When Our Roar Was Birdsong

Writer Philip Webb Gregg went looking for ways to let nature get to him, and found them on a bushcraft and survival course, with Extinction Rebellion on the streets of London, and in his garden in the city.

 


approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes  


“You have to get the fingers right in. Right between the clavicles. Don’t be shy, just dip them in. Feel the breastbone? Right, now tease it apart with your fingers. You need to make space for your thumbs. Got it? Good. Now just pop them in and pull. See? Peels like a tangerine.”

There is an almost inaudible gasp around the semi-circle as J pulls the torso off of another pigeon. Though most of us are disgusted, we’re also more than a little impressed. J has just shown us a beginner’s technique for preparing a pigeon carcass when you don’t have access to a knife. The theory is quite straightforward. J explains carefully and advises us to take notes. Then we are each handed a pigeon.

There are twelve of us on the wilderness course, and only one refuses to take part. The rest dig in, if not quite with gusto then certainly with willing. Considering it’s nine o’clock on a Friday evening and twelve hours ago most of us were sitting at a desk staring into a screen, I’d say this was pretty impressive.

J paces the semi-circle and gives help where needed. The basics for bare-hand pigeon preparation are as follows:

      • First, hold the pigeon by the legs and dangle — this constricts the bird’s breathing and induces a sleep-like state.
      • Then, make a V with your forefinger and middle finger. Take the back of the bird’s neck and delicately but confidently give a sharp tug. This kills the bird without unnecessary pain or agitation.
      • Separate wings by holding the wings in one hand and twisting the body with the other.
      • Pull head to detach.
      • Insert forefingers into the chest cavity and make room around the breastbone.
      • Fit both your thumbs into the hollow of the bird.
      • Hold with confidence and pull. You will be left with the spine and viscera in one hand (discard these) and the fleshy torso with in the other.
      • Finally, scrape the edible meat away from the breastbone.

J carefully puts the meat into a Tupperware and drops the carcase in a neatly prepared plastic bag, instructing us to do the same. When someone asks what happens to the contents of the plastic bag, he answers with a jovial grin: “Oh, don’t worry. That’ll go to the badgers tonight.”

Looking for the source

It is the 3rd of May, 2019. I am somewhere in the Peak District, about three hours into my first ever ‘Bushcraft and Survival’ course. So far it’s been an enlightening experience. We’ve covered wilderness health and safety, knife etiquette, how to make a pigeon stir-fry, and simple shelters. Now we’re sitting in the dark around a campfire at the edge of the woods. It should be romantic. It sounds romantic. What is less romantic is the dried blood I still have under my thumbnails. The smoke that insists on stalking me around the camp, filling my nostrils and making my eyes pour. Also, the cold. There is nothing at all romantic about the cold.

Bushcraft and survival in the woods
In the woods
Photograph: Philip Webb Gregg © 2019

I came out here looking for a way to let nature get to me, searching for the notion of nature-as-cure. Cure for our bodies, cure for our minds, maybe even our souls. Of course, nature is not a pill. It can’t be prescribed over the counter or sunk straight to the vein. The concept of nature as medication — as a commodity that can be handed over without thought or cause — is one that I deeply disagree with. It’s yet another facet of our human-centred perspective of the wider world.

Instead, I’m looking for the source. I’m hoping to be reminded of the ‘inter-connectivity’ of things. After a long winter living in the heart of London, I’ve become startlingly aware of the disconnect between the concerns of inner-city life and the real, actual worries of our changing world. This disconnect feels like a form of insanity, an illness, or an obsession with unclean things, which can only end in sickness. So, the theory goes: if this madness is man-made, perhaps I can re-learn sanity from wilderness.

Which brings me back to the pigeon blood under my nails, and the smoke of the campfire. J, our instructor, is telling us about his job. I am fascinated to learn that there has been a huge rise in the demand for bushcraft courses in the last few years.

“Yep,” he says. “Probably Brexit.” We laugh, but it’s not a joke. A recent article in The Times reported certain survivalist organisations getting “30 or 40 calls a week asking questions about Brexit.” It’s a sobering thought, and another sign of the changing world. To think there’s a national shift toward a more desperate state of mind.

Of course, it’s good for the bushcraft industry. But this is in itself is a juxtaposition, as practising bushcraft requires, well, bush: the preservation of which is rarely in the interest of a capitalist society. The figures for UK woodland are somewhat haphazard, but according to the 2018 Forest Research Woodland Statistics we currently stand at 13% — 10% in England, 15% in Wales, 19% in Scotland and 8% in Northern Ireland.

Now, whether these numbers are positive or negative it’s hard to tell. Some sources see the current percentage as a huge success, stating that they’re higher than they’ve been for almost a thousand years (in 1086 the Domesday Book recorded forest levels at 15%), and comparing them to a devastatingly low 5% at the start of the 20th century. However, other organisations claim that woodland ecology in the UK is under serious threat, and British wildlife in a state of chaos. It’s certainly worth noting that the European average is far higher, at 44%. No doubt there’s a Brexit analogy in there somewhere, if anyone has the energy to find it.

J kicks some ashes over the remaining flames and declares that it’s time for bed. Early start in the morning, apparently.

“Wrap up warm,” he grins. “It’s gonna be a cold one.”

The peace of the wild?

Five hours later I’m lying under a canopy of fallen branches and bracken. The shelter is roughly two meters long and a meter wide. A classic A-frame structure, known to anyone who spent any time in the Scouts or who watches a lot of Ray Mears. It’s a clever design: not only does it shield you from the wind, it also traps your body heat and feeds it back down to your legs. However, tonight is unseasonably cold. My sleeping bag was last used in the hot hills of southern Spain, and is woefully inadequate for middle England in early May.

I lie shivering for hours, cursing my poor planning. When using a sleeping bag it’s often said that you should strip naked because the moisture in your clothing will sap your body heat. After an hour or two in nothing but slim thermals, I decide this is a lie. I resolutely and somewhat awkwardly don all of my layers, from my socks to my gloves. I’m fully dressed inside the bag and still there’s a throbbing numbness in my fingers and toes. Eventually, at around 4am, I decide to give up on sleep, and go to find the campfire instead.

Bushcraft - the embers of the campfire
The embers
Photograph: Philip Webb Gregg © 2019

The embers are low, barely a tinge of orange or red. But the ashes are hot and bracken is everywhere. It’s enough. Soon the fire is roaring again, and the kettle is on the flame (I hear J’s voice as I do this: “flames to boil, embers to cook”). By the light of my head torch I settle down to my notebook. Hours pass. The night is deep and full of life. Badger, rustling close. Insects and small mammals living and dying in the understory. Above me an owl asks its endless question: Who? Who? Who? The breeze moves through the trees, making laughter.

Periodically I put more wood on the fire. Logs and branches. Hazel, beech, birch. Their green wood spits and my eyes burn with smoke. They will hurt for days, I know. So much for the peace of the wild. I am long lost in my thoughts when the birdsong starts. Not just owl or bat, real birdsong. Full and loud. The illustrious chorus of dawn. A spring chant of mating and renewal.

I put down my pen and click the head torch off. I sit on a log in the dark and listen to the birds while my eyes run with smoke.

The first day

It is two weeks earlier, 15th of April. I am standing in the centre of the city of London, right outside the Houses of Parliament. They are shrouded in scaffolding like the bandages of a leper. I think: now there’s a simile.

Next to me, someone is shouting. All around me, people are shouting and roaring. I am roaring. There are banners being waved by children and grandparents alike. The sky is full of them. They show the stark outline of bird carcasses and flowers. They are all embroidered with an hourglass held within a circle. XR.

Extinction Rebellion - humans on the XR March in London May 2019
Extinction Rebellion humans
Photograph: Philip Webb Gregg © 2019

Over the next eleven days, four prominent roads in central London will be blocked, and a total of 1,130 people will be arrested. During these days, there will be countless conversations had between strangers about the current state of the world. Talks and discussions and poetry readings and songs will abound. It will sometimes feel like a festival. Teenagers will do cartwheels down the road. People will flirt and laugh and maybe find love on the barricades. In the dead of night, on the bridges, surrounded by police officers in wraithlike hi-visibility jackets, it will feel like the end of the world.

But all that is days away. Right now, it is the first day, and there is genuine hope in the air. Hope and determination and positivity. I walk around the square a dozen or so times, joining a march here, a debate there. Most people seem just as keen to sit on the grass and have a picnic as they are to change the world. But it is England, and the sun is shining. Maybe that’s how real revolution works, not through violence or petitions, but flasks of tea and vegan sandwiches kept in Tupperware.

At one point there is a march of giant papier-mâché skeletons, accompanied by a sorrowful jazz band, a troupe of red-clad mourners, and a coffin. The skeletons are those of animal species, extinct and endangered. People in animal masks hold high the fleshless silhouettes of ape, rhinoceros, lion, tiger, whale, etc. etc. And also: humans, soon to be extinct. A giant magpie walks among the procession, waving a placard: ‘One for sorrow…’ it reads, in thick black Sharpie.

Magpie - 'one for sorrow' - on the XR March. London 2019
Magpie on the march
Photpgraph: Philip Webb Gregg © 2019

I buy a roll of toilet paper with Trump’s face on from a man with a supermarket trolley overflowing with them. “For the cause!” he waves a revolutionary fist.

Just as I’m thinking of leaving, I pass the central podium. On it is a man, standing staring into space. The audience, some thirty or forty people, is enthralled, looking up at him with their mouths open. He’s holding a device in his hand, either an MP3 player or a phone, and from it trails a wire. The wire leads into an amp, and a second wire links the amp to a set of speakers on either side of the podium. From the speakers — a pair of massive monoliths standing like two-thirds of a trilithon — comes the sound of birdsong.

It booms across Parliament Square with an eerie softness. Nightingale, chaffinch, common blackbird, magpie, green woodpecker, great spotted woodpecker, greenfinch, garden warbler, European robin, starling, lapwing, goldfinch, redshank. On and on, and on. There is utter silence in the crowd for at least 20 minutes, and then people start to laugh and cheer. They try to imitate the calls, falling into peels of laughter at the difficulty. Everybody is clapping furiously and chirruping at the top of their lungs. There is a beautiful madness to the moment that feels like sanity at last.

Bushcraft and birdsong

It is two weeks and three days later. Monday the 6th of May. I have just returned from the ‘Bushcraft and Survival’ weekend and I am in the garden of our tiny London flat, kneeling over the raised beds pulling up unwanted life. Weeding is a necessary death, I think. All around me is the furniture we’ve built from up-cycled pallets and discarded planks of wood. ‘Frankenstein furniture’, we affectionately call it.

Bushcraft - cultivating the garden in the city
In the garden
Photograph: Philip Webb Gregg

Today the UN released its biodiversity report, otherwise known as the Summary for Policymakers IPBES Global Assessment. It’s a dense document, replete with all manner of figures and statistics. The numbers are intimidating and complex, but they add up to a series of simple truths:

      • Due to human civilisation, 1,000,000 species are threatened with extinction.
      • Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered.
      • More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater recourses are now devoted to crop or livestock production.
      • Urban areas have more than doubled since 1992.
      • Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980.
      • The amount of plastic and pollutants in the ocean have created over 400 ‘dead zones’, the total area of which is larger than the United Kingdom.

The report, compiled by 145 experts over the course of three years concludes that ‘Transformative Changes’ are needed to restore and protect nature. The current global response is insufficient.

I sit in the sunshine and listen as the radio feeds me these facts, these prophecies and warnings, and I think of ancient Rome. I think of Pompeii, of the portents of disaster that were not heeded. I think of Cassandra running toward the Trojan Horse with a burning torch in one hand and an axe in the other, screaming: “Death is within!” But of course, no one listened.

I wonder if this will be any different, as I pluck baby weeds from my bed of courgettes. I think about the nature of human nature, and the difficulty of staying sane in an irrational world. I think about revolution and wilderness and the beautiful indifference of it all. Suddenly there’s a sound. I look up into the sky.

Birdsong.


Find out more

The ‘Bushcraft and Survival’ weekend course Philip took part in is run by Woodland Ways, a family-run bushcraft company employing a small close-knit and highly experienced team of individuals.

The Dark Mountain Project recently published Questions for the Woods by Caroline Ross — who enters the liminal territory of the forest and forges a wild camp by a fallen oak — as part of their new ‘Becoming Human’ section, which explores the physical, psychological and experiential aspects of our current predicament and how we might realign our bodies and minds with the living world. 

The 2018 Woodland Statistics report is available to download from Forest Research and the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) Global Assessment Summary for Policy Makers is available from IPBES.

You can find all the news and actions from XR, and how to get involved, at Extinction Rebellion.

And if you’d like to consider birdsong and, among other things, the difficulty of human reproduction of it – in this case through music – you might take a look at my piece, Interstices of Things Ajar, from March 2017…

Signals from the Edge #2: Wildfire and Fox

Writer Brit Griffin lives in Cobalt, Canada — a town that was born during the 1903 mineral rush. She shares a powerful account of signals to be detected in Cobalt’s burning forests and the cry of a fox.


approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes 


Brit’s post is the second in our series Signals from the Edge, which sets the challenge: to create a small artistic expression of the more-than-human in the form of new signal for humanity. Is it a message — whether meant for our species or for another kind, which we overhear by chance? An artefact of some other consciousness? Or an abstraction of the material world? Something in any case that brings some meaning for us to discover or to make, here and now, as we begin to address the Anthropocene in all its noise. A small piece of sense — common or alien — amidst the confusion of human being.

***

Wildfire and fox: dispatches from forests burning in Cobalt, Ontario

Summer 2018. Woken up by the smell of smoke. Summer night and the windows are thrown open, the wind sending traces of Temagami forest’s burning drifting into my room. The forests behind Elk Lake are on fire too. I don’t know it yet, not then in the night, but so is the faraway Arctic Circle. Does taiga smell the same as birch and jack pine when it’s burning?

Forests burning, Ontario
Forests burning, Ontario
Photograph: Valerie Hosteller © 2018

It’s disorienting, the darkness, the smoke, at first I thought it was the stoked ashes from a dream, but then there is a shrieking and I am fully awake. Then I hear it again, riding these night breezes thick with carbon, insistent and piercing. It is, I think, fox.

I am used to her screams now — but still they are uncanny. She is calling through the darkness, and we all listen, me, dog, cat. At the window now listening. Is she far away or close to the house? Impossible to tell, the spooky cries passed from tree to tree. Just like a banshee’s wails along the valley. No wonder folks believed in such beings. The sounds tonight, stirred and mixed with the smoke, maybe belong biologically to fox, but are otherworldly too, spiritually something else.

But what? At one time, people might have recognized all of this with more ease. Folks had their nature spirits, saw forests teeming with magic. It would be standing room only on a night like this, what with the burnings and the keening.

Could be time to try and find those things again — the beings and the creatures that we have forgotten. That we can’t see anymore. That we cannot hear anymore. Cannot hear that sublime singing of the trees, each one with their own song, cannot hear either their ultrasonic distress signals when they are parched.

We used to listen to trees, talk to them even (and not in a ‘let’s put on Pachelbel and be nice to the jade plant’ kind of way). When nature was magic we would turn to its wisdom, seek solace from oak trees, leave tokens at deadfall for the spirits. The forest was not something to be managed, not a site of resource extraction, not a source of consumables. They gave us things, of course, the forest and the fields. Timber, firewood, plants, medicine, game and berries, but also wisdom, guidance in surviving, companionship. Everyone needed parts of everyone else.

Living so close, paying such attention, it changes the relationship. Like being in love.

But we can’t be close if we are on the outside looking in. As it is now, we are only visitors, not companions, equals, comrades in arms. Removing ourselves from nature, setting humans apart from that teeming forest of magic, was probably a mistake. Probably has landed us in this global fever.

Torpid waters. Coral reefs swooning with anaemia. Bring me my smelling salts.

Little creeks dry up, creeks for frogs and sprites. The sprites, of course, went extinct long ago. Many frogs are likely to follow. The triggers for frog mating are temperature and rainfall. All this dry, all this heat? Frog romance taking a beating.

So maybe the separation of the human from the non-human is a boundary or barrier we should try to dismantle. To see what seeps through. Because all those binaries — they are helpful in sorting objects and events into categories, organizing things. But we aren’t sorting our closets, we’re trying to salvage our world. None of them, human/non-human, life/death, magic/science, irrational/rational, can help me understand what fox is trying to say.

I can only hazard a guess:

fox says it is ultrasonic in the woods tonight,
wonders why can’t I hear it.

Red Fox
Red Fox
Photograph: Sue Nielsen © 2018

Note: Brit has also recorded a special video of her reading Wildfire and Fox, published simultaneously with ClimateCultures as The Summer the Planet Burned: Radio Free Cobalt:

***

Wildfire and Fox — context

Brit Griffin lives in Cobalt, Ontario, a town that was born during Ontario’s last mineral rush in 1903 — a silver rush that was pretty much over by 1919. Current population: around 1100.  http://cobalt.ca/visitors/history/

Temagami is a world-renowned tourist destination known for its wilderness lakes and old growth forests. It is also home, and always has been, of the Teme-Augama Anishnabai on Bear Island. Elk Lake, a town of around 500 people, survives mostly on its timber mill. 

Many sources which have expanded our understanding of the science on trees over recent years. Two interesting articles are: Trees Make Noises, and Some of Those Sounds Are Cries for Help by Rachel Nuwer for The Smithsonian (16/4/13), and Trees Have Their Own Songs, by Ed Yong for The Atlantic (4/4/17). As the Smithsonian article points out, “knowing what kinds of noises trees in distress produce means researchers may be able to target those most in need of emergency waterings during droughts.”

The Atlantic article is a review of David George Haskell’s 2013 book The Forest Unseen.

You can find out more about the forests burning in northern Ontario in this article from CBC, Radio Canada (19/7/18) by Benjamin Aubé, Some provincial parks in Temagami area closed due to forest fires could re-open soon, which reports a quadrupling of forest fires in the region. The fire was called the North Bay 72 and a good part was on the traditional territory of Temagami First Nation. You can read and hear a disturbing report on forests burning across the Arctic in this piece from CBC, ‘We ain’t seen anything yet’: Even the Arctic is burning as wildfires rage around the world’; it features an excellent interview with Ed Struzik, author of Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future.  

The lands manager (Robin Koistinen) from Temagami First Nation said of the recent fire, on Facebook, “Mother Nature did some major housecleaning! In recent memory, no one knows of a larger fire on nDaki Menan, almost 28,000 hectares, there are 10,000 hectares in a Township! A township is 6 miles by 6 miles or 10 km by 10 km! So figure out the size of this fire in Square Kim’s, or miles! Big big Fire.” Her Facebook post includes this video footage flying over the damage from the fires. 

Sue Nielsen, who took the photograph of the fox, is reporter and photographer for the local newspaper, The Temiskaming Speaker. She takes wildlife photography around the area.


Signals from the Edge

Other contributions will feature at our Signals from the Edge page: so far, we have a short encyclopedia entry from the deep future, exploring the mythical species Homosagans; and this fox's cry from forests burning in the here-and-now... What will be our next signal, and from what edge?

Use the Contact Form to send us your ideas and maybe feature your own signal...

Can you bring us a signal from a distant zone? ClimateCultures offers Members a challenge: to create a small artistic expression of the more-than-human in the form of a new signal for humanity. Is it a message -- whether meant for our species or for another kind but we overhear by chance; an artefact of some other consciousness; or an abstraction of the material world? Something in any case that brings some meaning for us to discover, here and now, as we begin to address the Anthropocene in all its noise. A small piece of sense -- common or alien -- amidst the confusion of human being.

Whatever signal you create -- image, short text, sound, storyboard, dream sequence, or combination of any of these or something other – it will be something that we are likely to miss if you don’t draw our attention to it. 

Where does your signal come from? The source zone might be distant from us in time, in space, in scale (from the quantum to the cosmic), in sensory perception (in a different sensitivity or range to ours, or utterly new), or in any other aspect of experience or imagination. 

What edge does your signal represent? It might be a place; a boundary; a transition; an experience; a capability; a sensory range; a technology; a consciousness; a category; an uncertainty; an unknowing...

The Riddle of the Trees: A Paean for the Natural World

Forest - Rooted. Artist: Salli HipkissWriter and artist Salli Hipkiss shares an extract from her novel’s manuscript — a glimpse into the heart of the story and its forest, and further into the development of character, meaning and writing for the ‘We Generation’.


approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes


In her first post in this two-part series, My Voice in the Climate Change Crisis, Salli explored her motivation for setting out to write The Riddle of the Trees as a creative work on climate change.

***

The Riddle of the Trees

Jeanie left the light and shimmer of the hilltop views behind her. The track curved northwest and soon she was enveloped in the cool, cushioning shade of the forest. Among the trees the sharpness of the light and the edgy whine of insect-sounds softened into a diffused hum.  She followed the track through the Treefarm until she reached a junction. She knew the way well.  Her route home took the neatly-kept right-hand track south through the Treefarm towards the town, while on the left two crumbling stone pillars were all that remained of an ancient gateway, and an overgrown path led into the heart of the old-growth forest: the wild place known as the Olgro.

     The evening humidity was making her breathless and she stopped at the gateway, leaning her bike against one pillar.  A large, moss-covered stone had long since fallen from the gateway making an impromptu seat. She sat down, pulling a bottle of water from her rucksack.  While she drank she looked back into the Treefarm. The rows of managed pines and beeches stretched sedately into the distance. The trees seemed cool, quiet and orderly; but also quiet in terms of diversity, of life, of spirit.  Jeanie turned to look through the gateway into the Olgro.  Sitting here at the junction, the contrast between the two parts of the forest could hardly have been greater.

     Have you ever been to an Olgro? An old-growth forest? A truly ancient old forest?  A forest that has never been cut or cleared: where for thousands of years there have been trees at various stages of growing up, growing old, dying, or slowly sinking back into the earth to become nurseries for new sapling trees?

     Have you been to a forest where the numbers of different species of plants and animals and insects and fungi are so great that new species are constantly being discovered even after centuries of scientific study?  Where the different life forms have lived alongside one another for so long that insects have begun to look like flowers and flowers like the insects that feed from them?  Where the contrasting scents of honeysuckle, damp moss, rotting wood, tang of fox, and a metallic mix of ozone and ore, constantly assault and allay your senses in equal measures? 

     Have you stood in a forest with your ears full with the fizz and hum of insect flight, the creak and rustle of giant trees in endless movement, and the staccato chatter of numerous birds?  Where before long you can’t help but find yourself falling back into the steps of an ancient dance that has been going on, unbroken, for millions of years? 

     Jeanie let her eyes wander, flickering between the trees, plants and flowers on the other side of the gateway: seeing them tumbling over one another, winding around one another, or even growing up through one another.  She measured trees supporting ivies taller than the tree itself; lianas draping themselves between branches; ferns and epiphytes growing in the crooks of trunks high above the moss-dampened forest floor. It looked chaotic but Jeanie knew from Gramps that it represented a harmony of the highest order.   

     Or it had done… Jeanie scanned the rich texture of the forest again, her eyes narrowing. As she looked more carefully she felt her chest tighten and something shift beneath her ribs. Something was wrong.  Her heart began to thump, sounding a warning. Gramps was right. The trees had changed.  She closed her eyes to listen to the subtle pulse of the forest, searching for an explanation or even an adequate description. But she couldn’t find one, just a strong intuition that all was not as it should be.  Opening her eyes, thoughts began to form. On many trees the leaves had a certain transparency.  A frailty.  A ghostliness even.

     Suddenly she knew what this was.  It was what Gramps had feared the most.  This was Disintegration.

(Excerpt from The Riddle of the Trees, © Salli Hipkiss 2008. Latest edition 2017. As yet unpublished. All rights reserved.)

***

Forest - 'Rooted' Acrylic and pastel on canvas. Image: Salli Hipkiss
‘Rooted’ Acrylic and pastel on canvas
Image: Salli Hipkiss © 2000
www.sallihipkiss.com

Love for the natural world

Following on from my previous post about the writing of my manuscript for the young adult audience, I was encouraged by ClimateCultures to share an excerpt from the story. After deliberating, I decided upon the above passage from near the beginning of the book. I could have ‘cut to the chase’ (for there is a chase of sorts in the story!), but for a story like The Riddle of the Trees it feels more appropriate to give a glimpse into the heart of the story. 

In The Guardian in 2015, Patrick Barkham, quoting from Matthew Oates’ book In Pursuit of Butterflies, wrote:

‘Environmentalists desperately need poets and storytellers, Oates contends, because ultimately conservation is concerned with “mending the relationship between people and Nature”. Science may clarify priorities “but the whole show is essentially about Love”.’

This love for the natural world is what motivates me to create work to inspire change, and it is what motivates several of the characters in the story. It is also a reason for creating a novel as a vehicle for exploring environmental issues. This is an art form that allows for a broad expression of emotion: one that can take on love and joy, and also despair, frustration, anger, animosity and other emotions that difficult challenges like climate change can invoke. 

I have always been interested in stories that follow several characters with similar, if not equal, weight, and in writing The Riddle of the Trees I gave myself this challenge. Quickly, within a few chapters, the book establishes that we are following not one, or even two, protagonists but several, forming a sort of holistic composite character. In creative work I like messages that run deeply, like the grain through wood, acting at the structural as well as superficial levels, and in my story there is a deeper meaning behind having a number of viewpoints, which is to illustrate this idea of holism: that we need diverse talents and insights from various quarters in order to ‘crack the codes’ to solve many of the world’s environmental and other problems.

Forest — a riddle for the many

At the geographical centre of the story are Jeanie, a lonely teenage girl, and Gramps, her forest keeper grandfather, who separately realise that a serious, mysterious ailment has befallen their beloved forest. In his 2004 book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker argues that most stories fit into one of seven structures. At first encounter The Riddle of the Trees might appear to follow the structure of a Quest, one of the seven plots Booker listed. The fierce love Jeanie and Gramps feel for the forest certainly leads them to undertake a quest to save the trees. However their quest is just one aspect of the story, and actually, if pushed, the plot better resembles a Comedy, not in the sense of a humorous piece, but a comedy in the Greek tradition, or one of Shakespeare’s comedies, in the spirit of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. As the title suggests, The Riddle of the Trees is threaded through with riddles, muddles and misunderstandings that need a combination of wisdom, wit, courage – and love – from a number of characters to reach a resolution. 

Forest - Puck's Glen, Scotland. Photograph: Salli Hipkiss
Puck’s Glen, Scotland.
Photograph: Salli Hipkiss © 2006
www.sallihipkiss.com

Thus there isn’t one main ‘celebrity character’. The driving forces are care and compassion, even from the apparent antagonist who rather than being evil is instead mostly misguided and attempting to solve the forest’s disease and its potentially escalating problems by exercising greater and greater control, but at the expense of other freedoms. His power, his inflexibility, and his inability to listen to others’ advice make him dangerous. But he is not evil. 

This distinction was important to me. When I first started drafting the story I had a wonderful discussion with a Japanese friend about the Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli and the sort of films that the house then created. My friend pointed out how the seemingly ‘bad’ characters in Studio Ghibli films were not ‘beaten’ by the good characters as they might be in a Hollywood movie, but instead underwent some process of transformation during which their frightening or dangerous power was dissipated. Often this was through their becoming properly understood where they weren’t before. For example, in Spirited Away, a witch figure returns to being a benign old lady, and a raging river spirit calms to a benevolent one when his polluted water is cleaned and he is called by his rightful name. This process of transformation and the possibility for redemption resonated with me and are further grains that run through the heart of the story. 

The Riddle of the Trees is a story for young people about challenging the status quo, about following one’s own path and passions and conscience, and about forming friendships that transcend difference and constraint.

Reading again through the excerpt I have chosen above, I find myself bringing to mind the poem The Road Not Taken, published in 1916 by Robert Frost.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth…
…I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Rootedness

Jeanie in the story starts as ‘one traveller’ in another sense: she is lonely, and soon also carrying a burden of responsibility to solve a difficult mystery. However through the course of the story she and a number of other characters become newly connected and collectively are then able to solve some difficult problems. Although the novel is set in a future where mobile phones and social media are no longer ubiquitous, because young people live in a world dominated by these forces now I feel they will recognise the strong impulse to connect and form community — including globally — that lies at the heart of the book.

Old Road, Yorkshire Dales<br /> Photograph: Salli Hipkiss
Old Road, Yorkshire Dales
Photograph: Salli Hipkiss © 2009
www.sallihipkiss.com

Perhaps the ethos of self-reliance and independence that Robert Frost was championing in his poem is no longer the prevailing ethos of the younger generation today. Reflecting on his famous ending line “… I took the one less travelled by / And that has made all the difference” it seems notable to me that the lines imply the difference made to one life only: the speaker’s own. 

Instead, young people today, when asked what they want to achieve in life, will often answer: “I want to make a difference” meaning a difference in society, environmentally or in other altruistic ways. The millennial generation has been named the ‘We Generation’. They are much more aware than previous generations that in order to thrive as a species, as a whole planetary ecosystem, and also as individuals, we need to think in terms of interdependence rather than independence. This ‘We’ rather than just ‘Me’ way of thinking gives me hope for the future.

In Sharon Blackie’s thought-provoking 2016 book If Women Rose Rooted, Blackie comes to a similar conclusion about the need for a change from the prevailing myth of many generations, outlined clearly by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his 1990 book The Hero’s Journey. She writes:

“Campbell’s Hero’s Journey… is entirely focused on an individual’s spiritual growth and personal transformation – the process which Jung called ‘individuation’. But the journey we need to make today is one which rips us out of the confined spaces of our own heads and plants us firmly back in the world where we belong, rooted and ready to rise… We are not separate from this earth; we are a part of it, whether we feel it fully in our bodies yet or not… The Heroine’s Journey we need to make today is, above all, an Eco-Heroine’s Journey.”

In The Riddle of the Trees Jeanie and her various companions’ separate and collective journeys all lead to a common mission: to save the forest and restore harmony. To attempt this, all need to tap, like roots, into the groundwater of their own talents and passions and to offer them to the whole. Blackie continues:

“…And if we rise up rooted, like trees… well then, women might indeed not only save ourselves, but the world.”

In another wonderful book from 2015 The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy affirms:

“We should offer up not just the notion of being sensible and responsible about [nature], which is sustainable development, nor the notion of its mammoth utilitarian and financial value, which is ecosystem services, but a third way, something different entirely: we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy.”

For my part, I would be delighted if The Riddle of the Trees helped inspire a stronger feeling of rootedness, of connection with the natural world, an appreciation of its awe-inspiring beauty and ability to bring joy, and of what we stand to lose if we don’t care for what we have, while also engaging young people in a deliciously complicated but very heartfelt adventure story along the way. 


Find out more

Our first post from Salli Hipkiss, in which she wrote about the inspiration behind her writing The Riddle of the Trees, was My Voice in the Climate Change Crisis. And Salli’s recent poemModest Things — asking how English poet, artist and radical William Blake might have responded to climate change and what examples we might take — is published at Finding Blake

Patrick Barkham’s quotation from Matthew Oates is in his review of three books on butterflies; Rainbow Dust; The Moth Snowstorm; and In Pursuit of Butterflies review – three tributes to the humble Lepidoptera, published in The Guardian (16/7/15).

You can find out more about Sharon Blackie’s work, including her 2016 book If Women Rose Rooted, at www.sharonblackie.net And you can download a sample chapter from her publisher, September Publishing.

Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004) is published by Bloomsbury, and Wikipedia has a brief summary

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey was first published in 1990, with a revised edition published by New World Library in 2003. 

The full text of Robert Frost’s classic poem, The Road Not Taken, is available at Poem Hunter, where you can also hear a recording of the poem.

Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm – one of the three books reviewed in the Patrick Barkham article mentioned above – was published in 2015 by Hodder & Stoughton, and you can read an extract at their site. 

Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away was released by Studio Ghibli in 2001. In a 15th-anniversary review at Vice (20/7/16), Hannah Ewans discusses The Meaning of Studio Ghibli’s ‘Spirited Away’, the Best Animated Film of All Time