Nature and Grief – NSSM2020

Guest Post by Richard Lambert

I am writing this during lockdown. I am lucky – I am not in a small flat in the middle of a city and I have a small patch of garden. It’s a garden I have neglected and, now normal life has been put on hold, it’s a place I have been slowly and amateurishly tending. I am guessing that for many people the pandemic has caused great difficulties – stress, claustrophobia, fear, anxiety, a feeling of powerlessness and, perhaps, grief. I’ve noticed that my own difficulties, even though they don’t vanish, decline when I go into the garden and root around in the soil, dig up weeds, plant seeds and, during what has been a dry April, water the earth and the plants. I have a bird feeder that has been under the kitchen sink for months that I’ve replenished and hung on a branch that great tits and blue tits and, amazingly, a bunch of noisy sparrows, visit. And on my daily walk over the last month, on streets that are usually busy with urgent traffic, there is silence, and for the first time I can take in the blossom, notice the sound of the breeze in new leaves, and hear birdsong. The world – the natural world – seems to have come back to me, and it’s a solace.

My novel The Wolf Road, which is published this year by Everything with Words, is about the solace that nature can give. It’s about a teenage boy, Lucas, whose parents are killed in a road accident and who goes to live with his gran in the Lake District, where he slowly comes to terms with his grief through his relationship to the natural world and, in particular, to a wolf. It’s an adventure story – because adventure stories are gripping and I love them – but fundamentally it’s about how someone reconnects with life after a loss that severs him from the world.

I chose to set the story in Cumbria primarily for the practical reason it’s a wild space fairly accessible to me, but it’s a lucky accident, as it was in the Lake District that I first came fully into contact with nature. I grew up in towns, and had never properly set foot in any wild place, but while I was at university a friend in the Outdoor Society persuaded me to join his group on a walking weekend in the mountains of the Lake District. It was an extraordinary experience for me that, even now, twenty-something years later, I can recall vividly, and elements of which I put into my novel – the boy, Lucas, being lost in the clouds on a mountain; the staggering number and brightness of stars (up to then I had only ever seen a few dozen at once – not millions). 

I’m still very much an amateur in my understanding of the natural world, and still a town-dweller, but now nature is a significant part of my life. It has helped me find renewal when I’ve had losses. Sometimes those losses are mundane – a bad week at work, the rejection of a piece of writing – and sometimes they’re deeper – the death of a friend, the failure of a relationship – difficulties that seem to disconnect and sever me from the world. It’s then that I’ve found nature has re-established me as a person, a self, in relationship to other living things – trees, birds, animals in a habitat of sky, rivers, rocks. And when I came to write The Wolf Road, it was that experience that I was drawing on, though not consciously – I put all of my feelings of loss, from childhood through to more recent years, poured them, really – at least that’s how it felt, it felt that urgent – into The Wolf Road.  

Now that I’ve written the novel, and consider it more broadly, I’ve begun to notice the relationship of grief to nature has been explored by many writers. A friend recently told me about one of her favourite novels, A Month in the Country by JL Carr. It’s about the reawakening of a veteran to life after the grief of both the First World War and a failed marriage, and his recovery comes through his relationship to the rural landscape. The nature writer Richard Mabey has written a memoir, Nature Cure, about his long climb out of depression as he moves house to the Waveney Valley and gently explores his new place in the natural world. One of my favourite poems is the mysterious ‘Basking Shark’ by the poet Kathleen Jamie, in which she describes crawling to the edge of a sea-cliff and seeing in the waters below her a basking shark that is ‘resting, berthed’. For a while she lies there, mesmerised. The shark is ‘steady/ as an anvil but for the fins’/ corrective rippling – dull,/ dark and buoyed like a heart /that goes on living /through a long grief’. Somehow, in this strange encounter with the shark, the watcher meets and accommodates some interior pain. I’m not sure how this process works – in this particular poem, or more generally in the world – how nature and its creatures heal us. Perhaps it is to do with being drawn back amongst living things. Yes, nature can be merciless but it can also be generous. It can remind us that we too are alive. Nature gives us, as the poet John Burnside says, ‘a sense of our presence as creatures’.

One of my favourite poems is ‘Wild Geese’ by the American poet Mary Oliver, which I have pinned on my noticeboard and which communicates to me nature’s power of restoration. It closes:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

The Wolf Road, by Richard Lambert publishes in October 2020 from Everything With Words for 12+ and YA readers. 

Everything With Words has a limited amount of reading copies available. To request one of these, or an eBook, please contact fritha@frithalindqvistpr.com with ‘The Wolf Road reading copy’ in the subject header. 

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