Friday, 22 January 2021
Thank you for the days
Traditional models of writing about the natural world often imply a certain level of athleticism, of striding out into a landscape, of getting into inaccessible places. Yet several of the writers in this anthology are living with long-term health conditions or disability and have searched for and found succour in a micro-, rather than a macro-, experience of nature. Emma Mitchell writes movingly from her perspective as a natural scientist and long-term sufferer of depression of the proven benefits to mental health of being outside amid the green. Josie George writes of the challenge, and also the joy, of visiting a forest as a wheelchair user. Anita Sethi describes her childhood experience of being force-fed Weetabix by a desperately stressed mother, and the peace they both found in the simple act of observing an urban ladybird. Jumping back 100 years, the words of Olga Jacoby, written to her doctor from her sick-bed, seem just as relevant today. The artist and writer Louise Kenward, and the poet Polly Atkin, both living with chronic illness, write of what Rebecca Solnit might have meant when she wrote of ‘the faraway nearby’. The vital importance of making the natural world accessible to everyone is apparent in all these writers’ words.
When my niece, Anna, came with her family to visit me in the summer, in what now feels like a fleeting respite from this gruelling lockdown, she was enchanted by a simple bird feeder, attached to the window with suction discs and filled with sunflower hearts. Or rather, Anna was charmed by the scruffy collection of wet birds which came to feast that rainy July day: a Great Spotted Woodpecker, who she and my brother John nicknamed ‘Scruffy’, a sodden redpoll, and a feisty family of nuthatches, and perhaps most of all, by an exquisite charm of goldfinches. As a young woman with Downs, Anna found joy in nature in simple pleasures: the brightly coloured birds, the wide even footpaths, Morfa Nefyn beach, the canal towpath near her home. On an August visit to Delamere Forest a couple of years ago, Anna had looked around at the bilberries, the trees waving above her head, the bird-filled lake and said, her arms held wide: ‘Auntie Kate, this is wonderful!’ Very tragically, Anna died suddenly last September. I have included this poem in the anthology in memory of those glorious, precious days.
From All Soul’s Day (1970)
Let’s go our old way
by the stream, and kick the leaves
as we always did to make
the rhythm of breaking waves.
This day draws no breath –
shows no colour anywhere
except for the leaves – in their death
brilliant as never before.
Yellow of Brimstone Butterfly,
brown of Oak Eggar Moth –
you’d say. And I’d be wondering why
a summer never seems lost
if two have been together
witnessing the variousness of light,
and the same two in lustreless November
enter the year’s night…
The slow-worm stream – how still!
Above that spider’s unguarded door,
look – dull pearls … Time’s full,
brimming, can hold no more.
Next moment (we well know,
my darling, you and I)
what the small day cannot hold
must spill into eternity.
So perhaps we should move cat-soft
Meanwhile, and leave everything unsaid,
until no shadow of risk can be left
of disturbing the scatheless dead.
Ah, but you were always leaf-light.
And you so seldom talk
as we go. But there at my side
through the bright leaves you walk.
And yet – touch my hand
that I may be quite without fear,
for it seems as if a mist descends,
and the leaves where you walk do not stir.
[Photograph shows Anna, centre, with (l to r) her cousin Eva and her sister Lauren]