Nature Memoir

My nature memories were shaped by the actions and ideologies of my parents.

Both were keen gardeners and our post-war bungalow had large front and rear gardens and a wide strip to the side. By the standards of the day, they were old parents by the time I was born; my mother in her late 30s and my father in his mid-40s. They remembered the war vividly; it shaped their youth and cut a hole in their lives. Even in the early 1970s, many of their gardening methods were reminiscent of the pre-war years. They clung to the tried and tested ways of their own parents and grandparents, couldn't afford pesticides, didn’t own a car so never went to garden centres, and were immune to most gardening trends.

For them, the twenty-five years since the war ended went by so fast with rearing my brothers and raising a mortgage, that the dig for victory campaign was still a recent event, and it was always a given that at least two thirds of the garden was dominated by fruit and veg. They preserved, pickled, and fermented whatever they could, and the arrival of the chest freezer was as pivotal as the birth of another child. For a time, we kept ferrets at the bottom of the garden, and they assisted my father in his rabbiting duties at a nearby farm. My father didn’t bring rabbits home – my uncle sold them in the village pub on Sunday morning and my mother refused to cook them anyway.

With the exception of hiding in the peas and eating them, hiding in the currants and eating them, and hiding in the raspberries and eating them (gooseberries were too sour), I wasn’t much interested in gardening in my early years. I have vivid memories of picking up the small hard cones of Leylandii on cold, frosted mornings and piling the ‘baby cabbages’ into dishes for my dolls. From a distance they look like peas, but instead of being smooth and shiny, the dull green surface has overlaps, like cabbages, and I knew cabbages had to be cooked so I was never tempted to eat them. I have other memories, vague and very early, of digging up earthworms, draping them on the dolls’ washing line and watching them wriggle off faster than I could put them up. In my toddler mind's eye, I think I imagined a line of dancing worms, a sort of annelid chorus line (inspired by the Busby Berkeley films aired on winter afternoons, no doubt).

Like other people my age, I have later memories of drifts of butterflies bothering the greens, and clusters of moths around every light on a summer night. Insects were so abundant they were annoying and swatted away at least every couple of minutes at any outdoor event in all but the coldest months. Nature was everywhere, whether you liked it or not, and so unremarkable, sometimes you barely bothered to look unless something very interesting turned up - like frogs in the greenhouse or hoglets in the compost heap.

It is so obvious that ‘nature’ was more abundant twenty years ago than it is today, and even more so twenty years before that. It is also obvious that more and more people are driven to capture their daily experience of engaging with nature, observing, identifying, and recording for their own personal use and the use of the growing environmental organisations with their ever-swelling data sets. There is a sad irony in the way that the more nature we put in here (digital space) the less nature there seems to be out there (physical space) – which feeds into the feeling that we’re living through a time of many tipping points with a variety of implications.

Although writing is mostly a solitary activity, nature writing attracts the communal: we are often very curious about other people’s nature writing, about what they have seen and heard and are happy to share with us. And when diary entries are converted to memoir the story takes hold and draws the reader in, giving us a version of their experience, explored and reconstructed in such a way that we can experience it too.

The trick, of course, is to keep on observing, recording, writing and remembering.

And not feeling guilty for taking the time.