Northwords Now Issue 40

The FREE literary magazine of the North

New kinds of wild

A Review by Kenny Taylor

Antlers of Water
Edited by Kathleen Jamie
Canongate (2020)

Cottongrass Summer
Roy Dennis
Saraband (2020)

A good anthology is much more than a book to keep for occasional reference and sporadic reading. It can surprise, entertain and give fresh ideas. It can nudge imagination to move in unexpected ways. ‘Antlers of Water’ is just such a work.

Its subtitle describes it as writing on Scotland’s nature and environment. Yet that seems too slight a description for the diversity of voices, points of view and language from the commissioned writers within it.  As its editor and curator, Kathleen Jamie, makes clear in her introduction, it’s also a call to arms. She announces it as showcasing ‘a new Scottish nature writing’, which ‘addresses the realities of our times and examines the relationship with our fellow creatures, our beloved and fast-changing landscapes, our energy futures, our ancient past.’

Bold claims, but coming from a writer whose work in response to nature and places in both poetry and prose has won international acclaim, they need to be taken seriously; seriously enough for this reader to overcome a long-standing dislike of the very term ‘nature writing’. I remember, for example, attending a reading in Washington DC a couple of decades ago where Barry Lopez – one of North America’s most distinguished writers on nature, the land and conservation – read D.H. Lawrence’s poem ‘Snake’. He relished the twists and multi-layered meanings of the lines as he read. Then he put the book down and said, raising his eyebrows: “that was by D.H. Lawrence – a ‘nature writer’.”

Since then, I’ve come, slowly, to accept that the term can be useful shorthand, while still covering work as varied and surprising as in any other genre. That’s art; that’s life. What’s also changed since I heard that reading is that across Britain, as was already true in the US when I met Barry Lopez, there are now many writers whose published work responds to nature at a time of ever-worsening environmental crisis. Bookshop shelves, when it’s socially acceptable to peruse them, have whole sections devoted to such writing.

In Scotland, we’ve perhaps been slow to recognise this burgeoning field, with some notable contemporary names as exceptions. We recognise past glories – such as Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir, Rabbie Burns, Neil Gunn, Norman MacCaig and Nan Shepherd. Those people also lived at times of national and international crisis, including civil unrest and wars, but had little reason to think that global systems of life support were going to hell in a handcart because of human actions. That’s what can distinguish present-day writing in this deep-rooted field from what has come before; that’s part of why this book is so interesting, refreshing and challenging.

The breadth of writing within it includes prose, poetry and entries that defy easy categorization. That’s the case with Alec Finlay’s extracts ‘From a Place-Aware Dictionary’, where I relished entries such as ‘ANTHROPOCENE: us being too much for everything else’ and FOLKLORE: a supernatural glow that diminishes from generation to generation’. Our own Northwords Now former editor, Chris Powici, kicks off the whole collection. Or maybe I should say pedals it forward, as he considers wind turbines and species re-introductions while cycling the Braes of Doune.

A further Northwords Now link comes through Lesley Harrison’s perceptions of land, water and creatures on the Angus coast, pared-down with a deft minimalism of line and word choice, such as ‘dunnock a subsong,/full of ornament/a choir of one’. Part of the pleasure in the anthology is the way that a turn of page to a new writer gives a different voice and adds to the sense that – yes – this could be a movement in progress, with writers linked by a community of interest, but who can’t be pigeonholed. That applies in large measure to two of the concluding pieces in the anthology.

One is by Amy Liptrot, whose life-affirmingly honest work always seems to defy easy categorisation as ‘nature writing.’ Even the title of her piece: ‘Swimming Away from My Baby’ makes you want to read it, and what follows doesn’t disappoint.

The other is by the multi-talented Karine Polwart, who has the facility to move from music to stories in live performance and recording studio, and here, to write prose that also shifts in form as the narrative unfolds. It draws on her friendship with fellow band member, Inge Thomson from Fair Isle, incorporating some of Inge’s lyrics from a song cycle album and performance called ‘Da Fishing Hands’.

Karine melds these with her own experiences to consider island knowledge of land and sea, declines of seabirds and the untimely loss of the young Fair Isle writer, Lise Sinclair. There’s a warmth in her style that seems to make the words glow from the page. If this is new nature writing, we need more of both that passion and compassion, I reckon. This anthology is an invigorating start.

‘Cottongrass Summer’ is a very different collection of work, but can similarly prod the reader to think afresh about nature and environmental issues. I don’t know anyone who can match its author, Roy Dennis, for breadth of experience of wildlife across the north of Scotland. Since the late 1950s, when he was a warden of the Fair Isle bird observatory (a place he’s championed ever since, including beyond the fire that ravaged it a few years ago) he’s been both a practical conservationist and a refreshingly radical thinker.

In April this year, he celebrated the 60th anniversary of seeing his first osprey, while wardening at the RSPB’s Operation Osprey at Loch Garten. In the decades since, he helped to pioneer satellite tracking of ospreys, greatly added to wider public awareness of this iconic bird and wrote a book about them. But you can’t define Roy’s work by ospreys; nor confine it. ‘Restoration’ is more the word I’d use to give a flavour. He’s the renaissance man of Scottish conservation, happiest to be hands-on and making changes to benefit wild creatures and their habitats, not restricted to one place, one species, one idea.

From re-introduction of sea eagles, red kites and beavers to more recent work to help red squirrels and wildcats re-establish in parts of the Highlands, Roy’s been there to walk the walk. But throughout his long career, he’s also talked the talk, helping others to think, not simply of protecting the wild, but of boosting and nurturing it. As I found when having the privilege of working with him on a couple of different boards, he’s often looking to the future, not resting on old laurels, and coaxing others to do the same.

That’s how it feels with ‘Cottongrass Summer’. The 52 essays in it (all short) do include plenty of details about his life, projects and travels. In some, he shares insights derived from journeys in Europe, North America, China and Japan with people who have devoted their lives to better understanding creatures such as wolves, eagles, lynx and more. In most, he grounds his wider knowledge in the soil and seas of the north, whether high tops, forests, coastal lowlands or islands. And (like another noted elder who’s been keeping very active recently: hats off to Sir David) he’s focused on what could yet be possible, if people have the courage and vision to shape new ways of respecting and healing the world we share with so many other forms of life.

The 52 essays are best savoured in small bites. I recommend at least one a day, taken over a couple of months, to refresh ideas, keep the eco-blues at bay and learn from a maestro.