This year, June is for me all about the build up to my treat of the summer… a weekend at the fabulous Wealden Literary Festival! Natural history meets book festival; the Wealden Literary Festival is looking like my perfect kind of weekend. This will be my first visit, although the event has been running for a couple of years. Located in the garden of England, Kent, the host for the festival is Boldshaves Garden near Woodchurch. I’m told nightingales sing here in the spring, and by summer the gardens have blossomed into a magical setting of blooms and tranquillity. The event itself is held over two days, with numerous talks, workshops, and activities, accompanied by delights such as stunning local food and drink, campfire feast, pop up bookstore, and gorgeous garden nooks to escape the throng for a few minutes peace and poetry.
Inspired by my upcoming visit to the Wealden Literary Festival, and by a few promised days enjoying other lovely things the area has to offer following that weekend, I have been immersing myself in books; some authored by speakers at the festival, and a few recommended reads I stumbled across or have had on my ‘wish-list’ for far too long.
Here are my top 5 reads – recommended to you all!
I started the year with Kate Bradbury’s “The Bumblebee Flies Anyway”.
I am passionate about wildlife gardening, and I had heard good things about Kate’s book so it seemed a good place to kick off my reading year.
I have always seen my garden space as a portal to the wonders of the natural world, right outside my back door. Even on the allotment I cultivate my crops with nature in mind, tending the land as much for wildlife as to feed my own kitchen and soul.
Kate’s story resonates with a desperation and hope. Desperation in front of a seemingly rising tide of grey against the green. There is a swelling feeling of anxious determination amongst those aware of the plight of our wildlife and natural ecosystems, and an enlightening around how deeply ecological collapse effects our own existence as we know it. But Kate’s book is a story of renewal and of roots; it beams hope, and a belief that we can make a difference.
As the author heals her scarred and comatose garden, the process also heals her. It gives a strength and a purpose, a sanctuary to retreat to and process or recharge, when life overwhelms. Bringing the garden back to life becomes the stitching that holds the author together as she finds herself having to try and do the same within her life beyond the garden fence.
I too have a new garden, it’s had a wilder history than the square of enclosed decking Kate was faced with, but the transformation that the garden in “The Bumblebee Flies Anyway” goes through inspired me in my own efforts to create a space for nature.
I was reminded of the book on the occasion later in spring, when I squealed with joy on discovering a red mason bee filling a tube in the solitary bee nesting block for the first time, and when I installed my tiny wildlife pond complete with water plants in the early summer.
Emma Mitchell’s “The Wild Remedy: A Nature Diary. (How nature mends us.)” is bold, honest, vulnerable yet steadying. As though saying “look, I’ve done the worse, exposed my heart to the fear, and I’m still here, it hurts, its terrifying, but its ok.”
“The Wild Remedy” combines nature diary and science, with confessional conversation, and an outstretched hand. Seasonal Affective Disorder and Depression are just two examples of mental illnesses that affect people from all walks of life across the world. In Emma’s case, it can make life seem almost impossible. A deep connection to nature is both a drain and a blessing; as the seasons swing, Emma’s depression can intensify, and as she openly and humbly lays out in her book, this has on occasion taken her to the bottom of the darkest of places. And yet it is nature that fortifies the author, fuels her creativity, inspires her artwork, and soothes or suppresses the negative internal voice that demands so much of her attention. It is a book you find yourself nodding in agreement with as you turn the pages, and will only put down so as to propel yourself out the door for a daily walk, or at least as far as the window to notice the touches of green and life in the garden.
Using nature as a tool to help cope with mental strain and worldly pressures is something I am familiar with, but now I have a grain of scientific knowledge to back up my intuition. Talk of beneficial soil bacteria, serotonin levels, and neurotransmitters has even permeated conversations with workplace colleagues.
However this is not just a text on the triggers and effects of depression, it is at its heart a nature diary, revelling in the wonder and beauty of our natural world. Not the huge, majestic, and celebrated, but the small, everyday, overlooked moments. It is a tribute to looking, to noticing, and to all the intricate lovelies that make our hearts glow for a moment or two. It is about the unexpected sight of a Goldcrest flitting amongst autumn twigs being “better even than finding a £10 note down the back of the sofa.“.
My third read of the year was a book that, cliched as it might sound, I simply couldn’t put down. “The Salt Path”, written by Raynor Winn, left me exhausted, as though I walked every numbing and invigorating, depressing and life-affirming step with Raynor and Moth. It is another book of Hope. It also captures the unceasing passage of time and happenings, the way life doesn’t ever just stop. There’s always another step, another path to take, figuratively and literally. It’ll hurt, I mean it’ll really hurt, but trust and human resilience are incredible things.
“The Salt Path” tells a story of how Raynor and her husband Moth, found themselves facing the very worst; fears became crushing reality, and whilst the universe continued to spin around them, they walked. The book holds a unique balance of brutal honesty, mundane moments suspended in the most extraordinary of circumstances, the comfortable humour of a shared heart, and the profound enlightened clarity sparked by being pushed beyond the ends of endurance yet surviving.
I won’t say too much about the happenings within this true story, as I want you to discover each twist and emotion as you would on a long walk; a new view each chapter.
My current read is nature journalist Mark Cocker’s “Claxton: Notes From a Small Planet”. Compiled, inspired by and edited from a collection of natural history columns written by Mark over his time as contributor to the natural history segments of various publications. “Claxton” takes a look at a year in the life of the wildlife (both flora and fauna) of, and Mark’s relationship with, the area around his home in Claxton following his family’s move there from the more urban location of Norwich. I dipped in and out of the passages, re-reading some and skim-reading others, until I reached the point in the book when the author writes about June, and literature aligned with life. The rhythm of the book, these regular individual yet linked and rolling encounters with the natural world and the counterbalancing sense of horizons expanding yet territory centring, matcheds my own experience. I too moved home recently, and in the months since have been exploring, investigating, familiarising and meeting nature in my new home parish; daily, hourly, weather front by weather front.
“All The Way Home”, Jane Clarke, took me on a poetry journey to the western front and back, via homesteads and farms and hearts and homes. I stumbled across this book via Instagram (Thanks to posts by James Rebanks @herdyshepherd1) and immediately ordered a copy.
For any modern poet to attempt to cover such an emotive and well versed topic such as World War One, is brave, but in this case Jane Clarke’s sensitive, tender and clever words bring a freshness to a potentially worn and weary genre. The inspiration for the collection of poems is the archives of letters and photographs from the Auerbach family, represented by the Mary Evans Picture Library. Albert Auerbach, a young soldier of the First World War, who died in action September 1918, mere weeks before peace returned, wrote many of the letters in the archive.
The poems in this book tackle the eternal themes common to any war poetry – death, loss, home, and the feeling of ‘will it ever end’. However the delicate lines of Jane’s work pick up another common thread, how it is often nature in which we find solace and connection in difficult times; be it the scent of flowers (‘A sprig of heather falling from my sister’s letter…’ – Ling), the weight of apples (‘…Cox’s Orange Pippins, Newton Wonders, Brownlee’s Russets…’ – September) or associations of home (‘…naming the flowers in his mother’s garden; foxgloves, peonies, lupins, heart’s ease…’ – After We’re Gone) .
Perhaps these words taken from the lines of the last two poems capture it best:
‘never forget… the one who taught you to trust in sap/it’ll rise again in battered stems’ – Pruning
‘…it sways in the wind, steadies and sways.’ – Rowan
So there we are: my thoughts on my favourite reads this year!
Please do let me know if you pick up a copy of any of these books, or what your impressions were if you’ve already read them!
What would you recommend me to read next…?
If you are going to the Wealden Literary Festival on either Saturday and Sunday (tickets to many of the talks and workshops are still available!) let’s share a cup of tea under a tree!
Find me on Twitter or Instagram @sxfieldnotes, or Sussex Field Notes page on Facebook.
“The Bumblebee Flies Anyway” Bloomsbury Wildlife/Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 2018. ISBN 978-1-4729-4310-1
“The Wild Remedy. How Nature Mends Us – A Diary” – Emma Mitchell. Michael O’Mara Books Limited 2019. ISBN 978-1-78929-024-4
“The Salt Path” – Raynor Winn. Penguin Books 2019. ISBN 978-1-405-93718-4
“Claxton: Notes From a Small Planet” – Mark Cocker. Vintage/Penguin Random House UK 2015 ISBN 978-0-09959-347-8
“All The Way Home” – Jane Clarke. Smith-Doorstop Books 2019. ISBN 978-1- 912196-68-5