We asked Nicola Chester to curate a short series for The Clearing, responding to the themes in her book, On Gallows Down; we begin with her introduction to the ideas and the writers she invited to contribute.
It’s been an absolute privilege and pleasure to curate a response to the themes in my book, On Gallows Down, and I am thrilled to have some truly exciting, moving and thoughtful pieces by some truly wonderful writers that I admire very much, lined up for you.
On Gallows Down is a book (a memoir of landscape and place as much of a person) of several threads and themes that twist and twine together into a narrative rope. But the main strands are of place, protest and belonging. I want to take this opportunity to expand just a little, on what I mean by those themes – though to these writers, they may mean very different things indeed. That’s the joy of creative and personal interpretation.
By ‘place’, I mean what a place might mean to us – the landscape or its historic or wild inhabitants, as part of our own narrative story. By ‘protest’ I wonder how we might offer a resistance to the loss of nature and our connection with it? Protest can be done in small ‘ordinary-seeming’ ways, or ‘big ways’. We protest however we can and risk is a personal, subjective thing. Sometimes, we don’t even register what we do as protest. These acts can be effective in ways we might not realise until much later; who knows what support or influence they might offer, down the line.
The idea of ‘belonging’ can be deeply problematic of course, as it can be a way to exclude others. With that in mind, how do we belong to a place, a landscape, or anywhere? How do we belong to more than one place in the world? (Migratory birds might know several places in the world, intimately). Belonging for me is not about who owns land or whether you are from a place, generations deep (though of course, it can be) – it is how we engage with the place, seek it out, get to know it in our own way. It is about what it means to us, and how it becomes part of our story – and we, it. If we are in the place now, isn’t that the most important and radical thing?
I hope you enjoy reading these pieces as much as I have enjoyed receiving and reading each one! I’m delighted to introduce them all:
I’ve long admired Tim Dee‘s writing and he needs no introduction from me. I’m still awed by his description of woodcock in The Running Sky, and my copy of Greenery is festooned with a blossom of little bits of paper marking favourite passages. He is a master of vivid writing and we share a particular love of woodlark song. The piece he wrote for this curation is just wonderful. As he says, ‘Life is a species of protest’ and here, Tim has given us Cape gannets at home at Bird Island, Lambert’s Bay: guano reek and vulcanised jabbersaw. Place, protest and belonging in the seabirds of a South African seaside town’. His next book, Home Scars is coming. Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimDee4
Jane Lovell‘s Confluence is a beautiful piece on change, warning, action and hope. She is the most wonderful, award winning poet whose work focuses on our relationship with the planet and its wildlife. Her words take my breath away and simultaneously, make me look at the world anew. It also speaks to teenagers in the Secondary School Library where I work. Jane’s books are available here: https://janelovellpoetry.co.uk/ and you can follow her on Twitter: @wordcurlz
Vron Ware is a writer and photographer, based mainly in London but with roots and branches elsewhere. Her latest book, Return of a Native: Learning from the Land, published by Repeater Books in February 2022 begins and ends at a crossroads signpost in rural North West Hampshire, just over the hill from me. I know the signpost well. She writes about rural protest, land ownership, feminism, food production, war, race, colonial history and everyday life, revealing how even the smallest place both contributes to and is the product of world historical forces. Return of a Native is an ecological reckoning with England’s future as well as its deep history. I have a folder exactly like the one Vron talks about here, in this deeply thoughtful, tense and powerful piece. Twitter @vronsta
Dr. Anjana Khatwa is an award-winning Earth Scientist, presenter and advocate for diversity in natural heritage spaces. She lives in Dorset, close to the Jurassic Coast, in a house filled with rocks and fossils. Anjana is such a joyful force of nature, connection and community and an all round inspiration. I first came across her on Twitter when she campaigned to get a statue erected for Victorian paleontologist, Mary Anning. I love her take on engagement with community, history and particularly the narrative landscape – quite literally, the rocks beneath our feet and the earth we stand on. She is a great storyteller. Among many other things, Anjana was longlisted for the Nan Shepherd Prize for The Rock Whisperer and won the National Diversity Award 2020 Positive Role Model Award for Race/Faith/Religion. Provenance is an incredibly powerful, moving piece. Read more about her on her website https://www.anjanakhatwa.com or follow Anjana on Twitter: @jurassicg1rl
Nic Wilson is a fellow Guardian Country Diarist, and a soulmate! She is a fantastic writer on nature, gardens, landscape and literature and her work also features in Gardeners World, RHS The Garden, and BBC Wildlife Magazine, as well as in Katharine Norbury’s acclaimed anthology, Women On Nature. She curates the UK #PeatFree Nurseries List and is a great writer on John Clare’s contemporaries. We first connected through Twitter and John Clare – and her exploration of the word and idea of ‘snickets.’ We had our first real life conversations at New Networks for Nature and The Birdfair – and talked and talked until it really was time to go home to our families … This is a fantastic piece about falling into the details of small Blakeian worlds – that are also everything – ancient, recycled, sustaining and too often, thoughtlessly exploited by our species. Follow Nic on Twitter: @dogwooddays_nic
Mary Malyon is from a village just over the hill from me, where my husband and I worked for a while together (before children) with sheep and horses. So deliciously, I know the pond, the bridge, the watercress that Mary writes of so beautifully, so vividly. It’s a wonderful story, and, as Mary says, full of the tensions of who gets to belong and how, and the counterpoint of a woman’s presence among the landowning, leaseholding farmers: ‘undeniably very male, very pale and, sadly, often quite stale’! Watercress Queen is an absolute joy … Twitter @MaryMalyon
Nicola Chester has written about nature and our relationship with it for nearly two decades. She is a Guardian Country Diarist and the RSPB’s first and longest-running female columnist. She writes as a form of joy, and resistance to the loss of nature, in the hope it will galvanise others to help stem its catastrophic decline.
She and her family are tenants in an estate workers cottage beneath the highest chalk hill in England, in the North Wessex Downs. Prior to that, they lived in a tied cottage on the Highclere Estate. She is also a Secondary School Librarian, has been a cowgirl, and once rode a horse through someone else’s house. Her memoir On Gallows Down, Place Protest and Belonging (available here) was published last autumn by Chelsea Green.