Nature Writing

An island beach

In July I visited the Isles of Scilly, staying on Bryher. I spent a lot of time on Great Par beach, sketching and beach-combing, finding tiny pieces of sea-smoothed china with cryptic squiggles of pattern, purple and yellow flat periwinkle shells, flat top-shells with their zig-zaggy stripes and pointed limpet shells with holes drilled in them by the sea.

It was just after the full moon and the tides were very extreme – the locals call them ‘bad tides’ as they make boating difficult. On Great Par it was very low tide and I found the beach dotted with stranded jellyfish. The most noticeable were Blue-fire jellyfish – a deep purple/blue the colour of Scilly seas in summer. These varied in size from tiny blobs to side-plate-sized.

Compass jellyfish were also scattered around the tideline. They were large peach-coloured discs with distinctive dark brown markings radiating from a central small circle, just like the calibrations on a compass. The edges were outlined in dark brown spots which coincided with the spokes of the ‘compass’.

There were one or two Moon jellyfish, completely clear discs like the bottom of a pint glass, through which you could see the pebbles, soft-focus and distorted.

In the shallows where the tide was turning I saw something small moving towards the sea. Bending down I could see what looked like a miniature lobster, about two centimetres long. It stopped and seemed to be aware of me, lifting its tiny claws in a show of defiance. This was a Squat lobster. They find shelter and protections from predators in small cracks in the rocks and are quite common on Scilly.

I walked off behind the beach around Samson Hill where clouds of butterflies flew up where my feet brushed through the bracken. There were small copper butterflies, meadow browns and six-spot burnet moths. It reminded me of how things were when I was a child, before the advent of pesticides and industrial farming. Here on this small island in the Atlantic was a butterfly paradise.

 

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Henrietta and her urchins

We couldn’t believe there was a hedgehog in our garden. It was mid-morning on a Sunday towards the end of May and a portly looking hedgehog was scurrying around collecting mouthfuls of dry leaves then disappearing under the shed. We watched her for a couple of hours, realising she was a pregnant female making a nest.

She appeared again later in the day gathering more nesting material. Then we saw nothing of her for a couple of days. We put out a large shallow dish of fresh water and bought meal worms and hedgehog food which we put behind a paving slab we had propped against the side of the shed. The food disappeared so we replenished it each evening.

Then Henrietta, as we called her, started appearing regularly at dusk. She would have a long drink, eat some food then trot off around the garden. One evening I saw her heading down the road towards the recreation ground. This was a bit worrying, but it is a quiet village road so I hoped she would be ok.

A couple of weeks went by before we started seeing the urchins, or young hedgehogs. They were almost round with little pointy snouts and would drink together from the dish. We think there were three, but were never sure if we had seen all of them at one time. Soon the food started disappearing very fast and we had to stock up on meal worms, their favourite food.

Now, as it gets dark, around 10pm, the two-month-old urchins come out from under the shed and, after a feed and a drink, they run back and forth, disappearing among the herbs. They even found a lost tennis ball in the flower bed and pushed it out on to the path. Our neighbours have cut openings in their back gates to allow access for foraging hedgehogs.

However, we haven’t seen Henrietta now for about ten days. I’m hoping it’s just that she’s weaned her young and has left them to be self-sufficient, but yesterday as I turned off the main road to the village I saw a grey smudge, a sketchy outline, unmistakably hedgehog, lying flat as a child’s discarded drawing on the slip road.

I walked back to look more closely and felt inexpressibly sad that this could be Henrietta, now just a matted grey shape of crushed prickles, the snout upturned cartoon-like.

We are continuing to feed our two remaining hedgehogs and have installed a hedgehog house ready for hibernation time. We still hope that perhaps Henrietta may still be alive and will come back one day to have another litter.

Poem a Week

Last January I decided I would write a poem a week throughout 2016. This is why I haven’t produced a blog for a while, so I apologise to my followers for my year’s absence. I have always written poetry, but since finishing my MA at Bath Spa in 2001, my forays into poetry have been sporadic. In 2015 I wrote a lot of poems about the South Dorset Ridgeway and collected them into a book called Sea Wall which I illustrated with my own lino-prints. So, in 2016 I decided the time had come to apply myself on a regular basis to see what came out of it. A friend joined me in the challenge and we met weekly to read and discuss our poems.

Sometimes the poems came easily, but other weeks I had to struggle to produce something, but I very much enjoyed the challenge of digging deep and writing on a weekly basis. Occasionally, like the seventh wave, a poem would emerge which seemed greater than the others. Some poems were little but deeply felt, others were longer and had their own agenda. It was both an exploration and a revelation and I soon found I had quite a reservoir of poems.

I then decided to send a few to poetry competitions. By the end of the year my work had been shortlisted in several competitions including the Ver Poets Open Competition, the Yeovil Literary Prize and the Bridport Prize (two poems). This was encouraging and I decided to continue with my poem-a-week in 2017.

Looking at my file of work from last year, it is a diary of the seasons, but also of my memories. I have found most poems are closely linked to nature and the landscape, so, in this way I have continued my nature writing, but changed the shape of the text on the page.

Here is the little poem that was shortlisted in the Ver Poets Open Competition:-

School milk

The morning bell sent us clattering
from the chalk-fug of the classroom
scraping wooden chairs
elbowing and chattering
out into the January air.

There on a trestle in the shade
stacked crates of frosted bottles
silver tops balanced on small towers
of frozen cream
sticking to lips
as we tipped iced milk to hot mouths

eyes tilted to the snow-filled sky.

I remember how the chill crept slowly through me
an ache in my throat.

Jennifer Hunt
2016

Sea Wall

Sea wall was the name given to the South Dorset Ridgeway by those who lived in its shadow. It was seen as a natural barrier, keeping back the sea that raged against the Chesil Bank and the Jurassic Coast. This was the inspiration to my book which has just been published by Archaeopteryx Imprint Ltd.

I collected extracts from some of the posts published on my blog for the BBC Wildlife Magazine and mixed these with some of my poems, most of which were written last summer, but I have also included some from ten years ago when I lived at Kingston Russell on the landward side of the South Dorset Ridgeway. Several of these poems have already been published in different anthologies and poetry magazines such as Poetry Wales and South.

I then decided to create linocuts to illustrate my work. Originally I planned to make about six but, in the end, I was having so much fun, that there is a linocut on almost every page. Owls, hares, newts and skylarks are some of the wildlife touched on in my writing. Underpinning everything is the prehistoric landscape of the ridgeway itself. It is impossible to walk this ancient way without being aware of those who lived and worked there in times gone by. There are traces of worked flints, stone circles and sarsen stones. But there is also the indefinable sense of many footsteps ghosting the way. And, beyond the Ridgeway, is the sea in all its changing moods.

I enjoyed creating the book so much, I am already planning my next one on Chesil Beach and the Jurassic Coast so watch this space!

Sea Wall is available from www.archaeopteryx-imprint.co.uk for £10 plus postage & packing.

By-the-Wind Sailors

A gale force south-westerly was blowing so I headed for Hive Beach, Burton Bradstock on the Jurassic coast to do some wave-watching. The sea was huge and grey topped by white manes. A deep roaring sound filled the air as waves broke across the shingle. Curds of foam were blowing across the beach like enormous snowflakes.

I walked head down into the wind scanning the strandline. What looked like a piece of clear cellophane caught my eye. On closer inspection I saw a beautiful whorled pattern like a spider’s web and realised it was a tiny By-the-Wind Sailor jellyfish (Vellela) only about 1cm across. It was transparent and delicate, but marked with a concentric pattern and topped by a tiny translucent sail.

I then noticed that there were hundreds of these tiny creatures all over the beach. Some were a deep sapphire blue and up to about 8cm long whereas others were completely transparent. All were whorled like finger prints and delicate as glass. They were scattered all along the strandline like miniature shipwrecked yachts. The tiny tentacles on their undersides weren’t apparent, but, when I picked one up it left inky blue residue on the palm of my hand.

Like exquisite solar panels, the tiny medusa convert sunlight to energy, their small sails align with the direction of the prevailing winds and they are carried helplessly along, often to be wrecked in their thousands on the west coast of America. It is unusual to see them in Dorset. Storm Desmond has caused the biggest influx of these marine creatures in a decade.

I’ve never seen these beautiful little crafts before and it was both exciting and sad to see so many stranded on the shore, left high and dry by the rough seas.

Solway Firth

On the road to Wigtown
(book capital of Scotland)

Black quilled crow
on a dry stone wall in the rain.
Reeds fringing mudflats
stained sepia
creased like an old photo
left in a drawer.

I stop the car
get out and breathe
salt-soaked air
hear the lick and spit of water
through tissue layers of mist
riffling water and sky –

an open book
water-marked
pressed flat
spine cracked
lines of furrowed words
blurred by the press of birds’ feet
by the endless turning of
furled water
curling the edges
of this strange place

traced by a passing glance
bookmarked then
slammed shut.

I drive on.

Behind me
in those wide margins
the Solway story
is written every day
whether I read it
or not.
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Poetry Day – 4 of my poems

Pipistrelles
In the uncertainty of dusk
pipistrelles gather invisible sound
picking up echoes of warmth
from old stone walls
winding in the whirr
of insects’ wings
darting closer
in faltering light
weaving me into their loom
of silence –
netting thoughts.

I hear my daughter indoors
practising her scales,
notes swooping
dipping –

roosting even now
in my mind
undisturbed by time.

Chalk Ghost
Chalk ghost on the windowpane –
a barn owl drawn by its own reflection
flew into the moonlit glass last night,
left its outline etched in flight dust.

Swooping Narcissus-like
on its rippling image
left the imprint of each feather –
whirlpools of dust for eyes,
emptiness where the beak should be.
How the glass must have screeched
when the talons flexed.
closing on that wraith-like prey.

published by Poetry Wales

Written in Chalk
Beneath this swaying field of flax
a sea bed swarms with coiled creatures
tiny ammonites
cochlea echoing with Jurassic surf,
snails curling round pebbles
imprinted with the cicatrice
of fallen petals.

Below the keel of plough
fossil fish spawn in salt-white sponge
swim through ancient coral
brittle as bone.

When the moon brims over Knowle Hill
a tide still turns beneath the earth.
Moths move in shoals
through scented waves.

Close layers lie undisturbed –
memory written in chalk.

September
This evening
picking beans after a thunder shower,
shed blossoms cling like drab insects
to my fingers.
Late sun, yellow as pumpkin flowers.

Now, with my colander
by the open kitchen door,
the sun makes a square on the red lino.
Outside hens peck at shreds of light.

Soon bats will draw down the dark,
But I’ll leave the door open,
breathe in the honeysuckle air
while moths circle the lampshade
dizzy from touching the moon.

published by Poetry Wales

Poetry by Jennifer Hunt (copyright applies)
Photo by Brian L Hunt

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A child in the woods

At five years old I walked to school on my own through Oxleas Woods. Actually I used to run as fast as I could, keeping an eye out for wild beasts, bogie men and hobgoblins hiding in the trees. Although I didn’t know it at the time, Oxleas Woods, in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, is one of the few remaining areas of ancient deciduous forest, parts of which date back 8,000 years to the end of the last Ice Age.

At weekends I played in the woods with other children, damming rivulets with twigs and stones, making little houses of moss among the tree roots and creating dens in the thickets. It was a time dappled with the light and shadow of imagination. There were Silver Birch, Hornbeam and Wild Service trees. I didn’t know these names, but remember the silvery bark stretching up to the sun, the smell of the leaf mould and the feel of the rich dark mud next to the water that lit up dark places under the trees.

In the centre of the woods was a café on a hill in a clearing. While our mothers sat here drinking tea, we children rolled down the grassy slopes and played in the rhododendrons at the foot of the hill. We came across tramps sleeping rough in our dens but didn’t tell on them.

Last weekend I was in East Sussex visiting my daughter and family. We took Hattie and Hugo (aged 3 and twenty months) to Wilderness Woods near Heathfield and, while we drank tea in the café, the children played in the mud kitchen and climbed on the carved toadstools in the woods. This forest school has been created for children to experience what I took for granted as a child. There are giant chairs to climb on, bug hotels and swings. Amongst the woods are tree stumps that have been decorated by children with feathers and fir cones.

The following day we visited the Wood Fair near Ringmer. It was a misty autumn morning with dream-catcher webs festooning the long grasses. We all trudged happily through deep mud watching log-cutters, wood-turners, blacksmiths and other craftspeople. In the woodland were groups of people dying fabric with natural pigments, stirring cauldrons of bubbling liquid. There were deer created from twigs and berries, supervised tree-climbing and basket-makers working with local willow. Hattie stroked a Tawny owl and Hugo searched for ‘wiggly worms’ in the mud. Lucy’s Forest School had a pitch promoting their enterprise.

Seeing my grandchildren connecting with the natural world in this way, not only reminded me of my own childhood, but gave me hope that the future generation will take this love of nature into adulthood.

Greenways

I am the wanderer on the greenways
and the ghost ways. My bare feet hear
the beat of others’ journeys, feel the heat
of those who’ve passed this way before.
Old songs echo in the hollow ways.
The anvil strikes and, in my head, the thud
of clay upon the potters’ wheel.
I tread the hare-path on the open downs.
Sometimes I kneel or lie awhile
my ear pressed to the ground. I hear
the throb of axes, crackle of bones,
the cries of those who lie deep down
buried in time’s hard layers. In snickets,
leys and field paths I know the corners,
hollow stumps, causeways and bends
where ancient stones have left their mark.
I smell honey and herbs, the crush of sap,
woodsmoke as dusk thickens the air.
On the ridgeway I shapeshift,
sometimes a deer, sometimes a hare,
drifting along the long white edge
between sea and clear chalk streams.
Dewponds and springs refresh my feet
as I pace endlessly without rest
keeping the spirit-ways open
for those who follow on.

Fossils, myths and new shoes

Last day of the summer holidays and Chesil Beach is empty. It lies like a bleached bone along the Jurassic Coast. The sky is a pale and distant blue. Autumn term is dawning and six year old Jago is moving up from the ‘Mary Anning’ class. He has his new school shoes and is noticing everything today – a lit-up moment between past and future.

We walk down the path to Cogden beach among clouds of Common blue butterflies and floating thistledown. Three-year-old Finley is singing to himself and jumping dramatically over piles of rabbit droppings. Jago can’t wait to find a fossil. On the beach he lifts a huge stone, shouting he’s found a dinosaur bone. Every stone seems marked with the traces of past life, spirals which could be ammonites, ridges that hide belemnites, curves of ancient shells and fish. I point out the seed pods of the Sea kale to Finley and he immediately starts picking off the dense black balls and planting them in the shingle.

Along the strandline is a silvery line of hundreds of dead whitebait, looking like twists of silver paper. A huge pipe, about thirty feet long, has been washed up on the beach. It is covered, inside and out, in Goose barnacles, stranded high and dry. The legend was that these goose-shaped shellfish with their long necks, eventually open their white wings and fly away as Barnacle geese.

This theory of spontaneous regeneration was put forward in the Twelfth Century by Bishop Giraldus Cambrensis who said that Irish Churchmen would eat the Barnacle goose during fasts because ‘these birds are not flesh nor being born of the flesh for they are born at first like pieces of gum on logs of timber washed by the waves. Then enclosed in shells of a free form they hang by their beaks as if from the moss clinging to the wood and so at length in process of time obtaining a sure covering of feathers, they either dive off into the waters or fly away into free air.’ This myth became widespread.

At the edge of the shingle the yellow flowers of the Horned poppy are glowing like the autumn sun, contrasting with clumps of silvery-grey Sea Kale. Today summer ended. The sky is shimmering in the puddles on the path. Jago jumps in, forgetting his new shoes, scattering shards of pale blue water across the pebbles.