A Year of Wonders Under a Circling Sky

Writer and filmmaker James Murray-White reviews Neil Ansell’s new book. The Circling Sky, an account of a year-long immersion in England’s New Forest, is both a guidebook to close observation and a reflective elegy to place and belonging.


1,680 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes 


Neil Ansell is a writer of extraordinary sensitivity and insight, and as others have said of his work, it comes from a place of deep and sustained immersion — into the very essence of place. This new work, The Circling Sky: on Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest, demonstrates exactly that quality, offering a sensuous and at times challenging journey to get to know The New Forest in Hampshire, southern England.

Showing the cover of The Circling Sky: On Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest, by Neil Ansell
The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell

Ansell does know something of the Forest to start with, having grown up nearby. And the memories of his childhood forays into wilding — partly to escape the traumas and unknowing of this time — are made physical again by finding a stash of diaries; they act as a framework to refer to, and finally to grow out from, “the ghost of my childhood self”. The forest called to him “insistently”, and he determined to visit repeatedly over the course of a year; he writes in the preface reflecting back upon that year, just before we all were submerged into these pandemic times. And I’ve been reading The Circling Sky over the past weeks of this lockdown, so it’s been a great gift to visit through his eyes a place I know only a little, walking alongside such a guide during these days of homebound reflection.

“It has been a year of wonders, my forest year. I have had the opportunity to experience so much that I had never anticipated: great clouds of spiralling butterflies, a sea of orchids, flowers that I had never even known existed, sudden, unexpected sightings of creatures of great beauty. A nightjar watching over me as darkness fell, falcons on the wing, hawks and honey buzzards deep in the woods. I have listened to the cackle of the geese on the marshes, and the aching trill of the last curlews. I have heard the woodlark sing, for all its lost chords, and the comforting call of the raven, back at last. The year has been thick with scents, heather and furze and bog myrtle, peat and pine and the sour smell of a boot full of bog water. These things give life new meaning.”

Forest – place and belonging

This is the ideal book to help us navigate a way out from a lockdown deep nature observation to whatever this post-lockdown time may entail for us as a species. It is both a guidebook to close observation and a reflective elegy for space, place, and all the beings that inhabit and pass through — as we do.

He muses on clearings as spaces to reflect within: both the clearings in the forest and the experience of coming out of dense woodland into a wider space, and also internal clearings: finding some space inside ourselves, to think, rest, plan, get on top of things — to meditate, if you like.

Sometimes he walks with maps, and seeks out remnants of human history and habitation; as the ‘dominant’ species, we seek out our ancestry and can turn up astonishing neolithic knowledge, as well as exasperation and fear at the trajectory we are taking ourselves upon.

The recent history of ghettoising gypsies, who had made some of the forest their space for five hundred years, needs to be widely known, and I’m thankful and yet further saddened to read the evidence he shares of the forcible eviction of the Coopers in 1963 — the most recent manifestation of internal cultural colonialism happening on this small isle, following on from the Highland and Fenland clearances, the Irish Famine, the Enclosure Acts and more: ‘civilisation’ turning within itself in grotesque power.

Some of his visits are focused: to revisit some of his childhood camping spots, for example, or to go to certain areas in the hope of engagement with the wild belonging beings; or else they are sometimes simply “an aimless walk in the woods”. Both approaches provide him with an abundance of riches — the glare from a goshawk’s eye is one that springs out, and he finds the rare Dartford Warbler (the ‘fuzzacker’), in a gorse-bush, after many years of looking (“they look like little plums; plums on a stick”). Elsewhere, “great numbers of painted lady butterflies flutter from heather flower to heather flower. This must be a new generation, born here this summer.” And

“I can hear laughter echoing in the distance — not human laughter, but green woodpecker laughter. I look about, but can’t see it: I can’t pinpoint where the sound is coming from. Instead I see a pair of black and white spotted woodpeckers just overhead, rising and falling in flight like they do, crossing the heath from wood to wood.”

Dartford Warbler
Photograph: Dean Eades Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dartford_warbler.jpg

One eye, however, is on the human scale and how this dominates the land: 

“For the past century or so, the Crown lands have been managed by the Forestry Commission, so there is some commercial woodland here, though the understanding has been that these plantations are not allowed to account for more than a relatively small acreage of the forest. And as public awareness has grown with the understanding that all woods are not equal, and that large, evenly-spaced stands comprised of only fast-growing conifers may result in something close to an environmental wasteland, some have been replaced after felling by a mixed woodland more in keeping with the spirit of the place.”

Photograph showing beech trees in the New Forest
Beech trees in Mallard Wood, New Forest
Photograph: Jim Champion, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13444789

As a novice bird-knower, I’m absorbed in the book’s engagement with birds as individuals and as groups, and his thoughts on migration routes, seasonal movements, and how they engage and belong, within this specific forest eco-system. Stone-chats, or fuzz-jacks, are ones I’m going to seek out. Another thriving group of animals in the forest are the odonata: the dragonflies and damselflies, abundant thanks to the wide diversity of wetland habitats there.

A circling sky, an obligation to see

Ansell’s book is many things and will inspire readers in many ways. What stands out the most for me is that it is both a deep personal meditation on place and belonging — told by the many visits he makes, the more-than-human and the human that he encounters — and the way of describing place. 

“As a writer who loves nature, it would come very easily to me to just walk through the woods, take joy in the animals and plants that I come upon, and depict them as creatively as I can, along with the many small epiphanies that they bring me.

“But it no longer feels that purely observational writing is enough. The time has gone when I could even write a private nature diary, just for myself, and turn a blind eye to the wider implications of what I see. To delight in an encounter with a rare and beautiful bird, while wilfully ignoring why it is rare, why it is threatened, is itself a deeply political choice, and one which no longer feels supportable. And really, nothing is more political than the way we engage with the world around us. We have an obligation to see the world for what it is, the bad as well as the good, and we have to blinker ourselves to keep on pretending that it is not broken.”

Within a broader polemic on our human relationship with the living breathing more-than-human that completely surrounds us, and how we’ve got to this place of separation and duality, he identifies (him)self as both observer and that-being-observed, and caught within the inherently broken state of being that has created this divide. It is a state that is absolutely wrapped up in the system of resource use and destructiveness. Neil Ansell’s powerful and urgent writing and observation in The Circling Sky is part of the great process of leading humanity back to a merged connection with Earth.


Find out more

James Murray-White‘s pre-lockdown work was completing Finding Blake (2020), a feature documentary exploring the contemporary relevance of artist, poet and mystic, William Blake — with further explorations on the Finding Blake website. His lockdown ‘project’ has been co-ordinating Save the Oaks, a campaign to rescue oak saplings that were scheduled for destruction in a potential ecocide of the UK Government’s making. A future post-lockdown work project will explore regenerative agriculture in the UK, in documentary form.

James is also co-founder of Extinction Rebellion Rewilding and took part in a recent discussion on Rewilding Humanity as part of Ubiquity University’s Humanity Rising series. As the host, artist Stardust Magick, says: “Rewilding is a golden key to how we can reverse things such as climate change, species extinction and pollution. Since we are part of nature, we can also rewild ourselves: inducing states of being extremely present, inspired, expressed, confident and playful.” In this session, James joined author Jay Griffiths, rewilding coach Rachel Corby, poet Huw Wyn and wild food expert and teacher Sunny Savage for personal discussions of why we would want to create, support and encourage rewilding efforts and how we can rewild ourselves. You can watch the recording of their discussions, introduced by Ubiquity University President, Jim Garrison (with the rewilding conversation starting at just over 2 minutes into the recording).

Neil Ansell has been an award-winning television journalist with the BBC and a newspaper journalist. His previous books include Deep Country, Deer Island and The Last Wilderness. The Circling Sky: on Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest is published by Tinder Press (2021). You can see a short video from Little Toller Books of Neil discussing his earlier book, Deer Island, and leading a wild life.

The New Forest — ‘new’ when it was created in 1079 as William the Conqueror’s ‘new hunting forest’ — has been a continuously managed landscape for a millennium. It was designated a national park in 2005. It is one of the largest remaining tracts of unenclosed pasture land, heathland and forest in Southern England.

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.
Read More

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #13

Interdisciplinary artist Andrew Howe shares three objects that chart material flows in time. Slipware pottery, an acorn and a bitumen spill offer fragmentary stories entwined with present experience and imaginings of past and future in the same moment.


1,310 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes


The challenge: the Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions at A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

The recording of history is a collective narrative of personal memories and subjective interpretations of objective data. And memories are the internal stories we create from fragments which become entwined with present experience and our imaginings of the future, always in the same moment. As I thought about identifying objects from the past, present and future, I could only see them as materials on a journey flowing through time. This flow need not be considered as a linear process but as a cycle, perhaps a little like the river cycle, in that all time can co-exist simultaneously but in different locations.

Based on my recent experiences out walking, objects that represent the Anthropocene in the present time, perhaps more than any other, are the proliferating numbers of discarded face masks and discarded dog shit bags (DDSBs) lying on pavements, spilling out from litter bins or festooned from trees and bushes. But I wished no connection with these objects, whereas each of the three objects I selected have specific resonances for me with the past, present and future.

Washed downstream

My first object is a fragment of brown slipware pottery, one of a handful I gathered last year while mud-larking on a pebble bank at the edge of the River Severn, downstream of Shrewsbury town centre.

Slipware pottery fragment from the River Severn
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

An informed acquaintance suggested to me that the brown and amber pieces were most likely 17th or 18th Century combed slipware. I was intrigued by its unknowable journey from formation of the clay, very likely a result of glaciation, and extraction for making into a pot. It was then used in someone’s house in Shrewsbury, maybe even one of the Tudor timbered mansions that still stand in the town centre. At some point it was lost and broken and found its way into the river. Over the years, it has been washed downstream, gradually rounding off the edges until I picked it up. How will my intervention change its course of flow?

Ruptured nature in peatbog and bitumen

I encountered the second object whilst researching a project at the Fenn’s, Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve, the UK’s third-largest raised peatbog. Within the wetland nature reserve, there was a car breaker’s yard that operated for many years until the site was taken over by the Shropshire Wildlife Trust. The stark juxtaposition of the scrapyard against the remote wetland landscape had fascinated me for some time.

Artefacts 6×6
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020
Tyre mountain
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020
Artefact 26
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

Shortly after many of the crushed cars had been removed from the site, I made a visit to observe the mountains of remaining tyres and thousands of mangled fragments of plastic and metal car parts. I collected these like archaeological finds. Then entering a thicket between the scrapyard and peatbog, I saw a large bitumen tanker part-suspended in amongst the trees, as if it had been driven in at speed and simply left.

Showing a bitumen tanker dumped in woods
Tanker in the wood
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

When I returned a few months later, the tanker had been separated from its cab and moved, as part of the ongoing clean-up process, to a position on the concrete hardstanding in the main scrapyard, which was being cleared for restoration by covering with topsoil. In the warmer weather, the bitumen leaked from ruptures in the rusted steel carcass and spread out in mesmerising black pools, its ‘skin’ intricately marked and rippled.

Showing bitumen spill from a tanker
Tanker
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020
Showing a black pools of bitumen, its 'skin' intricately marked and rippled.
Bitumen
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

Bitumen can be found naturally or produced via the fractional distillation of petroleum. This natural hydrocarbon seemed to be reaching out, as if trying to recombine with the peat below and complete a cycle interrupted by human processing. The sculptural tanker is a powerful artwork in itself, symbolic of the human exploitation of petroleum and car manufacture.

In my early discussions with the Shropshire Wildlife Trust, there was general agreement that we, as a society, should take responsibility and acknowledge the legacy of human impact on the environment, perhaps by leaving some of the dereliction in place. However, while bitumen is widely used as a construction material, it has some chronic toxicity, it is a potential carcinogen and the tanker was regarded as a hazardous waste. The metal structure was also regarded as unsafe, so the decision was regretfully made to retain the tanker on the concrete and cover it with soil as protection.

Acorn to oak, and uncertain futures

The final object is an acorn. This particular acorn came into my possession during a heritage project where I was trying to locate trees more than 200 years old in Telford; trees that could have been witness to the battle of Cinderloo, an industrial dispute in 1821. Around 3,000 miners marched in protest against savage wage cuts and they shut down ironworks before coming into conflict with the Shropshire Yeomanry, resulting in two fatalities and nine arrests, with one man hanged for felonious riot.

Acorn
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

There are many woodlands in Telford, growing over the ruins of industries that date back to the start of the Industrial Revolution. Only a few of the trees are as old as 200 years though, so the acorn I collected from one old oak in Coalbrookdale provided me with the potential to create a special connection. By planting the acorn, it may grow and live on beyond a normal human lifetime to make a connection spanning between the origins of the Anthropocene and an uncertain future.

The centuries-old relationship between the English and oak woods is at the heart of national identity; once integral to peasant livelihoods, Royal hunting forests and naval shipbuilding. Oak has abundant uses as a strong and durable construction timber, as fuel, as animal fodder, for the tanning of leather and in production of ink, but its value is increasingly recognised for sequestering carbon and sustaining biodiverse flora and fauna in its branches and in its root systems. Humans will need to rebalance the values of oak between a commodity and as a living guardian, if we are to begin regaining some harmony with the more-than-human for our own survival.

Witness, Coalbrookdale Oak: oak gall ink on paper
Image: Andrew Howe © 2020

Find out more

You can explore Fenn’s, Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve, and the Marches Mosses of which it is a part, at The Meres and Mosses site. And you can find out more about Andrew’s own work with the Mosses and Marshes project at Of the Mosses. including an introduction to the site: Tracing Human history across the Moss.

Bitumen, a sticky, black, highly viscous liquid or semi-solid form of petroleum, is also known as asphalt, and is mainly used in road and other construction, although its natural form was historically used for waterproofing and as an adhesive as far back as 5,000 BCE. Runoff from roads can cause water pollution from bitumen and, as this article from MedicineNet explains, Hot asphalt causes a lot of air pollution. “As it heats up, asphalt releases chemical compounds that contribute to air pollution … Sunlight plays a key role in these asphalt emissions, with even moderate levels of sunshine tripling the release of air pollutants.”

You can learn more about the history of the Cinderloo Uprising in Dawley, Telford and the heritage project led by community group Cinderloo 1821

Andrew Howe

Andrew Howe

An interdisciplinary artist and project manager using walking and mapping to explore how people interact with places, drawing attention to human entanglements within a multi-species environment.
Read More