sh is one of the commonest trees in Britain,
from the mountains of South Wales to the glens
of Scotland, the hedges of Ireland, and the railway
banks of the English Midlands. It is mainly a wild
tree; it looks after itself and costs nothing. Among
wild trees it is somewhat under-appreciated: it has
not the glamour of birch, the mystery of lime, the
ruggedness of black poplar, the antiquity of yew, the
magic of rowan, or the lore and legend of oak. It is
a very recognisable tree, a tree that people are fond
of in a quiet way, but not the sort of tree that people
are moved to write about.
There are probably more ash trees in Britain than
there are people – but what does such a statement
mean? Like most statistics, it is hedged about with
problems of definition (how big does a little ash tree
have to get before it is counted?). The internet has
plenty of official figures about ash, but not knowing
exactly what they mean I shall not make much use
of them.
Everyone knows what an ash tree looks like. It is
one of the most recognisable of trees. Ash comes
into leaf late and loses its leaves early. In summer
the compound leaves (with leaflets on either side
of a midrib and one leaflet at the end) in opposite
pairs are highly distinctive. In autumn the leaves fall
usually while still green, but may turn yellow; the
bunches of flattened ash keys, each one enclosing a
seed, then fall. In winter it is recognised by the thick
curving twigs in opposite pairs, with fat dull-black
buds. Ash bark is pale grey, but now increasingly
covered with many-coloured lichens. The tree
spreads widely where it has room: most old ashes
have several trunks from a common base. It is one
of the few trees to have a distinctive sound – the
clattering of the twigs of an ashwood in a gale is
The first noticing of ‘Ash Dieback’ disease in
Britain in 2012 was seized on by the Press as a manmade disaster and a scandal that should have been
avoided. Ash is a successful tree that is more than
capable of taking care of itself: yet people had been
planting ash trees in their millions, and importing little
ash trees by the million, and inevitably introducing
this inconspicuous pathogen, which supposedly was
on the way to killing every ash tree in Europe.
On present information it would be wrong to put
all the blame for Ash Disease on the nursery trade.
However, this was not an isolated event: it brought
to immediate public attention something that I have
been rabbiting on about for years without anyone
listening: the greatest threat to the world’s trees
and forests is globalisation of plant diseases, the
casual way in which plants and soil are shipped and
flown around the globe in commercial quantities,
inevitably bringing with them diseases to which the
plants at their destination have no resistance. This
has been subtracting tree after tree from the world’s
ecosystems; if it goes on for another hundred years
how much will be left?
Preface from The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham
Published by August 2014, £15
Ash Dome,Winter (2012) by © David Nash
ADAM THORPE revisits the landscape
which inspired his classic Ulver ton
am perhaps exaggerating my solitariness, especially
as the terms passed. There were deeply sympathetic
and inspiring teachers who opened myriad doors,
especially to literature and theatre and history and art,
and who encouraged our green shoots of learning with
a master-gardener’s patience and respect. Good friends
were also made who are still close to my heart four
decades later.
One wintry Sunday when I was about fifteen, three
of us went off on our ‘grids’ to treasure hunt in East
Kennet Long Barrow, the neglected sibling of the
celebrated West Kennet version. Stranded in a field, East
Kennet had no public access and was unexcavated; more
mystery, forbidden territory – the essential ingredients
for boyish adventure. The megalithic geek of the trio
informed us that West Kennet’s status as the longest in
Europe was false: at around 350 feet, East Kennet took
the laurels. It was at least 5,000 years old, he said, and he
had found shards and flints in the ploughland around it.
We left our grids on the nearby bridleway and struck
off across the furrows, expecting an angry farmer’s
shout at any moment. The barrow, shrouded entirely
in bushes and trees – its own spinney – was enormous.
We crouched by its protruding sarsens at one end, trying
to conjure ghosts from the shivery damp. No ghosts
came, but instead I had an extraordinary sense of my
own mortality. I had never really understood it before,
not in my stripling bones, but now they were feeling it as
chill fact: I was a mere blip, soon to be extinguished, in
comparison with the multiple generations witnessed by
this earthwork, and those stretching out into the future.
This was possibly my earliest conscious realisation that
death was woven into the landscape here in the chalklands
in a colossally evident way. I was a bit of a brooder by
now, and the Marlborough Downs encouraged you to
brood on Last Things, at the same time as they gave you
We searched for ancient treasures on and around the
barrow: I kicked at a promising flint and held it out for
inspection. Our geek was impressed: ‘I think it’s an axe
head,’ he said. It certainly looked like one, bulbous at
one end and sharpening to a serrated edge. He advised
me to take it back to the Mount House, where a teacher
supervised the tiny museum of college finds.
We stood on the edge of the barrow and saw the
pudding-bowl lump of Silbury Hill in the distance.
Although we’d trooped into the school’s Bradleian
Theatre for an introductory lecture on the general area in
my second term, the current notion of a single and vast
‘complex’ that might have included Stonehenge twenty
miles to the south was never (as far as I remember)
mooted: only the immediate area around Avebury was
so designated. All I gathered was that no one knew
why these things had been thrown up, that they were
the debris of former beliefs, and that Merlin and flying
saucers had nothing to do with them. I recall a distinct,
rather creepy sense of darkness, like a dark fog, as the
lecturer – Martin Evans, a genuinely funny history
teacher who was to bring a crystal note of humour and
kindliness to my time at Marlborough – took us briskly
through the Neolithic remnants and their sad destruction
at the hands of farmers and fanatics. It was impossible
to imagine these sites as they might have looked to
their builders, to the peoples of the time: as something
brilliantly and gleamingly new and modern (although the
‘modern’ is itself a modern concept, of course).
Was this swirling gloom during the lecture a product
of my sense of alienation, a kind of grief ?
In the neglected cupboard drawers of ‘A’ house
basement, where we’d change for games, I had found
team photographs dating from the Edwardian period,
some sixty years earlier. There was one of the house
rugby team in 1910: two rows of boys aged thirteen
or fourteen, the perfect age for the trenches when war
broke. I was already a Great War obsessive: our English
teacher, the old and delightfully eccentric Mr Coggan,
brought back from retirement to teach the dunces, had
a limp from those same trenches and taught us Sassoon
and Owen with a kind of self-therapeutic passion. We
liked him so much that when he tested his powers of
telepathy on us, we humoured him. ‘Banana,’ he said,
opening his blue eyes. ‘Yes, sir, amazing,’ I replied. I had
been picturing, with vivid precision, an apple.
I would stare at those photos mounted on card,
those confident sporty faces, wondering how many had
survived. England expects…
Oddly, it never occurred to me to see if their names
were carved into the great curving inner wall of the
Memorial Hall, where the entire school would gather
for assemblies or concerts or plays on excruciatingly
uncomfortable benches. Built in 1925, semi-circular,
fronted by eight massive stone columns, the ‘Mem Hall’
was built as a monumental reminder of the 749 old boys
prematurely killed by the war: almost the school’s total
complement at any one time.
Excerpt from On Silbury Hill by Adam Thorpe
Published in July 2014, £15
ASH DISEASE can you identify the stages of dieback?
(a) Blackish spots appear on the leaflets
and the leaf wilts.
(b) The leaves wither and hang rigidly
from the branches.
(c) Early stage of canker: sunken, blackish
strip of bark extends from a dead twig.
(d) Stabilised canker: the dead strip with
remains of two dead twigs.
If you find any trees with symptoms of Chalara contact the Forestry Commission, download the Tree Alert app or submit details to
C AMERON SHORT tells us about his
ode to the the ‘Venus of the woods’
de to the ash tells the story of this ancient,
native tree and its place in our culture and history.
Given the terrible threat Chalara ash dieback poses
to our ‘Venus of the woods’ (the name given to the Ash
by woodsmen of old), the tree stands at a crossroads.
Around it are figures from folklore and times past: a
herdsman who carries an ash stick to keep the Evil
Eye away from his stock, a country girl who, hoping
to meet her future true love, keeps an ‘even ash’ (a
leaf with an equal number of leaflets on either side)
in her glove, and a woodsman who kneels reverently
beneath the great tree. There is also a ‘man of the
road’ – a wanderer – who carefully draws around a
basking adder with his ash staff (rural folk believed
that a circle drawn around a serpent with an ash stick
would compel it to stay within the circle, as the ash
was inimical to snakes). There is also a majestic old
wagon, and a broken-down wheelbarrow too because,
as William Cobbett once wrote: ‘We could not well
have a wagon, a cart, a coach or a wheelbarrow, a
plough, a harrow, a spade, an axe or a hammer, if we
had no ash.’ On the wagon’s bed sits a lashed-down
throne – ash timber was sometimes used ‘to support
the thighs of kings’. There is a young coppice worker
striding along, an ash pole slung over his shoulder and
a billhook in his hand (the handle of which would
have been fashioned from ash due to the timber’s
great strength and elasticity). There is a father and his
young son with a club foot, riding piggyback, walking
towards the tree – ash trees were often cleft asunder
by country folk, and their sick children passed through
the apertures (held open by wedges) in the hope that
such a process would cure them.
On hearing for the first time about Ash Dieback, I
felt compelled to celebrate this tree ‒ not just for its
graceful lines, but for its usefulness over the ages too. I
felt that if people knew more about our ‘Venus of the
Woods’ ‒ how much it had contributed to our history
and culture ‒ they may be moved to help protect it.
cameron short honed his skills as a hand-block
printer through an apprenticeship with the celebrated
artist Marthe Armitage. All of Cameron’s work is
produced on his 1904 proofing press.
Ode to the Ash by Cameron Short
Hand block printed in a limited print run of 50,
each print is 90cm x 58cm and costs £350.
Available in Slate and Carbon Black finish
Printed on archival printmaking paper
Signed and numbered in pencil by Cameron
Visit for further details
Poet’s narcissus
Beneath the trees, they nod indolently like a flock of little
blind gulls with their beaks open. The suffering the rest of
us go through gives them something to squawk about. God
moves among them, His word rattling around His mouth
like a brick in a concrete mixer – quand même, the word
Marsh Mar Gold © Kurt and Caroline Jackson
is, ‘nonetheless’. They begin shaking their wings, desperate
to lift into the wind but they’re anchored underground,
straining until they explode in a burst of pillow down – a
victory of beautiful but pointless innocence, nonetheless.
‘Vicious bastards with suspicious stains on their trousers,’
that’s Jim’s verdict on poets.
by Paul Evans
F i r s t P u bl i s h e d i n He r b a c e o u s, M ay 2 0 1 4
JAMES LOVELOCK on Gilber t White
and The Natural Histor y of Selbor ne
ilbert white was born in 1720, a mere eight
years after Thomas Newcomen, the village
blacksmith of Dartmouth, had composed his
seminal invention: the first practical steam engine. It
may seem strange to connect the first great English
naturalist with the father of the industrial revolution,
but as we shall see, the exponential growth of
mechanical artefacts that Newcomen originated
has changed our world forever and makes the story
of Selborne even more significant. It has affected
the nature and composition of the Earth and set in
motion an entirely new and unexpected epoch of
its history, one that we now call the Anthropocene.
White graduated from Oriel College of Oxford, but
because the living at Selborne was held by Magdalen
College he could only be a curate – it is easy to
forget how great the influence of the church was in
the eighteenth century. His letters provide a natural
and human account of a time now irretrievably
past. For me and those of us old enough to recall
the stunning beauty of southern England before
the Second World War – when Selborne had only
slightly changed – the subsequent urban automotive
invasion of Gilbert White’s world was a devastation.
The Natural History of Selborne was written
several decades after the Dartmouth blacksmith
cast his spell upon our world but, as with the
growth of water lilies when one is planted in a
pond, nothing much happens in the first few
years but all too soon the pond is half filled with
lilies. This is how it happened with the industrial
revolution; there was little perceptible change until
about the early twentieth century. Only now in
the early twenty-first century do we clearly see its
awesome consequences. This is why White’s letters
are so timely. They provide an accurate account of
the initial conditions of a small part of the world,
southern England, before it was interred beneath
the turf of John Betjeman’s metro land. To be
sure, the village of Selborne is now sensitively but
superficially preserved as it was in the eighteenth
century; it is more like a well-crafted specimen of
the embalmer’s art than the live village that was
the home of Gilbert White.
He is often taken to be one of the first
ecologists, and his observations on earthworms
and comments on their role as benign transformers
of the soil seem to justify this claim. Before this,
farmers and villagers tended to regard the pink
wiggling creatures of the soil as malign pests
that threatened their food crops. He was elected
a Fellow of the Royal Society, and I like to think
of him as one of the first to make us aware that
we share the stunningly beautiful Earth with a
multitude of other species. In a way he inspired
what was to become the Green movement of the
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, just as
Rachel Carson, about two hundred years later,
inspired something wholly different: the modern
urban political Green movement. It is crucial to
understand that the world Gilbert White observed
was almost untouched by the growth of industry,
and his letters provide a credible glimpse of the
countryside of rural England just before it was
about to change for ever. Men like him enjoyed
the countryside but also tried to understand it
through the open and familiar form of science
that was then accepted. There were no disciplined
separations, and science included everything from
astronomy to zoology inclusively, so that solar and
lunar eclipses enthralled them just as much as the
appearance of that rare and strangely colourful
bird the hoopoe.
Curiosity and delight about the natural world filled
the minds of these early naturalists; nevertheless,
their observations were properly scientific and
of a quality sufficient to provide a record of past
ecosystems and their climate. Using simple homemade instruments they kept what were in their time,
scrupulous records of temperature, rainfall and
many other properties of the environment, such as
that swifts flew south in mid-August but swallows
could stay as late as November. Our understanding
of the changing climate, so important to us now,
owes much to them, and their dedication to accuracy
was impressive. By comparison, some of today’s
urban naturalists are proud to exhibit a touchy-feely
ignorance of science and a fear of anything that is
not seen to be ‘natural’.
From the observations of those intelligent
observers, we have an account of the winter and
summer of 1783. We now know that the eruption
that year of the volcano, Laki, in Iceland, emitted
huge quantities of ash and sulphur gases that
subsequently reacted in the air to form aerosols of
sulphuric acid. White’s letters describe the inclement
heat, cold and fog of that year and the adverse
changes to the natural scene. Climatologists now
can test the reliability of their climate predictions by
using the Laki eruption as if it were an experimental
perturbation and see how well it agreed with the
climate change at Selborne. They can even test the
claim that failed harvests led to the privation that
helped precipitate the French Revolution of 1789.
There have been other volcanoes that have unsettled
the atmosphere and the weather since Laki; for
example, Tamboura in 1815, Krakatoa in 1883,
and Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991. From the
comparison of the observed climate change with the
extent of atmospheric perturbation we have greater
confidence in the forecasts of future climates as
they are changed by our own perturbations of the
air, the ocean and the land.
Our evolution as an animal species is intimately
coupled with the evolution of our environment and
it is wrong of me to criticise urban environmentalism
from the natural but old-fashioned prejudice of a
countryman. City folk are street wise and that is the
environment preferred by most of us now. The rapid
and unstoppable evolution of the Anthropocene
may force us to evolve into animals that live their
lives in city nests, just as the ants, bees and wasps
became social over one hundred million years ago.
I wonder what the countryside will look like in the
next century when we all inhabit city nests. Will these
nests stand as skyscrapers across the landscape like
the termite nests of the Australian desert? Will there
be anyone living in the countryside or at Selborne?
Our correspondent from Selborne was a man
with holy orders from the Church of England
and we should keep in mind that the greatest of
all naturalists, Charles Darwin, was also trained
in this way, at Cambridge. It is also easy to forget
Wet Afternoon by Eric Ravilious 1938
that in those times more than two hundred years
ago, religious instruction was often gentle, so that
intelligent thought about almost everything from
God, the cosmos, the Earth and the life upon it and
all the variations of human behaviour, were widely
discussed. Perhaps this is what Disraeli had in mind
when he said ‘the Church of England ensures the
presence of a gentleman in every parish’. It was
surely true for Selborne in White’s curacy.
Just as the morning mist vanishes when touched
by the sunlight of a summer day, so these simple
certainties melted in the ever intensifying heat
of the industrial revolution. White’s natural
history was what we now call science. But modern
science is now divided and subdivided into an
ever growing host of blinkered expertises. Try
asking the Professor of Biology at your nearby
university to name the strange green plant you
found growing at the base of a damp rock in your
garden, and he might well reply, ‘I would like
to help you but botany is not my field. I am an
evolutional geneticist, but you could try Professor
Wort, our Cryptogammic Botanist, whose office
is on the floor above.’ When you made the short
walk upstairs you might learn that the plant from
your garden was a liverwort and in addition some
intriguing details of its somewhat puritanical
sex life. I suspect, though, that you would have
been more enlightened by a chat with the curate
of Selborne, who would have had something to
say about the place of liverworts in the natural
order. What his account of its place might lack in
precision would be balanced by the richness of his
thoughts about its place in the natural scene.
I am fortunate to have had a lifespan that
began in 1919 well before the industrial roller
had begun to flatten the world of Selborne and
make it part of the ever extending garden city of
modern England. As a schoolboy I made a journey
by bicycle to Land’s End and back in 1936. As
I cycled from my home at Orpington in Kent,
I passed along small country roads and tracks,
passing lightly stocked green fields and villages,
often with small thatched houses built of local
stone. Villages like these always had a church, a
pub, a school and the village green. I had the good
fortune much later to live a few years in the village
of Bowerchalke in southern Wiltshire before it
and its hinterland were irreversibly changed as
farming was mechanised and became economically
The pre-Anthropocene world of Bowerchalke
and Selborne are now vanishing like the view of
a small city seen from the window of a departing
train. As I rode my bicycle I saw countryside that
had changed only in minor ways during the previous
two centuries. The small roads were almost free
of power-driven vehicles, except occasionally a
steam-driven traction engine puffing its way up
hill. Every mile or so I encountered hedgers and
ditchers, who with hand scythes and sickles kept
the way clear and seemly to the eye and who were
glad to tell me about their world.
james lovelock is an environmentalist, author and
chemist best-known for his invention of the ‘electron
capture detector’ and as the pioneer of Gaia Theory.
He is the author of over 200 scientific papers, several
books, and in 1974 became an elected Fellow of the
Royal Society. In 2003 he was appointed Companion
of Hounour, and in 2006 received the Wollaston
Medal, the highest award of the Geological Society.
Excerpt taken from James Lovelock’s introduction to
The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White
with wood engravings by Eric Ravilious
Published November 2014, £12
TIM DEE author of The Running Sky and
Four Fields talks about his wor k
Luke Thompson: You went to the BBC to become
a radio producer and have said that you tend to make
programmes on poetr y and nature together. I wonder
whether you could say something about your early agenda
in radio production and how this has developed.
Tim Dee:
I’ve been a producer now for
twenty-five years. I joined the BBC as a radio
production trainee. In many ways working as
a radio producer on mostly arts programmes
(poetry, some history, some radio drama) was a
way to follow a line of least resistance for me.
I’d done an English degree and could have gone
on to do academic research but felt that taking
creative books into the academy wasn’t especially
good for them or their readers. After my degree
I continued to live in Cambridge where I’d
signed on the dole and was claiming housing
benefit. At the same time, as was possible in
those days, I began to work unpaid (at first) for a
bird conservation organisation. My boss there,
Nigel Collar, had also done an English degree
and indeed a PhD (on George Orwell), but had
ended up working as a conservation researcher.
He wrote about threatened birds in the Red Data
Books – the monumental catalogues of the dead
and the near-dead. He had found a way to bring
together his dual interests in birds and words. I
liked him and I liked that. In my time there
I wrote a short and worthy (but tremendously
dull) book called The Endemic Birds of Madagascar.
To do so I toured the corridors of the Natural
History Museum bird collection and noted down
the bald factual details that were written on the
labels attached to the legs of the skins of the
dead endemic species: couas, vangas, ground
rollers, mesites. I never went to Madagascar.
Nor was I an ecologist and my under-developed
understanding of ornithology and conservation
science brought me up short. I needed to know
more or to get out and do something else.
LT: Your writing sug gests a pur pose – I think you said
in Archipelago that ‘Nature Writing is not what it
was and my books are announcing this’. I was wondering
whether the same sense of pur pose is shown in your radio
© Greg Poole
TD: That remark was not about the books I have
written or might write. It was part of an attempt
to describe the mix of impulses, including new
ones, behind the proliferation of writing about
nature these days. Nature writing is not the same
now as it was, as I said in that essay, when it
walked a thin green line between science on one
side and poetry on the other. The borders have
bled. My radio work is drawn to this bleeding.
I like taking truths about nature and exporting
them into places that previously have been
sniffy or unconcerned or careless about it. It’s
important for me when making a play to get the
bird song right. And I rebuke my colleagues when
they don’t. But it’s a little more than that too. I
think the noticing that must go into good nature
writing is really worth hanging onto. Acuity of
vision, depth of purchase, paddling of fingers
into the world, Thoreau’s contact with the hard
matter, all of that which comes from wanting to
see and know nature are qualities of attention
that take the attender close to love and we need
these as much as ever, even more so now with the
outside world being increasingly offered to us as
a simulacrum of itself, screened and digitised.
My radio work has mostly been about making
versions of things that belong – broadly – outside
(this could include a poem as well as a peregrine)
and bringing them inside. I work with news from
elsewhere. By outside I don’t mean simply out of
doors, I mean that stuff which hasn’t surrendered
to whatever inside might mean (a simulacrum, or
central heating, or complacency, or shopping, or
superiority). My writing is drawn to the same. I
want it to make less of me.
LT: Perhaps you could say more about that ‘less of
me’. What do you mean exactly?
TD: It sounds odd, I agree, and it is a tough
order for a book with a writer’s name on its
cover and a writer’s life splashed and dragged
through all of its pages, but what I have in mind
is something adjacent to Keats’ remark in his
magnificent and famous letter to Benjamin Bailey
of 22nd November 1817, where among much
else (the truth of the imagination, etc), he talks
about how ‘the setting sun will always set me to
rights, or if a sparrow come before my window,
I take part in its existence and pick about the
gravel.’ Taking part in existence was always what
I was after in my bird love, my pond dipping, my
nature table, and the same driver has operated on
me all the way down to trying to remake (or give
an equivalent of) those things, and the power of
those things, in writing. There is a paradox here
of course: this extension of self, the joining to
the world, that enlarges the self and makes us
feel ‘more alive’ and ‘more ourselves’, occurs
(most commonly) at the moment it is announcing
our separation from the rest of life. We cannot
fly or grow leaves but having that pointed out to
us takes place most often when we are watching
birds or botanising. The separation is declared
at the very moment we reach furthest across the
LT: Is this something you’ve been aware of in all of
your books? There seems less of you in your most recent
book, Four Fields, than in your first, The Running
Sky. Does Four Fields have a different pur pose or
approach? (I haven’t read The Endemic Birds of
Madagascar to compare it.)
TD: The Running Sky was about the air in this
way – a place we cannot go to as birds can.
Four Fields was about the earth – the place of
common origin and destination. My next book
will be about time – the Spring, nature’s and
Earth’s that comes around, ours that doesn’t.
The Endemic Birds was just a list of dead birds
and dead words.
LT: So would you say the books are all different aspects
of the same perspective?
TD: In some ways they must be. They are all
about our fall, our separation from the run of
life and how our knowing this marks the barrier
between us and Thoreau’s hard matter. Human
history is a story of severance. We are cut off from
the world. And in our mastery and ruination of
it even more. Cave paintings say this, J.A. Baker
says it, the Proceedings of the Royal Society do
too. There is no document of civilisation that
is not also a document of loss. We have been
making elegies for ourselves as long as we have
known ourselves as ourselves.
You’ve mentioned Thoreau’s ‘hard matter’
previously, and seem to parallel him with your desire to
‘take part in existence’. Several contemporar y nature
writers talk about the restorative power of this taking
part. I wonder whether you could give a hint how far you
follow Thoreau, and whether you consider your writing to
have a spiritual pur pose?
TD: When I hear the word spiritual I reach
for my gun. Or rather my wife’s. She is South
African and studied sociable weavers for her PhD
in a shifty place. The gun was to defend herself
if need be, to shoot the snakes that were eating
her experimental subjects, and (when required)
to shoot those birds as well for laboratory
investigations. All these actions seem to me as
eligible versions of ‘nature writing’ as anything
else made out of the living not-us. They are
secondary marks made on the surface of the
earth. The commentary that we live by.
I don’t feel that nature obser vation is necessarily
restorative: that implies there is something to be
restored to and I think we lost that possibility
in evolutionary time when we stepped away
from the wild flux of life into consciousness.
Everything since then has been about the gap
between us and all the rest. It is this I keep
banging on about.
I like books like David
Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous and I like the
idea of our species negotiating our relationship
with others as, to steal Jerome Rothenberg’s
phrase, technicians of the sacred. But we are
far away from the continuities celebrated or
adumbrated in those books and ter ms. Thoreau
was a great writer, but his cabin and the words
he made from his stays there (we remember he
didn’t need to live like that, we remember he was
the heir to a fortune made from a factory making
pencils) were thoroughly modern, a lifestyle
choice that might have featured in Countr y Life
magaz ine as much as in Resur gence or Earthlines.
He is great because his writing knows this and
captures the awkwardness attendant upon that
God is long gone where we live. Pantheism would
be silly. My writing is about this and about what
LT: You say ‘My writing is about this’, but it’s that
‘this’ I’m tr ying to get clear. You seem to be saying your
writing is about the loss of something which, as a species,
we never had and cannot have. The fall from something
which, as a species, we were never balanced upon. So
what does remain? Is your writing a literar y licking of
honey as the branch beneath us breaks?
TD: What remains are the animals, plants and
landscapes that we write about. We have mostly
destroyed them. But we have brought them into
meaning by doing so. To turn back is no easier
than to go on. The old is dying and the new
cannot yet be born (may never be able to be
born). In the gap is a space filled with morbid
symptoms. This is Gramsci on politics but I
find it helpful for thinking about agriculture,
forestry, mining, human-created climate change,
species loss. It is the writer’s job to notice these
and to bring the subject freshly (the fresh hell) to
our attention. What we have made nature be and
what nature is are not the same. Nature’s writing
is not nature writing. See Aldo Leopold on the
yellowlegs walking a poem. I am interested in,
and sustained by, the multifarious ways we have
spoken to nature and have thought that nature
speaks to us. It is an ever-renewing golden bough
in that way, even though it is, as you suggest,
breaking beneath our weight. Drawing attention
to this has kept me going for the last ten years.
Knowing it or feeling it has kept me going for
fifty. I like honey but I try not to lick it too
obviously in public. I also know the life-cycle of
© Greg Poole
the honeyguide. The bird’s farming skill, another
way of entering the earth, was the kick starter for
a chapter of Four Fields. It is good to see other
ways of living. And dying.
LT: The paperback of Four Fields is now out, I
believe, and you say you’re working on a book about
‘time’. How far along is that?
TD: Slow I’d have to say. I want to write about
the spring and about passages and migrations
and to move through a few seasons in step with
them, whilst thinking about ways we are not and
cannot be. It is just possible to walk with spring
– it moves up the northern latitudes at about
human walking pace, so that you should be able
to hike a breaking green wave from North Africa
to the Arctic Circle between midwinter and
midsummer and be, in effect, in or at the same
season each day. This is almost too delicious an
idea to contemplate. So, I have found various
reasons not to begin this properly. One was that
a trip I had planned to the Sahara in Northern
Sudan had to be abandoned. Human traffic
there has become dangerous, putting me in mind
of – but not able to witness – the struggles of
birds, our summer visitors, as they cross the
sand. Something will happen soon enough. I
am interested in human exits out of Africa too.
Toumani and Sidiki Diabate (father and son) have
a marvellous double kora tune called Lampedusa
which touches on this and which I am listening
to right now.
I think the great exchange of
sunlight that the tilting globe allows the world
each year is my favourite thing. And the fact
that we as individuals are allowed only one go at
spring – would you agree? – makes it all the more
poignant. Then there is the further fact that we
have – having burned our own springs – found,
in what seems like the late middle age of our
species, a way to so mess with the planet that we
can screw up its own seasons. There are things
to try to say, I hope. And I hope I’ll get round
to them.
LT: A final question, if you don’t mind. I loved the
book you edited with Simon Armitage, The Poetry of
Birds. It’s a real rattlebag of material, with centuriesworth of poetr y arranged by species. So you might find
Ivor Gurney and Sylvia Plath side-by-side, John Ashber y
and Emily Dickinson, or Edward Lear and Michael
Longley. But there’s a question posed in your foreword:
who was the first nature poet to use binoculars?
TD: I think, but I cannot prove it of course,
that it was Edward Thomas. Isn’t there a photo
somewhere of him with a pair slung around
his neck? Or am I making that up? Military
technology certainly helped out (even my first
pair in the late 60s were ex-army) and I wonder
if he wouldn’t have been issued with a pair of
spotting glasses or somesuch. As far as binoculars
actually changing what was written, the impact
of field magnification on perception, I think we
have to wait a few decades after Thomas (there
again, bird poetry went into a embarrassed hiatus
between World War One and the 1960s anyway).
Ted Hughes is the most obvious reveller in
the optical close up. His thrushes, I am sure,
wouldn’t have looked so menacing without a pair
of bins bigging up the drama.
tim dee is the author of Four Fields (Jonathan
Cape). He also wrote The Running Sky, a memoir
of his life as a birdwatcher and is the co-editor
(with Simon Armitage) of The Poetr y of Birds. He
has worked as a BBC radio producer for twenty-five
years. He is at work on a book about the Spring and
for Little Toller he is writing a book to be called
Landfill about men who watch gulls.
luke thompson PhD student of Jack Clemo at
Exeter University, literary fishmonger. Co-editor
of The Clearing Magazine.
greg poole Bristol-born artist studied Zoology
at Cardiff and has been a friend of Tim Dee’s
since their schooldays. Greg has a solo exhibition
at Muchelney Pottery from early September 2014.
Interview first published by The Clearing Magazine
A new series dedicated to the ver y best and most original nature writing in the British Isles.
Herbaceous is gardening with words. It is a book of
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‘the John Clare of his generation , feet not
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‘what makes On Silbury Hill such a rich and evocative
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‘an ideal, expert introduction to an iconic tree and its
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‘an engaging book, a deeply personal and idiosyncratic
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‘A lifetime of research and observation allows him to
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On Silbury Hill by Adam Thorpe
published by Little Toller Books £15
The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham
published by Little Toller Books £15
‘a secret garden of deep, dense word-foliage’
‘well-turned prose poems charting the seasonal
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Herbaceous by Paul Evans
published by Little Toller Books £12
Forthcoming authors include Tim Dee Ed Kluz Iain Sinclair Sophia Kingshill Evie Wyld Horatio Clare Melissa Harrison.
e. [email protected] w. t. @littletoller
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