Field Work: New Nature Writing from East Anglia (2020)

Poster designed by Emily Benton

Sarah Lowndes, Introduction

In recent years, the climate and environment have been increasing much on peoples’ minds, and this has even changed the words that we use. In 2018, the Collins Dictionary named single-use as the word of the year, reflecting the increasing global awareness of environmental issues, and the harmful impact of products (often made of plastic) made to be used just once, only to be thrown away after. The Oxford Dictionary chose climate emergency as the word of the year in 2019, defining the term as “a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it.” Our changing vocabulary came about, to a significant extent, because of the School Strikes for Climate initiated by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg in August 2018. Thunberg’s message was a simple yet eloquent one: “the moment we start behaving as if were in an emergency, we can avoid climate and ecological catastrophe.” A year later, the Climate Emergency movement had swelled, leading to the largest climate strikes in world history on 20 September 2019, as some 4 million protesters, many of them schoolchildren, demonstrated across the world for immediate action to cut CO2 emissions. Yet, while many began to modify their behaviour, for example, using a “bag for life” for shopping, buying less “fast fashion” or recycling as much as possible, still the world in general wasn’t listening to Thunberg’s exhortation to “act as if your house was on fire.”

Field Work publication designed by Emily Benton

Since moving from the city of Glasgow to live in rural Norfolk five years ago, I have become increasingly interested and invested in the natural world. In that time, I have worked on several projects that examine the relationship between the natural world and creativity, including my book Contemporary Artists Living Outside the City: Creative Retreat (2018) and the shared reading and creative writing project Like the Sea I Think (2018-2019). The anthology Like the Sea I Think: New Marine Writing from East Anglia (2019) was the culmination of a year-long project, which began with free shared reading and creative writing workshops at Cromer and Millennium libraries, and featured new writings by authors from across the region, sourced through a free to enter, open-submission call. Through the Like the Sea I Think (LTSIT) project, I became more aware of the widespread interest and enthusiasm for nature writing across East Anglia.

In the winter of 2019, I applied for Arts Council England funding to develop my work with local readers and writers further. This time I widened the remit of the course readings and exercises to address not only the coast, but to reflect on the wider natural world of flora and fauna and other forms of life, found in gardens, fields, meadows and woodlands. While the LTSIT workshops had been delivered at Cromer Library and Norwich’s Millennium Library, after consultation with Norfolk County Council libraries, I decided this time to work with two coastal libraries (Cromer and Great Yarmouth), to offer the workshops in areas where need might be greatest. Cromer is rated as being in the 20% most deprived areas in the UK, while Great Yarmouth is one of two local authorities in England and Wales with the smallest proportion of over-16-year-olds with level four and above qualifications (higher apprenticeships and degrees). The workshops were designed to be accessible to less confident readers and writers, as they were offered free of charge in public libraries – and used a shared reading approach, to encourage participation in personal creative expression by those who might not otherwise access creative reading and writing opportunities. The workshops ran for six weeks from the beginning of January until mid-February, aiming to offer an uplifting distraction during what is for many, the darkest, coldest and most difficult time of the year. For those who missed out on a workshop place or who lived outside the region, each week I posted the readings and exercises online so that they could follow the course remotely.

I decided to call the project Field Work, in reference to Seamus Heaney’s seminal 1979 poetry collection, although, as with the readings for LTSIT, I planned to use the workshops to explore some of the less obvious nature writers. My intention was to use the project to provide an opportunity to engage with nature writing written by women and people of colour, to challenge the conception of the genre as predominantly white and male. In order to show the development of nature writing as a genre, I chose to move chronologically, spending the first three meetings reading poetry: beginning with Seamus Heaney’s Digging (1964) and Blackberry-Picking (1966), then Audre Lorde’s poems The Bees (1972), The Brown Menace or Poem to the Survival of Roaches (1973) and Coal (1976) and after that, reading Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese (1986) and The Summer Day (1992). We then moved on to read excerpts from three contemporary prose writers: Helen Macdonald’s, H is for Hawk (2014), Max Porter’s Lanny (2019) and Elizabeth-Jane Barnett’s The Grassling (2019).

Along the way, we ploughed through difficult ideological and emotional terrain, discussing environmental issues alongside and in relationship to our thoughts on class, sexism, racism, mental health and processes of grieving. Field Work was not only a project about reading and writing but also about how we can come together in groups, to learn together. As Audre Lorde writes so memorably in her poem Coal, “Love is a word another kind of open.” Through our readings, discussions and sharing our writings we were able to reach new understandings of literature and ourselves. Another important part of our weekly meetings in January and February was sharing food together: to each group’s six winter sessions I brought drinks, fresh fruit (satsumas, grapes, persimmons, cherries) and cheering treats like honey, fortune cookies and chocolate to energise and sustain our work.

Each week we carried out a number of creative writing exercises designed to draw out themes and modes of expression introduced in the readings. We began with things that were relatively approachable and got more experimental as we went on. So in Week 1, we read and discussed Seamus Heaney together and then I asked the groups to do two exercises. The first was: Write about a memory of growing something – it could be in a pot on a windowsill, in a garden or in a field. The second was, Write about foraging for something that grows wild – it could be blackberries, horse chestnuts, mushrooms… In Week 2, we read Audre Lorde and then carried out an exercise linked to her poem The Bees: Write about either bees or honey. Have you ever kept bees? Ever eaten local honey? Ever been stung by a bee? For our second task, I asked the groups to move outside of their own lived experiences and consider the experience of being ‘othered’: Write from the point of view of a “pest” of nature, such as a wasp, a rat or a pigeon. What is your experience of the world like? In Week 3, after reading Mary Oliver’s poetry together, I asked the groups to Remember a time when you felt at home in nature. Describe that place – what it looked like, the sounds, how it smelled. I then asked them if they had ever, paid close attention to a living creature, as Mary Oliver does the grasshopper? Can you describe what the creature looked like, and how it behaved? These early exercises were mostly reasoned from the writers’ own experiences and designed to draw forth writing informed by their own wellspring of childhood and more recent memories.

In the second half of the course, our focus shifted toward contemporary prose nature writing, and I introduced techniques for writing in less familiar ways, such as using found materials, cut and paste and word association. In Week 4 the start of the Chinese Year of the Rat coincided with our meetings, in which we read an excerpt from Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, and talked and wrote about watchfulness, seeing like an animal, slowing down time and grief – with some help from the Chinese zodiac and fortune cookie mottos. The exercises for that week were: 1) Identify which Chinese zodiac animal you are. Write about that animal in a way that doesn’t immediately give away which animal it is you are describing. 2) Pick words from fortune cookies. Write a text using them all. The words the groups had to choose from included KISS, SKY, NOW, EXPECT, SOMEONE, LUCKY, MIDDLE, SOUL, HUMILITY, LIFE, FORTUNE, BAD, COMMITTEE, CROWDED, MIND, FRIEND, HEAT, HEART, ATTENTION, AGREES, CENTRE, WASTE, CRY, IMPORTANT and SEEKS.

In Week 5, after reading the excerpt from Max Porter’s Lanny, in which Dead Papa Toothwort eavesdrops on the conversations and interior monologues of an English village, we collected countryside and family sayings from the group. In Great Yarmouth, some favourites adages were: Rain before 7, Dry by 11 / Ash before oak, you’re in for a soak, Oak before ash, you’re in for a splash / 1 for sorrow, 2 for joy / In April, a thousand rains. In Cromer, colloquial expressions known to the group included: On the huh / Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight / Once bitten, twice shy / Measure twice, cut once / Pride must bear a pinch / Pearls before swine / Cast ne’er a clout ‘til May is out. Each person in the workshop selected 10 sayings they liked and then wrote a 10 line poem: each line of the poem either quoted one of the sayings or was inspired by one. We then cut our poems into 10 strips, shuffled them, laid them out in their new order and read them aloud. In Week 6, after reading excerpts from Elizabeth Jane Burnett’s The Grassling, we took inspiration from her poem Eighty Yellows / for my father’s eightieth birthday (2019) and as a group composed a word association poem of all the greens we could remember seeing in recent days, which in the Great Yarmouth group included fairy liquid, malachite, fir tree, moss, faded tattoo, wine gum, tussock, traffic light, screen…

As part of the project, there were two additional free events scheduled, intended to add grist to the mill of local nature writers: in February, there was a screening of films about Art and Place, organised by Original Projects at St. George’s Theatre, Great Yarmouth, followed by a discussion event which I led, on artists working in the landscape. In March, there was another film screening, of Paul Wright’s experimental nature documentary Arcadia (2018), which I organised under the auspices of Kunsthalle Cromer at Regal Movieplex in Cromer. The screening of Arcadia on 11th March was the last social event that I, and several of my friends and colleagues, would attend for quite some time – as in the following days social distancing measures began to be recommended in the wake of the growing Coronavirus outbreak.

On March 23rd the UK government ordered the first three-week lockdown to check the spread of the virus, after which people were only allowed to leave their homes for four reasons: infrequent shopping for basic necessities (food and medicine), one form of exercise a day (for example a run, walk or cycle, alone or with members of your household), for medical reasons (your own or caring for others) or for work reasons, when you could not work from home. The rules on daily exercise were subsequently clarified to explain that a daily run or cycle of 30 minutes or a daily walk of an hour’s duration, in your local area, were considered appropriate – although the advice was to keep 2 metres distance from other people when exercising outdoors. In the warm spring weather, this proved difficult to enforce, as huge numbers of housebound people sought relief in green spaces and beauty spots. In high density areas, arguments broke out about the paucity of access to and availability of green space – and whether sunbathing or resting on park benches was permissible under the new rules.

Curiously, the recognition of the Coronavirus pandemic as a global emergency, had an immediate and positive impact on the ongoing climate emergency. With aeroplanes grounded and cars parked in driveways, global CO2 emissions dropped markedly. Smog cleared above megacities like Los Angeles, and in Venice the canals ran clear and blue for the first time in decades. In the cities, spring birdsong was audible in the early mornings, and bats, badgers, foxes, fallow deer and otters were increasingly spotted in urban areas, embolden by the new silence. Although it had often been said that the climate emergency would continue because people were unwilling or unable to change their behaviour, the Coronavirus lockdown proved that people could change their ways. They would work from home, they would stop traveling unnecessarily, they would walk or cycle rather than drive and they would only shop once a week for essentials. Greta Thunberg had long insisted, “Humans are very adaptable: we can still fix this. But the opportunity to do so will not last for long.” In the strange spring of 2020, some positives emerged from the terrifying catastrophe of the pandemic, not least of which was the opportunity to be made to try different approaches to how we work and how we live.

Field Work publication designed by Emily Benton

The 31st of March, a week into the first British lockdown period, was the submission deadline for this Field Work anthology. In that last week of March, the world had been gripped by new emotional, physical and financial challenges, not least of which was the entreaty to stay at home. I was delighted, then, to receive close to 80 submissions from writers across East Anglia, reflecting (somewhat poignantly) on the world beyond our windows, and the gardens, fields, rivers, broads, woodlands and beaches which make this region so outstandingly beautiful. From those diverse submissions, I made this selection of 40 writers, each of whom has something fresh and interesting to say about our natural world. 14 of the writers in the anthology attended Field Work workshops, but most are writers I encountered for the first time through the open submission call. Reading the new work of these writers at this time of great uncertainty, we can perhaps appreciate even more fully the power of nature to positively affect our health and mental wellbeing – and inspire us towards change.

 The Field Work publication includes contributions from: Viv Allen • Roy Ernest Ballard • Scott Barton • Molly Bernardin • Donna-Louise Bishop • Ann Browne • Pedro Cassimo • Mark Cator • Kaavous Clayton • David Cochrane • Jessica D’Alton Goode • Maddie Exton • Terry Flower • Louise Goulding • Rachel Goodman • Sarah Hudis • Lotte L.S. • Rose Higham-Stainton • Chris Mardell • Gia Mawusi • Lindsay Nash • Eoghan O’Maolain • Jason Parr • Fergus Partridge • Zoya Petrošiūtė • Simeon Ralph • Claire Reiderman • Elizabeth Lee Reynolds • Bruce Rushin • Kim M Russell • Tara Sampy • Holly Sandiford • Bethany Settle • Gaia Shaw • Anthony Smith • Robert F. W Smith • Lora Stimson • Phoebe Troup • Christoffelina Wuyts • Joshua Zelos

It is available to buy from UEA Publishing Project

This entry was posted in Curatorial Projects, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.