This past weekend was my fifth time attending Nature Matters, the annual New Networks for Nature conference. I’ve written about it on the blog a few times before: last year’s 10th anniversary meeting in Stamford, plus once when there was a particular focus on nature poetry and another time when it was held in Cambridge. This year the theme was “Time for Nature” and the conference was held at the very posh St Peter’s School in York, which dates back to 627 and resembles an Oxford college. We have close friends in York, but our timing was off in that they were in Italy this week. However, they sent us a key to their house and let us stay there while they were away, which saved us having to book an Airbnb or guest house.
What makes Nature Matters so special is its interdisciplinary nature: visual artists, poets, musicians, writers, activists, academics and conservationists alike attend and speak. So although the event might seem geared more towards my ecologist husband, there’s always plenty to interest me, too. In particular, I enjoyed the panel discussions on nature in children’s books and new directions for nature writing. This year the organizers were determined to make the speakers’ roster more diverse, so some panels were three-quarters or wholly female, and four people of color appeared on the stage. (That might not seem like a great record, but in a field so dominated by white males it’s at least a start.)
The Friday was a particularly brilliant day, the best day of sessions I can remember in any year. After a presentation by wildlife photographer and painter Robert Fuller, the first session was “Nature in Deep Time,” featuring three archaeologists from northern universities who talked about cave art, woodcraft, and evidence of rapid climate change. “Taking a long view, we get a very different perspective,” Professor Terry O’Connor of the University of York observed. The topic felt timely and tied in with a number of books that have come out this year, including Time Song by Julia Blackburn, Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie and Underland by Robert Macfarlane.
Next up was “Now or Never – Fighting for Nature,” featuring three female activists: Ruth Peacey, a filmmaker for BBC Wildlife whose subjects have included bird persecution in the Mediterranean; Sally Goldsmith, a campaigner who deployed poems and songs against the mass street tree-cutting campaign in Sheffield and helped save some 10,000 trees; and Hatti Owens, an environmental lawyer with ClientEarth who has partnered with Extinction Rebellion. The panel chair and one of this year’s organizers, writer Amy-Jane Beer, noted that activism is no longer radical, but an obligation.
Either side of lunch, Dr. Sara Goodacre of the University of Nottingham SpiderLab demonstrated how money spiders walk on water and “sail” using two raised legs to cope with wind; and Dr. Geoff Oxford of the University of York told the successful conservation story of the tansy beetle, which has recently been celebrated with a crowdfunded wall mural on the corner of York’s Queen Street and the Tansy Beetle Bar at the Rattle Owl restaurant on Micklegate. After the day’s proceedings, we joined a general movement over to see the mural and toast the bar’s grand opening.
The children’s books session featured Anneliese Emmans Dean, who gave very entertaining performances of her poems on insects and birds; Gill Lewis, who writes middle grade novels that introduce children to environmental issues; and Yuval Zommer, who writes and illustrates nonfiction guides with titles like The Big Book of Bugs and The Big Book of Blooms. Panel chair Ben Hoare, another of this year’s organizers and a former editor of BBC Wildlife magazine, concluded that children’s books should be joyous and not preachy.
There was still more to come on this jam-packed Friday! “The Funny Thing about Nature…” was essentially three stand-up comedy routines by Simon Watt, creator of the Ugly Animal Appreciation Society; Helen Pilcher, who has written a speculative book about the science of de-extinction; and Hugh Warwick, an author and hedgehog enthusiast. The language got a little crass in this session, but all three speakers were genuinely funny. As Watt put it, “Sincerity should not be our only weapon” in the fight for nature; he’s trying to reach the people who aren’t “already on our side.”
After free gin and tonics provided by local producers SloeMotion, we had the absolute treat of a performance by Kitty Macfarlane, whose folk songs are inspired by the natural world. The title track of her 2018 album Namer of Clouds is about Luke Howard, who created the naming system for clouds (cumulus, stratus, and so on) in 1802. Other songs are about eels, a starling murmuration and the Sardinian tradition of weaving sea silk. She often incorporates field recordings of birdsong, and writes about her native Somerset Levels. Her voice is gorgeously clear, reminding me of Emily Smith’s. We bought her album and EP at once.
Saturday was a slightly less memorable day, with sessions on insects and the uplands, an interview with clean rivers campaigner (and former pop star) Feargal Sharkey, and the short film Raising the Hare by Bevis Bowden. Most engaging for me was a four-person discussion on new directions for nature writing, chaired by author and academic Richard Kerridge. Katharine Norbury is editing the Women on Nature anthology, which I have supported via Unbound; it’s due out next year. She went all the way back to Julian of Norwich and has included novelists, poets, gardeners and farmers – lots of women who wouldn’t have called themselves ‘nature writers’.
Anita Sethi, a journalist from Manchester, speaks out about inequality of access to nature due to race, gender and class. She read part of her essay “On Class and the Countryside” from the Common People anthology edited by Kit de Waal. Zakiya McKenzie, a London-born Jamaican, was a Forest England writer in residence and founded the Green & Black project to give underprivileged children trips to the countryside. Richard Smyth, the author of A Sweet, Wild Note, spoke of the need for robust nature writing – and criticism. He stressed that it’s not good enough for nature writing to be “charming” or “lyrical”; it’s too important to be merely pleasant. I would have liked to hear him explore this more and for it to turn into more of a debate, but the discussion drifted into praise for experimental and speculative forms.
There’s something for everyone at this conference; some of the elements that I didn’t get on with or found pretentious were others’ highlights, so it’s all a matter of taste. Spending time in York, one of my favorite cities, was an added bonus. We managed to fit in a trip to the National Railway Museum and lunch at Bettys on the Sunday before our train back.
Next year’s conference will be at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, 10–12 July. I’ve never been to Norwich so look forward to visiting it and attending the full conference once again. It’s always a fascinating, inspiring weekend with a wide range of speakers and ideas.
Would any of the conference’s themes or events have interested you?
Charles Dickens is almost singlehandedly responsible for creating our view of the traditional Christmas. It’s no surprise, then, that many people associate him with the holiday season. An armchair next to a fire somehow seems like the ideal place for curling up with one of his chunky tomes. I know some readers who try to pick up one of his books every winter, like Lucy over at Literary Relish. This year my husband is reading a facsimile edition of the original serialized version of Hard Times (re-issued by Stanford University’s Discovering Dickens project in 2005) in the run-up to Christmas, and also plans to get through The Cricket on the Hearth. One of my goals for 2016 is to return to Dombey and Son, which I got about 200 pages into a few years ago but never managed to finish.
We’ve also been lucky enough to catch a number of Dickens-themed theatre productions over the years: in London, Patrick Stewart’s one-man production of A Christmas Carol and Simon Callow’s one-man The Mystery of Charles Dickens, an open-air version of A Christmas Carol that took place around the streets of York, and, this year, Dickens Abridged at Norden Farm Centre for the Arts near Maidenhead. This was from Adam Long, the same brilliant mind that, as a founding member of The Reduced Shakespeare Company, helped create The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) as well as The Complete History of America (abridged) and The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged). I’ve seen four of their shows now, and all were utterly hilarious.
To our surprise, Dickens Abridged was basically a musical in a comedy folk style. We were reminded of Flight of the Conchords or Folk On. There were just four male actors on stage playing all the historical and fictional roles, including, of course, all the female ones. Some of Dickens’s novels didn’t even get a mention (though did I really expect Barnaby Rudge to turn up?!), others got the briefest of nods, and some came in for extensive treatment.There were long scenes from Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and A Christmas Carol, whereas some of the more obscure works merited just few-line limericks sung to a simple guitar accompaniment. The problem with these was that the actor was singing so quickly and without amplification that, if you didn’t already know the novel’s storyline, his extremely abridged version would leave you none the wiser.
Among the show’s highlights were the guillotine scene in A Tale of Two Cities, Tiny Tim’s amazing transforming crutch, and the refrain sung by Dickens: “I am a man of anxiety and sorrow” – sung in a 1980s power ballad style, if you can imagine that.
What I found most remarkable about this production was how it was not just the abridged works of Dickens but also the abridged life of Dickens. His time at the blacking factory and his marriage to Catherine Hogarth are two turning points that the play emphasized to good effect. Some readers only vaguely familiar with Dickens might not know about his troubled marriage and the divorce case that left Catherine in disgrace as Dickens took up with a mistress, young actress Nelly Ternan. So while Dickens Abridged was heavy on the laughs, it was also informative and thoughtful.
Dickens: not just for Christmas, but it’s a good time to dive into his works if you haven’t already.
Is Dickens part of your regular holiday reading? Who are some of your other favorite authors to read at this time of year?