Last year, each month every month, I drove down to Dorset and spent a day in solitude, walking in the countryside. My job was to record the changing of the seasons at the wildlife trust’s centre at Kingcombe and write up short, observational pieces about my experience. I also had to sketch or paint something that I saw.
Life, I tell you. Very tough.
Anyway, at the end of the year, I had twelve essays and twelve pictures. Trees had gone from bare to leafy to bare, another ring laid. Bulbs had sprouted and flowered and withered and died, and lay hidden again under the earth again, conserving their energies. Seeds had been created and scattered, and some had taken root. Fauns had been born, and were now yearlings. The swallows had completed their 16,000-mile round trip from South Africa to the south coast of England – an astonishing feat, unremarkably achieved, year after year after year. The weather had run through its entire repertoire of every conceivable mood and theme and tune, and we were back where we’d started.
Another year gone. One year older.
I’m thinking I’ll put these twelve little essays together in a book. It’s a modest proposal – and it will be a slim volume – but not every writer needs vaulting ambition, and not every book needs to be The Last Word. The small, as Fritjof Capra says, is beautiful. And in fact, the older I get, the more at home I am with a less strident, gentler approach to creativity. The anguished solitary figure in mortal combat with his own creative genius tends to be a male personage, I find.
What’s the point, though, really? Does the world really need another book? As a publisher, as a writer, as a reader, as an environmentalist, as a member of the human species in the twenty-first century, looking back to the invention of the printing press and around me at my groaning bookshelves, I have to say: no. Nope. Definitely not. Enough already.
But then there’s this niggle, this hunch, this – I have to say – curiosity about what it might be like. Not just what this might look like ‘as a book’, but – taking a leaf out of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book (Big Magic: Creative Living beyond Fear)– what kind of person I might become by the end of the process. Gilbert believes that creating something is not so much about focussing on the final thing as being interested in the transformation that you yourself undergo making it. For her, creativity is about changing the soul, not adding another paperback to the pile.
And this kind of ‘nature writing’ – looking about you and trying to find words for the soft, grand, ever-expanding, infinity of dancing particles that our senses translate into felt experience – is the nearest that I can come, I think, to something like that.
Observational writing – describing the shape of a hawthorn leaf in March, or the flight path of a heron, or the sound of a frog – is doomed to fail. Of course it is: nothing quite matches up to reality. But it heightens the senses, as you are experiencing it: it sharpens and enlivens something and wakes something up in you that you otherwise might miss. Going for a walk and knowing that you have to come back with something to write about intensifies everything, and shakes you awake. It reminds you that you are alive – and it reminds you that this was not always the case, and will not always be the case either.
This year, as we walked through the dappled sunshine up a quiet wooded lane, my friend, visiting from Delhi, squeezed my arm. “Never get used to this,” she told me. It was a serious injunction, delivered playfully.
Never get used to this – this earth, this world, these creatures, these plants, these clouds, that rain, those birds, this life. In these days with so much of it under the axe, in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, and so little of the truly wild left, the understandable impulse is to lament and enshrine.
The most awake writer I have ever read is Annie Dillard – she seems to have more than five senses all on high alert, set to stun. Of books, she writes: “Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened, and its deepest mystery probed?” The idea works as well if we changed ‘reading’ to ‘living’. She can’t quite understand, given the awe and wonder that we are surrounded with all the time why we do not “amass, half-dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at one another, to wake up; instead,” she sighs, “we watch television and miss the show.” Another summer is almost over. The swallows are fewer than ever, but they still skim the grasstops and will leave for Africa in a few weeks time. I will watch them, reminding myself never to get used to this, never take it for granted, this swift, fleeting grace.
First published The Hindu Business Line 15.8.19