A WOLVERINE, AN ELEPHANT A TIGER …AND SOME HUMANS

The Song That Sings Us, my novel set in a fantasy world, where gifted humans have always been able to talk to animals, was published in the Uk in October 2021. I sent it out to selected readers in advance of publication in the hope that we’d have some quotes for the cover. And people said some very nice things 

‘Beautiful. Heart wrenching, gripping, strange and glorious.Liz Hyder 

Beautiful, lyrical and fast paced. A powerful and daring story,  Gill Lewis 

‘…an extraordinary weaving of fierce action and tender poetry,’ Sophie Anderson 

A brave, bold, epic story, with huge imaginative reach, thrilling adventure, marvellous characters and a deep true heart.Julia Green 

A captivating eco-fable Linda Newberry 

‘A heartsong. And a song of active hope in a dark world. Jackie Morris 

A very special book. Inspiring, important and innovative –. Simon Fisher 

How to classify this great book? Ecofiction, thriller, fantasy, parable? Page turner from the outsetEva John 

Now there’s a 2nd hardback edition and reviewers have said some nice things for that cover too

Praise like this is literally life preserving. But real readers, people who aren’t reviewers, friends or blood relatives, are what every book needs, and as more people get round to reading this novel, I’m getting asked about the characters. Jackie Morris created motifs to symbolise some of them, but I’m finding readers want a bit more. 

I’m not going to tell you much about what most of the human characters look like because they exist in my head as consciousnesses, rather than appear as figures; plus I want you to be able to imagine yourself inside any of them, the way I put my self in side Eowyn in Lord of the Rings, but here is a little background information to help you imagine my cast!

Toren Sisal

Is the mother of the three main human characters, Harlon, Ash and Zeno. At the time of the story she is still a relatively young woman, in her lat thirties. She’s a little above average height I think, strong and athletic. She is the daughter of retired a military man and a beautiful heiress and trained in the military herself, as part of an elite force a bit like our SAS. But shortly after her training she ran away to join the eco-rebel forces fighting oil exploitation in the White Sea, my world’s equivalent of the Arctic. Toren is a warrior and gives the care of her first born daughter, Harlon, to her partner Tui, while she goes on to be a leader of a very successful, and rather violent, group of eco activists, Green Thorn. 

At the time of Tui’s death she is travelling back to rejoin and revitalise Green Thorn. But she discovers she is pregnant with twins and, to protect her children, she runs to the mountains to raise them in isolation, giving herself a false name Breen Avvon.

Toren isn’t naturally motherly. But she tries. She loves her children with a deep, fierce passion; she cares for them, educates them and prepares Harlon in particular to be a warrior like her. When the time comes, something in Toren is relieved to return to the life of an activist and soldier, but this time without bloodshed…well, not much bloodshed. She does still shoot somebody in the head..

Harlon

Harlon is much more her mother’s daughter than she realises. At the start of the story she’s in her mid teens and has been raised by her mother to be the protector of her younger siblings, twins Ash and Zeno. This has created a little separation between her and the twins. Harlon’s sense of responsibility for them has made her a bit stiff and fierce at times. The fact that she isn’t a Listener, as they are, makes her feel very different from her siblings. Sometime she feels she the sensible one, while they are both a bit dreamy, and sometimes she feels like the stupid one because she can’t do what they do. 

Harlon is strong and fit and well trained but doubts her abilities at first , blaming herself for things that are beyond her control. But she is mentally tough and resilient and keeps going ins spite of her doubts. She is also Tui’s child, and although she lacks his talent for Listening – the name for the ability to eavesdrop on animal thoughts and communicate with animal minds – she has his ability to connect in another way. The song he and his friends the humpbacked whales have planted inside Harlon’s brain is there, waiting for the right moment which she must recognise when it comes. Harlon’s intelligence and bravery, her ability to to analyse and then act, are ultimately what save the world. 

Xeno

Xeno’s words pepper the story of the Song That Sings Us. She speaks in riddles, but riddles that prove to have a deep meaning. Living alone on the mountain has allowed her family to get used to her strange, disconnected way of communicating and her eccentric behaviour. They come to accept the fact that Xeno is really more comfortable communing with birds than with humans.

But Xeno hasn’t really chosen to be this way. Her listener power is the strongest of anyone in the story, stronger even that her father Tui, so strong in fact that she cannot tune out the consciousness of birds. She connects with them automatically, like a radio tuned to multiple stations and perpetually on. Some of what flows into her mind she loves, but often it leaves her overwhelmed and confused. Not really able to exert her own will or personality. 

She seems vulnerable, fragile and the character least able to take care of herself. Yet she is the one who engages most directly in conflict with the evil leader of the Automators, Doada Sisal. It is the making of her. She finds her will to resist him, and she finds a power that she thinks does not belong to her but to the birds with whom she connects so powerfully. But she discovers at the end of the book that she is indeed powerful, and that she can be herself.  

Ash

I’m after asked (or even sometimes told) which of the characters is most like me. Harlon and Toren are who I would like to be…warriors with the ability to think fast and make good decision under pressure. Aspects of Xeno, her alienation from the world, and her struggle to make herself feel autonomous, are like me. But the human character who was easiest to write was Ash. He has a strong sense of fairness and looks at the world with clear eyes which sometimes find human behaviour strange or even ridiculous. He is the one who I used to make a commentary about some of the aspects of the Automators plans which I find unacceptable in our world. 

Ash loves his sister Xeno as if she were a part of himself. He looks up to Harlon and his mother and is afraid when his support system is taken away. But Ash is pretty flexible, and very resilient – he can adapt to hardship very easily and find something to make him happy in the simplest of things. He has a wry sideways sense of humour, which he finds he shares with the Gula. 

If you ask Ash at the start of the story, when he is about 12 where he would like to spend his life, he would say, here on the mountain of course. He would never expect to end up the mast of a ship sailing the oceans, and absolutely loving it. He is an unexpected adventurer, who lives in the moment. 

Doada Sisal

Doada is Toren’s older brother, a fact that he is desperate to conceal in case it undermines his rise to complete power in Rumyc. He was his mother’s darling son, spoiled by her. But he had inherited the listener talent from his father’s side of the family, something his mother would disapprove of. Throughout his childhood he conceals this talent and through that grows a desire for secrecy and control and a taste for cruelty. He sees that his greatest chance of complete control, of complete power lies through the Automators and their rise to power. So he must rid himself of the listener power, which he does through a hideous self experiment. 

Like his mother Doada likes beautiful things, clothes objects any kind of luxury. He see them as his right. He’s good at manipulating people but has no real relationships in his life because no one would be good enough for him and anyone who got close might find out things he would be too ashamed to reveal. Doada is vain and deluded to the point of insanity. He is the only character who I would describe: he looks exactly like the Uk politician Jacob Rees Mogg.  

The Gula

The Gula is a wolverine, an animal with a bad reputation with humans for wanton destruction. But wolverines are just supreme survivors, incredibly tough and with a steely determination to get what they want. I did a lot of research about wolverines for another, non fiction book, and unearthed lots of recent discoveries made through radio tagging. These studies in some ways reinforced the image of the wolverine as an indomitable survivor – one radio tagged wolverine went straight up a 2000 foot vertical rock face in winter, in a blizzard in the dark, because it was the shortest route to the next place it wanted to be. But they also showed that wolverines are not so solitary, that their bonds with their children are lifelong, reinforced by children visiting both mum and dad’s territtories to hang out with them as adults.

The Gula’s vision of the trail come out of research too. Many indigenous hunters, when tracking animals, using sight, sound, and smell cues, plus knowledge and memory, report the trail manifesting as a golden thread that they can actually see. It isn’t hard to imagine that an animal with such acute senses and high intelligence as a wolverine might experience something similar. 

The Gula is wise, and intuitive. She trusts her senses, and what they tell her, and she trusts her brain’s intuitive ability to interpret that sensory information and give her an unshakeable direction in which to go. Having lost her own cubs, Ash becomes her cub substitute and she will never, ever give up on him. But in following Ash, she has experiences that no wolverine would normally have, and it makes her into something even more extraordinary. 

Enkalamba

I find it incredibly moving that many people’s favourite character is Enkalamba and that her story arc moves many readers to tears. She is another character who grew out of research for other books and from my own interest in elephants and in animal intelligence and consciousness.

Elephant’s like humans are social beings.They communicate with sound, smell and touch and form strong life-long bonds with family members and friends. They rely on each other and in particular on the matriarch of their group, who is the repository of knowledge. Her long life and long memory are the group’s insurance policy against drought and famine as the matriarch remembers where food and water can be found in a range of different seasons and conditions. 

Studies of elephants show that they grieve over dead relatives and friends and even return to the place where a loved one died at the same time that the death occurred. 

So they are complex beings but their huge brains are arranged very differently from our own. Experiments have shown that they are very intelligent but the nature of that intelligence and the workings of their minds we can only guess at. Enkalamba find human minds very different, very difficult to navigate, but she is bright and very motivated to understand. Without any of her own kind left to talk to, she seeks communication with other beings and through that feels, ever more strongly, that all life is one kin. And I agree with her.

Skrimsli

Everyone’s favourite tiger sea captain! Skrimsli is a hero in a striped coat. His long associations – both very bad and very good – with humans have made him into a being not quite tiger, not quite human, but entirely himself. 

I’m not going to say much about him here, as I’m right in the middle of writing his back story for the next book in the series. But he is based on a Siberian tiger, not a Bengal. So he’s a tiger whose ancestors hunted in the boreal forests of the north, who is used to frosts and snow. 

In writing about Skrimsli I’ve thought and read quite a bit about how language influences our thinking, on the sorts of thoughts and the sorts of communication that are only possible with language, because language is what changes Skrimsli. I’m not sure what all his story is yet, but you’ll be able to read about it in 2023. 

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We Are All One Kin

cover of the special edition hardback edition with artwork by Jackie Morris

‘Beneath the green surface of the canopy there is so much life, so many living things entwined, so many voices! The elephant stretches out her trunk, reading the scents in the air. She can sense every one of those million lives hidden now amidst the leaves and branches, and her thoughts reach out to greet them

the forest sings,

one kin, 

all one kin, growing!’

From The Song That Sings Us   Cover by Jackie Morris

publishing 14.10. 21 with Firefly 

In the 1950’s my father, a food technologist, travelled to the forests of Sarawak. He wasn’t much of a traveller, and always said that, after trekking round Europe in WW2, he didn’t want to leave home again. But, for the sake of work, he went on Dyak longboats, up rivers that ran beneath the closed, cathedral canopy of the oldest rainforests on earth. The forests he saw he described to me, when I was little; in my mind’s eye I saw their grandeur, their scale, their unimaginable complexity. 

Spool forward half a century and I had my own chance to visit such forests, in neighbouring Borneo. But the gallery rainforest my father had experienced was largely gone. The biggest trees logged, with only smaller, secondary growth remaining. Worse, much of the forest was altogether destroyed, by the marching ranks of palm oil. 

rainforest in Borneo
…most rainforest has been replaced with palm oil plantation

I was visiting the Kinabatangan river where a conservation organisation, Hutan was working in partners ship with The World Land Trust, the organisation for whom I was then a trustee The aim then was to connect small pockets of remaining secondary forest, alongside the river to form a continuous habitat, linking two forest reserves. 

This connection work was, and is, incredibly important. To see why, I want you to imagine an apocalypse, where your world has been reduced to a barren wasteland, too hostile and dangerous to cross. You and a few of your family and friends have survived, cocooned in a green oasis, where there is food, water and shelter. In a generation or two inbreeding will end the existence of your little colony, as your offspring will be too weak, too prone to disease and defect, to survive. What’s more, your refuge is so small that every other species, all the plants and animals that provide your ‘green oasis’, will suffer the same fate. 

the remaining fragments of forest are home for rare primates like proboscis monkeys

This is the situation facing the orange utans, proboscis monkeys, leaf monkeys, macaques, pangolins, hornbills and countless other species in Borneo’s remaining forest refuges, islands in the sea of palm oil plantation. But there is hope. If these islands of green can be connected, their populations joined up, they can be viable in the long term. And of course, animals and plants in forests are interdependent, neither can survive without the other; and without the forests we have no hope of keeping climate change within survivable bounds. 

Hutan and World Land Trust provide support for local people, such as employment planting trees, and the means to shift to sustainable livelihoods that don’t damage the environment

It’s hard to feel connected to a forest that is on the other side of the world. Yet, as we discover more about the complexity of the natural world, the message that the science speaks again and again is that all life is connected.

Our fate is tied to that of the orang utans and the proboscis monkeys, to the web of biodiversity that once clothed land and sea, and which we have so assiduously unravelled. It’s time to change, to realise that all life is ‘one kin’.

the cover of the proof copies of The Song That Sings Us

That is the over riding message of my new novel, the Song That Sings Us, which will be published in the UK in October this year. It is an adventure story that is also a love song to the life of our planet, for readers of all ages from young to old. That’s why I’m offering the chance for readers to get their hands on this story early, by bidding for a proof copy to raise funds for the World Land Trust’s Borneo appeal. (You can read all about that here). This IS rather a special proof copy. The cover has been created by artist Jackie Morris, who many may know for her extraordinary work on The Lost Words and the Lost Spells, among many other titles. The copy of The Song That Sings Us that we are auctioning will contain extra, original drawings by Jackie.

Here’s the page from the proof copy, with Jackie original pencil drawings added

I can’t emphasise too strongly how special this copy of the book is: fewer than 150 copies of the proofs have been printed, with a cover different from the cover that will go on the published book; proofs are only available to industry professionals, not to the public in other words, you cant buy one. Add to that the original drawings that Jackie has added and you have something utterly and completely unique.

The auction begins now, with this post. You can bid by e mailing me

gaiawarriors.davies@googlemail.com

As the aim is to raise as much as possible to safeguard the incredible diversity of the Kinabatangan, I will simply take the highest bid I receive, in the next week or so. I’ll tweet about the bids, and the progress of the auction, through my twitter account @nicolakidsbooks. The winner will get both a unique proof copy of the book, not available to the general public, and the knowledge of having helped to keep Bornean biodiversity a little safer. 

If your bid doesn’t win, you can still donate to the WLT’s Borneo appeal here  and order a copy of the special edition hardback of The Song That Sings Us, out in October, from the publishers Firefly, here.

UPDATE 6th JULY

Latest bid stands at £400! This is brilliant but I want to see if we can raise even more to help safeguard the Kinabatangan forest. So I’m keeping the auction going for a bit longer. Bidding will now close at 5pm on Friday 9th

BID NOW!

Bid by e mail

gaiawarriors.davies@googlemail.com

or by DM me on Twitter

or even leave your bid here in the comments

rhinoceros hornbill one of seven unique and rare hornbill species in the Kinabatangan forests
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JEROME FLYNN READS THE PROMISE REVERSED

I’ve read The Promise to almost every group of school children who I’ve met on school visits for the past 10 years. The words are imprinted on my heart.

But it’s only in the last weeks, while the country has been under the scourge of COVID and the way the crisis has been handled by the UK government that Ive thought a little more about why the people in the city were ‘mean and hard and ugly.’

Who made them that way ? As I thought about that, I thought about someone looking down on the people as they ‘scowled and scuttled like cockroaches’ , looking down from one of Laura Carlin’s high buildings. So I wrote this, from the perspective of the powerful, the wealthy, the selfish and how they might perceive their ultimate downfall.

You can see actor Jerome Flynn reading it here https://youtu.be/KvWrwGeklSU  

And watch out for the film of the Promise coming soon, with a campaign to connect children in urban areas to nature and planet advocacy!.https://www.thepromise.earth/

Jerome Flynn reading The Promise Reversed in his garden

THE PROMISE REVERSED

I looked down on a city, that was mean and hard and ugly.

Nothing grew. Everything was broken. No one ever smiled.

The people were as mean and hard and ugly as their city 

because of what I stole from them…

I stole their dreams…

I stole their hopes…

I stole their time…

I stole their children…

and lived in luxury founded on their suffering.

They were far away, down there, no more to me than cockroaches.

Nothing stood in my way

I took what I pleased.

But when I cut down their last treasure, and took it to be burned…

its acorns fell and rolled away…

into cracks and crannies…

into puddles, drains and gutters…

down flights of steps…  up elevators…

They found their way 

They put down roots

They spread their first green leaves.

The people smiled in wonder

and they looked up. 

They saw the tower that had been my home

and they took it down.

They planted trees and flowers

fruits and vegetables, where it once stood.

But by then I was already far away

ready to make other cities sad and sorry

But where there is green, mean and hard and ugly will not grow…

Hopes and dreams have deep roots

Time and children matter more than gold

and people keep their promises to the earth and to each other.

In such a place I cannot thrive.

I have grow thin

I am forgotten 

I will be blown away like dust upon the wind.

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THE PROMISE, FILMED

Almost ten years ago now I sat down at my desk one October morning and wrote picture book.

That story was The Promise, inspired in part by another story The Man Who Planted Trees and informed by the research I had been doing on the influence of trees in urban environments, how they soften the effects of climate change, reduce the need for air conditioning and improve mental health and well being.

The Promise was published in 2013 with illustrations by Laura Carlin. It has been a quiet global hit, translated into many languages across the world,  winning prizes and gaining many loyal fans.

Of all the 60 plus books I’ve written, it’s the one I return to again and again, because the message it carries is the core of what I want to do with my work: connect people with nature and make them see that every one of us has the power to change the world for the better.

Now it’s going to be an animated film. One of the book’s loyal fans is Chi Thai a brilliant film director who has championed the book and won a BBC commission to make it into a film. Along the way it’s gained more supporters, The Doc Society https://docsociety.org and CIFFhttp:// https://ciff.org who have placed their faith in the story and helped to enlarge our ambition for what the film might achieve. So when the film goes live on BBC online on Oct 16th it will be backed by a campaign to turn the inspirational message of the story into action. https://www.thepromise.earth/ We plan to trigger  programme of tree planting and nature reconnection in urban areas We already have 300 plus schools who have signed up to screen the film and receive the screening pack with extra information, resources and videos and we are teaming up with partner organisations in cities across the UK.

Part of that expanding program of green inspiration, is our plan to donate thousands of books to children who need them most, in urban schools in nature deprived areas. Walker Books, my UK publisher, have allowed us to buy up to 3000 copies of The Promise at cost, £3. So Chi has set up a crowdfunder to raise the money to buy the books. We’re using social media to reach out to find the schools who need these books most.

My friend Jackie Morris has been a massive help, selling beautiful small inked otters, cats and foxes through her website. They sold in just three days and raised £2000. 

Now I’m offering some incentives to donating too. You can pay for the original images, prints and books on sale here by donating the asking price to The Promise Crowdfunder. Here’s how it works

1)Choose what you want

2)E mail me gaiawarriors.davies@googlemail.com to check if the work you have chosen is still available.

3)Donate the asking price to THE PROMISE CROWDFUNDER and e mail me proof of your donation together with your address and I’ll post your chosen thing.

EASY!

This is the collaged rhino that I made while I was illustrating my picture book LAST – published yesterday and doing its own fundraising for Helping Rhinos https://www.helpingrhinos.org  

Original artwork, ink collage and paint, by me £150
Signed book Bundle £50
Mark Hearld Print, framed, unsigned £180

Mark Hearld Print signed, dedicated to me and framed  £250
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DISPLACED

Not long after the Day War Came was published I was contacted by a wonderful charity Refugee Trauma Initiative. They work with the most traumatised refugees directly after arrival at camps in the Mediterranean. so they are doing a very difficult but essential job. I said the only real help I could offer would be to write something for them.It seems a pretty lame offer but they were very kind. So, they sent me a selection of real stories from refugees who had agreed to share things that had happened to them, and care workers who had stories from their perspective to tell.

As you can imagine they were hard to read, but the absolute bare minimum we can do as human is not to look away from the harsh realities of others’ experience. I read, I cried. I thought and I wrote the poems here. I have another WIP, which is a sort of allegorical myth as a play…but its unfinished an I don’t know when I’ll get back to it.

If you are one of the few people who make it to this blog, then do please share these poems and look at RTI’s wonderful work. One of the poems has been set to music by Simon Fisher, composer, teacher and the Dad from Family Bookworms Wales.(fabulous guide to childrens books with reviews by all family members) Maybe one day we’ll share that somewhere too.

Apologies for the spaced out format here: bloody wordpress did that when I took it from the original document. SIGH

DISPLACED 

poems by Nicola Davies 

Part one DEPARTURE

THIS  MOMENT 

Of course you saw this moment coming:

It was in the space between the flags and placards on the street,

behind the camouflage of newsprint.

A distant megaphone announced it months ago,

The boarded windows and the bombs, confirmed its imminent arrival.

It was too big to understand,

yet somehow, small enough to hide,

to fold between the wind-dried sheets,

stir back into the stew,

and slide underneath the bed

It didn’t stay where it was put.

And now its on the doorstep,

shouting like a drunk

This moment,

This moment,

This moment from which nothing will ever be the same. 

BEFORE WE LEFT 

For months we listened, huddled in the dark:

to Mother’s words, like hail battering the roof

“It is too dangerous

It is too far

It is too expensive

It is too cold

It is too lonely”;

to Father’s silence. 

When at last his words came,

they lodged beneath our eyelids 

the way sand does,

rubbing, chaffing, 

“There is no future here

We have to leave.”

We listened, huddled in the dark

Afraid. 

FIVE MINUTES

You’ve got five minutes, what will you choose

From all that you’re about to lose?

You’ve got five minutes, to fill your arms.

When the city shrieks with fire alarms.

You’ve got five minutes, what will you bring?

A hat? A coat? A wedding ring?

You’ve got five minutes, no time for pain,

Because bricks and mortar fall like rain.

You’ve got five minutes to save a life,

Your sleeping children, your brother’s wife?

You’ve got five minutes to run, run, run

While the sky burns up like a dying sun.

You’ve got five minutes to count the cost

Of the past and future you just lost.

MATHEMATICS

Two hundred on a tiny boat,

Forty drowned when it won’t float.

Eight thousand in a camp for two,

Seventy sharing a portaloo.

Sixteen crammed in an isobox,

Thirty down with chicken pox.

No roof, no food, no clothes, no soap

No home, no dignity, no hope.

Humans crammed on overload,

No surprise that they explode.

Rules are made with gun and knife,

And ten year olds take their own life.

Countless corpses in the sea

This is the maths of misery

A rising tide of pain and sorrow

And forty thousand more tomorrow 

This is the maths of misery

It could be you, it could be me.

part 2 HEALING

HOPE

A bomb took his brother.

A sniper’s bullet took his dad,

and when you asked about his mum and sister, 

he just looked away.

So, when his was the only sunflower that didn’t come up,

I thought, jeez, the Universe really doesn’t like this kid.

I didn’t blame him when he threw the pot against the wall.

But in the middle of the muddy impact zone,

there was a speck of green;

a minute, fragile finger poking from that skinny, stripy little seed.

He picked it up, refilled the pot,

replanted it with such tenderness,

 then, for the first time, smiled.

I had to turn away to hide the tears,

As a tiny shoot of hope stirred inside me, too. 

NOT LOST

We had to walk and walk and walk.

Mum held my little sister and couldn’t hold my hand.

She wrapped my fingers round the button on her coat

“So you’ll be safe”, she said “and won’t be lost!”

I held on tight,

Even on the boat.

Even when I fell asleep.

I held on to the button when they pulled me from the sea.

I hold it still, on a string, next to my heart,

So I remember how Mum loved me

and that I’m not lost. 

SPIDERMAN 

Everyday, Spiderman winds string around the table legs,

Through the backs of chairs,

Over the blackboard. 

Across, between, beneath, and back again.

He whispers to his web, like a nun with her rosary,

Repeating the stations of his journey:

The place names and the terrors;

The blood splashed days;

The nights of sleepless cold;

The people he has lost,

Where and when and how.

We are all tangled in his time line,

It threads around our ankles and our arms, and through our hair.

Only he can rescue us, this is the game:

Meticulously, he unwinds his string,

Spools back his story onto the bobbin of his soul.

Each time he gains a little power.

Each time he’s closer to a superhero.

UNBROKEN 

The china cup was my mother’s,

The one small thing of beauty in her harsh life.

It held her smile, her hands as rough and gnarled as branches

With their tender touch.

I carried it across continents and oceans,

The one small thing of beauty in my lost life.

It held my endurance and my patience.

Today it broke.

I can no longer endure.

My rage consumes me,

For what is broken cannot be unbroken.

Our shattered past,

Our fractured future

are beyond mending.  

My daughter takes the shards.

With her granny’s tender touch,

She pieces them together.

Patient, when it seems they do not fit.

Enduring when their edges cut her fingers.

She hands me back the cup, whole.

“Unbroken.” she says.

Unbroken!

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Intergalactic Council Report number @+*XZ<<>^


Dated 67/378/5897221 

Indigenous date 6/11/2019

Planet 2978611/…/,,,/*/22311///2

Indigenous name : Gaia or Earth 

Intergalactic Name name: Most Precious

Most of us in the Intergalactic community have been familiar with Planet 2978611/22311/2 since its discovery, many galactic cycles in the past. It has names in every language in the Cosmos, but all have the same meaning in the Common Speech ‘Most Precious’.

This small blue, ever changing world is precious because of the unprecedented diversity of the life forms which have evolved there. We are familiar with life and its evolution elsewhere in the ten galaxies, and even further into the mapped Universe, but nowhere else have these phenomena reached such a peak of exquisite complexity. 

So, it has been with increasing anxiety and concern that we have observed the rising populations of one of ‘Earth’s’ sentient life forms, the bipedal primate form known to themselves as ‘Homo sapiens, (here, HS for brevity. It is a tragic indication of the deluded and limited sentience of this life form that the meaning of their self appended name is ‘wise’ and ‘knowing’. ).

The data from long term study of the progress of evolution on ‘Earth’ predicted the rise of a different sentient form, derived from a line of extremely large and ‘feathered’ creatures, dominant on the planet during the tenth scientific expedition funded by the Intergalactic Scientific Council. However, following an unexpected meteor strike which caused great damage and destruction, (and no little media speculation about the competence of the IG SC) a little studied group of other life forms gave rise to the currently dominant HS species, which had overrun the planet by the time of the 11th expedition. 

At that time, there was a call by some scientists for an intervention (as sanctioned by IG statute 222@@@/>5901) to eradicate all HS, which some considered to be a scourge. But others, myself among them, argued that the species was showing signs of improvement – the emergence of cultural traits that we felt would surely give rise to a greater awareness of the qualities of this extraordinary planet and, therefore, a planet-wide desire to cherish those qualities over the simple interest of HS dominance.

This did not occur. 

The culture of planet stewardship that we hoped would become ubiquitous amongst all HS remained the province of only the most beautiful of the HS cultures, the peoples living in forests, on the open sea and in deserts, polar regions and mountains. Planet Stewardship (PS) amongst HS living in their large middens, or ‘cities’ in HS local language, became a rare trait. 

Intervention is now our highest priority. IG statute 222@@@/>5901 would sanction the immediate and total eradication of all HS. This would be expensive and unpleasant. The psychic waves we have all endured from the suffering of other species on ‘Most Precious’ would be as nothing to those that several billion HS would emit, even under the kindest of euthanasias. Also, having spent time on ‘Most Precious’ during the 12th IGSC expedition, I and my colleagues have observed some slight increase in PS traits; there is evidence that these are genetically based and enduring, and increasingly fostered by small but significant cultural changes. Dr Mau from the Centuari Cluster using her species’ heightened 5th dimensional awareness, felt this to be especially notable. Moreover, if this strengthening trait were to be encouraged, Contact could be initiated with HS, and their species educated and developed to be effective PS providers, making use of IG technology and support. 

I do not need to explain to you all the economic benefits of On Planet Stewardship provision. 

Other opportunities could then present themselves. Travel to Most Precious has always been strictly controlled and limited to members of the IGSC. However, with newly trained HS and stewards recruited from Earth’s other sentient species (we have already been piloting contact with the marine species known locally as ‘Humpback whale’, known widely across the Cosmos due to the popular documentaries on the epic stories retold in their song cycles) it might be possible to recreate some of Most Precious’  regions on other planets for the purposes of Enlightened Tourism. A Rainforest Planet or a Coral Reef planet we feel would be particularly successful and indeed raise revenue for further research by IGSC.

In short, we propose the following intervention.

  1. Removal of all HS from ‘Most Precious’ to the large planetary holding system in the Nadawanada Complex. This could be done in short order with the help of Centuaria and their mind quieting techniques.
  2. IGSC teams would then work on Most Precious restoring lost diversity where possible, and installing low impact replacements for HS accommodation and food production. HS middens  – cities – and plant and animal concentration camps, known locally as ‘farms’  would be almost entirely eradicated.
  3. Re-education of all HS as PS operatives ( there will be inevitably a certain amount of natural wastage here as some sections of HS are resistant to ideas of valuing any life forms, even other HS) 
  4. Contact with other sentient life forms to prepare them for the return of HS and cooperation with their newly educated sibling species.
  5. Return of surviving, re-educated HS to Most Precious

6) On-going monitoring of the HS in their new roles, and careful study and documentation of new cultural trends and traits. 

Our studies suggest that this would be a successful intervention with multiple positive outcomes for the IG community as a whole. Of course we retain the option of complete HS eradication should our projections prove incorrect.

Any delay will in anywise result in the eradication of HS from Most Precious, through their own destruction of planetary support systems, but the associated loss of complex life forms is unacceptable and would make restorative action prohibitively expensive. We therefore commend this interventive action for immediate approval.

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I MADE A CHAIR!

I cannot knock a nail in straight. If I put up a picture, either the hook comes out of the wall with a lump of plaster, or the picture hangs squiffy, or I sustain an injury that leaves blood on the paintwork. Usually, a combination of all the above, plus a great deal of bad language.

But I am beguiled by the thought of being able to make things. I spent my entire childhood bodging and inventing things, puppets, painted owls, weird little figurines, peculiar clothes and costumes. Making things feels sort of essential to me. Quite often, at the end of writing a book, I’ll have a clothes-making day and turn out some badly sewn item that would only fit the hunchback Notredame, but I’ll have satisfied my need to make an object. 

Which is probably why I allowed my dear friend Jackie Morris to sign me up for a chair making course, with legendary wood-worker and chair-maker extraordinaire, Mike Abbott. It was far on the distant time horizon when I agreed to it, but as the date of the course approached, I became more and more convinced that I would come home with fewer fingers and nothing more than a doorstop.

In Mike’s garden the night before starting work on my chair

Well dear reader, that’s most definitely not how it turned out. I have a chair! It’s not squiffy or rickety, it looks rather nice and YOU CAN ACTUALLY SIT ON IT. Of course I should have known that Mike is a skilled enough woodworker and genius enough teacher to steer even bodging idiots like me, successfully, through the whole process.

  Mike Abbott demonstrating how to shape chair components

I found it all fascinating and entirely (well almost entirely, slight sense of humour failing during the  process of weaving the chair seat) enjoyable. We,( me, Jackie Astrid de Groot and Jackie’s partner, Robin Stenham) worked in an open sided workshop in Mike’s wonderful sloping garden, immersed in luscious leaves and trees, so that at all levels were were in conversation with plants and wood: with our hands, as we split and shaved and shaped and sanded; with our ears and eyes as we looked at the hedges and apple trees around us and felt their shade and heard the breeze speaking in their branches.

The workshop

Cabinet maker and wood turner Astrid de Groot splitting logs with great skill

Writer and bodger Nicola Davies failing miserably to split anything (maybe a fingernail)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

spoke shavers for small shape adjustments

everyone’s favourite tool, the draw knife

No body’s favourite, the push knife

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mostly, we made this

I loved this bit, wood wedged in the shaving horse to be shaped

almost everything was collaborative, especially making sure our drills were straight

drilling for a bodger is very stressful…

…and very hot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mike’s skill is what did it. Here he is manipulating the chair as it is squeezed together. The natural flexibility and tension of the wood makes the chair strong

I could hardly believe it when all the bits really made a chair

 

Jackie and Robin sharing the delight of an almost finished chair

 

I got sooo grumpy weaving the seat that I didn’t take any pictures. But here we all are with our finished chairs at six pm on Friday evening. From the left, Astrid, Jackie, Mike, me and Robin

It was a beautiful week. Huge thanks to Mike and to co collaborators in chair creating Astrid de Groot, Jackie Morris and Robin Stenham.

The experience of turning recently wild ‘ tree’ into  useful and attractive ‘object’, is profoundly grounding, humbling and empowering. It’s an experience I’d like all young people to have. It’s an experience that I think would be wonderful for young people who have been through the trauma of losing home and family and coming to live in a new, and sometimes unwelcoming place. I’d like young refugees to do Mike’s course, and feel the calming touch of trees and wood, learn new skills that might open up new opportunities, whilst creating that great, simple symbol of human kindness, help and sharing, an empty chair, on which to rest. Mike is keen to teach such students so I’m going to see if we can make it happen.

My chair finished (except fro a little bit of carving as decoration) at home in my garden with The Day War Came

In the meantime,  The Day War Came will receive its official launch at Foyles on September 3rd. in collaboration with the charity Help Refugees (whose slogan is CHOOSE LOVE). Rebecca Cobb and I will be talking about our work for the book and pictures of chairs done by writers, illustrators and artists of all kinds (including Astrid and Jackie but also Sean Tan, Peter Horacek among many others), will be exhibited. Some of these artworks  will be available on the night in return for a donation to Help Refugees, other will auctioned on line later in the month, with all profits to Help Refugees. If you’d like to come on September 3rd please get your free ticket here.    And there will be an auction for my chair, which will by then have some little additions carved into it. Feel free to bid large amounts.

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Dreaming of the rainforest. Khe Nuoc Trong, Vietnam

Looking over plantation and cleared forest to distant ‘proper’ rainforest

A dream landscape fills the space between me and the horizon; layer upon layer of green, tree-clothed hills whose shapes could have been crafted by a movie director seeking to represent paradise. It’s almost too lovely to be true, and yet it’s real. This is Khe Nuoc Trong 20,000 hectares of lowland rainforest in the Annamite Mountains of N central Vietnam. Somewhere in those hills rare creatures with names that sound like magic spells- white cheeked gibbon,, saola, sunda pangolin and red shanked douc, hatinh langur.Somewhere. 

I know I won’t see the shy herbivores or the pangolin, but I’m hoping for primates – especially red shanked douc and gibbons. In fact, I’m more than hoping, I’m not feeling like the very grown up World Land Trust Trustee I’m supposed to be, and more like an excited six year old before a birthday party – GIBBONS SINGING!!!! RED SHANKED DOUC!!!!! YAYYY!!

sandals over socks followed by sandals over leech socks

Right now though, there are immediate realities to deal with: the heat and the weight of my back pack; the plastic sandals over leech socks, I’m advised to wear. It’s like walking with a pair of cloth shopping bags on your feet. Seeing my dubious expression Viet Nature director Pham Tuan Anh explains that these are the shoes in which the Vietnamese army defeated the might of the US. They are, she says, very good for river crossings, and we’ll be doing a lot of those.

One of many, many river crossings…I mean reeellly many

Khe Nuoc Trong is laced with waterways, and is a ‘Watershed Protection Forest’, its purpose to safeguard those clean waters. As such, it receives a measure of legal protection; the extraction of some forest products is allowed, but hunting and logging are, in theory, illegal. However, the evidence of exploitation of the forest are easy to see beside the trails we follow -the tracks and dung of water buffalo and the ruts left by the logs they’ve  been used to haul out.

Buffalo in the forest, just waiting to be used to extract illegally logged trees

village shops are a lifeline for locals but they are also a route for the sale of bush meat and other forest products

As we walk along increasingly steep and narrow paths, the signs of human use recede a little. The rubber and acacia plantation are replaced by disturbed, but more diverse forest, which begins to show signs of animal life; cicadas chirr and, along a stream bed, there are frogs calling invisibly from right under my every footfall. It’s a very odd and particular sound, that of a muzzled chihuahua barking in a box in a tiled bathroom. As no one knows what the frogs are actually called, I name them the ‘chihuahua box frogs’.

Forest ranger station

After an hour and a half of walking we reach a forest ranger station, not much more than a garden shed with hammocks, on a wide bend of the river, where two forest rangers are stationed. A structure that looks like a failed attempt at a bridge marches the width of the water, “It stops people floating logs downstream.” Tuan Anh explains.

bridge like structure prevents loggers floating their cache downstream (there were masses of diddy tadpoles in the shallows and loads of fish)

Viet Nature works closely with the Forest Rangers providing them with training and equipment to help move biodiversity up the agenda of the Forest Protection Service. 

“We work with local people too, “ Tuan Anh explains “to encourage them to use the forest in more sustainable ways.” This means education and providing villagers with ways to make a living that don’t hurt the forest, such donating 4000 fruit trees to grow and crop in and around settlements, and rattan plants to grow on the margins of the forest and provide a lucrative and sustainable forest crop. Gradually, local people are learning more about Viet Nature’s work and are increasingly supportive and proud of the diversity of their forest.

Village on the edge of Khe Nuoc Trong

We follow a path along the river and the opposite bank rises in a smooth, green curve. It looks gibbony to me, but my excitement will have to go on hold for the time being: there are patches of scrub where trees have been felled and gibbons need unbroken canopy to swing through. Red shanked douc too are very discerning and like undisturbed forest, designated as ‘rich’. In spite of its promising look to my eye Viet Nature co founder Le Trong Trai  (Mr Trai) tells me it is the lowest of the three categories of rainforest, ’poor’. Definitely not fit for gibbons. 

me and legend-of-conservation, Viet Nature Goddess, Tuan Anh

By sunset we are four hours walk from human settlement, and yet the forest here is still obviously under pressure. There are still signs of buffalos and humans, occasional tracks and sweet wrappers, and Mr Trai tells me its only of ‘medium’ diversity. All the same, it is beautiful; I notice there are a lot more chhuauhua box frogs and I count five different kinds of butterflies in combinations of orange, sky blue, neon green, patrolling the river banks. 

Butterflies feeding (probably something yucky)

Viet Nature rangers Tran Dang Hieu, Le Van Ninh and Le Cong Tinh make a perfect camp from branches and polythene sheeting, beside another ravishing river bend.

Brilliant tent made of bound logs and poly sheeting

 

 

 

 

They cook a wonderful meal, a ‘phoo’ of chicken, and vegetables from Ninh’s garden.

 

 

 

so many insects flew into the lamp light, I’ve promised Tuan Anh to come back with a mouth trap next time

They chat and laugh in the firelight and I’m filled with admiration for these young people, who live for weeks on end deep in the forest, two or three days walk from the nearest track, separated from their families. Their tireless work, setting up camera traps, scientific monitoring and keeping track of human activity in the forest is the backbone of Viet Nature’s work in Khe Nuoc Trong and has helped to prove the presence of a treasure trove of endangered and rare species. Tuan Anh has the camera trap footage on her computer and, balanced on round rocks for stools, she shows me one delight after another but my favourites are an annamite striped rabbit, like Peter Rabbit in prison fatigues, and a fantastically busy Asian short clawed otter, which seems to be searching for a river under the leaf litter.

“We’re adding new species to our list all the time.” Tuan Anh tells me with a big smile.

A lot more comfy than they look

We sleep in hammocks – ex US army I’m told gleefully – with in built mosquito nets. It’s like being a caterpillar in a cocoon; I sleep like a baby.

what? morning already?

In the morning we continue our journey in to the forest. It’s magical:  frog and  butterfly counts rise steadily with every river crossing. Mr Trai keeps a up a quiet labelling of every new bird sound we hear, some like aural newsprint, some like poured gold ‘Red vented barbett, laughing thrush,’. I stop keeping a tally of the river crossings and simply enjoy the moments of coolness. 

idyllic spot for a camp (I swam here, it was lovely)

At last, we are standing on the edge of Viet Nature’s reserve: 768 Ha leased from the government, who own the whole of Khe nuoc Trong, and designated for scientific research. No logging or hunting are allowed here, and even in the short time since their lease period began, the impact is obvious, with fewer signs of human encroachment and a measurable rise in species diversity. It is Viet Nature’s plan to manage the whole of Khe Nuoc Trong’s 20,000 ha in this way and their proposal to designate the whole of forest as a nature reserve is supposed by the provincial government 

At last Mr Trai looks happy. ‘This ’ he says with a beaming smile, is ‘rich’ forest.

from left one of the forest rangers, Tran Dong Hieu,Pham Tuan Anh, Tran Van Hung, Le Trong Trai (Mr Trai) on the edge of ‘rich’ forest

It certainly seems very different from the forest where we began our journey – no two trees are the same, the canopy is closed and the whole feel of the place is more alive but its hard to get a picture of a forest as a forest, when you really can’t see the wood for the trees. So, it’s not until the next day that I get a real sense off the scale and diversity that Khe Nuoc Trong holds and why its so important that Viet Nature get their wish of managing the whole area as a nature reserve.

looking over rainforest covered hill towards Laos

At five am, I stand on the great, concrete highway that slices through Khe Nuoc Trong. Behind me is the 768ha of the Viet Nature reserve and the disturbed forest surrounding the farms and villages that encircle it. In front, layer upon layer of almost untouched rainforest stretching from here and over the border into Laos. As the sun comes up and replaces the splashed, silver moonlight, its diversity is immediately apparent. The variety of tree shapes and colours takes my breath away. So far, Viet Nature has counted 1500 different tree species in Khe Nuoc Trong – more than in the whole of North America.  There are no holes in the canopy here, this is gibbon country and my excitement levels are once again off the scale.

Le Van Ninh, the resident gibbon expert, who has surveyed these forests and found 300 families of gibbons, whizzes up the road towards me on a motorbike. His beaming smile is enough to tell me what he’s found, so I jump on the back and we fly down the highway into the green dawn. This road may have sliced the forest in two, but it has allowed tourists to appreciate its wonders from the back of a bike. More come every year and contribute to the economy, enhancing the value of unspoilt forest to local communities, who can augment their income by providing facilities for tourists.

Right now though, I’m simply in heaven because I can hear gibbons calling. A male’s lonesome wail floats over the mist that gives away the path of the river, somewhere under the green, and is answered by another call from up the valley. Ninh points out the position of three gibbon families  in the valley and hills before me. A female joins her mate, whoop, whoop, whooping. I imagine them sitting, side by side on a branch, letting their voices reach out over the tree tops, sharing this moment together, like a human couple with their morning coffees. What do they see? What do they feel these little apes, our cousins?

No time for more philosophical speculation, because the rest of the Viet Nature team are here and there are furious bursts of Vietnamese and lots of pointing: two hundred meters away, right beside the highway, a little party of red shanked douc are making their way through the trees. The views I get are brief, just glimpses really; those pale geisha faces with their almond eyes and frame of lemon curd fur, the flash of the white tails and the flare of the red ‘shanks’. But those micro moments gleam in my eye, and are instantly imprinted on my heart forever. 

At that moment, with the gibbon voices still in my ears and the red shanked douc faces still in my eyes, the forest seems endless, but later that day I see how truly vulnerable it is. We cross into the next province and see the forest end shockingly abruptly.

recently cleared forest

Trees and trees and then, bare hillside. Nothing. Fifteen hundred tree species, frogs, birds, insects, monkeys, gibbons, pangolins simply gone. As if they had never existed. Of course I know this happens all over the world, but to see it is incredibly shocking. Some of the destruction is old, the result of agent orange in the war, but some of it is new: rural poverty drives people to clear forest to grow crops or graze animals, even though they know that the soil will not support more than a few seasons of productivity.

hillsides denuded of biodiverse forest by agent orange still almost barren

Viet Nature, their scientists, their conservationists, their rangers, are all that stand between the voices of gibbons, the quiet twirling of pangolin tails, the almond eyes of monkeys and these barren hillsides, with no clear flowing water, with no deep locked store of carbon and without a fat slice of the worlds most precious treasure, biodiversity.

on some forest trails its possible to get about on motorbikes Viet Nature rangers could give Barry Sheen a run for his money

A seven year old once asked me ‘where is the rainforest?’ in the same way she might have asked’ where is Narnia?’ The idea of ‘the rainforest’ has entered into our collective psyche and it does a powerful and important job there, keeping alive the magic and wonder of the big wild. But we must always remind ourselves, and others, that the rainforest is not one thing, it is many real forests around the globe, each with their own particular mixture of species, each infinitely precious, and in need of the very realest kind of protection we can give them. 

SUPPORT THE WORK OF THE WORLD LAND TRUST , VIET NATURE AND OTHER ORGANISATIONS AROUND THE WORLD  

ravishing forest dripping with diversity

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KING OF THE SKY AND NEW YORK CITY

 

Something wonderful has happened. It’s a long way from here, where I stand at my desk looking out over the heads of green fennel, the last sweetie blossoms, to the field, the sheep and the hill top crowned with russet bracken. Far to the west of all that, the book that Laura Carlin and I created with the excellent midwifery skills of designer Liz Wood and editor Cas Royds, has been taken to the heart of New York City. Our story of the Italian child finding a new way to feel at home in a South Wales mining town, King of the Sky, has been picked as one of the Best Illustrated Books of 2017 by the New York Times. It’s the second time that Laura and I have been recognised in this way (first time was for The Promise back in 2014) and it feels wonderful.

Laura and I are in such good company, as the NYT wisely chooses ten books each year, and doesn’t pick out any one: they are all equally valued. I would recommend taking time to look at every single one of the others, all with strong, passionately told stories carried in poetic language and startlingly beautiful images. For anyone unfamiliar with the extraordinary power of this most underrated of art and literary forms, looking at present and past winner of the NYT Best Illustrated is the perfect primer. The variety of stories carried in this year list will astonish you, and you’ll see that the range of subjects, emotions, information and dreams that can be portrayed in a picture book is limitless. You’ll be struck too by the relevance and resonance of these books – how they strike chords on a personal and a political scale.  Our story is one from the historical past of my homeland, but it has particular power today when the world is once again flooded with people fleeing all manner of hardships, and meeting with a mixed reception in their new countries. Just yesterday the UK government refused entry to the UK to refugee children who have no one and nothing, and the US government threatens to judge all immigrants by the standard of just one misguided, insane murderer.

Our story and the others on this Best Of 2017 List have important things to say. The fact that they are picture books should not diminish the value of their diverse messages, but increase it. Picture book authors speak to everyone in a way that is accessible to all ages, and via a multiplicity of routes- emotional and intellectual, visual and verbal. Pictures books work by an alchemic layering that is quite unique.

The book world is a harsh jungle and the NYT list is an opportunity to make a pathway through that tangle and bring these stories to the attention of as many people as possible. Sales matter, not just because its how people like Laura and I make our living but because good sales mean that we may get another opportunity to create something new. So I’m preparing for doing lots of tweets , sending e mails, hoping that among the NYT’s many readers King of the Sky and its nine wonderful companions will find new friends. King of the Sky has already been a theatre production so another dream is that if some wonderful NY theatre producer saw the great theatrical potential of the story and revived and expanded our production of the book as theatre.

But aside from those ambitious dreams I have another which is that the NYT Best of 2017 will bring readers to these ten stories, and perhaps the readers of our story King of the Sky will be drawn to the conclusion that refugees are not a new phenomenon, and the best thing to say to them is ‘WELCOME’ .

HOWEVER  if by some miracle you are that theatre producer …these pictures from the stage version of King of the Sky are just for you!

The most amazing cast Tessa Bide, Huw Novelli, Sonia Beck and David Prince and director Derek Cobley

 

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THE LOST WORDS AND WHY WE NEED THEM

Conkers by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words

Often the first to be in full leaf, the horse chestnut trees are already looking rusty and worn, as if they simply haven’t got the energy to go on. No wonder really, considering what they’re making: thousands of spiked, green cannonballs with mahogany works of art inside.

Conkers! I still get excited about conkers. The silky sheen, the subtle rippling of deep purplish brown, like muscles moving under the skin of a racehorse. And that smell. Is any scent cleaner, greener, more distinctive than the inside of a conker shell? Breaking in to witness the way the nuts fit inside that pale interior, is like being told a great secret, a spell of happiness.

When I was little, six, seven, eight, I was obsessed with conkers. I dreamt of finding giant, perfect specimens, and I would open one spikey shell after another, always hoping that this would be the one. The truth was of course that they were all the one, each miraculously perfect. I tried every way I could to preserve the plump sheen, pickling, varnishing, drying in the oven, painting with oil. Nothing worked. The beauty and delight of conkers was transitory. They withered and shrivelled and for a while I mourned over the bowls of faded loveliness. And then I threw them out on to the compost heap, and turned my attention to the next round of seasonal delights: kicking fallen leaves; frost on spider webs; ice.

Where did I learn my conker obsession? I’m not sure. I didn’t grow up with siblings or friends but I did have a grandfather and a father who were passionate gardeners and who were always outside. I tagged along. I think my Dad was as mad about conkers as I was. He was the one who helped try to preserve them. As a kid I think he’d played ‘conkers’ and, now I think of it, I remember him stringing one for me, making a hole with a meat skewer on the kitchen table. It seemed like mutilation to me, and I had no interest at all in bashing things.

My awareness of nature was partly learned and partly acquired simply because I was outside all the time and curious, like all children; I looked, I touched, I sniffed I poked things with sticks (not the same as bashing).

Conker obsession was the norm back then. Come late September and October any conker tree was a magnet for children. Trees in parks were surrounded, the way lamps were crowded with moths. Kids gleaning amongst the leaves, kids throwing sticks to bring down the big, tantalising, out of reach fruits, high up. Even trees in the middle of nowhere would magically acquire a little tribe of worshiping children.

But not now. My last house was in a town and set in parkland. Seven or eight huge conkers trees stood on the edge of the paths or in the middle of the lawns, freely available to the many children who lived on the estate. In five years I saw two boys, once, collecting conkers. They kicked around in the leaves for ten minutes or so then gave up and drifted off.

What’s happened? Why can’t kids feel the conker magic any more?

There are a lot of answers to that question. Screens and perceived danger are some of the story: adults like their kids to be inside where they can easily keep an eye on them and still pursue their own screen obsession. A lack of un-structured wild space is another – there are sports grounds, there are play areas but there are fewer bits of long grass and bramble, trees that don’t belong to anyone – the liminal, un-used spaces, that have in the past been the territory of children.( see Julia Green’s wonderful The Wilderness War for a novel about this)

It’s not that children have lost a taste for nature. It’s what I write about and I’ve never been into a school where my subject matter wasn’t received with huge enthusiasm. Kids know and love elephants and lions, orang utans and giraffes. They can tell you how big a blue whale is. But they haven’t a clue what a conker is, or what a wren sounds like. And mostly these days, neither have their teachers.

The problem, I think, is a kind of collective forgetting. It only takes one generation of parents forgetting their own childhoods, forgetting dens and tree climbing, acorn gathering, puddle splashing and leaf kicking, bramble picking, for the cultural transmission of nature-delight to be lost. And with that forgetting comes a loss of the language we use to describe those experiences. How do you point out an oak tree to a child, if you don’t know the word ‘oak’ or ‘acorn’ or even tree? How do you even notice an ask or an ash, a pine or a willow if the only word you know is tree?

Imagine that no one in your family had ever made a birthday cake. Your grandmother made one with her dad once, but your parents never did. They don’t know how to do it. They don’t even know the words to describe what goes into a cake. So cakes drop out of the world because no one knows the words, ‘butter’, ‘sugar’, ‘eggs’, ‘chocolate’ ,‘candle’, ‘icing’ ,‘mix’, ‘bake’.

That’s what we are on the brink of. Losing touch with our ordinary, everyday, infinitely precious back yard wild, because we are losing the language to name it. Many adults and children no longer know words that specify anything more particular than ‘plant’ or ‘bird’.

This matters. The evidence is mounting that this loss of connection, this loss of ability to articulate to ourselves and others the detailed, particular experience of the natural world is damaging us. Is damaging our children. Development and long term mental health are at risk without contact with nature. Disorders like ADHD, depression and anxiety are all healed by nature, by willow and ivy, by acorn, bluebell and bramble, by wren and starling, heron and kingfisher.

Which is why, back in 2015 I was signatory to a letter, ( see below) written by Lawrence Rose to OUP protesting that the new edition of the junior oxford dictionary had removed many words for features of the natural world, words like acorn, and willow and wren. OUP’s response was merely to repeat a description of what they do and to say that they were just reflecting the word usage of modern children. But the tone of their response (which you can also read below) was very much that of responsible moral and cultural educators. If that’s what they are, then they are duty bound not to rob children of words which can describe common features of the world around them. Removing these words removes children’s ability to recognise and take ownership of common plants and animals that are their natural and also their cultural heritage. Every child in Britain deserves to know, and to see bluebells, as much as they deserve to know about the science, the art, the technology and the history that has made us all who we are. And they can’t do that without the language to do it.

In my work, it’s hard for me to write about the nature that surrounds me here in Wales, the plants and birds, mammals and reptiles that I’ve loved all my life living in the UK. I write picture books mostly and they need foreign co -edtions. Much as I’d love to write about rooks and slow worms, the perception of editors is that those books wouldn’t sell in the USA or China. So, the nearest I’ve come to helping with reconnecting kids and their parents with the nature on their doorstep is A First Book Of Nature a collection of poems illustrated by the quintessentially British images of Mark Hearld. I’ve done a little to help with the issue of the importance of naming species to maintain biodiversity, with a new book for Hodder, illustrated by Lorna Scobie the Variety of Life (which I’ll blog about soon).

But prompted by OUP’s editorial decision to remove some essential words for nature, my great friend and mentor Jackie Morris, together with writer Robert MacFarlane, have done a much better job. They have struck a resounding blow in the battle to maintain the richness of our nature language and our right to access and describe our experience, with their book ‘The Lost Words’. Robert’s poems create spells and charms to conjure and celebrate each of the animals and plants whose names have been lost from the junior dictionary. Jackie’s ravishing pictures show each species in beautiful detail and in context of their habitat, eloquently representing what each loss would mean.

It’s an extraordinary book. I’ve adored watching it grow over the last two years, but its more than a publishing phenomenon, it’s going to make a difference. I think could prove to be a landmark in the rewilding of parents, children, childhood and lives. We need the wild, and, we need the words to hold it like a heartbeat inside us all the time. As Yeats said, in my father’s favourite poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree we need to hear it ‘in the deep heart’s core.’

Jackie and I will be talking about The Lost Words at the Crickhowell Literary Festival on Saturday October 7th, do join us!

THE LETTER TO OUP

Oxford University Press as e-mail attachment 12 January 2015
Reconnecting kids with nature is vital, and needs cultural leadership
We the undersigned are profoundly alarmed to learn that the Oxford Junior Dictionary has systematically been stripped of many words associated with nature and the countryside. We write to plead that the next edition sees the reinstatement of words cut since 2007.
We base this plea on two considerations. Firstly, the belief that nature and culture have been linked from the beginnings of our history. For the first time ever, that link is in danger of becoming unravelled, to the detriment of society, culture, and the natural environment.
Secondly, childhood is undergoing profound change; some of this is negative; and the rapid decline in children’s connections to nature is a major problem.
This is not just a romantic desire to reflect the rosy memories of our own childhoods onto today’s youngsters. There is a shocking, proven connection between the decline in natural play and the decline in children’s wellbeing. Compared with a generation ago, when 40% of children regularly played in natural areas, now only 10% do so, while another 40% never play anywhere outdoors. Ever. Obesity, anti-social behaviour, friendlessness and fear are the known consequences. The physical fitness of children is declining by 9% per decade, according to Public Health England.
For the first time ever, children’s life expectancy is lower than that of their parents – us.
When, in 2007, the OJD made the changes, this connection was understood, but less well publicised than now. The research evidence showing the links between natural play and wellbeing; and between disconnection from nature and social ills, is mounting.
We recognise the need to introduce new words and to make room for them and do not intend to comment in detail on the choice of words added. However it is worrying that in contrast to those taken out, many are associated with the interior, solitary childhoods of today. In light of what is known about the benefits of natural play and connection to nature; and the dangers of their lack, we think the choice of words to be omitted shocking and poorly considered. We find the explanations issued recently too narrowly focussed on a lexicographical viewpoint without consideration for the social context.
In all, the names for thirty species of common or important British plants and animals have been removed – such as acorn and bluebell – along with many words connected with farming and food. Many are highly symbolic of our cultural ties with the land, its wildlife and produce.
This is what the National Trust says in their Natural Childhood campaign: Every child should have the right to connect with nature. To go exploring, sploshing, climbing, and rolling in the outdoors, creating memories that’ll last a lifetime. Their list of 50 things to do before you’re 11 3?4 includes many for which the OJD once had words, but no longer: like playing conkers, picking blackberries, various trees to climb, minnows to catch in a net and so on.
The RSPB has commissioned a great deal of research on this. Among many findings is the fact that outdoor activity in nature appears to improve symptoms of ADHD in children by

30% compared with urban outdoor activities and 300% compared with the indoor
environment.
It is no surprise that these and other organisations, including the NHS and Play England,
Play Scotland and Play Wales have come together to create The Wild Network dedicated to
reconnecting children and their families to nature – and to each other.
Will the removal of these words from the OJD ruin lives? Probably not. But as a symptom
of a widely acknowledged problem that is ruining lives, this omission becomes a major issue.
The Oxford Dictionaries have a rightful authority and a leading place in cultural life. We
believe the OJD should address these issues and that it should seek to help shape
children’s understanding of the world, not just to mirror its trends.
.
We believe that a deliberate and publicised decision to restore some of the most important
nature words would be a tremendous cultural signal and message of support for natural
childhood, and we ask you to take that opportunity, and if necessary, bring forward the next
edition of the OJD in order to do so.
Margaret Atwood
Author
Simon Barnes
Author and journalist
Terence Blacker
Writer and songwriter
Mark Cocker
Author and naturalist
Miriam Darlington
Author
Nicola Davies
Children’s author
Paul Farley
Poet, writer and broadcaster
Graeme Gibson
Novelist
Melissa Harrison
Writer
Tony Juniper
Writer and ecologist
Richard Kerridge
Nature writer
Gwyneth Lewis
Former Welsh Poet Laureate
Sir John Lister-Kaye
Naturalist and author
Richard Mabey
Writer and naturalist
Robert Macfarlane
Writer and academic
Helen Macdonald
Writer, illustrator and historian
Sara Maitland
Writer
Mike McCarthy
Nature writer
Hilary McKay
Children’s writer
Andrew McNeillie
Academic, former OUP Literature Editor
Sara Mohr-Pietsch
Broadcaster
Michael Morpurgo
Author, former Children’s Laureate
Jackie Morris
Children’s book illustrator
Stephen Moss
Naturalist, author and TV producer
Sir Andrew Motion
Former Poet Laureate
Ruth Padel
Poet and conservationist
Jim Perrin
Travel writer
Katrina Porteous
Poet, historian and broadcaster
For correspondence:
Laurence Rose laurence@naturemusicpoetry.com

 

…AND OUP’S RESPONSE

Editor, NATURAL LIGHT
Statement from Oxford University Press – 13 January 2015
“Oxford University Press (OUP) is renowned around the world for its high quality educational and scholarly publishing. Our children’s dictionaries, of which there are 17 in the UK alone, are structured by age, with each dictionary specifically written with a certain age group in mind, and with headwords and levels of definition varying according to what that child will need most at any given age.
“All our dictionaries are designed to reflect language as it is used, rather than seeking to prescribe certain words or word usages. We employ extremely rigorous editorial guidelines and word selections are based on several criteria: the current frequency of words in the daily language of children of that age; children’s culture including their reading of fiction and non-fiction; corpus analysis* and commonly misspelled or misused words. We also take current curriculum requirements into account. These criteria then need to be balanced against the appropriate length of any given dictionary, to create accessible resources appropriate for the age of the child the particular dictionary is aimed at.
“The Oxford Junior Dictionary, which was last updated in 2012, is aimed at six to seven-year-olds with 288 pages and approximately 4,700 headwords. As such it is very much an introduction to language. It includes around 400 words related to nature including: badger, bean, bee, berry, branch, caterpillar, daffodil, dragonfly, duck, feather, field, fox, grasshopper, hay, hedge, hedgehog, hibernate, invertebrate, meadow, mouse, nut, oak, owl, pear, plum, robin, seed, shell, sheep, snowflake, squirrel, stag, stone, straw, sunflower, tadpole, vegetation, and wool.
An example entry is:
hibernate verb, hibernates, hibernating, hibernated
When animals hibernate, they spend the winter in a special kind of deep sleep. Bats, tortoises, and hedgehogs all hibernate.
“As children get older they will progress to the Oxford Primary Dictionary aimed at eight to eleven- year-olds. This has 608 pages and 12,000 headwords and it contains all of the words that have been recently highlighted and many, many more.”
“We have no firm plans to publish a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary at this stage. However, we welcome feedback on all our dictionaries and feed this into the editorial process.”
ENDS
*The Oxford Children’s Corpus is a unique database of over 150 million words used in reading and writing for and by children. Our dictionary team uses the Oxford Children’s Corpus to research how children read and use language and to ensure our dictionaries are age-appropriate and up-to-date as language usage changes. It also helps us identify new or re-emerging word trends, words they find tricky to spell, and common issues with grammar and punctuation.

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