For someone who is personally and professionally invested in both nature and writing, it’s astonishing to me that I know so little about where and how they intersect. Obviously “I ken John Muir”, but that’s about it! Bringing art and creativity into how people connect to nature is a big and brilliant part of my work, but writing slips away from me in that regard. Similarly, while I’m out in the wild spaces and natural spots with my notebooks as often as I can manage, my writing rarely finds ways to reflect this even though wild spaces are where I find a clear head and inspiration.
So, I was very excited to see a free programme of events hosted at The Botanics this weekend for the first ever Leafing Through Natural Scotland book festival. I managed to attend two events, hoping to learn from the examples of others who have written about our natural surroundings here in Scotland, and in Edinburgh in particular.
Arthur’s Seat: The Mountain In The City hosted two very different men with very different perspectives on my favorite-ever peak. Kellan MacInnes’ own research and personal challenges are the heart of Caleb’s List – an exploration of the work of a Scottish naturalist and geologist of the late 1800s, whose list of the peaks visible from Arthur’s Seat became the backbone of the book. Perhaps, also, the list is the seed of the new sport of ‘Arthur-bagging’! Heck, maybe I could manage a few of those, even without a car or the physical wherewithal to make it up a Munroe.
Stuart McHardy‘s decades of research into the stories, traditions and understandings of the peaks of Scotland – especially Arthur’s Seat – were the focus of his talk. His impassioned mini-lecture on Scotland’s Arthurian mythology, ‘pap’-shaped peaks and the intersections of story, place and psyche was very engaging and has prompted me to look at his other writings, some of which are here on wordpress. Go take a look and catch a glimpse of some fascinating research and dedicated interpretation from a professional of many fields!
Both men had a lot to show for their particular ways of writing about Arthur’s Seat; evidently researching something to the nines from the angles that excite you is a good way to get a book’s bones set out nicely. Additionally, of course, getting out into those natural places often enough to carry them with you back to ‘civilization’ seems to really matter. Most of all, though, I was struck by how they both conveyed – even rationalized – their own experiences of these places by combining them with the writings or work of counterparts from decades and centuries ago. We’ve evidently got a rich – if sometimes bamboozling – history of nature storytelling and literature in Scotland dating back to before there was a Scotland, before there was writing and before it was being conveyed in English, Scots or Gaelic. It seems nature-writing can and does build on its own history as much as on what natural event, beastie or place is being written about.
Unsurprisingly, the most desperately discussed point of the FAQ after their talks was the state of the paths and walkways which enable people to access these hills and mountains. It was a good reminder of the fact that as we go to these places to be changed, we’re changing them as well. Respect, care and reciprocity matter to how we relate to natural spaces, probably more than anything else.
[One note on this event, I’m not sure why the age range specified on the programme for this event was 14+. Both men had plenty to say to interest any young walker, climber or nature-lover and certainly managed not to cuss or cause trouble while they did it. Events don’t have to be pitched at younger audiences to be valuable to them, you know?]
Fi Martynoga on Scotland’s Wild Harvests was always going to be my favorite – what with the botany, the food, and the cultural & anthropological aspects of foraging being featured. Of the dozen and more plants she demonstrated and described for us, my favorite new discovery was that you can eat most small vetch blossoms. They taste like nectar and peas, because that’s what they’re made of. Verdict: outstanding!
The talk itself was an introduction to the newly published book of advice, history, ideas, crafts, recipes and culture of the wild harvests of Scotland. Intended as a handbook, not an ID guide, it was edited together by her out of voluntary contributions from foragers, craftspeople and ethnobotanists of Scotland with the help of SWHA and Reforesting Scotland. This brief article on Fi Martynoga and Scottish foraging gives you an insight into the book, and today’s event, and if it grabs your attention and you’re ‘online’, you can nab the e-book of the ‘Handbook’ on Amazon for a mere 2.99 and I’ll surely be keeping an eye out for a promised app to match it.
I’ve only been foraging in my rare spare time since 2010, so I’m slowly earning and learning my way towards delicious proficiency, and this brief demo and discussion with a professional Scottish forager was a fantastic opportunity for someone at my skill-level. Snacking on sweet cicely seedpods & vetch blossoms and sipping cold sitka spruce tea was a great way to re-affirm why I’m so excited by foraging and the writing surrounding it. How many great adventure stories have put their protagonists in the wilds with nothing but their wits and know-how to help them work out how nature provides? Gaining and honing this experience is fascinating to me for many and varied reasons, but from a writer’s perspective I find it invaluable in order to further educate and enliven my mind. Not only that, but as a matter of responsibly representing foraging as my subject matter, such a broadly-sourced resource as this book is invaluable.
Obviously, I don’t imagine us slipping into famine conditions in Scotland during my lifetime, but there’s something both frugal and crafty about keeping these skills in the minds of those who spend time in wild spaces. You never know when you might need them, and not just for research purposes when writing a scene or plotting a tale…
After all, according to my cousin, my spot in her zombie-survival posse currently hinges entirely on my abilities as a forager. Tracking, fire-making, creative writing and crossbow skills are deemed far less valuable to the cause… and the more I learn from books like ‘A Handbook of Scotland’s Wild Harvests’, the more I see her point!
All said, I know I barely scratched the surface of the available events this weekend at Leafing Through Natural Scotland, but what I could see absolutely encouraged me about finding my own ways to pull my work and skills in nature and creative writing together. It had already occurred to me that history – from the formation of the rocks I sit on to the formation of the clouds I watch – is the touchstone of nature writing. Listening to three published authors describe their work and their very different ways of connecting to that history has got me ready to start looking for my place in it, pen in hand.