Wildflowers

On geography field trips to New York, my colleague Henry Buller exhorted our students to look up, to raise their gaze and take in the splendour above street level. So much of what is great about Manhattan is upwards – the magnificent architecture, the iconic facades, the murals, the life of a city built upwards and upwards. Neck craned and an upward gaze, that’s the way to take in Manhattan.

If I was to have visitors to the Rio Guadiana at this time of year my advice would be the opposite. Look down. Focus on the ground. In fact, get down on the ground. Draw your attention into the minute grandeur of the riotous life at your feet.

In The Wild Places, Robert MacFarlane eloquently describes the miniscule universes of floral life in the grykes in the limestone pavements of The Burren in Co. Clare in Ireland. He describes how his attention was drawn ever down, and the closer he looked, the more tiny splendour was revealed – profuse ecosystems of Arctic and Alpine flowers, each individual flower so tiny and delicate as to be easily overlooked by the casual passerby. But take the time to get low to the ground, nose to petal, and a diverse world of colour and beauty reveals itself.

Here on the banks of the Guadiana I have been getting down to ground level, knees dusty or muddy, chin on the grass, marvelling at the tiny perfection of the wildflowers that have suddenly burst into a riot of colour. Walking the old goat path south above the river, the land around is a haze of purples, pinks, yellows, oranges, blues. Get a little closer, and each individual flower is tiny perfection, delicate, ethereal, some tinier than a quarter of the nail on my little finger, others big and brash and showy.

Walk upwards from Sanlúcar towards the castle to find entirely different flowers to those a half mile down river. Walk north a half mile and there are different species still, each delicate species with its own niche along the river. They are all beautiful beyond words. And that’s my problem. I lack the words to adequately describe what is around me. Oh to be Robert MacFarlane.

I’m not much of a photographer either, but I’ve captured a sample of some of these delightful flowers on an hour long walk south along the river yesterday. Enjoy.

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Of hawks and wild places

I’ve retreated into myself in the past few weeks, unable to write, unable to communicate. The time of year, the news stories on the television, morose thoughts about my upcoming surgery. Early September hits me like a train every year. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, the anniversary of my father’s death comes around and knocks me down all over again. It takes time to pull myself out of that hole.

This year my grief has been compounded by images of new born babies, small children, old men fleeing in desperation from their homes and searching for hope in an unsure Europe. I feel helpless in the face of such misery and desperation, yet tearfully grateful for the crowds of welcoming ordinary citizens, opening their hearts and their homes to refugees.

So I retreated inward, grew maudlin and morose, became unbearable to live with. But during my late summer hibernation two books have pulled me through, dragged me back to the world again. Both concern the interactions and engagements between humans and non-humans, wildness and domesticity, love, awe and wonder. And both perhaps not coincidentally are written by fellows of Cambridge colleges, who are friends and who have contributed in one way or another to each others’ books.

H is for Hawk is Helen Macdonald’s powerful and moving story of training a goshawk. She and I were contemporaries at Cambridge and we met a couple of times. We shared an interest in the relationships between humans and animals and I was in awe of her knowledge and passion for falconry, mesmerised by her intellect and eloquence. Little did I know, as we stood drinking a cup of tea in her college garden sharing thoughts on hawks and polar bears, that she was deeply grieving for her father and living a half-wild life with her goshawk Mabel. Her book is an uplifting memoir of how training Mabel helped drag Macdonald out of her grief. But it is also a fascinating account of the history and culture of falconry. By the last page I wanted to walk through fields in search of rabbits and pheasants, to get my skin scratched and my hair messed up from pushing myself through hedges and into woodlands, to feel the weight of a bird of prey on my hand.

From H is for Hawk I picked up Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places. From his Cambridge home MacFarlane sets out to find the wild places of Britain and Ireland, places devoid of humanity and human history. But in his search he comes to the slow realisation that such places do not exist. The wild expanses of the Scottish highlands or the west of Ireland were once filled with people before Clearances and Famine swept human life aside. He discovers that ‘the wild’ cannot be separated from ‘the human’, they exist together. He discovers wildness in a weed pushing up through a crack in a pavement, in a spider web in the corner of a room, in an abandoned factory. The book takes the reader to the far reaches of mainland Scotland and the Isle of Skye, to Anglesey, Dorset, the Burren, even to Essex. In writing the book, he travelled to places I have been to and love and to places I have never heard of. His evocative writing carried my thoughts away from Leamington Spa to these magnificent parts of the archipelago and my soul soared.

By the end of these two books I felt ready to write again, able to communicate again, ready to return to the world. These books helped the dark places in my mind open up to the continuities between past and present, human and other-than-human, life and death.

Next on my list of uplifting books? Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It’s awaiting me on my bedside table right now.

Life’s big questions

A couple of weeks ago The Pixelated Parent sent me a Liebster Award. It’s a kind of blogger chain letter which, in a fun way, allows bloggers to draw attention to the work of other bloggers they like. Having already accepted a Liebster challenge earlier this year I was about to turn down The Pixelated Parent. But something prompted me to read the questions she posed. They made me smile and I couldn’t resist answering them, together with ten facts about myself. I’m not passing this on, but I want to say thank you to The Pixelated Parent for helping to pull me out of a recent writing slump. Here goes:

What is your ‘signature dish’?
Vegetable stir fry with noodles, refined and improved over many years and now, depending on what’s in the cupboard, served in lime or satay varieties. And, though not strictly a ‘dish’, I make a mean soda bread.

What initially inspired your blog?
Alun Anderson, former editor-in-chief of New Scientist magazine! I met him when I was an academic through our shared interest in the Arctic, and when I told him about my plans to buy a boat, he advised me to blog about it.

If you could go into Space, would you?
When I was a child one of my heroines was Valentina Tereshkova, Russian cosmonaut and first woman in space. I so wanted to be an astronaut. But, given the environmental footprint of each rocket launch and the insane amounts of money spent on space exploration when there is so much poverty here on planet Earth, space travel now seems morally and ethically questionable to me.

What is the most important thing you want to pass on to your children?
Kindness. Empathy. Wonder. Enthusiasm. Comfort in their own skin.

Where is the greatest place you have ever been?
Croke Park, late summer-early autumn when the GAA championship is at its height. More specifically, Croke Park, August 2nd 1998, when Kildare became Leinster Champions for the first time in 42 years. If I could relive one day in my life again, it would be that day.

What is the last book you read?
The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane. Finished it last night. Beautiful, poetic, and helping me to re-imagine the meaning of wilderness.

If you could be anyone in The World for a month, who would it be?
I’d like to inhabit the body of Ellen Macarthur, so I could absorb her sailing knowledge and skill and return to Carina and my own sailing life more confident and experienced than I currently am.

Do you have any pets?
Sadly, no. I grew up with dogs and cats and I thought it would be impossible to bring up children of my own without having dogs in the family. I know a few live aboard dogs, and maybe one day we will add one to our family.

Do you have any weird and wonderful skills?
I can skin a caribou, flense a beluga whale and gut a fish.

In a dream universe, what would you be doing ten years from now?
Sailing in the South Pacific, flitting from one idyllic anchorage to the next with my husband and teenage (yikes!) daughters, and earning a comfortable living from writing.

Ten things about me:
1. I hate marmalade.
2. ‘You’re so vain’ is my karaoke song.
3. I played the taiko drum when I lived in Japan.
4. I have a humpback whale tattoo.
5. ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘Born to run’ are my all time favourite songs.
6. I am a devoted disciple of the Church of Wittertainment.
7. I’m scared of frogs.
8. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is my favourite book. I’ve read it four times.
9. I don’t get Star Wars.
10. I had a Sinead O’Connor-style shaved head for two years in my mid-20s.