I am a slow writer. Others may set daily word targets of hundreds or thousands, I take comfort in a quote from James Joyce…Read More
For me, writing and nature go hand in hand.
Whatever I write wildlife will appear in some form or another. I can go for days, sometimes weeks, without writing a short story or a chapter, but my nature journal is always by my side.
I write a lot in my head but I hadn't put anything down on paper for a while. To try to action my pen, I did a general Google search for nature writing and came across the Wild Words Website. Words like passion, power and vitality pinged off the screen, and I was immediately inspired.
I particularly liked the competition prompt, Bob Marley's 'Some feel the rain, others just get wet'. The words crawled quickly inside me and started off a chain of thoughts, initially about our relationship with weather in general, and how sunshine equates with happiness and rain with misery. My mind was flooded with ideas, but I finally settled on a factual account of an event that had happened not long before I came across Wild Words.
I follow a traditional process of pre writing, drafting, revising and editing. The pre write stage usually takes place inside my head, though on occasion I will brainstorm, and throw all sorts of words and ideas onto a page. There was no need to do this for 'A Life Worth Saving'. The memory was fresh in my mind, and I knew roughly the points I wanted to explore, mainly the sensory experiences of rain and its (often) misunderstood beauty, but when I decided to make the starling chick the key focus, a new element of living and potentially dying also came into play.
A first draft is always in long hand, a jumble of words, images and thoughts. Then, I type up and get an idea of word count and structure. On this occasion, I had 3500 words, far too long for a competition count of 1000 words. I had to chop and chop.
Out went a lengthy rant about how I know some people who seem to shut down when it is raining. Out went a trying-not-to-snivel account of losing a lot of my mobility. Out went a detailed explanation of starlings.
To get down to 1000 words, I constantly referred back to the prompt and tried to focus on the sights, sounds and smells of rain to evoke the right atmosphere.
Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid
A Life Worth Saving
"I think there's something in the water butt," my friend said as she skidded, breathless, into the kitchen.
Her owl-wide eyes were brimmed with the memory of last year's macabre discovery, when a sickening stench betrayed the watery grave of a bloated rat and a bald blackbird chick.
As the 'nature' person in our household, it was my job to investigate. I hobbled down the garden path. My mobility-crutch clicked on the glistening, rain-soaked slabs. The sky spread out, a ceiling of frosted, wolf-grey glass. Smoke-ring clouds and mist topped the distant braes like a sea haar.
Sheets of crystalline raindrops fell in biblical proportions. Within minutes, my clothes stuck to my skin and rivulets streamed down my face. I could taste the rain's unique, supposedly tasteless flavour.
No splashing came from the butt. Did the silence mean the 'thing' had perished like the rat and baby blackbird? I tried not to become irrationally upset. Accidents and fatalities happen all the time in wildlife's world. I braced myself to be a momentary undertaker.
The water butt was almost half full. The rainwater was covered by a soupy layer of luminous-green duckweed. A starling chick bobbed among the weed like a toy boat.
I silently cursed myself for not putting the lid on during the fledgling period, but clumps of mottled-brown snails liked to overwinter inside the rim, so I had left it propped against the fence. The snails maintained their cosy vigil, now obscured by swathes of verdant, sprouting nettles.
The chick was still alive. It turned its head slightly, startled by the sudden shadow that loomed over it like a fallen thundercloud. There was no wing flapping, no panic, just a pair of unblinking, bronze-beaded eyes filled with despair and hopelessness.
I am often guilty of anthropomorphism, giving wild creatures human emotions and values, but it was impossible to look at those eyes and not see a plea for help. The diminutive, full moon-shaped orbs surely mirrored the dread and regret we would feel, on tumbling into a deep-water crevasse with no means of escape, other than a miraculous rescue.
I grabbed one of our pond-dipping nets, and fished the poor wee soul onto my palm. Its heart fluttered wildly and it mewed like a kitten, a babe's heartbreaking cry for its mother. The chick felt like a sodden sponge and was weighed down by a rug of weed. It was so cold, I doubted it would survive.
The summerhouse offered shelter to my little patient. I settled it on my lap, and began to untangle bunches of stringy weed from its downy, beige feathers. It was a young bird, newly fledged, and as yet unable to fend for itself.
As I preened the unnaturally still bird, I was aware of life carrying on outside. Rain drummed on the roof and like a manic sprinkler system, the downpour transformed the pond into a sloshing, blurred sea of silver. Feathery-tailed tadpoles glided, submarine-like, through the deeper, calmer depths.
I chatted to the juvenile starling, telling it to hang on in there, in my childlike tone usually reserved for the dog. I rambled on about how there is so much more to rain than just getting wet. I told the chick of rain's magical pitter-pattering sounds, of how it waters the plants and helps worms to move from place to place. I explained its necessity for planet Earth, beautiful but powerful enough to devastate and destroy lives and landscapes.
Despite the morning's greyness, signs of early summer were abundant. Marsh marigold flowers bordered the pond like splodges of egg yolk, and breeze-ruffled forget-me-nots undulated in shimmering-azure Mexican waves. Perfume of broom and wild garlic mingled with the earthy scents of damp grass, fern and moss. Smells that sing, like rain, of nature's wildness and freedom, but only to those willing to listen.
I wondered if the scents triggered nostalgic thoughts in the chick's tiny brain. Did it have enough olfactory senses to associate the dank fragrances of wood and pasture with reminiscence the way I did; a deep-rooted connection to childhood, the natural world and home? Were the smells of the nest: twigs, grasses, mosses and feathers etched into its avian memory? And if so, were these sensations pierced by anxiety that life could ebb away at any moment?
I glanced over at the feeders. A squirrel dangled upside down at the seed, its grey fur speckled with glittering, liquid gemstones. Jackdaws and a host of starlings squabbled at the fat balls. Fluffy starling chicks lined the fence in a soldierly row, making a merry din, beaks agape. Feed me, feed me now, they squawked in unison.
There were no distraught parent birds looking for a missing child, no siblings mourning a lost brother or sister. I contemplated placing the chick on the grass to see if an adult bird would come to its aid, but deep down I knew the chick was too cold and the weather too wet. It would die quickly of cold and starvation, or in the claws of a neighbouring cat.
We had been planning to go out for the day. I thought of wrapping the chick in a box, and see how it had fared when we got back. If it was alive, all good and well, but if not, it was meant to be. Conscience wouldn't let me. The tea flask and sandwiches would have to wait.
I phoned Hessilhead Wildlife Rescue Centre. They advised me to warm the chick with a hairdryer, and get it to them as soon as possible. When we arrived at the wildlife hospital, it was still clinging to life. The staff plopped it into their brooder, and assured me it would be fine. Once healthy and able to feed on its own, they would release it back to the wild in my home patch. My heart jumped for joy, when I pictured it winging its way back to the garden feeders. Even wet, rainy days have happy endings.
I am delighted to have won the summer Wild Words writing competition!
I have always loved creative writing, particularly thinking about how to write different perspectives and how the same characters or settings can be seen in such different ways, depending on the subjectivity of the viewer. In addition, the power that words have to be interpreted in multiple ways has always been at the heart of my writing.
It was whilst reflecting on the impact of homonyms in writing that I was inspired to write ‘Leaves’, a piece drawing on its meaning as both a noun and a verb. I wanted to write an abstract piece reflecting the challenges that change and leaving things behind can bring.
To create my story, I combined my love of word play with my passion for writing in the natural environment.
For me, nature and in particular, a keen and active observation of the world around us – its colours, its details, its changes – can provide the basis of such a range of writing.
Robert Frost’s poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’, has always been a favourite of mine, and I wanted to draw out its ambiguity as both a poem of hope and uncertainty in my writing today.
I took the poem and some blank paper to my local park, to observe the falling leaves in detail and consider the metaphorical implications that I could draw on and describe.
I am feeling even more re-inspired to create further stories – and to frequent more parks with nothing but an inspirational poem and blank sheet.
Magic Happens in the Dark*
By Kriss Nichol
(*From The Tree of Knowledge by Eva Figes)
Evening is the time I like best, when the night’s darkness still feels clean. My flat overlooks broken-down shacks that operate as shops during the day. By night the shacks are illuminated with kerosene lamps and smells of cooking fraternize with those of dust and baked earth, licking my nostrils, tantalizingly evocative of closeness and companionship. I scald with longing.
Some neighbours tether a goat or boar outside before they ceremoniously behead them, the meat sold to supplement family incomes. Each day I see animal carcasses dropped into a cauldron of boiling water then scraped to remove the hair. After, they’re displayed on their backs, legs open to reveal the testicles—only the male of a species is ever killed.
I ask Santosh why.
‘Females are sacred, Madam, they are givers of life.’
I almost laugh, but cultural sensitivity prevents me. I know how women are treated here.
We are joined by Vishnu Kharki, who glares at us from the doorway and Santosh scuttles away. Kharki stands, arms folded, sour-faced, trying to project the impression that I’m his secretary; in reality I’m here to train him. I’ve seen him before, looking at me, his eyes brooding darkness. Each time I catch him he quickly looks away, his documents suddenly needing intense scrutiny.
‘The Minister requires a report on the data from the last field trip. I’m going out; have it on his desk in the morning.’ His smile is malignant.
‘The data you wouldn’t let me see? The report that you wanted to write?’
He laughs. ‘You misunderstood me. It is imperative it is on his desk in the morning.’
‘Then you have a lot of work to do,’ I say to his retreating back, the buttoned brown jacket straining over his spare tyre, his trousers slightly too short, wafting with each step. He ignores me. I grab my bag and pashmina, leaving the building with fists balled tight.
After a couple of blocks I’m outside the Shangri-la Hotel and beauty parlour. Since I arrived in Kathmandu my hair has grown shaggy. It sticks to my brow in curls and wisps rise in the humidity. My leg, bikini line and armpit hair have also flourished in this new environment. Suddenly I feel indistinct, an undefined, amorphous blob in the shalwar kameeze I wear for ‘decency’. A sandwich board at the entrance boasts special offers for beauty treatments and, deciding on some pampering to re-connect with my feminine side, I go in.
I’m taken to a screened-off area at the back of the salon where two other women, wives of American Embassy staff, are lying on beds having foot and leg massages. Pop music is playing as I strip down to bra and pants, acutely aware that my functional underwear is showing signs of repeated hand washing and compares unfavourably with the Americans’ sexy, satin Wonderbras and skimpy briefs. The women look away, treating me with all the courtesy of a slammed car door, as I’m led past and positioned on a table next to them. Then the waxing begins.
After the first strip is wrenched, thousands of tiny red pinpricks appear on the surface of my skin. They sting and itch, and with each application the wax gets hotter and hotter. Afraid my legs will suffer first degree burns before they’re finished, I empathize with the poor beheaded animals in buckets of boiling water.
When it’s finally over I’m massaged and oiled, small fingers rubbing and soothing my most intimate creases. I grow hot, chest tight, and have difficulty controlling breathing. Oh, God, no. On this table, with those movements, my body is responding, speaking to me in ways I’ve forced myself to forget. I check furtively, my cheeks burning; no-one seems to have noticed. Eventually I relax, surrendering to the wash of eroticism.
As I’m ushered to a chair positioned beside a window overlooking the exquisite gardens at the rear of the hotel I feel myself floating, my body just a whisper in the draft from overhead fans. Banana trees stand side by side with persimmon, apple and pineapple. Water fountains are being cleared of leaves and the swishing sounds of twig brushes, called besoms back home, hang gauzily in the afternoon sun. Birds and fruit bats wheel in the sky, flirting with the air in their aerial acrobats, rifling fruit on branches. Beguiled by the scene I am only just aware of being asked what hairstyle I want. I reply in Nepali, then drift off, back to the beauty of the garden.
The following morning I arrive early, slipping the scarf from my head as I sit down.
‘So sorry, Madam; has family member died?’
Santosh has brought some lemon tea and he and the other peons are bunched in the doorway, staring at my head.
‘Madam... your hair.’
Static between us holds like a web, swaying precariously.
I start to laugh. Santosh’s worried face only makes me worse. At the Shangri-la I used the Nepali word for ‘shaved’ instead of ‘short’ and the hairdresser used a number two razor. Giggles bubble up from my belly and out my mouth, popping in the sterile, male atmosphere where a shaved head is a sign of respect for the dead.
At that moment Kharki pushes through to discover the source of hilarity. The sight of his face, simultaneously a picture of horror, disbelief and disgust, sends me off into more gales of laughter. The men in the doorway look at each other with consternation and I border on hysterical.
This is my epiphany, the decisive moment when perspective is finally restored. I feel lighter, more alive; a lot more than my hair has been shed. With new-found awareness I appreciate the privilege of living at the top of the world, in a country of beauty and contradictions, having the experience of a lifetime.
Magic happens in the dark, when you’re not looking.