The End of Our World

“No human has ever lived on a planet as hot as this one; it will get hotter.”

In a nutshell, The Uninhabitable Earth – the follow-up book to the New York Magazine article of the same name – is a compendium of all the climate-induced horrors awaiting our species. Wallace-Wells, the author, only spends a few pages on each, but that these together make a whole book is hint enough of just how badly things are going to go.

Climate change is happening. We are making it happen. We have an avalanche of science telling us this (and none of these scientists want to be right; none of them are in it for the money or they’d be doing studies on the behalf of the deep-deep-pocketed oil lobby). Now researchers are asking: what will happen next? If we act now? If we take another one, two, three, or more decades to act? If the temperature rises by two degrees Celsius, by three, by four?

The answers are, many of them, worse than I once thought – almost beyond my ability to comprehend, in fact. Whole bands of the planet will become uninhabitable simply because it will be too hot for humans to function (the Hajj will probably become impossible for Muslims within the next few decades). Rising heat elsewhere will impede our cognition and increase rates of murder and rape. Rising sea levels coupled with other climate effects will batter and devour islands and coastlines and, beyond this loss of home and life, will reduce the amount of arable land which of course will also be reduced by rising temperatures. Food will not just be scarcer, it will be less nutritious; increased carbon dioxide has been found to decrease the content of protein, calcium, iron and other nutrients in crops like rice (a trend already happening outside labs). Wildfires will beget wildfires, our forests becoming carbon producers instead of carbon sinks. Malaria will move into the north. And more, and more.

Perhaps the NHS should start giving this book out as a contraceptive.

The second half of the book is more speculative in its consideration of the range of ways in which society and governments might respond to the calamities of climate change. In all honesty, I started to get a little lost here; Wallace-Wells is fond of tongue-tying sentences and highbrow cultural comment. The TLDR summary is “we might sort shit out, probs won’t tho”.

Still, he keeps on with the memorable lines:

“Instead we assign the task to future generations, to dreams of magical technologies…”

“… the world has, at most, about three decades to completely decarbonize before truly devastating climate horrors begin.”

“… warming at the level necessary to fully melt Arctic glaciers and elevate sea level by several hundred feet promises to initiate rolling, radically transformative changes on a timescale measured not in decades or centuries or even millenia, but in the millions of years.”

The book does strike some jarring tones. Wallace-Wells goes to great pains to emphasise that he doesn’t care all that much about the natural world (apparently, arguing for ape rights is “offensive” to civil rights and feminist movements – um, okay) and is motivated simply by fear for his own species. Will this overt distancing from much of the “environmental Left” help win over more dubious readers? Only the reviews will tell. But what saddens me most is his rejection of individual agency. There are two inherent contradictions in his arguments:

  1. Collectively our consumption has created climate change, but individual behaviour change makes no difference.
  2. Individual behaviour change cannot make a difference if our political and industrial systems do not change commensurately.

Wallace-Wells tells us we should we vote instead of going vegan. But I fail to see how these two acts don’t operate on the same principle. There is as much econo-cracy as democracy in our modern world; the power of the ballot box and the power of the purse. My favourite example of this is Quorn Foods recently opening a massive new factory in the UK to cater for the rising popularity of flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan diets. (And you can read about various examples of successful ethical boycotts here.)

Secondly: governments and companies are made up of people. I’ve always been fascinated and disappointed by the black-boxing of these entities. It’s as if, as soon as an organised group of people reaches a certain mass, They become an It, an utterly alien being. These people have the same eyes and ears to witness the gathering effects of climate change. They have children. My point is: we need to generate Mexican waves of behaviour change in consumer habits, ones that envelope the higher strata of society too. Campaigns and boycotts must continue, of course; it must all happen at the same time, individual acts illuminating possibilities, a top-down and bottom-up assail on reticence and denial. Is it naive to imagine that if a whole board of directors were convinced of the need to change their own habits, were changing their own habits, they would choose to alter the course of their company?

I leave you with the final line of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas:

“What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?”

 

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Chantal’s Best Ever Books

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I read about 90 books per year. Thus, I like to think that I have a pretty good overview of the book world. I even read Moby Dick a few years back (review: good first line. Rest of the book is a whole lot of nope). This is my Best Ever list, of course, but I hope you’ll trust in my taste. My criteria for Best Ever is simple: Do I want to read it again? Do I still think about it in day to day life? Has it influenced my own writing? And so, in the order that I discovered them…

Firebringer, David Clement-Davies
This book, and the next one on this list, are woven into my writing DNA. Let’s just say I’ve got a lot of stories from the points of view of deer and wolves in my past thanks to Firebringer and its sequel The Sight.

Firebringer is for all ages. I first read it when I was 10 years old, though there is an awful lot of antler-goring in it. It’s compared to Watership Down (but with red deer), and it’s got a touch of The Lion King too, now that I think about it. It is a superb blend of nature writing and fantasy. A fawn is born bearing the mark foretold in a prophecy, and he lives to fulfil that prophecy. David Clement-Davies conjures the Scotland of old, bristling with forest, just around the time that the Danes reached our shores.

Wild Magic, Tamora Pierce
No book has influenced my writing style more than this one, the first in the Wild Magic quartet.

I have also written a not insignificant amount of fanfiction featuring the sexy sorcerer Numair, who will always have a place in my figurative heart as my first character crush. Long before Bella and Edward, long before Hermione and Ha–sorry, Ron, there was Daine and Numair.

Tamora Pierce was writing the rulebook for YA fantasy for young women years before the YA wave really took off. All of the books I’ve read of hers are based in the fantasy world of Tortall. Wild Magic was the first series I read, though it began with The Lioness Quartet, about a girl who pretends to be a boy to train as a knight (this before Disney’s Mulan).

So. Sexy sorcerer. Fantasy world. And the third, deal-making ingredient, the ability to shapeshift into other animals! The Animorphs books definitely set me up to fall in love with this one. It also helps that there are plenty of mythological creatures, most of all DRAGONS (more on that later).

Pierce’s prose has a vivid simplicity. Her characters have fun. Her characters die. I feast on her imagination.

White Fang, Jack London
Jack London is best known for The Call of the Wild. White Fang is its mirror image; a part-dog part-wolf born wild, who journeys into domesticity. Ignore the live-action Disney film in which the plot was completely changed. This book drops you in a brutal Yukon. But it remains one of the most empathic books I have ever read. London imagines White Fang’s infancy as if he meditated for weeks on what it would be like to be a baby wolf meeting the world. Let me remind you that London was born in 1876, long before it became commonplace to imagine other animals as thinking, feeling beings.

He extends this empathy to his human characters too. There are two prominent “villains” in the book, and yet, he takes you, the reader, aside in the narrative to tell you about the characters’ back stories, the reasons they act the way they do. Again, this strikes me as incredibly ahead of its time.

It’s also, simply, a thumping good read.

(Interestingly, Netflix has released its own animated adaptation, and from the trailer it looks a little more faithful to the source material.)

Wolf Totem, Jiang Rong (real name Lü Jiamin)
Got a bit of a wolf theme going on here, huh?

One of the most heart-breaking books I’ve ever read, partly because it’s part-real. I still don’t know the line between its fact and its fiction – I do know that, like the protagonist, the author was sent to the Inner Mongolia Plateau during Mao’s Cultural Revolution to work alongside the Mongolian sheep and horse herders.

In the book, student Chen Zhen decides to catch and raise a wolf pup (spoiler alert: there is no happy ending). It’s been criticised for being didactic in style, but I don’t care; it’s compelling eco-didacticism. It’s also been criticised for being untruthful, for exaggerating the wolf’s place in Mongolian culture. Perhaps these criticisms are sound. But the core message – that we cannot live if we destroy all other life around us – remains as important and as damning as ever. China is a country in which countless people starved to death because of the mindless persecution of sparrows (among other evil stupidities engineered by Mao Zedong). A country now besieged by dust storms because of the catastrophic farming policies in the Inner Mongolia Plateau. A country ripe for apocalypse.

The book was adapted for film a few years, though sadly, it’s not very good. Great soundtrack by James Horner though (R.I.P.).

Dark Matter, Michelle Paver
Michelle Paver wrote a popular children’s prehistoric fantasy series about a wolf and a boy. She wrote Dark Matter afterwards, and she definitely did not write it for children.

This is a ghost story. An artfully done ghost story, set in the Arctic darkness. I will give no more away.

Is it scary? Let me put it this way: it’s the only book to ever make me wake in the middle of night, paralysed with terror.

Temeraire, Naomi Novik
This is a brilliantly inventive, heart-warming, and very fun fantasy. It’s set during the Napoleonic Wars. But with ADDED DRAGONS. I read it about once a year.

We begin with an up and coming captain of the Royal Navy, Laurence. Thanks to a twist of fate he swaps a ship for a baby dragon, Temeraire, fast-growing and intelligent. Because in this version of British history, war is fought with dragons as well as navies.

One of the things that makes this book so damn fun is the Georgian period style of the narration and, of course, the characters’ dialogue and sensibilities. Temeraire is undoubtedly the politest dragon in all fiction, though also the cause of many social embarrassments for his captain Laurence over the course of the story. But it always remains dignified, too, and the stakes are real.

This is the start of a fairly long series, though sadly, Novik’s energy diminishes badly over the course of it. The last book in the series that I read was genuinely one of the most dreadful books I’ve ever read. But I still happily read Temeraire again and again, and one of her more recent works, Uprooted, rightly deserved all the book prizes it’s won.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor
Laini Taylor has the most beautiful prose in YA fantasy (even if she does go over the top sometimes). She’s the strongest influence on the book I’m currently writing.

Described as a blend of His Dark Materials and Pan’s Labyrinth, this story is one of worlds and doorways between them, monsters and angels, love and death… you get the picture.

There are beautiful and cool characters, with beautiful and cool names. Karou. Brimstone. Akiva. There are fiery wings and magical tattoos. This is unashamed YA, and I unashamedly love it.

See also: Strange the Dreamer (set in the same multiverse).

Common Ground, Rob Cowen
At last, we emerge from the fantasy hinterlands.

I have by now read a fair bit of nature-writing, and this book remains my true love in that genre. When Rob Cowen moved to Yorkshire, near Harrogate, he began to visit the “edgelands” near his home again and again, becoming intimately acquainted with its geography and its denizens. Sometimes he was himself, sometimes he was another creature such as a fox, sometimes he was another human. There’s a bit of mischievous blending with fiction, but mostly it’s truth. I like to dog-ear pages in books containing lines that I adore. And there are a lot of dog-ears in my copy of this book.

Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky
Back to sci-fi/fantasy (soz).

So, I haven’t read nearly as much sci-fi as fantasy. But of them, this one is my favourite by far.

It’s also perhaps the most inventive book I have ever read. Essentially: in the future, on a faraway terraformed planet, a bunch of spiders and other invertebrates get infected by a virus designed to super-drive evolution, and the end result is new civilisations with new cultures and new technologies. There are Homo sapiens too, but the spiders are the show-stealers. The author is a zoologist by training (and also a practicing lawyer, don’t ask me how the fuq he wrote all these books at the same time, massively depressing).

The story’s got plenty of heart, too, and with a sequel due next year, I am very much looking forward to returning to that universe.

The Overstory, Richard Powers
The most recent book I’ve read on this list, and also the most recently-published. Man Booker shortlist-ee (don’t let that put you off).
Set in the present day, The Overstory is both tender and blistering as we follow characters whose fates have become inexorably entwined with those of the last remaining virgin stands of forest in America. People who know that apocalypse is coming.

Powers has done his scientific research, that’s for sure. And he blends that knowledge into exquisite prose. Time and time again I came across lines or passages that I had to read out loud to myself, repeatedly.

I admit that it is a doorstopper of a book. It is not fun to read on the Tube when all the seats are taken. But the aching was worth it.

“The fires will come, despite all efforts, the blight and windthrow and floods. Then the Earth will become another thing, and people will learn it all over again.”

Thanks for reading.

The Only Way to Travel

Of all the modes of mechanical transport,
The railway has the manners.
Motorways, A-roads, B-roads
All spread themselves like dissected snakes
Shoving aside
Trees, fields, oxygen, us,
And howling as they go.
The railway cuts,
But cuts small,
A stitch in the fabric so barely there
That we allow it
In.
My ghost-horse – what others call the train –
Takes me through gardens and football games,
Wetlands with unruffled swans,
The under-green of woods.
Any glimpse out the window is the reading of a book spine;
My paperback lies lonely.
There is one more beautiful thing
About the railway –
How the railway ends.
Haven’t we all seen
A set of forgotten tracks,
Decaying from the maps,
Giving itself to the buddleia and the butterfly.
Honouring the lease.

Railway

Chantal’s favourite book of the year, probably

Clicks and chatter disturb the cathedral hush. The air is so twilight-green she feels like she’s underwater. It rains particles – spore clouds, broken webs and mammal dander, skeletonized mites, bits of insect frass and bird feather… Everything climbs over everything else fighting for scraps of light. If she holds still too long, vines will overrun her.

I only say “probably” because the year isn’t done yet.

The Overstory by Richard Powers made this year’s Booker longlist. I suspect it won’t even make the shortlist, for the simple fact that I loved it, that the prose didn’t feel like limousine-tinted glass. There are no meanings hidden in here that only MA Lit alumni can tease out. From the first page, the intent is made plain. This is a book about trees. Every symbol is about trees. And isn’t the tree the earliest symbol there is, the mother-symbol?

Let me just bookmark my rapture a moment. Here’s a 502-page hardback that begins with eight different (human) lives. All but one of them wrapped themselves around me, and even the outsider brought me to tears on page 449.

The writing is clear and beautiful. The science is laudable. One character, a botanist (and my favourite of them all), writes a book that mirrors – in part – this world’s The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. The trees invented internet long before we did. They learn. They are altruistic.

It’s a book about trees, and people who fall in love with trees, and people who die for trees, and people who kill trees. Heart-sundering. A feast of words and knowledge and story. A preemptive eulogy. Printed on dead tree, of course, haha (the botanist thought that was ironic too).

I borrowed it from the library, but I’m going to have to buy it – I will come back.

The fires will come, despite all efforts, the blight and windthrow and floods. Then the Earth will become another thing, and people will learn it all over again.

Tree

Selkie

When the doctor tells her, she doesn’t hear. She’s still thinking about the text she got in the waiting room, from her now ex-boyfriend.

The diagnosis has to be repeated to her and even then, she’s confused more than anything else. She thinks of clawed hands and walking sticks. Her grandma sucking air in between her teeth.

She is dispatched from the surgery with a referral to a specialist, and a leaflet for a support group. At the bus stop she Googles the condition. Google is a terrible pessimist. When she reads the word “wheelchair”, she begins to feel afraid.

Back at the flat, her running trainers are still by the door, flaking dried mud. She kicks them across the room.

For weeks, while her trainers gather dust under the sofa, she learns about her condition. What time of day to take her medication, the daily exercises she needs to do. She meets the specialist, who turns her into a series of measurements. Spinal flexion and rotation. Pain scale.

She feels her body growing softer, forgetting the miles it’s run. The shame finally drives her into the local swimming pool. She has to stop for a break after every few lengths, her breathing and her limbs all out of sync with each other. But slowly, slowly, with every micro-tear in her muscles, she reshapes herself.

The water’s surface becomes the skin of another world. At the moment of breaking it, she leaves gravity and friction behind. It makes her think of the folk stories her Orcadian father told her, about the selkies. Seals who shed their skin to walk as humans on land. She likes to imagine herself doing the reverse, in this pool, though she can’t imagine a seal tolerating the chlorine, the breast-strokers clogging up the lanes.

Fed up, she goes back to Google, who is more helpful this time. It sends her on a 6am bus to the beach, to a group of strangers in wetsuits doing important-looking stretches. An older woman scolds her for not coming with a wetsuit too; it’s not like the south coast, up here.

But she hears the waves hissing on the pebbles, and she is resolute. She’ll see how long she can last this first time. When she says as much, and limps after the others, a man about her age catches her eye and winks.

Like the public pool, the sea below the surface is another world – but this one is merciless, hostile to human flesh. Her skin is bathed in cold fire.

Point taken. Next time, she comes with a wetsuit. She joins the others for post-swim coffee and gets talking to the man who’d winked at her before. His name’s Sam, and she likes the way his eyes crinkle at the edges when he smiles. He nods his head slowly in understanding when she explains what’s brought her here, the reason she can’t walk right. He gives her one more reason to keep coming back to the sea at dawn.

The sea cannot break her heart. The sea can only make her stronger. When she finds out Sam already has a girlfriend, she feels a cold stone of disappointment, but the waves and the cold scour it away, as they do the pain. The wetsuit fuses with her skin, her fingers spread as they drive the water behind her. Only her need for breath reminds her she is human.

Every time she has to step back out onto the beach, gravity and pain reclaim her body. She can slow time down but she can’t stop it. She sees people at the clinic twisted over by their treacherous spines, or glued to wheelchairs.

She throws herself into the sea again and again. The swimming group sticks too close to the beach. She wants, needs, to go further. Stay out longer. The deeps call out in a silent voice.

After one too many disapproving comments from other members of the group about her repeated straying, she starts going on her own instead, as many days a week as she can, more than once turning up at the office late with damp salty hair. The unreliable bus journeys grind her down. She calls up Sam, who has his own car. She’s relieved at how keen he sounds to join her for an extra swim or two a week. She doesn’t feel a spark of hope that he might want more than just friendship. She’s stopped caring. She smiles at his stories in the car, but she already feels the sea around her, muffling his voice.

A storm rolls in one Sunday morning. They get to the car park by the beach and Sam shakes his head at the white-capped waves. Looks too dangerous out there. Coffee instead? he asks. Sure, she replies. He ambles off to the roadside café.

She moves faster than she can think. She goes onto the beach, strips off her coat and trousers, her wetsuit ready underneath. The waves claw at the shore, but she isn’t scared. She’s hungry. She plunges in.

As she’s front-crawling away towards the horizon, she hears a distant yell. Sam. She swims on.

The waves grow bigger. They want to push her under. So she dives.

Her held breath lasts, and lasts. The white of her hands turns dark grey, merges into the sleeves of her wetsuit, which is no longer a suit but skin. The webbing of her fingers broadens. Her body becomes sinuous. Underwater light fills her eyes, showing her rock and kelp and fish.

And other creatures like her.

She hears a thrashing in the water somewhere behind her. A person, flailing. She has forgotten his name. But she remembers something. He can’t swim as well as her, never has. And he’s scared, he’s panicking.

She hangs in the in-between, feeling the beating of the waves above, and the deep dark stillness below.

She spins around. She surges towards the surface with a tearing agony.

When her head breaks the surface, the human freezes for a moment as he beholds her. Then she feels her hair swirling around her neck, and he blinks.

Rose! He cries.

She takes hold of him, and pulls them back towards the shore.

Selkie

 

 

Moments from a heatwave

This field is blue-black with a crop of solar panels; then the colour of parchment returns. Cows languish in clumps and, though I’ve travelled this line so many times, even they seem whiter, bleached by the sun.

Train, car, boat. West Wittering Beach – where a lion bought from Harrods was once taken to play – is an ants’ nest of people. Only when we’re beyond the harbour mouth and the speed limit does the heat give us over to the wind.

This bay is quieter than the one next door. The water stops being cold after ten seconds, becomes bliss, albeit a seaweed-tangled bliss. We fish out a torn plastic bag pretending to be a jellyfish. The real ones here are kind enough not to sting.

Evening. New kayak, magic carpet to a plane of reality that sits just above the water. The quiet of oars. The terns and the oyster catchers still take offence. I see what I have never seen before – the tide-bared banks are bright green with samphire. I will bring scissors next time.

I think it is a buoy at first, until the snout revolves around. Head glistening coal-black. Down it goes. I paddle on. Up it comes again, closer. I’m unable to stop myself making a kissing noise at it, the same one I make to get my cats’ attention. It whips its head around and, slowly, sinks away.

A seal’s a good thing to be, a summer like this, I think.

Chichester

Where The Wild Things Are

The woods smell of Marmite.

I freeze. This is it. This is the moment I see them. My eyes sweep the hip-high bracken, ready for a twitching, for a rustling. Maybe even a snorting.

But either they have silently slipped away, or they were already gone.

I walk on.

Strictly speaking, the methodology section in my Master’s thesis proposal did not include “find wild boar (Sus scrofa)”. I am meant to find them – that is, the sense of them – through the human residents of the Forest of Dean. The academic bedrock of the thesis is a pretty psychedelic offshoot of social science called more-than-human geography. I have come to my research site with a head stuffed full of deviant baboons, crafty cows, charismatic isopods, Scottish reindeer. I have started having dreams about other animals turning into humans and humans turning into other animals.

My first interviewee, a horse rider, tells me that the boar smell “ferally”. When I’m in those bracken-choked woods a few days later, the wind brings a smell that I’ve never smelled before, something musky, almost salty, and I know this cannot be anything else. It just happens to remind me of Marmite.

I have high expectations for my wild boar side-quest. The Forest of Dean is one of the few places in the British Isles to which the creatures have returned after their fourteenth-century extirpation, and it has the largest population – though like everything else about the boar, the exact size of that population is disputed. Some people don’t even think they should be called wild boar, their progenitors being farm escapees. From reading the reams of newspaper articles about the Forest boar, I’m certain that their relations with the local humans offer a lucrative study topic from the more-than-human geography angle.

And I am right, to the point that it seems as if all my interviewees have read the same journals as me with the benevolent mission of providing quotes that match up perfectly with the existing literature. The boar transgress by being in the wrong places, by doing the wrong things. Some of their crimes are benign, like digging up roadside verges. Others are murkier. I speak to someone whose terriers needed stitches after an encounter with a big-tusked male. One woman puts her head in her hands and tells me, in a shaky voice, how she is scared to ride anymore because her horse goes mad at the first sniff of boar. I feel shame. Sitting at my desk in my London flat, I had rolled my eyes when I read about the grumblings. In the Forest of Dean, I am much more of an alien than the boar.

Lessons begin the first night, when I’m driving back to the pub where I’m staying; I have to brake hard at the sudden manifestation of sheep on the road, red-eyed in the headlights. My foot is forever twitchy after that, which saves me a few days later when three deer bolt in front of the car. I grow familiar with the bends and the junctions, the blindspots. I begin to stitch together a map in my mind.

And people show me their own maps. Most of my interviews happen at kitchen tables over cups of tea, but not all. Picture this: the camo-clad wildlife photographer strides through the undergrowth, trailed by a hassled UCL student who is holding out her tiny Dictaphone trying to capture his every word of boarcraft while fighting off spiky branches and vaulting deep-cut brooks.

Looking, listening, and later transcribing, I apprentice myself. Deer hoofprints go more inwards; boar ones are more splayed, and in deeper mud their dew claws leave little holes. The whiter the root-end, the more recently the plant was dug up. Boar poo glitters with the shattered carapaces of beetles.

One day between interviews, I follow an RSPB sign on a whim and the path takes me past an oak tree that looks like it’s been encased in plaster of Paris all around the bottom. Further on I find the mud wallow, chalky grey in colour, popular from the gloopy freshness of it. Again I cast my eyes around, again I am denied.

The tales are richer than I ever imagined. They overflow the boundaries of my thesis. The pig-keeper fights off a male boar in the dark when it breaks into the pen of his male pig. The gardener watches baby boar – “humbugs” for their pale-stripes-on-brown – running up a slope to roll down, then running back up to do it all over again. The wildlife filmmaker has seen tadpoles and dragonfly larvae flourishing in abandoned wallows. The photographer speculates that because the Forestry Commission is culling boar in the most isolated parts of the Forest, the genetic balance is tipping towards the individuals that are less afraid to venture into the busier parts. Are the boar less secretive here because they choose to be, or is the Forest of Dean simply too small a place to hide them? When it comes to writing the thesis, I have to keep reining myself back from amateur zoology.

Still, there is more than enough workable material. I am steeped in the sensory memory of all the people I have spoken to. I see the boar surge away through the undergrowth “like dolphins”. I halt at the grating roar of a motorbike being revved, that seconds later I realise is coming from an animal. I lie on the ground inside a bush, watching a gaggle of humbugs squeal and play as the mothers doze nearby. I feel the stiffening of the horse between my legs. My heart booms as the female charges only to stop short a few feet away, feinting.

The writing is not easy, though. I lie awake at night wondering how to capture the chiaroscuro of relations between the boar and the humans of the Forest of Dean, the thicket of love and respect and fear and hatred. One man openly stands on the side of “cull ’em”, but he still photographs them. After our interview is concluded, we watch from his sitting room window as badgers come to eat the food he has left out. Like many others, he is an animal-lover torn. The boar is not polite. The boar does not ghost through the landscape like the deer. The boar does not, always, run away when encountered. Its habit of standing and staring, sometimes even approaching, can be deeply disturbing to a person who has spent their entire life sending wild creatures fleeing.

There are no wolves, no cobras, no tigers, no elephants on these islands. All us Brits are used to being gods.

The interviews and the evidence of my own senses shake me: the head in hands. The trembling voice. The pointing finger – “I don’t go down that path anymore”. I don’t ride here anymore. I don’t walk the dog here anymore. I don’t let my boy go down there on his own anymore. I don’t go out the back at night anymore. This isn’t Londoners being scared about leaving the back door open in case a fox pokes its nose in. Screw the show-don’t-tell. I have to say the words: the Forest of Dean is the only place in the United Kingdom where people are afraid of wild animals.

Yet even the fear itself is a fickle visitor. There are people who feel sick with it. And there are others who, before the Dictaphone, hesitate and look skywards in their attempts to describe what they feel when they come upon boar, when they lock eyes. They always end up settling for a single word: thrill. They are surprised, they are scared, their heart is pumping ice-hot adrenaline through their blood vessels. And they don’t want it to stop.

The first time someone talks like this, I am catapulted back into a memory of my own. I’m snorkelling in the Indian Ocean, chasing unicorn fish. Then I turn my head and

Grey long shape SHARK.

It comes towards me. It circles. Its grey-iris, black-slit-pupil eye stares at me. My body is a silent roar.

It swims away.

I want it to come back.

The writer and environmentalist George Monbiot believes we are all suffering from “ecological boredom” – the psychological consequence of our ancestors wiping out all the fauna capable of harming them. Monbiot points to the ridiculous number of big cat sightings in Britain as evidence. We are so desperate to be scared by the wild that our eyes turn black cats into panthers.

There is no longer need for panthers in the Forest of Dean. Here, there is a dark and miraculous alchemy at work.

I finish my research without having ever got a glimpse of the boar. Probably the talking while walking scared them away when I was out with the photographers. But even when I staked out likely places on my own, the fading light turning to static under the trees, they did not come.

Towards the end of August, my thesis almost finished, I drag a friend on a weekend trip back to the Forest. I email a few of the people I interviewed, and the badger man tips me off about a sounder – a collection of mothers and babies – that’s been regularly showing up at a certain place at a certain time in the evening.

The bracken on either side of the dirt track is almost as high as our shoulders now. It’s all very velociraptors-in-the-long-grass. My friend is not normally one to seek out wildlife, but she mirrors my tense, hushed walk.

We hear snuffling. We halt. Now snorting. Bracken quivers, shakes. I breathe in and out.

Out she steps, slow. Stately. She is smaller and darker than I had expected. Petal-shaped ears. Ash-grey around her face where, below peaked brows, eyes glint black at us.

I forget all the things I’ve been told about her. She simply is.

She makes one loud snort, and then she is gone.

Boar

Expect to be surprised

Walking in the meadow, a huge syrup-gold shape bursts out of the bushes. Roe deer. So close, my eyes can feel the solidness of the slabs of muscle under her fur. My heart is racing with the echos of her rustling. On this threadbare island, her size means more to my amygdala than I can put into words.

On the bridge, we pause to watch the waving of the green weeds in the river. The first thing: a trout, dark yet spotted, dancing for the scraps the current brings. The second thing: a man comes towards us, lit cigarette in hand. He only wants to tell us that the trout has been there for the last four days. Half-formed distrust melts away. I am ashamed. I am delighted.

The pond beyond the river is full of black. Its surface shivers and plucks, but there’s no rain in the sky. My brain re-calibrates. Tadpoles. A wriggling bounty of them. Ripening into froggyiness – heads sharpening, tails shrinking, legs growing, skin like soot washing away to reveal a hidden bronze. We drop to the boardwalk, bend over, bring our faces as close as we can, just children watching children.

The moments the world flips are the ones we never forget.

 

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Doctors and fairies and spiders and orcas and hiking: my top five reads of the last year

I’m a terror when it comes to recommending books. I’m a literary fundamentalist doling out titles and authors like scripture, convinced with the immovability of stone that all of these books must be read by you right now. And I rarely repay the favour, or, if I do, I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait between two and three years for me to tell you that I’ve finally read the book you wanted me to. NHS mental health waitlists got nothing on my to-be-read piles (which exist on a variety of physical and virtual planes: Amazon Wishlist, bookshelf at home, under my desk at work, Sticky Notes on my laptop, bookshelf in childhood bedroom, emails to myself, parents’ bookshelves, my brain).

The puritanically-restrained number of five books below represent the crème de la crème of the legions that I have read in the last year. I will be very happy if one reader of this blogpost reads one of these books.

But I’d be even happier if everyone read all of them starting tomorrow.

Top five

  1. This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor, Adam Kay

Devastating, side-splitting, teeth-gritting. I can’t get enough of medical memoirs (hell, that’s going to need a whole other blog post), and this is my latest delectation. You need to have strong stomach or, better yet, an affinity for gore in order to read it.

Adam Kay was a junior doctor. But he left. Now a comedy scriptwriter, he’s brought his old diaries out of hibernation. Many of the stories are very, very funny, but this is a chiaroscuro of a book – extreme light, extreme dark. Kay is angry, at the way he and his colleagues were treated, and at the way they are treated now by governments. You cannot read this book without caring.

It does, however, feature a singular patient case that will forever make you shudder at the word “de-gloving”. A patient case that Kay decided to read OUT LOUD at a lecture at the Royal Society of Medicine a few months ago that I attended. I have never been more grateful to not be a man, than I was that night.

 

  1. The Cruel Prince, Holly Black

More and more these days, YA fantasy leaves me cold. And I can’t convey to you how much this breaks my heart. YA fantasy is my reading womb. Maybe it’s just because I’m growing older, but I don’t buy that, when I see publishers and agents gush about these books.

The Cruel Prince was a little saviour. I’d heard about Holly Black before but this is the first book of hers that I’ve read (and it certainly won’t be the last). Although it’s set in a world she’s already written about, I didn’t feel disadvantaged as a reader in any way.

The story follows Jude, whose life changes violently the day a fairy murders her parents and spirits her and her sisters away to be raised in fairyland. Jude is ambitious, fierce, headstrong. I rarely notice the narrating character – plot usually grabs me more – but I noticed her. She even loves the fairy who orphaned her, in a dark and bittersweet way.

And Jude walks in a world that’s beautifully realised. One thing that gets hammered into your brain when you’re looking for advice on writing for young adults is that every single word counts and you’re not allowed to linger, like in literary fiction. I have the feeling that if Holly Black had been a debut author, her imagination would have been curtailed. I am exceedingly grateful that she is not, and it was not, because it was fairyland most of all that gripped me, and – that most rare of things – it spurred me on with writing my own novel.

 

  1. Wild, Cheryl Strayed

I possibly read this longer ago than a year, but oh well. Read Wild if you have any love at all for walking or hiking or the outdoors.

At the age of 26, after the death of her beloved mother, drug addiction, and heartbreak, Cheryl Strayed decided to walk the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Oregon. 1,100 miles.

1,100 miles.

She meets rattlesnakes and mountains and good people and bad people. She eats, a lot. And she walks (with a gigantic backpack that other hikers of the PCT that year came to nickname Monster).

Her voyage is interwoven with the memories of the life that brought her to this trail. It could have descended into mawkishness, the literary equivalent of those pretty pictures overlaid with sugar-sweet inspirational quotes, but Wild always remains a hard-edged beauty. And I genuinely believe that I would have gone to the PCT to walk in her footsteps, for just a few months if that was all I had, if I wasn’t trapped in my defective body.

Reading this book is as close to soaring as words will ever bring me.

 

Honorary mention: A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

Think of this as the irreverent east-coast mirror to Wild. This is Bryson’s tale of his attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Maine to Georgia. It is joyously funny, and more than a little educational about the United States’ relationship(s) with its wild spaces. This book was my long-overdue introduction to Bryson, and I can’t get enough of his stuff now.

 

  1. Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky

I don’t read quite as much sci-fi as I do fantasy, so I can’t be sure that this is the best sci-fi ever written, but I’m 93% sure.

I am not a hardcore space opera fan. I cannot deal with insidious empires that have both an “x” and a “z” in their names.

What I’m trying to say is, you don’t have to like traditional space sci-fi to love this one. The story begins with a mistake: on a distant, terraformed planet, a virus engineered to speed up evolution is administered to spiders instead of apes. The spiders change. They grow, physically.

And they become intelligent.

The true genius of this book is the creation of a spidery world and spidery characters that is utterly different, utterly recognisable, and utterly believable. A seamless blending of science and story.

There are humans, too, and when they meet the spider race created by their ancestors, they react quite predictably. But this book is anything but predictable. And I know I’m going to bestow the ultimate honour on it by reading it again in the future.

 

  1. Beyond Words, Carl Safina

Back again to Earth. To other minds. Safina is a scientist and prolific author. In Beyond Words, he does all he can to open our eyes to the sentience of other animals, focusing chiefly on three different species: elephants, wolves, and orcas.

I didn’t need convincing, but I was still floored. This is The Book that I would choose if I had the power to make every single human being in the world stop and read one thing.

Because it would change everything.

 

Honorary mention: The Idiot Gods, David Zindell

A fantasy-esque imagining of the memoir of an orca who decided to try and make contact with the humans, in the hope of making them understand that they are destroying his world. The last page made me cry. The last few lines are the most beautiful last few lines I’ve ever read:

Someday, you will come to love the world. You will sing of life, you will sing our songs. You are the hush lovely fire that whirls across the starlit deeps and sings into creation all things.”

 

Bonus recommendation: On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan

If you have hardly any time at all to read, read this novella. It quietly devastated me. I still can’t believe it was written by a man.

Fox Un-Lullaby

Woke me in the orange dark,
the foxy screaming play
which I knew
(probably)
wasn’t sex,
because I’ve seen you
once, a year ago –
a couple of kids
trying out your bright new bodies,
yelping and shrieking
in between the disembowelling
of fatally early binbags.

Maybe this year, this spring,
it’s the same kids who scream me awake
but they’re playing new games,
fox-making games,
so even as I groan, dig into the duvet,
a smile is yanking my lips
and the wild is in my ears,
singing through the foxes
of the earth stuck under the tarmac,
the Effra the Peck the Westbourne the Fleet
when they rushed and gushed,
the roots of the oldest trees
fingering the bones
of all the fanged things
that shivered their seedling leaves.

All of it
pulsing out into this night,
an arterial cut
still bleeding.

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