A different way of looking at things

Maybe it’s a sign of the times. Maybe it’s because I’m writing. Maybe it’s just the books I’ve been reading lately. Whatever, something has affected me. Something has changed the way I look at things.

Not people. I don’t mean people. I’ve always noticed them for all their weird and wonderful foibles. I mean my surroundings. The environment. Nature.

Okay, I’m gonna come right out and confess. I am an apprentice bird-spotter. Yes, I asked for (and received) binoculars for my last birthday. I blame Amy Liptrot. Until I read The Outrun, I was under the impression that bird-spotting was reserved for the deeply uncool. Hey, leave it out. I’m cool. I’m so cool I’m practically an iceberg. (That’ll be the lettuce variety, obviously.) I thought that twitchers were odd-balls in anoraks, rivalled only by their train-spotting cousins. Not that there is anything wrong with being an odd-ball in an anorak. Some of my best friends…

Anyway, as I was saying. Bird-spotting. Who’d have thought it? Apprentice bird-spotter is false modesty, by the way. I’ve advanced beyond pigeons, seagulls and those ones with red bits that you see on Christmas cards. Which in my book pretty much makes me fully qualified.

And, would you know, it turns out I’m not alone. It’s the new thing to do. Just about anywhere these days you can find  ‘just-in-casers’ who carry their binoculars with them wherever they go. You know, just in case.

The thing is, for me, it has gone beyond birds. A past life as a parasitologist means I’ve always had an interest in creepy crawly type things. But now, like half the population I imagine, David Attenborough got me looking at fish with a new found interest. Sex-changing brutes rivalling Donald Trump for their looks, an octopus who disguises herself as a pile of stones, a fish that spends hours cracking open a shell. Respect.

But the landscape is my latest thing. I’ve been reading Kathleen Jamie’s Findings, Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, revisiting what I learnt in Higher geography (it was a long time ago), taking photos of flowers I can’t identify, trying to find the words for the strange weather phenomena like when the clouds sink into the valley and the sun gleams off their top surface.

All this isn’t to say that I’ve never been an outdoorsy person before now. I love being outside. Sunlight is the very best mood lifter. My idea of a perfect afternoon is tearing along the river bank plugged in to my music, listening to David Bowie or music from any of the Scottish Miserablists while reflecting on my writing and searching for inspiration among the downbeat guitar riffs and depressing lyrics. And of course, I use the word tearing in the loosest possible sense. My running speed is slow to middling.

But lately, I’ve been taking the time to see what I’m running past. Unplugging myself from the music to listen to the birds. I’ve been noticing. Or like Kathleen Jamie, trying to notice without worrying too much about how little I know. Following Nan Shepherd’s advice and literally looking at things from different angles. Out the corner of my eye. Side on. Upside down. It means I’m getting a reputation for being one of those odd-balls I was on about. Odd-ball perhaps but I refuse point blank to wear an anorak.

Extracts from Findings by Kathleen Jamie and The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

And once you start to notice, once you start to find the words for the birds, the flowers, the landscape, it is impossible to miss the environmental impact of our daily lives. Plastic floating in the river, air thick with traffic fumes, bird populations plummeting because of the impact of insecticides on their food supply. When was the last time you drove down a country lane and your windscreen was splattered with dead insects? It used to happen all the time when I was a kid. The lavender and rosemary are out but there are far fewer bees than I’ve ever seen.

Part of my reading was for a twitter chat that I did with the Women Writers Network. I read Rachel Carson for the first time and was ashamed of myself that I hadn’t read her before and ashamed of humanity as a whole that the warnings she gave more than 50 years ago were not heeded. I discovered a ton of writers to add to my TBR list. I discovered nature writing can be as captivating and engaging as any novel. I discovered new poets, essayists, activists. And I truly hope that what I learned will inform my writing.

But you still won’t catch me wearing an anorak.

Reading list and Resources

Women Writers Network
Rachel Carson
Alison Hawthorne Deming

Her poetry is the combination of science, medicine and nature.

Landlines project

Arts and Humanities Research Council’s hunt to find the nation’s favourite nature book

Other reading lists

The Wainwright Prize


Goodreads list of Women Writers on the Environment


Featured image

Photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash









Author: Helen M Taylor

Author of The Backstreets of Purgatory

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