Writing The Rural – a MERL seminar.

In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re in the midst of a renaissance in British nature writing. On Thursday I went to Writing The Rural, a seminar series held at The Museum Of English Rural Life in Reading, run in combination with the Department for English Literature at Reading University.

The ‘MERL’ (as it’s often abbreviated) is perhaps best known now for their extraordinary social media reach. But the museum itself is charming and well worth a visit – more modern than I remember from a school trip many years ago, and no doubt long since refurbished.

The seminar was themed ‘writing in a time of environmental crisis’, and the chair was author Suzy Joinson, joined by writers Hugh Dunkerley and Tim Dee.

I’ve written several times on climate change, including my most recent piece, so this was of particular interest. In the end, the conversation veered somewhat toward more general nature writing issues, though was no less interesting for it.

A strong theme that emerged was how we look at and relate to (or don’t relate to) nature. Dee revealed he was initially drawn to bird-watching – his ‘curse and calling’ – because of their indifference. ‘They couldn’t be bought or sold’, he said. ‘It shrank me’. 

In a similar way, Dunkerley talked about how the ‘poetic attention’ in the works of Canadian poet Don McKay had influenced him. A kind of attention that doesn’t try to grasp nature, change it or utilise it, but is aware of its ‘otherness’. He quoted a poem title: ‘A song for the song of a raven’, as an example keeping ourselves at a distance, like the watcher in the hide. Likewise, a woman in the audience spoke touchingly about her experience of swimming with seals, and how profoundly affected she was by being completely out of her depth, but in their element.

An interesting counterpoint is animals who have adapted to human environments and behaviours, and the conversation dwelt for a while on seagulls, who thrive off of our wastefulness and swarm at places we consider unsightly travesties, such as landfill sites. There was a very interesting anecdote about WH Hudson’s book Birds In London – how in winter in the late Victorian age, poor men and boys in London would share their lunch with gulls, almost a cross-species worker’s solidarity. And strangely, there’s a chance that if we become less wasteful as a society, gulls may decline in Britain. Perhaps it’s precisely by reminding us of our wastefulness that such scavenging species (and those we call ‘vermin’) attract so much antipathy.

Dee came out with the lovely line ‘attention to detail is a species of love’. The average person may not see the difference between similar species of plant or animal, but once you discover those details, it multiplies your conception of the world. And yet he also pointed out that species have to have a common name before people really care about them – a Latin one won’t do.

Dunkerley is a poet and an activist, who has been involved in divestment campaigns. But the discussion left it uncertain how far poetry can really do the job of activism -it’s been said that ‘we we don’t like poetry that has designs on us’. It was suggested that the best way to write poetry about climate change was to write about a blackbird – to let it be expressed as a natural outcome of something else.

I’m not a poet, so I certainly can’t speak for poetry. But in terms of my own writing, I love making connections between diverse topics. Readers can decide whether I do so successfully or incongruently, but when it comes to the magnitude of our planetary crisis, I feel obliged to shoehorn it in wherever I can. It is unclear to me whether we really have the luxury elliptical approaches – these issues need to be a part of our mental backdrop.

Dee also spoke about his travels to research the movement of spring, as it progresses from North Africa to the Arctic Circle, and the strangeness of seeing our migratory birds in Africa, ’away from home’ as it were. It is another moment that shrinks you, and Joinson described how children’s minds are blown when you first explain to them the scale of these migrations. But in Africa Dee also saw the current crisis of human migration to Europe, and how many were tracing similar routes to those these birds make year in, year out. In all of this, it is worth remembering how much a privilege it is to be able to spend your days writing about nature at all.

It was a very stimulating session. The next one is this Thursday and features folk signer Martin Simpson, who will discuss songwriting and landscape. It starts at noon, and I’ll be there with bells on. Register your place here.

Find out more about the work of Suzy Joinson, Tim Dee, and Hugh Dunkerley

My most recent piece on climate change is The Dance Of Death. I explored how arts organisations might respond to a planetary in Butterfly Effects, and wrote about rewilding and George Monbiot’s book Feral in The Call Of The Wild

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