could climb over and drop down into our own Tatooine playground. These were the things that occupied our young minds. 219


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No birdsong in this place. No gardens between the buildings. Mum asked for grass seeds to be posted and tried in vain to produce a few wisps of greenery. Too dry. The women were restless. All of them wives, most of them mothers, all herded into two walled camps. There were Tupperware and Pippa Dee parties, recipe swaps and craft clubs and shopping. A lot of shopping. They discovered American food products in oversized boxes. The house smelt of fresh filtered coffee every morning instead of bacon. If their nests could not be filled with home comforts from their homeland, they would bolster the local economy by buying local wares and trinkets for display. All the grown ups would spend their excess income like pocket money. We all became accustomed to hubbly-bubbly pipes, Bedouin art on the walls and our mothers dripping with jewellery. Mum was a trained veterinary nurse, used to driving a van full of animals or tractors across farmland or even occasionally a Mini Clubman overfilled with children from our street. Here, she could not drive at all. Every outing hinged on the availability of my father and we clamoured to get out of the sterile confines of the compound. Once a week we would foray into the local town of Jubail. My mother ensured we were covered from head to toe in colourful kaftans or wrap skirts, long sleeved t-shirts, topped off with hats or head scarves under the sweltering sun. There’s a particular smell that invokes my sensory memories of Jubail. A mix of foetid fruit, diesel and sweet tobacco smoke. The incessant heat, my mother haggling in the souks and the periodic sound of the muezzin’s call to

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prayer. Our small family of three had ventured into town. My parents were perusing the aisles of one of the smaller supermarkets and I was bored, shuffling around their heels as the proprietor beckoned them. When they were close enough to hear his conspiratorial whisper, he said one word in a questioning tone, ‘Venison?’ My father looked excited at the prospect, ‘You have venison?’ and the man looked around shiftily, nodded and smiled. We followed him through the fly screen door and into a back room toward a large chest freezer. He opened it proudly and said again, ‘Venison’ as I stood on tiptoe to see a full-sized deer, complete with antlers, lying inside with its legs straight up. I have no idea how anyone could have procured such a beast in that part of the world, not in 1978 and not legally. But we all know that childhood memories are unreliable.

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Woodland Walk Of all the walks that wend beneath the trees, this place surrounds me now, no longer fallow. The leaves sublime in colour, somehow frees My eyes, and shifts the darkness from the shadow. The forest colours, springtime shades of green; Chartreuse, emerald, jade, all iridescent. No glaucous grey or dullness to be seen. My heart, filled with a love that shines fluorescent. The stick and shift of shale beneath my feet, along the path an umber trail to follow. A cuckoo’s call within the woods does greet my ears, and breaks the silence in the hollow. A dryness in the air so richly warm, with delicate scent of fragrant luxury. Blossoms hang bright on boughs and bumbles swarm my senses, burst in awe of harmony. Of all the walks that wend beneath the trees, this place surrounds me now, a burst of colour The verdant foliage is all I see and feel, all nature’s everlasting splendour.

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Herne Bay Winter Shingle, flinty, underfoot, pebbled slopes upon the hill. Dampened stones as soft as soot. Boats stuck in mud, stay still. Bright orange buoys lie swollen, shiny bellies slick with moss. Slippery greens, jade and golden. Seaweed crisply crimped with gloss. Cool, silvery sharpness, metal framework of the pier. Edges of the deep grey darkness, steel spiked rafters standing clear. Empty boats graze the shoreline, echoes like a quiet balm. Fading into muted skyline, mercurial water, calm.

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The One-Pound Bird Feeder I bought it from the Pound Shop. I really didn’t think it would work that well, but for a quid, I was willing to try. I stuck the small, clear-plastic bird feeder on the window on New Year’s Day and waited. The seed clumped together, it had to be emptied, washed and refilled and still nothing happened. Weeks went by but I continued, keeping the box unsoiled and the contents fresh. On a cloudy February afternoon, my first visitor arrived: a robin. I was overjoyed. His visits became regular, though I was never quick enough to capture a good photo. It was company, and for someone living in a shared flat in a busy town, it was a tiny smidgen of nature. The robin was a glimmer of colour in my day as I sat at my desk and typed. My room overlooks the garden, south-facing but with an overgrown mass of laurel and leylandii that blocks the afternoon sun. The little box was stuck squarely in the middle of the large bay window to optimise my view. I logged the daily visits whenever I caught a glimpse and flutter of feathers. The blue tits arrived twelve days after the robin. On the last day of February, I counted ten feeds, three from the red team and seven from the greedy blues. I was amazed at how successful this experiment had been. Who’d have thought a Pound Shop purchase could be so entertaining?

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Early one morning, light just filtering through the curtains, a skittering sound pulled me from sleep. The glass rattled, I sprang to my feet, swiftly pulled back the swags and came eye-to-eye with a squirrel. He froze in shock for a moment and then scampered down the frame and back under the bushes. Now, I know that most bird-lovers would deter this sort of behaviour, defend their seed stations and grease the edges to deter his efforts. Not me. I’ve always thought squirrels quite fascinating, their cute exterior hiding their intelligence and curiosity. I didn’t want to scare him away, but I wasn’t keen on a bushy alarm clock at dawn every day. I began to throw peanuts from the seed mix out into the garden and slowly but surely, he gathered them. On March 16th, Boris announced an end to all nonessential travel and the country has slowly withdrawn from complete liberty to lockdown. I’ve been stuck in a flat with two people I barely know. I hate to admit it, but the visiting birds and my squirrel have been better company than either of them. I’ve spent a lot of time within the confines of my four walls, curtains wide and windows open. I’ve listened to birdsong and learnt something new every day. This experience has given me something more uplifting than Netflix or knitting. I’ve ordered songbird mix and monkey nuts, gathered empty plastic bottles and constructed a branch feeder in the garden. Almost every day I’ve had a visit from the squirrel, now named Bunkin as his constant demand for attention has meant I’ve spent time ‘bunking off’ my studies. Last Sunday afternoon I was sorting paperwork when I caught a flash of amber in the garden. I thought it was the neighbourhood ginger tom, since my new garden ornament 225


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must seem like a smorgasbord of opportunity to a cat. When I looked up, to my utter astonishment a fox stood under the trees, sniffing the air, panting slightly in the warmth. He was in great condition, a shiny coat, no ribs showing but of course his urban food sources have depleted. No restaurant bins to scavenge or discarded takeaway boxes to forage on the streets. He held my gaze for a few seconds and then darted into the undergrowth. I only hope he doesn’t get hungry enough to catch a squirrel. The window feeder has remained a firm favourite with the robin and blue tits, and the new garden seed station has brought brief glimpses of a chaffinch and long-tailed tits, while blackbirds hop around the base gathering the overspill. All of these birds have entertained me, given me something to think about other than ‘the virus’ and deepened my appreciation of avian life. However, the birds don’t interact with me, so in that sense, I have to say that meeting Bunkin has been a real game-changer. Videos of his antics have been sent far and wide to friends and family in California, Australia and Canada. I’ve also sent regular clips to my young niece and nephew who, although only ten miles away, are equally remote to me now. This has connected us during our time of enforced hibernation. More importantly, Bunkin has given me a joyful encounter with nature at a time when I have felt deeply deprived of my springtime walks in the New Forest and hikes along the Jurassic Coast. That cheeky squirrel has been great for my mental health. He’s become my way of connecting with wildlife on a daily basis, providing some solace and support during this isolated interlude. That plastic bird feeder will always be the best pound I ever spent.

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From My Window The solitude of isolation drains me. Days on end with no ending at all. Weary of existing without nature? Or wary of the risk beyond my wall? A windowbox is daily consolation, first a robin, then some others too. Feathered friends become my new salvation, the days begin to take a brighter hue. A squirrel tries his luck against the pigeon, scrapping for the seeds upon the grass. Nature has become my new religion. Now I give thanks and praise against the glass.

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Abi Starr Abi Starr hails from Wiltshire where she has grown up learning about wildlife first-hand. Fluctuating health has not stopped her pursuing a thirst for knowledge that has seen her witness booming bitterns, starling murmurations and 12 species of cetaceans in the wild. Having studied a BSc in Conservation Biology, Abi discovered nature writing when long term-plans changed. When writing, she likes to focus on explaining scientific concepts, such as behaviour and ecology for those without a scientific background. www.wildlifeandme.co.uk | Abiwildlifeme


Zebra Jumping Spider: The Spring-loaded Acrobat Among your Azaleas I’ll hold my hands up here and admit that, up until recently, I never really stopped to look at invertebrates. Yes, I’d rescue the struggling bee from the windowsill or the panicking moth from the ceiling light, but I’d never taken the time to look closer at them before sending them on their way. One little, not so creepy crawly changed all this for me. My town-centre garden is rather small and cannot support any birds or mammals. The gravel and patio, coupled with the fact that we have a cat make sure these creatures do not visit. For a while, I thought this meant no life at all, other than the slugs and woodlice; but then... out of the corner of my eye, I spot movement. With its monochrome outfit, the zebra jumping spider isn’t the most garish of all garden wildlife. However, its quirky (and dare I say ‘cute’) character caught my eye. Tiptoeing over the border on the edge of our garden, I’d be forgiven for missing this arachnid as it tries not to be seen while searching for an afternoon snack. The male works hard to impress his chosen female by performing a complex courtship dance that involves circling her and waving his front legs in the air. It is these romantic routines that give the genus their scientific name, 231


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Salticidae, from the Latin for ‘dancing’. Once he has successfully wooed his lady and mated, the female spins a silk cocoon in which to lay her eggs. She’ll then guard the nest from would-be predators until the spiderlings hatch. Common in European gardens, their bodies are no longer than seven millimetres, perfect for creeping up on prey. Like all jumping spiders, the zebra spider does not spin a web. Instead, they use their excellent binocular vision to actively hunt down a suitable minibeast such as an aphid or springtail. The zebra spider’s menu is expansive as they can subdue and eat a prey item up to their own size. Once the spider has found a suitable meal, it then pounces upon it to deliver the killer blow. It is this act of leaping, seemingly out of nowhere (up to 10cm – 14 times its own length) that causes some people to see them as aggressive. I, however, just think they are adorable. It’s probably its oversized eyes that I am so drawn to as it continues to go about its day among our foliage. With a scientific name that loosely translates as ‘theatrical dancer’ (Salticus scenicus), these tiny thespians pack a punch in the personality stakes. When seen as a couple, it is relatively simple to tell them apart. Only the females have the deep black stripes, the males have to make do with chocolate brown instead. A front-on profile of these little dudes also shows some differences as the male’s fangs are larger and darker in colour. The UK is home to around 36 species of jumping spider. They are all fairly small so can need an expert eye to identify them. Common species may have look alikes but sometimes the habitat they are found in can be used to

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tell them apart. For example, my garden zebra spider could be confused with the much scarcer Salticus cingulatus when viewed in isolation. However, the fact that the latter is unlikely to be found in gardens lets me know my blackand-white friend is the theatrical dancer. Jumping spiders globally The family of jumping spiders is the biggest family of spiders in the world, with upwards of 5,000 species all over the globe. They can be found in almost every habitat, from tropical forest to sand dunes and gardens. In 2020 alone, five new species of jumping spider have been found and described, all in Asia. One of which was found in an urban wildlife garden in northern India during coronavirus lockdown. The female specimen had a sandy orange colour over most of her body, except for black around her eyes and on her first pair of legs. The discovery of this species was documented in the peer-reviewed journal Peckhamia which is the only journal dedicated to jumping spider research. The other four new species were all found in Sri Lanka. These are so far the only species of the genus Synagelides found on the island. All of these new species were found living in association with ants and two of them were named after characters from the Shakespeare play ‘As You Like It’. Jumping spiders in science These tiny spiders are not only at home on Earth but have also proved themselves in outer space. In 2012, the 233


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Guardian newspaper reported on a remarkable adventure. A zebra spider named Cleopatra, and a Johnson jumper named Nefertiti spent 100 days aboard the International Space Station. During their time there, they were involved in experiments to increase our understanding of the species. Specifically, it was thought that they would struggle to feed while weightless, as their jumping attack could potentially see them float away from their prey. Nefertiti and Cleopatra proved them wrong. They adapted their hunting techniques to account for the loss of gravity. When offered a tasty fruit fly, rather than pounce on it like they would do on Earth, they gingerly sidled up to it before going in for the kill. These discoveries show adaptability in spiders, which is a remarkable trait for an invertebrate to possess. On their return from the space station, the two spiders were to be exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Unfortunately, Cleopatra died shortly after touchdown and Nefertiti perished four days after arriving back on Earth. Nefertiti had shown she was readjusting to the stronger gravity, therefore it was likely just her age that caused her to pass away. Nefertiti was added to the museum’s permanent collection of specimens. It was not made clear what happened to Cleopatra. Even if you are not a big fan of spiders, or a complete arachnophobe, it’s important to understand the good they do. They can help control agricultural pests by eating their fill, but also by contributing to studies that are advancing the science of robotics. In 2018 at the University of Manchester, a regal jumping spider named Kim was taught to jump on

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command between two platforms. The researchers wanted to record and analyse her movement in high resolution 3D for the first time. They didn’t want to motivate Kim with food, as this would cause her to only jump as if she were hunting, rather than showing them general locomotion. Instead, they repeatedly moved her from one perch to the other until she got the idea of jumping between them. The footage they obtained from watching Kim has been used to develop new technology. Microrobots that move like spiders have been created to hunt and eliminate crop pests. Should this project be successful, it could lead to the reduction in use of agricultural pesticides, which would have numerous economic and ecological benefits. Back to now As I sit in the last of the late afternoon sun, I spot one of my arachnid friends on the patio – it’s seen me too and scuttles over. Its darker stripes show me it is a female. She inspects my foot momentarily and then climbs on. I smile. Not content with my foot however, she begins ascending my leg. All the way up to my thigh she crawls, I must be doing a great impression of a shrub. I offer her my hand and the invitation is accepted. I can barely feel a thing as she wanders across my palm. I keep her in my hand for a while and hold it up to get a better look. She doesn’t seem fazed by my giant face looming over her. I move to pop her back among the plants, but she’s impatient and spins a silk line and bungee jumps from my hand. Geronimo! A while ago I’d never have thought I’d enjoy spending time with a spider so much, but it’s important to find joy where 235


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possible, especially in the wake of the pandemic the world has faced recently. As my boldly striped buddy sits among the dianthus, I begin thinking about her cousins that I may also find on my adventures one day. Sat in my small, but exceptionally sunny garden in the summer months, zebra spiders often brighten my day. And, if I look hard enough, I can often spot several at once and lose myself in their world for a while.

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Tree POV I look down at the children playing beneath my branches, shaded from the fierce sun by my silky smooth leaves. They look so free and happy. Whereas I stand here, just here. For year, after year, after year. In the distance I see the sea and wonder what it would be like to feel the salty water swirling around my roots. But I have to make do with hard-as-concrete mud, baked dry in the summer heat. I sigh, filling the air around me with life giving oxygen. Don’t get me wrong, I like the summers. My limbs become nurseries for a whole host of birds and I am no longer alone. My sisters standing nearby also fill with life. Squirrels, beetles and bees all become one with the tree in which they live. No, I do like the summer. It’s certainly preferable to the winter anyway. Who wants to be blown all over the place and frozen half to death when you could instead bask in amber rays? But sunbathing gets boring over time. I want to move, to travel, but I’m stuck. It’s not fair. After all I do for the countryside I should at least be able to explore it at will. The sun begins to fade and the frolicking children are replaced by a young couple leaning up against my trunk for a romantic sunset picnic. Pork pies, strawberries and elderflower cordial sit neatly in their basket. 237


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The man wraps his arms around his girlfriend in a loving embrace. His smart striped shirt matching her yellow sundress perfectly. They begin to talk about their day, the queue for the train, the angry customers at the boutique. Carrying on, it’s clear they are letting all their emotions out, so they don’t become stored up and stale. ‘It’s good we are able to talk about these things in private – with no one around to hear us,’ the girl says. It’s clear she finds these conversations cathartic. ‘Pork pies are a lot cheaper than therapy!’ her companion jokes as he repositions his spectacles. The topic then shifts to the hillside we are currently sharing. The man says he loves the view towards the bay. The woman agrees and calls it peaceful as her hand runs over the grass beyond their spotty picnic blanket. They speak of their love of this place. The openness, the nature and the fresh air. I concur and take a deep breath, filling my leaves with magical carbon dioxide. Apparently they come here often, but I don’t recall seeing them before. Suddenly the mood changes and melancholy expressions wash over them. The man looks at the ground, trying to distract himself from his thoughts. A single tear runs down the girl’s cheek. ‘I can’t believe they are going to cut this tree down,’ she says sadly.

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Ella Taylor Ella is a nature writer and poet who lives in North Devon with her family. Her inspiration comes from the sea, the moors, and the deep relationship that we have with the outside world. The pieces selected for this anthology have been taken from a larger collection called Growing Season. In this collection, Ella explores both the physical seasons of nature and the ways we change as we grow older on this planet. She is currently working on her first novel and you can find more of her poetry on Instagram. @therealellataylor


The Wild Flowers Grow untamed, wild and free in the spaces that are left behind. The places where nobody wants to live or exist. They bend or break how they please. The summer breeze ruffles their petals and carries their seeds. Flecks of red and blue in a sun-bleached sea of green. The wildflowers grow, again and again. The wildflowers sew the ground together and fill the spaces that are left untamed by humans. They are untouched, rarely fazed, by the roots that humans have planted. They grow tall yet delicate; they poke their heads around corners and through cracks, making this broken world a little more beautiful. That is what I want to be. Something wild, free to flower, in the places that are forgotten and unseen. That is what I want to do. Bring a little more beauty to this bruised world. People of the world live in groups and categories. Their hearts are divided, their minds are limited, and their eyes shielded from seeing the full potential. A wild world of possibilities lives all around. But there are people of the world who live outside the categories. They walk through the unseen places, rewriting the story, inventing new ways 241


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of seeing. And that is who I want to be. A wildflower in a broken world. Rainbow embroidery patching the little cracks together. When you grow up tall and strong, you start to feel like people of the world are waiting, expecting for you to fit into a category. Watching you try and fail to be something other than who you are inside. They expect you to know who you are, where you are going, what you will do. All of the answers to life. But there is another way to live. Around the edges of boundaries and rules, oversized expectations. You can choose to be wild. When I grew up, I started to lose myself in the desperate attempt to be like everyone else. It was all I wanted. To fit inside a category, right in the middle, and to follow the people of the world. Then I started to realise that the way I was living did not bring me joy. I was living to impress everyone else rather than myself. I didn’t know what I would do and who I would be in the worldly terms of identity. All I knew is that I loved to create and that bringing something new into the world brought me joy. And I decided, that is who I will be. A creator of things. Maybe you are not a creator of new things. Maybe you have found joy in something that already exists. That is wildly beautiful to me. But if you are someone who is struggling to look into the mirror, to look into the future, because the world seems to be watching you – stop. Breathe. Look at the wildflowers in the broken forgotten places. Aren’t they wonderful?

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You do not need to be anything but yourself. You do not need to find all of the answers because they don’t exist. It’s just you, your wild heart and a world bursting with potential. A world bursting with adventure, discovery and new creations to be imagined. As life unfolds, there are steps to take and hoops to jump through. Each day there are conversations with hidden motives, questions implying that what you are currently doing could be improved on. That your way of living life is not good enough. That you need to be something or someone other than who you are. It is toxic, exhausting and frustrating. Why should the opinion of someone else affect how we live? Why do our hearts let these words sink? Why do we bruise so easily? Your life is your story. You can begin again, you can keep going, you can change, you can stay the same. You can be whoever and whatever you want to be. Walk tall, smile wide, snort with laughter. Embrace your differences and make the changes that bring joy to heart, don’t worry about bringing joy to others. The people who are worthy of a place in your life will love you for your true self. Your wild self. ‘A free spirit. Uncultivated by the mainstream. Independent thinker. Bravely growing wild and free in a world plagued by conformity.’ (Wildflower, Urban Dictionary) 243


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Bravely growing wild and free, that is who I want to be. That is what I want to be defined as and remembered by. Someone bravely growing, someone walking wild, someone different because they are different because they are different. Free. Not the mainstream, but little tributaries breaking away from the river. Little paths that follow the story from a distance, contributing to the big picture while living independently. How does that sound? Where would you like to plant yourself because it is never too late to begin again. Where would you like to bloom? Tangled in the roots of others, growing just to strengthen their story, or wild and free in a space of your own, in a field with the others, uncultivated. Free to bend, break and begin again.

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Free Falling I never gave much thought to falling, leaving the sky behind to face the floor. Leaving the wide blue behind to descend deeper, into this greyscale unknown. The trees growing taller as I drop faster, wild and unstoppable. I never gave much thought to life ending either. That in one moment, one insignificant reckless moment, my world could crash. That in one moment, everything I have and everything I know would rely on this elastic cord, tied round my size 5s. Victoria Falls Bridge, Zimbabwe. The last stop of my African adventure. Taller than 400 feet and higher than any goals I had previously planned to achieve. When I was five, the question asked by everyone was: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and the answer was, ‘just like my mum’ or a teacher, a nurse, a dentist. I was encouraged to be something other than me, so I decided to become just the same as everyone I knew and loved. Ask me again: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and the answer? I want to be someone who never stops growing. I want to be someone who never stops dreaming, moving, achieving. On my travels, I felt free. Finally. Free from the expectations of my people back home, the pressure to keep up with everyone else, living in their light instead of 245


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creating my own. I felt released from the grip of society, social media, even money. I lived on the roads, in the parks, in the hostels, in the homes of natives, in the company of other seekers. Some not knowing what they are looking for. What a beautiful way to be: always searching for something without the pressure of knowing what to find. The Zambezi River, the River of Life, begins in the hills of Zambia and while supplying seven countries on its journey, the river stretches a span of 1,599 miles. Home to fish, hippos, crocodiles, the Zambezi is also used as a mode of travel and an area of leisure for tourists. Boat tours and kayaking are safe options in areas where wildlife is smaller and more difficult to provoke. The national park and the falls are popular too for hiking and taking Instagram snaps. Views of the hills and valleys, the river and its curves, make a perfect backdrop. Yet there are some thrill seekers who struggle keeping their feet on the ground. Even when they are looking over the cliff edge. There are some who thrive in unexpected environments, faced with challenges and unknowns. For these select few, the Victoria Falls bridge is perfect. Stretching over 600 feet from one riverbank to the over, the bridge is a prime destination for bungee jumping. The act of launching yourself off a tall structure tied with an elastic cord. A thrill, an adventure, an act of madness. Sometimes it is exactly what you need to see clearly again. Victoria gave me a new perspective, in more ways than one. The fear of heights had always drifted around the edges of my mind. I rarely faced it, rarely tested its limits, so standing on a bridge with nothing but air and

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eventually water beneath my feet... my eyes began to cry. Fear mixed with awe, stirred with the lack of seeing the future. The happy ending. It was overwhelming. ‘Are you alright?’ ‘Y... Yeah. I’ll be fine in a minute. I... I guess I didn’t expect it to be this high up.’ A typical tourist response that was met with a smile. Of course, you never realise the extent of the fall after the gradual climb, you never expect how it will feel to reset when you’ve been holding tight to the way things currently are. With the sun flicking the river as it falls, mist evaporates and clouds your view of the bottom. With the mist hovering, fragments of rainbows scatter around the bridge. I started to focus on the happiness that would come after, rather than the feeling of falling. I started to get excited for more change to happen. Excited to return to my old life in a new light, a light that I had found for myself. I stood watching a goliath heron pass over the river upstream. His face tinted brown, his back feathers blue turning silver. He flew straight, belly low near the water, eyes forward. ‘Are you ready?’ A voice stole my attention away from the birds and the gentle flow of water. I turned around to face the drop, the loud rumbling of Victoria that I had been ignoring on purpose. Now the instructor was speaking to me, looking at me, waiting for me. Now everyone else that I had queued behind had left, walking to the other side of the bridge below. It was my turn to make the jump. 247


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‘No. Not at all. But launch me anyway.’ ‘OK, but it’ll be over before you know it, so don’t blink...’ Breathing. Why does it become so hard to reach when you need to catch it? Other days it is effortless, the act of filling your lungs to keep yourself alive. When I started falling, I lost it for a moment. Lungs empty, eyes closed, scream brewing behind closed jaw. Then everything changed. The falling became the new normal, in just a moment, and my body began to open up again. The lungs, the eyes and the mouth, now releasing a broken laugh. Upside down, unstoppable, wild. Just a girl falling down to earth with her eyes open. Her heart open to a new world that was just being planted. The mist cleared as I dropped deeper towards the trees and the river at the bottom, picking itself up again. The future cleared and I kept thinking about the broken rainbows. I never gave much thought to blooming, shedding the past, growing taller with my eyes on a new horizon. Always changing. Always becoming new again.

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Ocean Mind My mind is an ocean. Emotion, the tide. Always changing, always moving, always alive. Each day the waves fluctuate, flooding in. Strong tempers rising, gentle smiles letting go. You should not try to understand why my cheeks flush, hands sweat, wet eyes on a happy face. Sometimes I can predict the movements, the reasons why I feel the way I do. The reasons why I think too much, about days already passed, about people I loved who left. Sometimes I even assume that I have control of the ocean, the restless deep deep blue. Then come the currents. The pull, the drag, the tug. Something unexpected beneath the surface. Something beyond the power of understanding. On a day like today, my mind is still. Tickled by the sunshine, puzzled by the shape of each cloud. How they break into smaller pieces, floating away, falling as new rain. On a day like today, I will let you paddle for a while. Test these waters, swim deep and far. But tomorrow? Will tomorrow bring a storm or clear blue? Will you have the strength to surf these waves that send to shore? Will you keep loving this ocean mind on days when I push you away?

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Jennifer Thompson Jennifer lives in the south west of England, where she spent her childhood exploring its coastline. After studying marine ecology, she switched her efforts to writing that focuses on people and place. She has been shortlisted for the Porthleven Prize and Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year, and in January 2021 was appointed the inaugural Emerging Writer in Residence with the Causley Trust. She is currently working on a collection of essays. Her work has been published in print and online, including The Pilgrim, Oh, Guernsey Press, Nature Makes Us Better and Adventurous Ink. She is a regular contributor to The Marine Biologist.

www.jenniferwrites.com | @jennymht


The Bay She lay next to me, perfectly straight, arms outstretched on the grass, beckoning the September sun to her skin. The patchwork golds of her hair blew, like spun sugar in the low, evening light, about her shoulders which were freckled and boyishly supple underneath rolled-up shirt sleeves. Sitting stilly in the scrub, she looked like every artist’s muse I had seen in the portraits at the National Gallery. Beautiful, serene, silent. I could have stayed with her there, forever. Sporadically in the summer months, she and I would make our way down to the salt marshes on the outskirts of town. Only the whir and ticking of our bicycle spokes connected the noise of the rushing traffic to the thrum of the bay. We’d follow the train tracks past the factories until they cut across the water, splitting the bay in two. Flying past a patch of seaweed in the brown water, we would inhale deeply. The smell of rotting organisms above and below the surface that so many people thought rancid, was to us nostalgic and charming: a side effect of growing up by the harbour. Our bikes carried us onwards until we left town behind and the sound of traffic was replaced by the whispering of grass. This was our land. In the jump from childhood to young adulthood, she and I clung to each other and our imaginations. Our bikes 253


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became horses that would carry us around the harbour. We’d stand tall on the pedals, weaving around each other like two young noblewomen surveying their estate. We knew every thicket of grass and every bump in the track. As I trailed behind, committing the horizon to memory as it changed from afternoon to evening, she would rush ahead, churning the pedals of her bike, driving the gears before dramatically diving off into the dry grass. It was the same in the imaginary games we played, and it was the same now: I was the older and sensible sister, she the young and flighty one. I was the Elinor to her Marianne, the Jo to her Amy. ‘Not so many cockle farmers this year.’ ‘Not so many cockles.’ The oyster and cockle farmers would hypnotise us as their boats cut sandy crop circles into the bay floor. After the rush of school, the repetition and monotony were sedating. Now, only one such vessel worked its way in tired circles, gathering a meagre harvest. I looked to the horizon towards town. Our refuge was changing. The salt marshes were yellow and putrid, the water coated in a green algal mat. Yachts swarmed the bay with the arrival of the new bridge, passing the wooden carcasses of old fishing boats as they came. I longed to see a stint or snipe. We’d be lucky to see a shag or sanderling now. Lying there with her on the parched mat of grass, I listened to our surroundings, but the more I listened the harder it became to distinguish the crickets from the electrical works. Likewise, the urgent call of an oystercatcher overhead blurred with the incessant ping of her phone.

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‘Who’s that?’ I asked her, eyes squinting in the sun, looking for any bird besides the herring gulls. ‘Ollie.’ ‘Which Ollie?’ ‘Ollie from school,’ she replied. I looked at her then, disbelieving: there were at least four Ollies in our year, let alone the whole school. Sweat was sticking the shirt to my back, and the exposed skin that pressed against the dry, grassy scrub, suddenly became overwhelmingly uncomfortable. I sat up to scratch at it. ‘Which Ollie?’ I repeated pointedly. She looked up at that. Her long legs were crossed beneath her backside, and by her hips the phone continued its barrage of messages. The sun dusted her cheeks with a smatter of pink and she looked at me, blank and waiting, like every woman in every painting. Pretty and passive. All the women that I had felt sorry for. Pitied, if only to prevent myself from feeling jealous. ‘You look like a painting.’ ‘Thank you.’ I tutted. ‘What did you say?’ she said, and though the sun was behind her, a hand still came to her brow. Deep down, I knew it wasn’t the fault of the sun for her not seeing me; she was so engrossed with her phone that she had forgotten her best friend beside her. We sat in silence, her staring purposefully at me, me straining to see town in the distance ahead of us. 255


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‘Ollie, two years above,’ she said, once she realised my annoyance. ‘Why do you pretend not to hear me when you have?’ ‘I think we’re gonna go into town on Saturday.’ ‘The one I introduced you to?’ ‘Are you listening to me?’ I scoffed at this and turned to her. She was now staring at the horizon with the same prickly intensity that I had done moments before. A few sun-blistered crab claws were scattered around us, abandoned by the gulls, and I threw them into the water. One landed silently by her, bouncing on the grass, and she crunched its calcareous shell under her foot. She looked back at me now, really looked at me. ‘You’re not jealous, are you?’ she asked. With the sun behind her, I couldn’t make out her expression and I squirmed. ‘No.’ I paused and threw another claw into the bay. ‘I just don’t know what to say.’ It struck me that passers-by would be surprised to learn of our best-friendship, so blunt was the manner in which we spoke to each other, but that was the way it had always been. To our peers our friendship was quiet but intimidating, with seemingly no moments of tenderness. Instead, our love for each other came in the pressed flowers we’d send during holidays apart and the postcards we received with them. It was in the blades of grass we’d use to whistle goodbye to each other as she left to go home. It was getting dressed on the bank by the forest river, protecting each other from unknown eyes. Though our affection was

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never spoken, there was a tenderness that ran through everything we did together. ‘Shall we get a fire going?’ Her bright voice jolted me back to our hideout, and I saw that she had gathered some of the dry grass and begun arranging stones from the shoreline into a makeshift fire pit. ‘It’s too dry. It’s dangerous.’ I felt a pang of guilt, piercing as an oystercatcher ‘pip’, as she visibly deflated in front of me, dropping her arms as she let go of the kindling. She’d finally joined me in the reality we used to share, away from her phone, and I’d ruined her fun. Tickling her with one of the strands of grass, I tried to diffuse her sadness but something had changed. Her hands were folded in her lap; mine were entangled in the grass. As we grew up, I became more aware of the landscape, learning the names of the plants and animals I’d find there, wanting to melt into it. When she suggested we light a fire at the summer’s end, I realised that she wanted to escape. I looked over the bay avoiding town, she looked beyond it. Just like our harbour refuge, she had changed before my eyes and I hadn’t even noticed. ‘Not many starlings, either,’ she finally said, ignoring the prickly exchange that had occurred a moment before. ‘They’re in decline, though we don’t really –’ The phone pinged again.

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The Farmer of Westhill This piece is a fictional character study inspired by the Encombe Valley. When Mister John was seen in Encombe, the townspeople looked upon him with curious disdain. Two black and swollen eyes, whose inner corners were pinched with wrinkles, appeared between the brim of his bowler hat and moustache, and a white and wiry scruff padded the lower half of his face. His whiskered chin, clenched forward in permanent concentration, gave him the unfavourable air of pride. He had ventured to town from Westhill Farm, a confused patch of soil and slate as isolated and inhospitable as himself. Passers-by would be forgiven for thinking that Westhill lay on the fringe of the earth. At first glance a featureless and unremarkable ridgeway, the farm sat upon a clifftop that defiantly protruded from the rest of the landscape. The ground plateaued until it rose in the south and removed any memory of the cliff face. Beyond it lay the precipice whose ceaseless drop into the sea was watched by the horizon extending far beyond it; a flat nothingness hidden by the farm, just as a parent protects their child from undiscovered horrors. An outpost for incoming weather, Westhill endured heavy 259


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shelling by seabound storms and battering by easterly winds. Crumbling dykes held up ganglial trees whose trunks were buckled by such conditions, and a few stubborn gorse bushes gave way to the faceless hill running into the Encombe Valley. To the north was a woodland of oak and beech. Braver than the townsfolk, the trees stood tenacious and conspiratorial on Westhill’s border, roots creeping towards the house like children careful not to wake the old fellow inside. That old fellow woke each morning before the blackbirds and, with sturdy and purposeful steps, set about his day. He wore a brown overcoat that once belonged to a younger man. It was crumpled like cheesecloth and hung loosely from his squat shoulders, skirting the tops of frayed boots. A cotton collar climbed jauntily from a moth-holed jumper and agitated the scruff of his neck, while a dusty bowler hat sat jammed around his ears. A pipe balanced between his broken and thinning lips. Between Westhill and Encombe, a track scarred the vale, and it was from here that the townspeople would spy Mister John’s horse and cart. ‘Look at those clothes.’ ‘Haven’t seen him in years.’ ‘What brings him to town?’ ‘Someone’s got to sell the crops.’ ‘Good morning, Mister John.’ Whether John was his Christian or family name, the townsfolk didn’t know nor cared to ask. A propensity for gruffness and avoidance of Sunday Mass only added to the distaste with which they viewed him. Mister John’s

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working week was exactly that and, as such, afforded no time for prayer. Tilling land and sowing crops were a paternal obligation that brought the farmer no joy but was a trade at which he excelled. A lifetime at Westhill had made him less a man and more a companion of the trees and stones that bordered his keep. He was a man of the land.

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Crustacean Graveyard If you want to go crabbing, the best place is the crustacean graveyard behind the abandoned lifeboat house. The quay wall will guide you: just follow the clapping of the sails and masts in the marina. The old lifeboat house stands squared, its crimson bricks alive next to the quay’s grey Portland stone. When you see it, follow the trail of sunstained crab claws that litter the flagstones. There’ll be herring gulls lined up on the rotting corpses of wooden boats festering in the sun and salt. They babble conspiratorially with chattering beaks and evil eyes, looking for leftovers. Don’t be scared; they have no care for you. Water blip-blops against the old smuggling tunnels and fishermen will be collecting their pots. Be careful then; the removal of one crab coffin from another aggravates the stench. Entwined with the scent of chips, the concoction is deliciously disgusting. Stay on your path. Rhotic “r’s” will be rumbling around you as the fishermen board their boats. ‘Training her up? Not many girlies in our number!’ That’s what the fishers would say. As a child, the bucket was passed silently my way as adult hands cut up the rancid bag of squid bits. It was easier for my small and calloused feet to run along the quay wall and crumbling lifeboat house, skittering like an ant over spilt sugar. I’d

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drop down at the slipway where the water is hard and green like sea glass. In the early days, I was scared to put my hand in should the cold cut me. But the wrack and dulce waved and brought me closer to the water’s edge. It doesn’t cut like glass, but gives your hand the barest kiss as the ocean gathers into the bucket, disappearing beneath the surface. If you hear strangled wails, then don’t worry, you’re getting close. It’s Inky Black, the tom cat, visiting and begging for bait. You can’t miss him; he’s mottled as oil-swilled water. Follow him around the lifeboat house until you reach the flagstone rockpools formed by the sea spray. There I’ll be with my line and the littl’uns. No boats disturb the water here, which goosebumps when the wind comes. Lines stay taught and the crabs are complacent; no fishers or cormorants waste time. Taste the salt on your lips and feel your mouth water. Grab your bucket and bait; I’ll show you how it’s done.

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Amanda Tuke Amanda Tuke writes and blogs about the joy of discovering urban and suburban nature, and her conversations with environmentalists and nature enthusiasts. She has a passion for widening the enjoyment of nature and nature writing among city residents. Most of her writing springs from wildflower hunting or birdwatching and she draws on her background in studying ecology. Amanda has written for a number of magazines including Bird Watching, Resurgence & Ecologist and Devon Life and has guest blogged for Mark Avery and The London Wildlife Trust. She is nature writer in residence at Great North Wood

www.suburbanwild.wordpress.com | @suburbanwilduk


Suburban Wild Diary October 7th 2020 - Risking rush-hunting in rutting season I’m hiding behind an ancient oak tree. It’s all gone very quiet. Then I hear a low grunt and when I peek round, five metres away from the other side of the trunk, a stag lowers himself stiffly into the bracken. He sits gasping clouds of vaporous breath in the weak October sun. A few minutes ago, I was walking up through a copse in Richmond Park on the hunt for rushes when I heard the stag roaring behind me. He emerged from the copse edge on a track in parallel with mine and I had a horrible feeling he was sizing me up as a rival. As soon as I had the opportunity I ducked behind this tree and hoped he wasn’t very bright. I was itching to get out plant hunting but I wasn’t expecting to play hide-and-seek with a stag today. I knew it was rutting season and I’d need to be wary of the red deer but this is one nature encounter I could do without. Feeling a bit silly, I back away from the tree. I keep it between me and the stag until I feel safe enough to turn my back and get back on the track. Once I’ve put a safe distance between me and the stags, I can concentrate 267


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on finding the most promising wet patches in this park for rushes. Round the ponds I find stretches of soft rush with glossy stems and clustered fruit. There are also bluish clumps of hard rush, which up close have round cross section leaves like the soft rush but in this case are clearly ridged. Through my hand lens, the tufts of egg-shaped fruits are more loosely arranged than in the soft rush and rich brown with minute but distinctive little noses. I spend another hour or so looking but just find more of the same until something catches my eye on the welltrodden path back to Roehampton Gate. I’m pretty sure this is a clump of slender rush. I lie on my stomach photographing this understated plant to the bemusement of passing dog walkers. It’s not until I stand up a few minutes later that I realise I’ve caught the eye of another stag lying in the sun. This one’s defending his harem and after glaring at me for a few seconds, his eyes roll back and he dozes off. I’m apparently neither a threat nor a prospect. January 1st 2021 - Colour and smiles on the bleakest of midwinter days The Thames is sketched in greyscale this morning. At Blackfriars Bridge, the low-tide rocks and gunge whiff of hydrogen sulphide and even the fairground paint of Southwark Bridge is muted. Despite the gloomy prospect, I’m on a mission to find colour.

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Today, the first one of the year, is special for botanists. All over the British Isles, they’ll be looking for flowering wild and naturalised plants for the New Year Plant Hunt, recording what they see in three hours. This will be my first year. I’d been hoping to go with a group but with the restrictions in place it’s going to be a solo expedition. Ever adventurous, my plan is to beat the bounds of the Southwark section of the Thames path from the boundary with Lambeth in the west to Greenwich in the east. Between Blackfriars and London Bridge, the path is bleakly tidy and weed-free and I have some doubts about my choice of route. Approaching Tower Bridge things start looking up and I spot lush green annual mercury and mealy fat hen in a planter as well as the cheery daisy flowers of Mexican fleabane perched on the river wall. The concrete crevices continue to provide rich pickings with gallant soldier, Canadian fleabane and the rich yellow of narrow-leaved ragwort. Crimson shaggy stems of pellitory of the wall scramble over lichen-daubed wharf steps. Approaching Rotherhithe, I’m delighted to see the residents here are less enthusiastic about weeding planters, and red deadnettle, black nightshade and the blue starry flowers of green alkanet are growing between last night’s empty fizz bottles. The path has been steadily busy this morning with walkers, joggers and cyclists and I try not to be too annoying when I kneel down or hang over the river wall in Rotherhithe to photograph flowers. But along with Christmas, this is one of the few days when Londoners

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seem comfortable greeting strangers and I revel in the friendly well-wishes. After three hours of colour and smiles, I find that the greyscale background has receded. Even on the bleakest of midwinter days in the city there are highlights of red, yellow and blue here if you take the time to find them.

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Dying in the Rainforest Was I going to die lying here with my cheek pressed against steaming glossy leaves the size of dinner plates? I’ve always been trepid rather than intrepid. I’d read Waugh’s A Handful of Dust and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and they’d just reinforced my view that visiting the tropics would be a nightmare. You’d never get better views of wildlife than on telly, would you? But over time I became envious of friends who casually criss-crossed the world on their own, and after uni I finally talked myself into a group wildlife-watching trip to Central America. Emerging from the plane was like being slapped in the face with a hot flannel smelling of rotten vegetables. With rickety airport steps wobbling under my feet, I had a niggling feeling that I might not be entirely safe. A nervously smiling Belizean man in his thirties, dressed in pressed jeans and a polo shirt, held a piece of card with my name carefully printed on it alongside two, yes only two, other names. In minutes, I found out it was the first year of this particular trip to Belize and Guatemala. Despite only three takers, the trip organisers decided to go ahead and use us to test it out. Our polo-shirted guide, Juan, didn’t put it quite like that but did seem sweetly embarrassed by the situation. 271


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Later, that unsafe feeling was amplified. At our lodge of pristine huts, set in gardens trembling with iridescent hummingbirds and vivid blue butterflies, Juan let slip that casualties from the Belize-Guatemala skirmishes had been seen floating down the nearby river. And if that wasn’t enough, the lodge staff brandished machetes in seconds to deal with any snakes, venomous or harmless, which showed their snouts in the grounds. Completing our trio were Andy and Anthony, both Brits in their twenties like myself. Andy, wiry and self-contained, was never without his camera and we bonded easily over our interest in wildlife. Neither of us really understood why Anthony, self-dubbed professional traveller, had signed up for this trip. Like a Made in Chelsea extra, with mirrored shades and artfully tousled blond curls, he looked and sounded like he’d have been more at home on a yacht. I tried, I really did, but had to grit my teeth at his imperious views of everyone and everything we came across. After a series of day trips, the details of which escape me after the intervening thirty years, I do remember that the niggling feeling had grown into a real sense of foreboding. It wasn’t helped by the nightmares I was having, a predictable side-effect of anti-malaria pills. One morning a week or so in, Juan led us and two laden mules along a narrow, dripping trail into the rainforest to search for howler monkeys. Despite my anxieties, I’d been looking forward to this three-day expedition. The pre-holiday guidance had been ridiculously brief – that in itself should have rung alarm bells – but did say to bring walking clothes with long sleeves and legs for

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protection. While my t-shirt and leggings weren’t flattering and were continually soaked with sweat, they did the job. Andy had done likewise. Anthony, on the other hand, knowing a little bit more about travelling than the two of us, was dressed that morning in shorts and a vest. He spent most of that day scratching at the angry red lumps appearing on his yacht-browned knees and shoulders. I couldn’t even pretend to be sympathetic, but thrust some insect repellent into his hand just to shut him up and then hung back so I couldn’t hear his whinging. By late afternoon we’d reached a neat wooden farmhouse in a forest clearing which jangled with cowbells. On the clearing’s edge, massive buttressed trees were exposed and vulnerable with no shrubby plants around them. Mayan farmers, Carlos and Maria, kept a herd of twentyish ribby white cows and supplemented their income with hosting tourists. They told us about their ongoing battle with vampire bats which, given half a chance, would elbow their way up to the resting cows at night and bleed them dry. I woke in my hammock the next morning, after vivid dreams about crawling bats. Andy, Anthony and I squeezed round the farmhouse table and ate fresh tortillas, avocado and refried beans with very weak coffee. Yes, of course Anthony had something cringe-worthy to say about that too. Juan, and Carlos who was joining us, loaded up the mules again and we wove our way along a slender trail. The throaty ‘whoops’ of howler monkeys were faint at first but as we made our way deeper into the forest, the calls throbbed encouragingly. Late in the afternoon, we finally saw glimpses of the shaggy-dark monkeys high in the treetops. Knowing how lucky we’d been, Juan, Andy and I were 273


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buzzing with excitement. Anthony was more concerned with food and moaned until Carlos had found a clearing where we could set up camp. At first light, I woke to the sound of someone vomiting violently. Then, realising that I was dripping with sweat and had excruciating stomach pains, I crawled out of my tent and threw up too, for what felt like hours. I woke to find myself lying on the dripping forest floor on those brown glossy leaves, morbid thoughts circling feverishly. And I was perversely satisfied in being proved right. At some point, I must have either crawled or been carried back to my tent because I have a memory of Carlos, his face creased with concern, appearing at the tent opening. He gently lifted my head and encouraged me to drink from a metal cup of a foul-tasting tea. Later, I heard voices through the fever. Anthony was ranting but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I must have slept again and when I finally woke at dusk, the nausea had passed. Still shaky and shivering despite the warm evening, I sat close to the campfire. Andy emerged from his tent too but Juan, Carlos and Anthony were nowhere to be seen. Just as I was beginning to feel quietly anxious, Juan reappeared with an armful of firewood. Juan told us that Anthony had been sick too but he’d refused the tree-bark remedy Andy and I had trustingly taken. Instead he’d insisted that Carlos took him to a British Army hospital, a day’s mule ride away.

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We stayed another night to recuperate before making a slow journey back to the lodge. After a couple of days, Andy and I both felt well enough to carry on with the second half of the trip which was comparatively uneventful and a good deal more pleasant. We didn’t see Anthony again and Juan clearly didn’t want to talk about him. For just a moment, I wondered if Anthony was still somewhere out there like Conrad’s Kurtz in the rainforest, and then dismissed the thought as ridiculous. A few months after my return to the UK, the tour company’s new brochure arrived in the post and I noticed that the Belize-Guatemala trip hadn’t been included. I can’t deny it had been an adventure but clearly not one anyone was rushing to repeat. And I’m quite content to go back to watching tropical wildlife on telly.

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Tweet-length #Thumbnail Nature

Closest to a native hummingbird? The thin zrees of a pair of goldcrests penetrate my thoughts. I watch them hum beneath the last hazel leaves picking off indiscernible morsels. A meagre feast but as our tiniest birds, hopefully just enough calories to get them through to spring. If this tree could talk If this tree could talk, it might tell of decades of rootcrushing footsteps. Pressing a cheek on blunt fissures in the half-light, I breathe the tang from sharp-green and silvered bark planes. Today a newly built elevated walkway curves around this cedar’s trunk. Perspective from a whale’s back The kestrel-punctuated landscape of Kipling’s ‘whalebacked’ South Downs gives relief after weeks of walking London’s streets. But otherwise lifeless & vast flinty fields are a depressing reminder of the precarious state of farming and nature.

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Do birders have it easy? A smokeflower fumitory is cheeky in a corner of precision-weeded Kew Gardens. Its powder-puff-pink & crimson spike belongs to 1 of 2 hard-to-distinguish species. Cheered by the furious twittering of goldfinches in an elder, I wonder if birders have it easy.

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Acknowledgments Our bosses, Susan McMillan and Katharine Reeve, and our colleague Richard Kerridge, have been incredibly supportive throughout our time on this MA: we owe them more than we can say. The library team, especially Katie Rickard, and the creative industries admin team – Belinda Arter, Naomi Fathers, Krista Balloo, Sophia Burlison and Lisa Clarke – have been exceptionally patient and helpful. Our distinguished guest speakers deserve special thanks, for so generously giving us the benefit of their knowledge and experience, and helping the students in so many ways. They are: Rhiannon Batten, Patrick Barkham, Amy-Jane Beer, Tracy Brain, Nicola Chester, Lucy Christopher, Horatio Clare, Adrian Cooper, Sian Daffyd, Broo Doherty, Lucy English, Terry Gifford, Lindsay Hawdon, Ben Hoare, Sophie Lambert, John Lister-Kaye, Jonathan Lorie, Iain MacGregor, Donald Murray, Christopher North, Adrian Phillips, Juliet Rix, Anita Roy, Clover Stroud and Raynor Winn. A special thanks to Patrick Barkham for his foreword and continued support for the course, and to our current external examiner, Jos Smith of the University of East Anglia, and our previous one, Miriam Darlington of the University of Plymouth, for their perceptive comments. 279


A big thanks to the team of students who have edited and prepared this volume: Maeve Bruce, Rebecca Gibson, Jen Green and Jennifer Thompson, ably managed by lecturer in publishing, Holly Tonks. You’ve done a great job! Finally, we would like to thank all the students who have contributed to this anthology, for their talent, enthusiasm, hard work and willingness to take risks with their writing; and indeed all our students, past and present. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to teach you.

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Picture Credits Page 1 - Badger © 2021 Rebecca Gibson Page 11 - Treetops © 2021 Nicola Button Page 23 - Wren at Dawn © 2021 Sharon Pinner Page 35 - Iced Leaves © 2021 Jane Adams Page 45 - Kayaking on Loch Nedd © 2021 Nicola Button Page 59 - Garden Companion © 2021 Rebecca Gibson Page 67 - The Hermitage © 2021 Nicola Button Page 79 - High Five from a Humpback © 2021 Rebecca Gibson Page 91 - Lazy Evening (Goa) © 2021 Deborah Gray Page 103 - Sunset Murmuration © 2021 Rebecca Gibson Page 117 - Paris from Notre Dame © 2021 Nicola Button Page 129 - Winter Wonderland © 2021 Rebecca Gibson Page 139 - Backlit Bracken © 2021 Rebecca Gibson Page 151 - Pine Marten © 2021 Rebecca Gibson 281


Page 163 - Stairway to Taiwan © 2021 Trish Offiler-Conti Page 177 - Coal Tit © 2021 Rebecca Gibson Page 191 - The Old Oak, Wellington, Somerset © 2021 Sue Rickard Page 203 - Garden Spider © 2021 Jane Adams Page 217 - Tufty Red Squirrel © 2021 Rebecca Gibson Page 229 - Looking up towards Adams Oak © 2021 Jane Adams Page 241 - Waves at the Harbour © 2021 Rebecca Gibson Page 251 - Dorset Coast © 2021 Jane Adams Page 265 - Red Stag © 2021 Rebecca Gibson

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