About the artist
Angela Readman was the winner of The Working Class Nature Writing Prize in 2020. Something like Breathing, her first novel, was published in 2019. Her short story collection Don’t Try This at Home (& And Other Stories) won The Rubery Book Award and a Saboteur Award. She also writes poetry, her collection The Book of Tides is published by Nine Arches. She lives in Northumberland.
Read her commissioned essay below.
Deer Prints in the Snow
Looking for ways to approach Nature Writing
The snow sticks to the shadows, a light dusting lining the fence. The grass stays untouched. I wish it would lay. I want bird feet, a sheet rolled out to spot the footprints of wilder lives that cross mine in the night. It’s drizzly, my window resembles a grainy documentary about waiting for snow. I’ve been asked to write about nature for the first time and fear there’s been a mistake.
Honestly, I don’t feel like a nature writer. Thinking about nature writers, I picture gentlemen whistling in tweed jackets. I can’t whistle. I don’t own a Barbour. I’m sure nature writers don’t swear or eat Pot Noodles. Yet here I am. I think that is something.
There’s no rulebook for nature writing, but it seems I’ve absorbed an unwritten one, a sense it should be left to the experts. Growing up working class, we need to rip up this rulebook. I must find my own. Rule 1: Nature is for everyone. We don’t have to be special to write about it. It doesn’t discriminate. The rain on my terrace is as wet as the rain falling on the stately hall.
Snow drifts across my laptop, I see photos of snowmen with kitty whiskers all over the country. It isn’t snowing in Northumberland. I scrap the notion my page will fill with snow and go outside. Rule 2: Writing about nature, we must be present. Through it, we own our now, wherever we are.
It’s dreich. The morning isn’t an Instagram post. I don’t believe April’s the cruellest month. February? Maybe. The fireworks of autumn have fizzled out of the trees, our Christmas lights have yet to be replaced by spring’s bulbs. I’m pretty sure nature writing should be breath-taking. I look up for flying geese. The sky is stone. Rule 3: There won’t always be perfect conditions. Luckily, to find nature we don’t have to go far. Dandelions at the bus stop, the seagulls in town, anything we see can say write about me.
The hedge facing my door holds the promise of birds. Here, I’ve seen field sparrows, robins, bluetits, and only weeks ago, a bullfinch making a wizened foxglove blush. There’s nothing today. The wings of a blackbird lay on the grass, feathers scattered. I wonder if foxes slink close at night. I heard one once, a scream burning through sleep. There’s no skat. Crows seem a more likely culprit. I hear the murder confirm my judgement. Taking off, a pair rattle the trees. Rule 4: Writing about nature is to accept our lack of control. It is to come face to face with our own vulnerability.
The death of the blackbird feels like burying summer, mornings I hung laundry and met its gold eye. The grass holds no flowers for the funeral. It’s soggy and worried by moles. I’ve never seen one, but I fall aware of a night life, the soft ground giving underfoot. The weather dampening our days allows moles to carve out an existence. The loss of the lawn seems a small price for the reassurance something’s alive. I smooth the soil and lean on a wall.
It’s a small wall that used to be a pigpen. The stone is bursting with lichen. I’ve never given much thought to lichen, but it suddenly fascinates me. Bronze, green and gold splashes are Rorschach’s of stillness. Looking, I wonder if Robert Frost was wrong claiming ‘nothing gold can stay.’ The lichen on this 150-year-old wall existed before I was born. It will remain when I’m gone. Rule 5: Listen, look, look and listen again,
I listen to limestone. It’s worn as if someone sat here before. I have shelved sunsets here, spotted deer, fawn, stalking through silence. I couldn’t move. I knew if I breathed the spell would be broken. I’m sure this is the sort of thing nature writing should be about. I am not the deer whisperer. Such magical moments can’t be summoned. Rule 6: Tear up your plans. Nature is a capricious narrator. The story it wants to tell can’t be plotted. It can change in a heartbeat.
Lichen might not be dazzling, but it suits me. It isn’t flashy yet continues to grow, so slowly most don’t notice. Rule 7: Consider the world a classroom, walk into each day an amateur willing to learn. I decide to find out more about lichen and study the plants.
The artichokes are spears of frost, holding their own against freezing nights. Little else has. The flowerbeds are photos that wouldn’t get many likes. I’m starting to feel this fine. Winter isn’t a showman. It’s a darkroom, the bare soil works in silence on developing summer’s blooms.
I do wonder if the deer are around though. The bark is stripped tender on the cherry I planted. Something dined here. It could be a rabbit, but several higher branches are snipped. I hold sticks as evidence of something I haven’t seen. There are rumours of deer uphill, but when I go there, they are a rustling field. The mystique is part of their appeal. Nature writing teaches us it isn’t constancy that inspires, but a glance, the certainty of little. Rule 8: Nature leads us, we must let it and pay attention. If we’re lucky, in opening ourselves to our surroundings, we catch a glimpse of ourselves.
It’s still raining, but I’m not as fed up as I imagined. I’m strangely curious. I’m desperate to look up lichen, crows, moles, and find out where the deer go. I know little about anything, I’m certain, but I want to. I walk to my door, shivering, interested awake, the snowdrops offering their dropped cup of hope. Rule 9: Think of nature as an altered state, writing about it brings change.
Footnote: Two days after writing this article, it started to snow.