ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Gifts of Gravity and Light, an anthology of diverse writings on our seasons, and explores how, as we disrupt the living world, our relationship with it shifts, and with it ideas of ‘nature’.
2,980 words: estimated reading time = 12 minutes
“Rites of passage are — and should be — about an individual loss of innocence in order to learn the fuller knowledge of the next stage of life, but the young today are having to learn that the very world around them is in passage, a seasick kind of instability. For them, the correct maps are not the OS maps detailing ancient pathways, but rather future maps, showing coastal erosion as the seas rise and where all the horizons are bleak and every melting is an anxiety.” Jay Griffiths captures here part of how it’s not just the natural world around us that is changing with the climate and ecological crisis we have brought it — a whole world shifting into something that’s a nature/artifice hybrid — but our relationship with nature. And as that relationship distorts, so does our idea of it, the emotional register in which we experience seemingly ‘natural’ things. As our seasons change, so do their meanings within us.
A problem in reviewing an anthology is capturing its diversity of voices. And with Gifts of Gravity and Light, diversity is key. Editors Anita Roy and Pippa Marland have brought together a range of writers that’s rarely seen in so-called ‘nature writing’, speaking to a refreshing spectrum of experiences and engagements with the subject. More than simply a break from the genre’s white, middle-class, male traditions, it’s also a broadening of the professionalised model of what such a writer is. As well as Jay Griffiths — who has of course written much on nature and the wild over the years — we have essays from writers of fiction, of dance and theatre criticism, or poetry and plays, and more. The contributors are also artists, dancers, gardeners or rappers, and their personal and family stories include Cambodian, Caribbean, Ghanaian, Indian, Indonesian, Maltese, Romany and Zimbabwean experience or heritage, as well as urban and rural life around the British Isles. These, and the mix of sexuality and gender identities the contributors write from, all inform a rich array of texts. The collection’s subtitle, A Nature Almanac for the 21st Century, suggests this break but also the renewed, more complex view of nature and of being in it that we need now more than ever. There’s a sense of both being at home in the natural world and of being displaced within it, and it displaced within us. And this even before we consider the disorientating fragmentation brought by Covid, as some of the writers do: pandemic, lockdown, isolation. But there’s also much celebration of nature and humanity here — patterns, encounters, instances and experiences, small and large.
The dozen essays are reflections on the UK’s seasons, taking us through the annual cycle while revealing some of humanity’s fingerprints on it. Even the seemingly least threatening disruptions can be experienced as displacement. Griffiths writes on summer and on fear — fear experienced as a woman walking alone in the countryside, fear of the violence being done to the living world, our home, our seasons: “Summer itself is overshadowed now.” And each season overshadows the next, the sense of progression and endless cycling becoming unmoored.
Spring – unseasonable seasons
Kaliane Bradley writes about spring and its rituals, but speaks from what is meant to be winter: a January that’s forgotten how to be a January. “When the blossoms are unseasonable, it engenders a feeling of dread in me similar to sensing the first hot and morbid congestions of a nosebleed. … It is four months early, and is yet to endure the January frosts. I hate living through unprecedented times, with all the rituals that hold us coming unstuck.”
Our personal experience of the seasons is perhaps a laboratory in which to investigate changing relationships with the rest of the living world. Seasons offer a complicated kind of stability as we navigate our lifepaths through multiple, entangled flows of time: an ebb and flood through successive years’ more-or-less predictable patterns of light and dark, heat and cold, colour advancing and retreating; the infinite daily variations of weather (‘if you don’t like this, wait an hour and you’ll get something different’); the slow-quick flow of lived experience that forms our personal biographies; the eddies of anticipation and memory that at once draw us forward and backward. Seasons evoke, capture and complicate them all, even in the ‘normal’ times we carry ahead within us as we move beyond normal times.
Pippa Marland reminds us that “When we think of ‘Time’ it sounds monolithic, uniform, the thing that takes us inexorably from the cradle to the grave in an unbroken line, straight as a Roman road. It stretches unimaginably far behind and ahead of us, framing our brief appearance. But when you look more closely, you see how complex it is — how its many strands weave together and sometimes fray apart. The linear and the cyclical are always moving through and across each other.”
This folding of time, of its different directions and speeds and associations, is also a feature of each biography. Testament looks back on his urban childhood as something where “for us, ‘nature’ didn’t come naturally. We got in a car and went somewhere. Middle-class aspirations, perhaps. The same reason my parents took me to plays that none of us understood.” In the city, constantly building and rebuilding on itself, “any little green had to squeeze between cracks, creep up the sides of drainpipes, the smallest flowers finding ledges to cling to in the brickwork of the abandoned alleyways I cycled through.”
But on those family trips to the countryside, “once out in an old pair of trainers in a field or woodland, the pleasures were all 3D. It was more than leisure, or even family bonding. It was a new landscape. My parents had allowed me to be part of an image which, as a person of colour, society had often not painted me into.”
Summer – long memory and the arm of return
Michael Malay feels his own displacement on Severn Beach, with memories of his younger self seeing it for the first time on his arrival in the UK, homesick but “excited by this place called England, by the world at his nose.” He wonders at the pull the estuary has on him, its unknowable nature: “Though we come to its edges, to wonder at the bright flowing unstillness of it all, the estuary is its own place, with its own wild mind, and has no regard for what we think… But my head is whirring, a thought-flock of words, and I cannot step out of my mind, which is where I know the estuary begins.”
In contrast, Jay Griffiths writes powerfully of the experience of unfreedom out-of-doors: “frightened of being alone on the dusty lanes and paths … No amount of experience of the vast majority of good-hearted men-o’-th’-woods can ever quell the fear. When I want to get right inside summer like a seed in a sunflower, I find there is a grubby Perspex shield between me and the full experience I crave. I can see it — the bridleway, the campfire, the tavern — but I cannot inhabit it as I wish. … I have been planted not out in the commons but in a pot where my roots cannot spread properly. I have been bonsaied. And I hate it.”
Summer for Tishani Doshi “is the long stretch. The arm of return. After the perseverance of winter and the breakthrough of spring, we are finally here again.” ‘Here’ is another multilayered thing: in her case, a village in North Wales experienced over decades’ of summers, her aim to “net over them all, until they are layered one over the other, a palimpsest of time, of summers.” It is also the memory of her mother’s time in the small village after wartime, on into post-industrial reshapings of the landscape. “I think about how we are made up of the generations before us and how nothing is thrown away. How when we meet it is always in the season of summer.” And how these holiday encounters with Welsh relatives informed and shaped her childhood in India. “I remember returning from summer back to life in Madras, desperate to reveal my new self to my old friends, wondering how their summers had altered them. Summer can be generous, an unending field interrupted by apertures, so it is possible to hitch your load of memories to someone else’s.”
Autumn – a full-body experience
Like memories, life persists and shapes the emerging future, the new normal. Luke Turner says: “It can take a century after a tree’s death for its skeleton to rot away.” The last decaying remains of a copse in Belgium hosts not just new generations of birch and beech but broken stumps and the loops of barbed wire from the Ypres Salient of the First World War. For him as a teenager, it was the site of a school trip to the battlefields of a lost generation, when “in Britain alone, as many as 250,000 boys under the age of nineteen were caught up in the wave of patriotic optimism that swept the country in the autumn of 1914.” That autumn was not dry, as the military planners had predicted and therefore deemed suitable for the Allied offensive, but one of the wettest in decades. The ground conditions, exacerbated by the destruction of the drainage systems, meant that “the battlefield became a quagmire that swallowed, according to some estimates, half a million lives.”
War artist Paul Nash wrote home of a hellish landscape at Ypres, where “sunrise and sunset are blasphemous … mockeries to man … The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease.” And, as Turner writes, poet Siegfried Sassoon’s “pen captures the dead, the machines, the insanity, the weather, the structure of the trenches, the surrounding natural world … a blurring between corpses of men and trees.”
Anita Roy writes of a very different autumn day in southwest England’s Blackdown Hills: “Autumn on a day like this is a full-body experience. The lane is thick with fallen leaves and they look like they feel — crisp and biscuity; and they sound like they smell — like crushed chestnuts and bonfire smoke. It’s a nostalgic hit to all five senses…” The field she’s visiting — a private place, cared for by a friend — “is one of the very few places on Earth where the balance is right. It’s not wild — not really — but neither is it cultivated.” In an eery balance with Turner’s battlefield, this English treescape is fundamentally shaped by humans: “the timber chopped for logs, and smaller batches and twigs are fed through the noisy shredder … There’s no shortage of signs of human activity — but all this is poised, counterposed, or rather harmonised with the natural ebbs and flows, urges and surges of nature.” Where poppies rise from battle-torn soils and stand for remembrance of what should have never been, here wildflowers are now “allowed to emerge from the fallow soil” and speak to what could still be.
Although this visit is in autumn, Roy recalls an earlier visit in the spring of our first covid year, when she fled to the field “pursued by general anxiety fuelled by the news of the pandemic and accelerated by upward spiking graphs. Alarming, horrifying, overwhelming as these were, you’d have thought by now we’d be used to it, given the similar infographics on climate change.” But, as unlearned lessons from the carnage of warfare also show, although we’re good at seeing patterns we’re not skilled at heeding them, of understanding connections between those things we find more convenient to treat as separate — in fact, prefer to actively disconnect in our imaginations. “Tree? Leaf? Wind? Stalk? Where does one end or the other begin? Humans! So busy trying to make sense of things, so good at not trusting what their senses do say. I give up trying to quieten my metaphor-making monkey mind. All those imaginary lines, axes and degrees, … tipping points and see-saw seasons, of life and death, summer and winter, future and past, and the impossible task of pinning down where is ‘here’ and when is ‘now’.”
As Raine Geoghegan remarks, “There’s something about autumn that is conducive to reflections and introspection. Perhaps it’s a time when the earth shifts into a gentler gear, where Nature calls us to be attentive, to notice the movements of wind and water and to wake up, open our eyes to the deep beauty that is all around us.” It is, as she says, an invitation to calm the mind and ask “What gifts are we given at this time of the year?” Her poems here are sprinkled with Romany words, or ‘jib’: Koring Chiriclo, the cuckoo; grai, horses; drom, road; vardos, wagons; atchin tan, stopping place.
Raine sits surrounded by Herefordshire’s trees — oaks, willows, silver birch, spruce and beech that “all seem to be reaching for the sky” — and watches a nearby stream. “I find myself singing for the trees, an old song. The river she is flowing, flowing and growing, the river she is flowing, down to the sea. Oh mother carry me, a child I will always be. Oh mother carry me, down to the sea.”
Like Raine’s Romany heritage, her personal experience of the disabling effects of chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia feeds her relationship with the natural world — a ‘Deep Living’ as she calls it. “I rest in the mornings and I take my time to do each task. I see more of what is around me, noticing the little things: the sky changing colour; a blackbird swooping onto the lawn and peeking at the grass; the way the moon glows in the night sky; small wildflowers bursting through a crack in the pavement. For me, everything comes back to Nature.”
Winter – the yield of the year
Writing this review in the cold spell brought in by Storm Arwen, I find that Zakiya McKenzie’s introduction to winter has a special bite: “My mother first came to England during one of the coldest winters that country had ever seen. Months and months where the days were inky and nights were frigid with lonely unfamiliarity … It was colder still to a child who had spent all her life in a place where the sun watched over her every move. That Jamaican countryside sun was her companion… In the new country, the sun held itself back leaving a murky array of shades of black, white and grey. The trees stood naked and stark … My mother did not know that the leaves returned with haste in the spring…”
Familiar seasonal companions become less constant and predictable when it’s the climate itself that’s shifting; winters we might have expected in past decades become rare — but can still catch us out. Winter’s “ability to replenish and renew, to be entirely different in one place from the next, reflects a thing recreating itself,” McKenzie suggests. “If we too spring and grow and then wither and die, can we not refresh and replenish too? In winter lies the assurance that, though the tether of our hearts is long and twisted, time is longer still.”
Amanda Thomson shares Scottish words associated with winter: Yield is the influence of the sun on frost, Waller a confused crowd in a state of quick motion (a waller of birds — and maybe of Michael Malay’s ‘thought-flock of words’), Snell the severe, sharp quality of the air. “On blue days when the air is snell, or in anticipation of it becoming so, ten, twenty coal tits, blue tits and great tits gather at the feeders, along with occasional woodpeckers, siskin and finches — gold, green, bull, chaff. When I go out to replace the fatballs, they fly behind, in front, overhead with a
Thrrrrrrrrrrrrrr Thrrrrrrrrrrrrrr Thrrrrrrrrrrrr (say it)
so close and in stereo, ruffling the air like an express train speeding through a smaller Highland station on its way south to Glasgow or Edinburgh.”
As Alys Fowler walks and slips along clay-mud paths in a park near Birmingham — paths that feel “wounded … hardening in the summer from the previous winter’s damage, like scar tissue, reopening in the winter, rotting and foetid” — she brings ideas of displacement down to ground level. “Whereas soil wants to be firmly rooted, mud wants to go places, it oozes out of its home. It sticks, coats and clings to all that it touches. It wants to move on … because its particles are no longer knitted together by gossamer-thin threads of fungi and the microbiology of billions of small lives that make up the structure of the soil.” Our foothold on the surfaces of a world that’s in unaccustomed motion itself becomes uneasy and unstable, as we slip and stick and come unstuck.
This is a generous book, offering the small stories — of childhood, family, place, of growth and falling away and regrowth — that enable the big connections with the flow of the world. And maybe, in its multiple, diverse encounters and imaginative layerings, it helps point to ways we might yet adapt, adjust ourselves to shifting realities, by paying the world the attention that repays us with yet more to see and sense.
Find out more
Gifts of Gravity and Light, edited by Anita Roy and Pippa Marland, is published by Hodder & Stoughton (2021). The title is taken from a poem by Simon Armitage, who provides an extract from his Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as an epilogue; fellow poet Jackie Kay’s Promise provides the epigraph, with a foreword by Bernadine Evaristo.