Seeing nature writing in a new light

This week I had the pleasure of listening to the In Conservation With… series for the first time. These are conversations hosted by David Lindo (The Urban Birder) and the latest featured Melissa Harrison (writer and podcaster).

At one point Melissa commented that although she wouldn’t describe herself first and foremost as a nature writer, a connection to nature is what drives everything she does. (This is my paraphrased summary.)

It made me realise that I don’t need to try to compartmentalise my life and interests and that, in fact, this can’t be compartmentalised.

I have always felt very strong connection to the natural world; it has a profound impact on me, yet somehow I end up losing sight of that.

I was reminded that when I moved to London I started a nature diary as a conscious decision to stay connected to the natural world. I had moved from rural Cornwall with undisturbed woodland and wildlife aplenty to a brick labyrinth where a manicured park carved up by  tarmacked paths was considered a haven. I was experiencing culture shock and all I could see was overwhelming asphalt and municipal bins.

I was inspired by Gilbert White’s diary so I started my own, and faithfully recorded the activities of the families of coots along the canal hatching eggs in their scaffolded nests bulked up by polystyrene kebab boxes.

Over ten years later, I made the decision early in lockdown to follow social media accounts with lots of natural beauty (although I had to remove the nature photography accounts with unexpectedly violent images and videos). Following @avesbrasil and looking up the names of each of the birds with my little one helped us both learn about some incredible birds and inspired my Brazilian bird poem mini-series.

The delight it brings to be able to identify a bird I can see in front of me from photos with names that we have memorised from my phone is immeasurable. Particularly if the bird features in one of my poems; that is priceless.

Common waxbills hang out here in their twenties – they love the seeds on the grasses (capim)
Bico de lacre – common waxbill

It is tricky learning local sub-tropical birds from scratch when your references are birds native to and visiting the British Isles. The house sparrow and urban pigeon are ubiquitous, but otherwise my thoughts run along the lines of ‘greenfinch-sized non-green finch type’ or ‘massive, curved beak, must be a wader, but which?’ and so I end up with notes on my phone that read:

‘November 4th –
Yellow belly grey throat black glasses
Wren beak’

‘November 8th –
Bico de veludo?
Bico de lacre barulhão chirp chirp
Sanhaçu azul?
Green blue emerald not hummingbird
Tico tico?
Cat hooting to whit wobble’

‘November 13th –
marrom escuro costas
Asa flash amarelo forte
Bico fino’

These are notes I manage while my daughter is insisting I pick her up to see the calves or is chasing the chickens around the henhouse, which is why they are almost completely unintelligible. But I hope by keeping them that I can match up the bird to its name in a later miracle moment.

A breakthrough came when my mum mentioned that the same kinds of birds would fill the same kinds of places here in Brazil as they do there in the UK. So now I try not to be limited by what I see in front of me in terms of colour, and attempt a sort of shape comparison instead. Looking at the same birds with new eyes meant I could suddenly clearly see that the reason a sabiá appears to be a blackbird dressed up as a robin is because it is, in fact, a thrush.

Equally, there have been other moments of epiphany when a photo has popped up on my feed of a bird that I have seen before but been unable to place and I am finally able to put a name to a little feathered face.

It is similar to the joy I felt when my three year old glanced out the window, summoned me and pointed out a bird she could see perched on the electricity cables. She then correctly identified the bird as a tesourinha (fork-tailed flycatcher) and I was overjoyed! Sometimes she goes with the blanket identification of swallow for any birds that she sees perching on the cables, but in this case she hit the bullseye.

The latest bird to make me very happy was the bem-te-vi rajado (streaked flycatcher) which I saw this morning named in a photo and suddenly realised I’d seen shouting near the river but didn’t recognise. At the time I thought that it looked a bit like a bem-te-vi but rajado (streaked), but I had no idea that such a bird existed so I didn’t even look it up. My favourite fact about the streaked flycatcher (found on the WikiAves Brazilian bird website) is that they love eating cicadas and go about it in the following way: first they catch a cicada on the wing, beat them repeatedly against a branch until the wings fall off, then throw the flightless cicada into the air and gulp it down.

The conversation between David Lindo and Melissa Harrison was revolutionary for me in a number of ways but principally in helping me readjust my thinking about writing about nature. ‘Nature writing’ as a genre is far more varied than I had every imagined, and is as remarkably simple as ‘writing about nature’ which includes poetry. So really I have been involved in Nature Writing for some time, I just always thought it was Poetry. I realise that this is a) simple b) obvious and c) very late coming but it feels very freeing to know I have new avenues to explore and new sights to see!

Have any podcasts, interviews or overheard conversations brought you moments of epiphany? I’d love to hear your thoughts – it doesn’t have to be about writing!

One thought on “Seeing nature writing in a new light

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s