Look and Learn
In a waiting room I pick up a Scottish Field, or glance at the Nature Notes in a newspaper. I read about a sighting of the Greater Bar-tailed Crossbill, or how the glimpse of a wind turbine has darkened the writer's day – and my heart sinks, eyes unfocus. I know it matters and I should be interested, but as with dreams and personal opinions, encounters with Nature are commonly far more interesting to the person who has them than the one who hears about them.
So though I am one whose best hours are spent on coasts and moors, forests and mountains, my heart sank a little when I read in the Author's Preface "At last a troubled sun has shouldered through the bright lances of green striping the river fields…the sun's courage is calling me out". Is it pedantic to insist the sun is neither troubled nor courageous? I winced on meeting a "bosky shade", and then reading of a spider's web, "What stopped me was the beauty of the morning caught in the dewy eye of her device".
In the attempt to get across the immediacy and power of one's experience, Nature Writing too often leads to this overemphatic, over-adjectival, overly figurative striving. And bosky shades are simply not acceptable.
This is not, I hope, literary snobbery. The point is it is very, very hard for those who are not poets, who are at heart naturalists or Green campaigners or alternative lifestylists rather than writers, to make words perform their function when that function is not to discuss experience but to conjure experience itself. It is one thing to call on Beauty, Terror, the intensely experienced moment – to make them come when you call is quite another.
Much nature writing, especially that which deals with the Wild (this book is subtitled 'A personal quest for Wildness'), tends to have an implicit ideological bent. Wilderness good, cultivation bad; Nature sound, people sick; animals innocent, humans guilty. Whether other-accusing or self-flagellating, in environmental/ecological writing a dislike and contempt for people and cities often shows through. And though I may share the aims, ideals and cherished experiences in such works, blanket misanthropy is always a turn-off.
So my heart sank further early on in this book when Kaye drives from one of his shopping trips in the "tangled world" Gomorrah that is Inverness, homewards through "the euphemistic contrived greenness which, with the complacency of drab urbanisation, we have come to accept as the countryside norm". What exactly is "euphemistic contrived greenness"? Is "urbanisation" necessarily drab, and selfevidently complacent? And as for his dislike of farming, where does he think our food and his comes from?
He goes on: "I feel out of place and burdened, despondent for country lives locked into the orthodoxy of political systems and tractor cabs, suppressed by dull routine and duller necessity". Though we can all recognise feeling out of place and burdened, this passage surely raises some questions. What is this yoking of political systems and tractor cabs? What is so wrong with tractor cabs, which bring some shelter and safety? Or is it the tractors that are at fault – should we go back to horses? And what lives do not have elements of dull routine and duller necessity?
The blanket hostility to cities, agriculture and technology expressed by some environmental campaigners leaves little room for dialogue or interest. One has to ask what such Utopian writers – those who yearn for a return to a Golden Age poised somewhere between hunter gathering and pre-industrial arts & crafts – really are calling for, and what proportion of the world's population they would much rather were not alive.
Despite this unpromising start, At The Water's Edge gets better, a whole lot better, as it largely lays aside over-writing and rhetoric to move on into Kaye's real strengths. John Lister Kaye has the good fortune to have lived for thirty years in a depopulated glen not far from the festering sore that apparently is Inverness. In this glen he has evolved a circular walk of just an hour or so, up a burn, round a small loch, across a bog, through woodland and home again. Through the years, in notebooks and journals he has noted, recorded and reflected on that walk, and this book is the distillation of what he has seen and thought.
The book is structured around the four seasons. Spaced between these four pillars are a number of reflective essays, combining particular witnessed encounters, memories and themes, drawing on material from his notebooks. The best of these, 'The Claim', 'Pine Martens', 'The Goshawk', are quite remarkable.
They work because Kaye is essentially a naturalist, not a poet or rhetorician. His interest, his gift, his vision and his knowledge converge on specific encounters. A pine marten met in a rainstorm is accurately, vividly drawn. We see its beauty, speed, nerve and agility. After amplifying previous experiences and knowledge of them, Kaye is on hand to watch it close in on a woodpigeon's nest:
"The unhappy parent birds had made a sharp exit, but two fat, half-fledged squabs sat in the nest, dumb and defenceless – so much lunch…We could hear the crunch of soft bone, see the wet mouthing of hot flesh. The squabs' limp red feet fell, one by one, to the needly forest floor. Then he returned for the second. He grabbed it, glared at us for a stretched moment of pure insolence with the squab clenched firmly in his teeth and then slid, swift, elegant and shadow-like, up and away into the wood. Only his scratchy claws rattling on the pine bark gave him away; a smoke-curl of tail, a bark flake falling to the ground, an empty nest". This is a world away from bosky shades.
It is brutal, visceral, seen and heard, convincing. Kaye's engagement with Nature is passionate, but his vision is tough and unsentimental as Ted Hughes on a dark day. Even the section 'Spring at last', which cries out for pathetic fallacies, makes it clear there is "no shared compunction between human and the wild, none at all. They are apart and mindless and prescribed".
In this mode, he can enjoy the beauty of the wood warbler, while being absolutely clear "To a bird there is no poetry in birdsong… Once the breeding game is done, the urge to sing evaporates". I sometimes wonder if this is as true for poets as for chaffinches.
Kaye notes, "There is no place for charity in the natural world…Here we all are, from the amoeba to Einstein, munching each other in glorious sunshine for all we are worth…We are all competing for space, light, food, mates and power, each and every last one of us – even naturalists".
This reminds me of the gruelling experiences of Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Pincher's Creek, where a combination of remorseless seeing and Darwinian context drove her to some sort of nervous breakdown. A world away from the beloved transcendentalism of Thoreau and Emerson, this is as far from cosy as it is possible to be. There is no moral or spiritual lesson in Nature, only imperatives, ruthless opportunism and remorseless processes.
Like Dillard, Kaye watches the obscene diving water beetle ingest its prey, and recognizes both the beauty and the horror are our creation. Nature simply is. We watch, we learn, we enquire, and our knowledge is not comfortable.
Kaye is an out and out Darwinist. So much so that he is prepared to undermine the self-flagellation of his own conservationist values. In our exploitation of all the resources available to us, animal, vegetable, mineral, we are behaving exactly as all life forms do. We are not deviant or 'bad', as many Green campaigners suggest. Bacteria and insects, more successful even than us, do the same, colonise and multiply to the limit.
This does not destroy the conservationist case, but re-contextualises it. In a similar way, knowledge of previous mass extinctions of life on Earth, and the many climatic shifts predating our arrival, does not argue against our working to mitigate climate change, but puts it on a sounder footing. This tension between the fascination, wonder and uplift in Kaye's glen perambulations, and his scientific understanding of the driven, compulsive, utterly amoral working of the natural world, drives this book. There is no easy comfort here. We often look to Nature for freedom, as if birds and animals are free because they don't have jobs and don't pay taxes. But free is the last thing they are.
I put down At The Water's Edge thinking the value of our encounters with Nature lies in its radical Otherness. At the same time it re-affirms us as part of nature, animal and bound. As for conservation, the faculty that lets us project notions of Beauty, Joy, Disgust onto the world is the same as the one that lets us glimpse the consequences of our animal-driven conquest of our habitat. It may allow us to act un-naturally and circumscribe our domination, in the name of our own and our habitat's better survival. Though I wouldn't bet on it.
Close encounters with a dazed goshawk ("The eyes impaled me fleetingly and burned with inextinguishable murder"), a charging stag, a wildcat moving its young ("It looks around, alert and timelessly patient, but with the measured insouciance of a dictator"), inspecting gnats hatching in the pool left by deer prints in soft mud – Kaye's close looking, informed by a naturalist's knowledge, amplified by past experience, make this book special. We are awoken, disturbed, put in place, informed, left with notions and images that "burn in my head like a Roman candle".
- Hardback - Canongate
Drawing on this lifetime of close observation, John Lister-Kaye's book encourages us to look again at the nature around us and to discover its wildness for ourselves. It also forges wonderful connections between the most unlikely subjects, from photosynthesis and the energy cycle to Norse mythology.