The bare trees are veiled in static mist
under a white sky
and the air is somehow airless.
I cannot work out where we are.
We’re beyond Epiphany – well beyond
the stir of Christmas.
But the slender lilac crocus spears have broken ground,
just as last year, so tender
it seems unwise.
Their simple plan just to live
is bold and exciting.
And eight long-tailed tits – buff and black
full teaspoons of bird – zee zee and whirl past me
like a flight of hungry schoolchildren.
A trickle of snowdrops
hang their neat heads, shielding pollen
like a thinker shields thought.
Nothing is full of this
Imprint‘how beautiful they are, / as though their bodies did not impede them.’
– ‘Messengers’, Louise Glück
One year, a deer appeared on Christmas Day,
as though it had stepped out of a story,
broken free from the night-before sleigh.
It lay down by the garden fence, and we
gazed through the window like children,
feeling watched over, almost chosen.
It left behind a ‘deer couch’: a faint imprint
of its whole weight in the grass, resonant
as the empty chair of someone you’ve lost.
If I hadn’t seen the deer, I would have thought
nothing of this space, not sensed this
warm airy cast. The unbodied –
they leave imprints everywhere.
After your ragged moulting, on one sudden
day of sun, you broke the darkening autumn
with a song so pure and plaintive, the pained
cochlea collapsed around molten silver, pouring
into my ear. Your encore: that other sound
beyond hearing: with me so still and you
so close, I felt the trill of your wings
beat through my neck as you flew on.
Listen to Nicola reading ‘Robin Interlude’, ‘Imprint’ and ‘Another Year’.
How I write – by Nicola Healey
‘Many of my poems begin accidentally outside in the garden, sparked by small or fleeting, yet concentrated, impressions – defiant, quiet or peripheral forces of nature that take me by surprise. Though it can be desolate, winter feels a deeply pensive and poetical season, its bareness perhaps reflecting truth and the unknown, as well as revealing a haunting, crystalline beauty through its exposed lineaments.
‘When I was writing ‘Another Year’ in January, I was struck by Emily Dickinson’s enigmatic lines: ‘“Nothing” is the force / That renovates the World’, which harness the hidden power within apparent nothingness, linking it with the potential to make things new.
‘I find a poem-in-the-making can feel unlikely, fragile, and then inevitable, as though it has to be, like the crocus bud that pushes through frozen ground. These poems try to respond to, recreate and find solace in isolated aspects of nature in an often inhospitable world.’
Nicola Healey’s poems have appeared in The Poetry Review, PN Review, Poetry Ireland Review, The Rialto, The London Magazine and Wild Court, among other places. She won the PBS Metro Poetry Prize 2021, was a runner-up in the Ginkgo Prize for Ecopoetry 2020 and was longlisted for the inaugural Nature Chronicles Prize 2022. She is the author of Dorothy Wordsworth and Hartley Coleridge: The Poetics of Relationship, a revision of her PhD which she gained from the University of St Andrews.
‘Robin Interlude’ was commended in the Resurgence Poetry Prize 2015.
Gorse punches out
the winter, leaving
it dazed and glowing
on the crags as the
yellow spreads like a
rash over rock and
bog. It encases narrow
bowers of gold, turning
hikes to catwalks as
spawn sits like jelly
for a children’s party
in the murky pond. As
the tadpoles begin
to eat one another,
the jaundice starts
to fade, to be taken
over by Ribena
but it knows that it
took the crown.
Mum's sunflowers stopped
turning when the dog
died and dad drank
seven days a week.
You can plant a garden
but you can't make it
grow, can't make anything
face something it doesn't
want to, even if that thing
is good for it, even if
that thing is life
It's true that they can hurt, especially
when surprised, especially when caught
in a glass or down a top or a pair
of pants. It's true that it helps
to carry a weapon
on your person - it's true
that we are taught self-
defence. But just like an insect
with a sting, we’ll get
blamed for using what defences
nature gave us
Listen to Elspeth reading ‘Turning’, ‘Regal’ and ‘Wasp’:
How I write – by Elspeth Wilson
“When I’m out and about – whether that’s in my garden, in a park or on a busy street – I’m always noticing small details about the lives going on around me, both human and non-human. I try to write these details down in the notes app in my phone, pretty much straight away, otherwise I forget about them. Then later I return to them and sometimes they grow into something new and unexpected: that’s what happened with these three poems.
“I took details that I’d observed – like the way the gorse turned the hills near me golden and how the buddleia was the same colour as the Ribena my grandad used to give me – and used them to free-write. In this way, the poems arose much as plants and insects do themselves; unpredictably, organically, intertwined with humans and the built environment.
“For me, the landscape and non-human animals form a crucial part of both my creative process and how I think and write about the world. These three poems are part of the debut collection I’ve been working on which explores what it means to be in a certain body in the natural world, seeking to find a home in a particular environment.”
Elspeth Wilson is a writer and poet who is interested in exploring the limitations and possibilities of the body through writing, as well as writing about joy and happiness from a marginalised perspective. Her writing has been shortlisted for Canongate’s Nan Shepherd Prize and Penguin’s Write Now scheme. She is currently working on her first collection. She can usually be found in or near the sea.
Stories and myths have the power to bestow or reveal meaning. The heroine sets out on a journey from the known and ordinary into the unknown and extraordinary, meeting a cast of characters along the way who hasten or hinder her quest. There is peril in this – our heroine may encounter enemy or ally – but the trail is well-trodden and the narrative finds resolution.
Standing on the precipice of environmental oblivion, it is not so easy for us to navigate our future path. The ordinary world is the extraordinary world. There is no map and no destination. The wild woods are long gone, along with the wolves and bears. Our threats are existential. And we need all the help we can get. Instead of waiting for a guardian to guide us on our way, we need to set off well-equipped for the horrors that might lie ahead.
Body armour has been worn for thousands of years by fighters and enforcers, from chainmail and lamellar, to iron and steel plate, to modern ceramic plate and Kevlar. Part bulletproof vest, part apotropaic object, my psychic flak jacket brings together an assemblage of universal archetypes, internal helpers and childhood imaginary friends to protect me on this perilous journey.
The Bear panel from the front of the jacket.
The front panel includes the huge and reassuring Bear, with his ferocious teeth and claws, and the bold and inquisitive Monkey, scampering on ahead and urging me forwards; the Fairy Godmother, kind-hearted and supportive, and her counterpart, the formidable and unruly Witch. From my coterie of imaginary friends, there is the soft and comforting Pookie and the wild and disobedient Deedor. From own my life, there is a primary school teacher and a wise friend who both saw me, praised me, emboldened me.
The back panel features just one character: Medusa. Medusa was raped by Poseidon in a temple dedicated to Athena, and then punished by the goddess for this violation. Forever cursed with living snakes for hair and a stony stare, she is later beheaded by Perseus. Truly, the stuff of nightmares. Medusa’s decapitated head features on the Gorgoneion, both as a protective icon to avert evil and a symbol of female fury. Medusa literally has my back, terrifying adversaries with her petrifying gaze.
The back of the jacket with the Medusa panels.
Despite mimicking the steel plates of brigandine armour, my embossed air-dried clay tiles are intrinsically fragile. The potency of the work does not reside in its physicality, but in its manifestation as ritual object, in making the invisible visible, the inner outer. As such, it is a performance piece, although I am no performance artist. The prospect of wearing it in public is mortifying because of how exposing it would be: ‘Why are you wearing that?’
And, yet, here I am trying to answer the question, ‘Why are you not wearing that?’ The compromise would be to conceal it under my clothes as a hidden talisman. This would be to defeat the primary purpose of an artwork – to be seen – which is not to imply that unseen art is not art. But, as psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott observed: ‘It is a joy to be hidden but disaster not to be found.’
Like a Möbius strip twisting endlessly inside and out, writhing like Medusa’s snakes, it seems impossible to unpick these contradictions. By exposing our vulnerabilities, do we invite injury or empathy? By revealing our strengths, do we elicit attack or admiration?
There is no easy road back from the ordeals of the extraordinary world we have so destroyed and depleted, and there are plenty of villains en route. We will need more than a good luck charm.
Emma Tuck is an editor and artist. Her work is informed by the natural world, inevitably refracted through the psychological and the political. She grew up in, and has since returned to, the West Country after spending many years living and working on an organic smallholding/nature reserve in the west of Wales.
This is an edited version of a talk that Sara gave at a seminar day convened by The Arborealists at Fyne Court on the Quantocks in September 2022. The Arborealists are a group of nearly 50 artists who depict trees and forests.
The photograph above by Hartley Woolf shows the Great Oak at Alfoxden Park, the house on the Quantocks where Dorothy and William Wordsworth lived in 1797-8.
Ideally, we would be outdoors now, sitting together under the trees. I would say “listen” and for 15 minutes we would feel the wet from the grass soaking into our clothes and smell the deep, fungal woodland autumn.
Perhaps there would be a beetle visible, a jay might screech among the oaks, and a slug inch cautiously along a fallen leaf. The light would shift and we would notice a spray of late blackberries – and a fly, probing.
After about five minutes of this, I expect your thoughts would have drifted. You would be thinking about the dampness of your trousers and hearing your stomach gurgle. Inevitably, a phone would ping somewhere nearby, and that call would be answered not only by the person the phone owns, but also in the minds of the two of us, who would then be thinking about our own devices and what they might be saying that we needed to respond to. By this point, we would be time travelling, thinking about the things we need to do next, or things we did earlier. We would have forgotten the beetle, the slug and the jay.
The living world speaks continuously, but do we listen? Really listen? And what would that listening entail?
This is not a new question. Here’s William Wordsworth wrestling with it at the beginning of the 19th century:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; –
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
A radical practice
I wanted us to hear Wordsworth because, of course, he lived on the Quantocks for a while with his sister Dorothy. That marvellous year at Alfoxden, with their friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge nearby, birthed some revolutionary ideas. The three of them walked the hills and combes, by day and night, in all weathers, seeking a way to remake the compact between themselves and the living world. For them, the bodily sensation of being physically present, outdoors, in the rain, under the moon, beneath the trees, was essential. They believed that imagination could only be fully ignited through physical experience.
This was a radical idea to put into practice, and especially challenging for a woman. It seems to me that Dorothy enacted much of her creative work though physical movement; by walking, getting wet, lying down in ditches to look at the sky; all acts that defied the social conventions of her time. Women of the gentry, which she was, were not supposed to get muddy. I am reminded of the scene in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice where the heroine Elizabeth Bennet walks – walks! – three miles so she can be at the bedside of her sick sister Jane.
When Elizabeth arrives, the ladies of the house make snide comments about the unfitness of walking. They carp about the mud on her skirt, reminding us that women who walked had to do it wearing ridiculously unsuitable outfits; long skirts, tight bodices, stockings. Let us remember that Dorothy’s walking was always physically less comfortable than it was for the men. For her especially, the physicality of now, was inescapable.
But what of us? Acknowledging our cultural ancestry does not mean we should live like the past. In that sonnet, William speaks of “Nature” as an entity or a place separate from us, something outside of us that we observe, or go walking in. He comes up hard against the cosmology of his time, which saw Man – and I do mean Man – and Nature as divisible categories under a father god. And there he gets stuck, and despairs.
On not being a “nature writer”
It seems to me that we need to remake our relationship with all the other beings in this world. For writers, this is about remaking the language we use, rather than accepting the old terms and the relationships they confer. For example, I don’t call myself a “nature writer”, because it’s an “us and them”, or more accurately an “us and it” term that comes with a history of patriarchal colonialism. Not everyone agrees – which is fine with me so long as they have considered the issue. Earlier this year, I was talking to the Poet Laureate Simon Armitage about how we use the term “nature writing” and he said he had never heard of the debate before, which I found astonishing. It was a reminder of how radical this approach can be.
This great remaking seems to me to be the most urgent task facing all creative people, whatever our practice. We need to end our extractive relationship with other beings and recognise that what we used to call “nature”, is not there to be conquered, or to entertain us, or to make us rich or powerful, or indeed to heal us. Indeed, part of our problem is that I am even able to express those concepts to you, that we can conceptualise those kinds of ideas in the first place.
So often I hear about “nature” having a “value” and being a “resource”, often defined as “currency”. Framing the living world this way by using the language of economics only continues this extractive relationship. It might seem benign to assign value to woodland for the health-giving benefits of wandering among the trees, rather than cutting them down and selling them to make chipboard, but the attitude is the same. Either way, we see the wood as a thing we can use and exploit for our benefit with no thought about how the wood might feel. What might the trees think about it? What might they want us to give them? Could that be something beyond water, light and nutrients? I’m talking here of a connection, a communication, something very deep, that it seems to me we, as a species, have always used art to achieve.
Sing it back
There is a theory that human language began when we listened to the forest and then sang back in response to what we heard. Words were born from that communication, as was music, as was art and dance – not all language is word-based. It seems to me that the universe wants that communication, is indeed communicating all the time, but we have stopped listening, let alone responding. Too often our technology has become a kind of evil shield that protects us by deflecting our attention. We are left under a kind of enchantment, absent, talking to ghosts. Flitting about in cyberspace we neither hear nor see. We forget that in this zombie state we are still, as Wordsworth wrote in a poem composed on the Quantocks:
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
Where does this leave us? My title, ‘Be Here Now’, is intended as a gentle nod to Ram Dass and his 1970s’ countercultural bible, Be Here Now, a beacon for young people seeking enlightenment during the darkness of the Vietnam war. Half a century on and war is still with us, but we also face a greater darkness: the possible extinguishment of all life on Earth.
This is an emergency – how shall we each respond?
We must find our own answers. But I would like to make a plea for going outdoors and attempting to listen, really listen, without intermediaries or distractions as far as we can. To be here now. Might we then attempt to sing back what we heard, according to the methods and materials of our own creative practice? Over time perhaps, we could enter the great dialogue that is happening all the time, which we have so neglected and forgotten. To do this wholeheartedly seems to me to be a truly radical creative act.
William Wordsworth: ‘The World is Too Much With Us’ was probably written 1802. It was published in 1807 in Wordsworth’s Poems, in Two Volumes. ‘A Slumber did my Spirit Seal’ was written in 1798 and published in the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads.
Knight, Chris & Lewis, Jerome. (2017). Wild Voices: Mimicry, Reversal, Metaphor, and the Emergence of Language. Current Anthropology. 58. 000-000. 10.1086/692905.
Maggie Wang’s, The Sun on the Tip of a Snail’s Shell takes its inspiration from the sixth mass extinction – an event encompassing destruction of colossal proportions and thoroughly entangled with what it means to be human. The poems touch the lives of a snail in a terrarium in Hawai’i, a bat in a tunnel in Sussex, and a turtle in a lake in Vietnam. At once deeply personal and historically and scientifically grounded, these are poems not just about the species we are losing but also about the world we have created and the ways in which it has, in turn, created us. They are poems of mourning coupled with celebration, of meditation coupled with urgency, of outrage at the havoc we have wreaked on our planet and of faith in all that remains.
What is it to be a woman and a writer in this world as it is now? Jaylan Salah shares the experiences of financial struggle, shame, the expectations of a female body placed on us by society and the freedom and catharsis of the imagination. Her recording was done in Egypt on Friday, in it, she shares what compels us to make what me make, the why that moves us, and the context in which she wrote her recent poetry book, Bury My Womb on the West Bank; the honesty of our lives in loss and hope, grief and peace.
She was born in Hamburg, had a nomadic childhood living in Syria, Finland, Turkey, Germany and in 1978 settled in Ireland establishing her studio where to this day she continues to create work that is vibrant, emotive and rooted in her Buddhist practice. Bartsch’s work transcends the boundaries of current conventions and often reveals a nomad’s pleasure in sense of place. Her spirit is evident in the touch of her pastels, meaning is ignited by pure colour, viewpoint is offered by dynamic composition. Bartsch is a person who is international and local at the same time and has generously worked for many decades with the Irish arts organisation Cill Rialaig, Tibetan Buddhist retreat centre Dzogchen Beara and more recently with Aldeburgh’s South Lookout in Suffolk. Bartsch’s voice reflects the myriad colours, ideas and languages she embodies.
Alexis Wolf is a natural storyteller, true spirit, champion of women’s writing and has a boundless enquiring mind and curiosity for past and present. In this recording, she shares that first fizzing swim of the year in a city of 9.3 million people; and an extract from Body of Water, her recent chapbook, published by Two Plum Press and set between public outdoor pools in the UK and the mountain lakes of the Pacific Northwest. Whether she’s plunging into frigid water on her wedding day or considering ecological collapse while swimming through wildfire smoke, creating her own mikvah or dealing with chronic illness, Wolf’s journey in Body of Water makes you appreciate all the beauty and difficulty of being in a human body on earth.
Alexis Wolf is a Polish-American writer, teacher and academic, and lives in the UK, where she teaches and researches women’s literary history. She has an MA in Creative Non-Fiction and a PhD in English & Humanities.
Phoebe Cope is an Irish painter living in Scotland and is a multi talented person filled with great imagination and wit. She grew up as one of three children in Kilkenny on a farm and had a childhood that included donkeys, teetering piles of Georgian silver, Pomeranian dogs, politicians , poets and enormous Gunnera plants that threatened to consume the garden. She studied art at Oxford University’s Ruskin School and later lived and exhibited her work in London while attending the Royal Drawing School where she still teaches. Phoebe is undaunted by the complexities of making art while raising two small children, in fact she is thriving, and so is her work.
This morning, it is not just us waking. It is the end of winter, the beginning of spring. Sarah Watkinson takes us through this hatching of light, leaflets, chicks and buds: nesting tits feed their fledglings on newly-hatched moth caterpillars, there is a longer, stronger light and we have the sun’s brilliance. Now, after the Spring Equinox the North Pole is leaning towards the sun. Listening to Sarah, lines from Philip Larkin’s poem ‘The Trees’ come to mind.
From 2019-20 she was inaugural Writer in Residence at Wytham Woods, Oxford University’s own field research site, where previously she had carried out research on mycelial networks of fungi which recycle mineral nutrients retrieved from remains of dead trees. She lives near Oxford and in Northumberland. Publication of her prize-winning debut pamphlet, Dung Beetles Navigate by Starlight, by Cinnamon Press in 2016, followed a career as Lecturer and Researcher in plant sciences. Since then her poetry has appeared widely in magazines and anthologies.