Spring Reads

I’m currently revising for a horrid exam for my Masters, so to distract myself with more pleasant things, I thought I’d gather all the books that I think make excellent springtime reads. A few are from my ‘to read’ pile, while others are much-loved favourites that simply must be enjoyed when everything’s blossoming and nature is raw and green. Best served with a glass of elderflower.

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

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My favourite small museum in the world is Gilbert White’s House in Selborne, just south of Alton. Aside from its claim as the home of Britain’s first naturalist, it also holds the Oates Collections, an exhibit focusing on the adventures of two members of the Oates family who were explorers of the natural world. Captain Lawrence Oates was a member of Captain Scott’s infamous Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole in 1911-12. When his health started failing on the journey home, he sacrificed himself to allow his comrades to travel onwards, leaving the tent in a terrible blizzard with those immortal words: ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’

My obsession with Arctic and Antarctic landscapes has always drawn me to the story of Captain Scott’s doomed journey, and Cherry-Gerrard’s first-hand narrative is possibly one of the most celebrated, having survived to tell the whole horrific tale. I love stories that remind me of the power of nature, and the foolish assumption that man can overcome it.

Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham

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It seems rather apt to read this with the UK General Election looming. I have been against the badger cull almost since the very beginning; I was open-minded enough to try and understand the reasoning behind it, but it makes absolutely no scientific sense. I personally believe it stems from the Conservatives wanting to appease angry farmers with a quick solution, rather than investing in vaccinations and acknowledging that culls often increase bovine TB rates rather than reduce them. I didn’t think you could find worse than Owen Paterson, but Liz Truss seems to be doing a pretty terrible job in his stead.

Patrick Barkham is a fantastic nature writer, especially his work for The GuardianBadgerlands is an intriguing book about the world of one our most elusive creatures; many of us only see them lying on the side of the road, but at night the countryside is brimming with them. Georgia Locock is particularly skilled at capturing them on camera! This is a great read for anyone interested in living in harmony with nature rather than against it.

Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin

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In my final year of my undergrad degree, I wrote an essay on H G Wells’ The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Many of my points were based around evolution, and I regularly referred to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In the midst of my research, I also skimmed a few pages of Voyage of the Beagle, and realised how underrated it was.

It’s one of man’s greatest historical adventures. Darwin’s journey around the world in the 1840s took him to previously unknown landscapes; from Rio de Janeiro to Tierra del Fuego, Tahiti, New Zealand and the Galapagos, he was sailing to completely unchartered areas in search of nature’s greatest puzzle pieces. It may be that his final theories in Origin of Species are his most celebrated work today, but I love being able to travel back to the 19th century and discover it with him all over again!

Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell

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As a lover of everything nature-related, I’m ashamed to say I’d never read this classic before now. Published in 1960, it’s an autobiographical account of how Maxwell brought an otter back from Iraq to his house on the west coast of Scotland, and raised it as his own. It’s one of the most beautiful accounts of man’s relationship with the natural world, which is why I find it particularly relevant as we move forward into the 21st century.

After reading Tony Juniper’s What Nature Does for Britain, it’s becoming more apparent to me how we choose to distance ourselves from nature, as if we are not part of it. We foolishly seem to think that it’s us and them, rather than realising that we rely on a healthy ecosystem to survive. Being environmentally aware isn’t just about tree-hugging and vegan cakes; it’s a necessary lifestyle choice that we all must take, or everything will collapse around us. This book is a great motivator to appreciate the complexities of our natural world, as well as being a captivating story.

The Night is Darkening Round Me by Emily Brontë

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‘I wish I were out of doors! I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free…’

Nothing illustrates the wildness of human nature more than Emily Brontë’s windswept novel Wuthering Heights. Her poetry is much lesser known, but Penguin have released a collection of 80 ‘Little Black Classics’ to celebrate their 80th anniversary, and this is the one I picked up with glee. It’s only a small selection of her poems, but they are full of the same anguish, passion and raw natural imagery as her novel. Not exactly poetry to read at weddings, but it’s dark, velvety and full of life.

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I’ve been unexpectedly busy recently, and haven’t been drawing or blogging as much as I should! These are two little drawings from this morning, created with a watercolour base and fineliner detailing. I will be having these made into prints to sell at the Meon Springs Country Day in April – see you there!

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Ode to a Blackcap

In the early hours of this morning, the malevolent banshee that is my cat killed the male blackcap that lives in our garden. I first spotted him a few weeks ago when I couldn’t understand what on earth he was, and convinced myself he was some form of murky-topped tit. To my great joy I realised he was a blackcap, who have only started wintering here over the last few years due to the warming climate.

At first he was rather nervous and tottered about the birdhouse with worried eyes. By the end, he had found a mate and was startling the house sparrows into submission; even the starlings were respectful. This morning I woke up to find him lying on the landing floor, almost intact but with a few white feathers around him. I stand by my relentless admiration for dogs, who have adapted to ignore their hunting instincts and not kill everything that moves. Dogs are stereotyped as floppy, flumpy idiots that dribble everywhere, but I wholeheartedly disagree.

Our garden birds are currently making nests for their babes, so please keep your cats inside during the early hours for the next few weeks. Fortunately, I was so taken by my blackcap pal that I drew a small portrait of him a couple of weeks before.

Au revoir, bel ami..

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Review: ‘What Nature Does for Britain’ by Tony Juniper

Having recently relocated from drizzly London to the countryside, I spent most of my time reading Tony Juniper’s latest book on the train, chugging back and forth between the two. There are few places more suited to reading this text, traversing through a landscape that morphs slowly from green pastures to concrete jungle. London may be one of the greenest cities in the world, but it’s a constant reminder of the war we’ve waged on nature, choosing to exploit it for profit rather than working in harmony with our ecosystems to safeguard our future. What Nature Does for Britain is a manifesto for a green and prosperous Britain, working with our natural resources to protect our wildlife, people and infrastructure sustainably.

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What’s striking about Juniper’s latest book is the underlying optimism. Taking us through the various cycles of soil, water, trees and oceans, we hear of the endless damage we have caused to Britain’s natural systems; agricultural monocultures, groundwater drought and meadow depletion are all serious consequences of our meddling. Yet, not only does the author provide us with reliable, economical solutions to these problems, he shows us how new methods are already changing the landscape of our country, one small step at a time.

These are the sort of success stories that rarely make the headlines. Innovative research on sewage treatment and reservoir systems lack the melodrama of our usual news stories about muslim spiders attacking the NHS. Yet, in the January floods of 2014 we were horrified by the damage, with David Cameron promising to spend every penny on defences. Why are we unable to identify the connection between flooding and our depleted wetlands, forests and rivers?

I once worked as a charity fundraiser for the RSPB, one of the best organisations this country has produced. Travelling around our capital, I spoke to Londoners about the problems facing our wildlife and how they could help. One day I was working in a grotty supermarket in Southwark, and I asked a young girl whether she would like to help our wildlife. ‘Why would I do that?’ she responded unpleasantly. ‘It all deserves to die.’ Where do you even begin with someone like that? In the short time she chose to listen to me, I did manage to squeeze in a brief chat on bumblebees. She had no idea how much of her shopping depended on our fuzzy friends, and she did actually thank me at the end, although I doubt she’ll be going organic any time soon…

When asked which one book I would recommend to everyone I meet, I always say Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. She was an American marine biologist and conservationist who was one of the first people to realise how catastrophically damaging synthetic pesticides are to both natural wildlife and human health. What Nature Does for Britain is a modern alternative to this, being an updated British equivalent that clearly exposes our authority figures as prioritising short term profit over long term ecological health. But while Silent Spring was written in the 1960s, when the modern eco-movement was in its infancy, Juniper’s book provides real solutions to the problems Carson first posed.

Being a member of several green charities and conservation networks, I am reminded every day of the need to respect nature. For those who are unsure, or would like a solid guide to the power and potential of our ecosystems, I can’t recommend this book enough. What Nature Does for Britain is published by Profile Books and will be released on 12th February 2015.

Poem of the Month: February

Having moved home recently, I’ve been trying to carve out a new life in a place I haven’t lived for over four years. While I’m enjoying joining libraries and socialising with old friends, I’ve also been indulging in a bit of nostalgia to reconnect me with pre-university life! Consequently, my daily activities have recently been accompanied by the soothing voice of Stephen Fry, as I’ve been listening to my beloved collection of Harry Potter story tapes.

I’m currently on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, pretty dark for one of the earlier stories and full of serpentine mischief. Harry’s just had his arm broken by a rogue bludger, before Lockhart removes all the bones in his arm..

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It prompted me to browse the online abyss for poems involving snakes, as snakes have been used for eternity to symbolise a number of things: cunning, deceit, lust, fertility, etc. It’s always rather fun to see how snakes and worms have been used, especially in phallic poems like Blake’s The Sick Rose.

But seeing as this started with a children’s story, I thought it should finish with a poem by the creator of several children’s classics from the Edwardian era. Edith Nesbit wrote, among others, two of my favourite stories: The Phoenix & the Carpet and The Railway Children.

This poem is more adult-orientated; I thought it was particularly apt as we enter February, the last cold month before spring starts to bloom.

The Kiss by Edith Nesbit

The snow is white on wood and wold,
The wind is in the firs,
So dead my heart is with the cold,
No pulse within it stirs,
Even to see your face, my dear,
Your face that was my sun;
There is no spring this bitter year,
And summer’s dreams are done.

The snakes that lie about my heart
Are in their wintry sleep;
Their fangs no more deal sting and smart,
No more they curl and creep.
Love with the summer ceased to be;
The frost is firm and fast.
God keep the summer far from me,
And let the snakes’ sleep last!

Touch of your hand could not suffice
To waken them once more;
Nor could the sunshine of your eyes
A ruined spring restore.
But ah-your lips! You know the rest:
The snows are summer rain,
My eyes are wet, and in my breast
The snakes’ fangs meet again.

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Owl You Need is Love

In a strange twist of fate, I’ve found myself drawing a multitude of owls recently and I thought I’d share one. Owls seem to be rather popular at the moment, and I was recently fortunate enough to get my hands on a ticket to the Wild Life Drawing class in Haggerston, with live owls to draw!

Although owls are renowned as wise, beautiful, feisty creatures, I like to remember Edward Thomas’ poem when I find myself sentimentalising them. They are wild creatures in a fight for survival, a concept which we often forget in the western world.

I can’t go five minutes without a hot cup of tea, and I’m never truly hungry for anything other than cake. Although Thomas is referring to the suffering of ‘soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice’, I tend to reflect on the lives of wild animals as they fight subzero temperatures, food shortages and predators. It’s amazing to think of the different lives we lead, and how poorly most humans would fare if thrown out in the cold!

The Owl by Edward Thomas

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

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100 Days to Go

My sister has recently been jollying in Thailand, and sent me this quote she found whilst reading Tolkien’s The Two Towers. The ancient Treebeard muses on Saruman’s corrupted mind:

‘I think I now understand what he is up to. He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.’

It’s a startlingly relevant quote this Monday, with only one hundred days to go until the General Election. This morning, a letter was leaked revealing George Osborne’s plans to help Cuadrilla drill for shale gas in Lancashire, even if the application is rejected by Lancashire County Council. This comes after countless protests and petitions, and after David Cameron said that local councils and committees should have the final say on the development of shale gas wells. Amazingly, Osborne’s new-fangled ideas on ‘democracy’ came to light just as a group of MPs have called to ban fracking completely. The Environmental Audit Committee, consisting of 16 MPs from across the political spectrum, have called for a moratorium on the shale gas industry, on the grounds that it could derail efforts to combat climate change.

You don’t have to read the news much to understand a couple of things: firstly, the vast majority of fossil fuels need to remain buried if we’re to stand any chance of averting the horrific consequences of climate change. Secondly, the poor structure of our electoral system means that those currently in power can only see five years ahead, and rarely care for what follows.

This morning’s fracking revelation is merely the latest in a number of incidents where the health of our landscape, wildlife and natural ecosystems is consistently undermined in favour of profit, privilege and ‘progress’. Hen Harriers now face extinction in the UK after numerous attacks by gamekeepers, employed to protect the red grouse populations that will later be shot by idiots like Ian Botham. Proposals have been put forward to expand Heathrow and Gatwick, uprooting acres of irreplaceable ancient woodland just to put more carbon-pumping planes into the air. These aren’t just problems for tree-huggers and displaced hedgehogs; if we don’t keep our ecosystems diverse and healthy, we are facing food shortages and increasing disease rates. It isn’t a battle between us and the natural world, it is a shared problem – and we will fall the furthest.

Treebeard’s reflections on Saruman could be applied to a wide number of politicians today, all of whom declare their love for our green and pleasant land. David Cameron once famously said he would no more put our Green Belts at risk than his own family, yet, interestingly, he has now decided that building on the Belt is better for our children as – wait for it – it helps them get on the property ladder! Such splendid priorities…

I’m rather excited for the next 100 days, to see what delightful tricks each party will play to manipulate the peasants they rule over. More housing! Less tax! More NHS funding! I have personally lost all faith in the Frankenstein’s monster that is the Labour-Tories (aren’t they the same now?), and the Lib Dems are about as useful as soft cheese in August.

I will be voting Green, because speedy flights to Hong Kong aren’t worth much when there’s nothing to eat.

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Big Garden Birdwatch 2015

What a sumptuous day for the Big Garden Birdwatch! Perfectly crisp and dazzlingly cold, I wasn’t too distressed that I was required to sit inside with a cup of Lady Grey to watch the birds this afternoon. If you aren’t aware, the Big Garden Birdwatch is an annual event organised by the RSPB, encouraging everyone to watch the birds in their garden for one hour, and send in the results.

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It’s a great way for ornithologists to gain a ‘snapshot’ of British birdlife and population distribution, but the true brilliance lies in the way it gets children and adults to gaze patiently outside and really appreciate the miraculous wildlife tottering around in their patch.

This year was particularly exciting for me as we’ve just moved house! Our old house was a little dry for birdlife, with a few sparrows and pigeons making up the bulk of our backyard bonanza. What a difference we’ve found on the other side of town!

Today, our garden menagerie included: 2 collared doves, 1 woodpigeon, 15 house sparrows, 2 robins, 4 starlings, 2 blackbirds, 2 blue tits, 2 bullfinches and 1 chubby dunnock. I was frustrated that a couple of other guests didn’t show up in the hour, as I know we have long-tailed tits and great tits hobbling around somewhere nearby…

But I was very proud to see my pair of bullfinches, who turned up a few days ago eating our rosehips. I read that they are monogamous, so I have become rather sentimental and declared them married.

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There’s still time to take part in this year’s Birdwatch by registering here! Otherwise, you could take part in the Big Butterfly Count in the summer with the Butterfly Conservation Trust. I wrote about my 2014 count here, where I chased commas across the South Downs!

Graduate blues & the trouble with London

I was inspired to write this post by my good pal Beth, with whom I studied at university. She wrote a post on her blog about how 2014 had been a little frustrating, and how she was taking steps to ensure this year would be a vast improvement. I don’t think Beth and I are alone in wondering where life went after the undergraduate days, where we had the freedom to get wonderfully drunk, discuss Dracula and pursue our future writing careers without the burden of: ‘Will this pay the rent?’ Unless you stumbled (mortarboard-and-all) from Bristol cathedral into your dream job, I think most of my fellow graduates have found the afterlife quite an anti-climax.

1075540_10151593951587252_1355916897_oIt sounds silly, but when you’re in the careers lectures and the one-on-ones and the ‘development’ meetings, you assume that you’ll just walk into a job you like after graduation. I did everything I could to make my CV golden; I edited student newspapers, joined drama and riding clubs, worked as a tutor for younger students, gained work experience and made loads of fabulous friends. It seemed like the perfect package – surely the Guardian would be begging me to join the team?

No, I wasn’t that foolish. But I did think I would find something, and to be fair I did. I worked in my university’s alumni office for a year after graduation, and it was a wonderful job. But when I relocated to London to start my Masters, it was a completely different story. You’d think that London would be a piece of cake; every charity, business and brand has plopped their headquarters in the capital. It must have a million, billion jobs to choose from! And it does. But there are a million, billion, trillion other people applying for them. Once I found a vacancy on a recruitment site for a plain old admin assistant. No particular skills or experience, just data entry and fetching tea. In the first four hours it had received 87 applications..

At first I faced it head on, thinking that if I just sent enough applications, one would get through. I reckon I wrote about 50 decent applications in the first few weeks of London life (I did have a crappy rent-paying job, just not one that gave me the will to live). I like to think I’m a capable wordsmith, and I thought I knew what an appealing cover letter looked like. But after weeks and weeks without even an interview for a ‘real job’, the sparkling bubble that is London started looking rather oily.

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To cut a long story short, about a week ago I moved back home to Hampshire. There were a couple of reasons involved, but for quite a while I realised I wasn’t really a ‘London’ person. I love going there for daytrips to university and work, but there’s something about living there I just can’t get on with. Everyone says this, but my GOD there are so many people it is stifling. And also smoggy. I enjoy travelling into the centre, and before Christmas I was working as a temp at Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly, which I really loved! But I missed the peace and quiet of the countryside, and I am much happier and more productive now.

So the reason for this post is to help me focus on returning home after being away for almost five years, and to start thinking about the months ahead. Ironically, I’ve now managed to find casual work at a national newspaper in the city, so I have a kind of springboard to avoid utter destitution before springtime. And despite my bitching, it’s cool to have an excuse to visit London, as the country can be a little dull on rainy days.

So if you’ll just bear with, here is a little list of things I’m doing to push myself forward, because really I’ve been rather blue.

Masters frolics

As I said, my productivity has mega increased since moving home, which is why this week I’ve been pouring over Sylvia Plath’s miserable masterpieces and trying not to see everything in red and white. I love my Masters, and I’ve worked really hard to pay my fees and get the most out of it. This will continue!

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Sugar woes

Last summer I completed Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar programme. For some reason I never blogged about it, but it was literally the best thing I’ve ever done! Aside from making me shed lots of weight, it helped me sleep better and drastically reduced my sleep talking, which is a hilarious thing to be cursed with. Since Christmas I’ve completely given into jaffa cakes and leftover chocolate coins, and I can feel myself getting podgy and tired. Back to the routine!

520b0438c566d70ad80904bbWriting and drawing

My wildlife illustrations are proving very popular, but I need to commit more time to them while I have the chance. I’ve been meaning to branch out into tote bags, stationery sets and all sorts for ages, and I’m finally going to do it! Similarly, I’ve been veeery quietly writing a novel for a while now, and I need to start giving myself the time to bash some words out each week rather than writing one lonely sentence before falling asleep to Call the Midwife.

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Volunteering for badgers

If you follow me on Twitter, you may see the occasional post about badgers and badger cull politics. I am really passionate about these monochrome little creatures, how ignorant our environment secretaries have been, and just the whole miserable business. The Badger Trust is an amazing charity that helps injured badgers and raises awareness for their welfare, and I will soon be volunteering with their West Surrey branch! I’m hoping to learn a lot about badger ecology and help out as much as possible.

6a00d8346d963f69e200e553a81e178834So there we are. What started as a rather depressing blog post has blossomed into a list of things that I think will cheer me up. Alongside the streams of ‘2015 IS GOING TO BE GREAT’ posts in the blogosphere, I’ve read a few other blogs where people are finding it hard to face 2015 with much cheer. I think perhaps if we all focus on the little things that make us feel better we can make it to spring, when we will be showered with sunshine, bunnies and easter eggs. Hoorah!

Poem of the Month: January

It’s 2015, hoorah!

Despite the fact that I am entering the new year heartily unemployed and brimming with mince pies, I’m feeling rather excited. It’s my birthday in a few days and I’m embarking on a supreme health kick involving an excess of curly kale. I’ve also been working casually at a national newspaper which looks promising, and I’ve had a few delicious ideas for my Masters thesis.

January’s poem of the month happens to be my favourite poem of all time! The Darkling Thrush was written at the turn of the century; the narrator observes the crisp, hostile landscape and anticipates a dark future ahead. But, upon hearing the ‘full-hearted evensong’ of a weary, old thrush, he is revived with hope.

Despite his depressing tendencies, Hardy is one of my favourite British writers, and I think this poem is perfect for the cynics among us who need to cheer up. I’ve included a few photos I took over Christmas in the South Downs where, when not in smoggy London, I am fortunate enough to live!

The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy

I leant upon a coppice gate
          When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
      The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
      Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
      Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
      The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
      The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
      Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
      Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
      The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
      Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
      In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
      Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
      Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
      Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
      His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
      And I was unaware.
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