Sun-warmed bricks coax heady scents from the roses. Peacocks wail. Apples blush. This south-facing garden is perhaps at its best in late summer, when acers begin their slow burn and the smoke bush smoulders. When dahlias, rudbeckias, katzuras, colchicums and penstemons roll out spice-market colours that are richer and warmer even, than the sandstone cliff from which the garden has been encouraged.

Read more in the September 2021 issue of BBC Countryfile Magazine

‘But I had heard the call of the wild on star-lit nights under the Northern Lights; I had slept in a snow-hut; I had broken a new trail at the foot of the splintered Endicotts, and my heart beat for the wilderness.’

When she stood at the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse in 1924 gazing across the dark sea with her heart set on Iceland, she’d already hiked through the Scottish Highlands, the Hebridean Islands, and travelled in the Holy Lands and Europe. Isobel Wylie Hutchison would go onto trek across Iceland without map or guide and stay with local people, pre-empting her future adventures. In Greenland she obtained permission to travel from the Danish authorities by working as a botanist. She travelled to far north Alaska, by combination of ship, plane, trade boats and dog-sled, and her final Arctic adventure was to the Aleutian Islands aboard a US coastguard ship, after which, WW2 confined her long hikes to Britain and Europe.  

‘About a quarter of a mile in our rear a pure white crag rises out of the dark-blue sea, half lost in the grey mist. It is the first herald that Greenland has sent out into the cheerless dawn to greet us. White and lovely, unstained of human foot, unstained -until a moment since- of human thought, it wanders on the face of the waters.’

Her legacy includes one novel, six volumes of poetry, six books on the Arctic, numerous articles (including twelve for National Geographic), over 500 lectures and numerous BBC Radio broadcasts. Her paintings are held in the National Gallery of Scotland, her films in the National Library of Scotland, her plant specimens at the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew and Edinburgh, and 370 of her artefacts are at the National Museum of Scotland where she’s described by curator Victoria Adams as a “star collector in the Discoveries Gallery (and the only woman)”.

I love her Arctic books (On Greenland’s Closed Shore; the Fairyland of the Arctic, North to the Rime-Ringed Sun: Being a Record of an Alaskan-Canadian Journey, made in 1933-34 and Stepping Stones from Alaska to Asia), her lucid descriptions of landscape, people and nature, her awareness of their interconnectivity, and her gentle persuasions. ‘No gentlewoman… of Hyde Park or Park Avenue, charmingly wrapped in her becoming fox furs, could surely sleep soundly at night did she know at what cost of suffering these are won for her’ she wrote.

(Extracts from an article commissioned by BBC Countryfile Magazine in 2018)

The year was 2013, and the other participants were explaining why they had chosen this particular writing course, the one called Suitcase Stories.

One, stifling sobs, said her father had been in the Swiss Gestapo. One had fled the Persian Shah. Another’s eyes glittered as she described the moral struggles between her and her Pakistani father. An Ulster-man explained quietly, that he was recovering from a ‘troubles’-induced breakdown. One tutor had written about his Jewish grandparents’ holocaust experience, the other about love over closed borders, and the guest speaker had been tortured in an Iraqi prison.

My turn came. I looked at my feet. Coughed a bit.

“I moved from England to Wales” I mumbled. “And felt a bit guilty.”

We abandon whinberry picking to the rain and execute wet weekend mode instead, not without excitement – it’s been a while.

Suspense builds as we stuff clothes into Nigel’s washing machines, collect library books, chat to people we know, smile at people we half know, nod at people we don’t know, but there is apprehension too –

What if, this week, she’s not in?

I am thinking about the smells. Orange peel perhaps, maybe drain.

We buy one inconsequential thing at a time, to accrue enough coins for the dryers.

Rain splashes onto the sill, while we tease The Guardian apart in Caffi Maengwyn. The Sports section will be obsolete come afternoon. The news is already old.

When the washing’s dry we take it all home.

Rob attacks the cryptic crossword. I circle the rest like a cat. The Review. Tick. Parts of the Magazine that I like (mostly Romesh). Tick.

I am anticipating the swish of salted pasta water, the glug of wine, the snap of chocolate.

The noise of a coffee machine.

The sensation of steam.

I’m tense.

An old recipe.

Old Italian men.

It’s too much so I ignore it. Put it – the supplement she writes for, aside, attend to other stuff. Check the football scores. Ring Mum. Rake the flood defences into shape. Put on warm socks. OK. I’m ready.

Feast.

Flick through to check she’s in.

She’s in.

Calm myself.

It’s not easy because her tension is infectious, because her ideas and the words that articulate them never, or so it seems to me, just arrive. I imagine she coaxes them, summons them sternly, scrubs them. That she scrutinises them ferociously, then sulks, they will not do. Scraps them. Re-examines them. Reconstructs them. But she wins every time, and leaves them you with, each one vital, and when you read them, they’re still crackling with all that attention and energy.

I look out of the window and am surprised by a single raspberry among wet foliage, the dissolution of rain on glass.

Now it is time.

Time for Rachel to take me to Rome.

We are drinking tea outside Y Gegin Fach next to one of the vegetable stalls, looking at wet radishes and extraordinarily red rhubarb which Rob says looks more like beetroot. Then he says ‘There’s Gareth’.

Gareth is eating cherries from a brown paper bag and appraising the vegetables in an unhurried way which reminds me of people on the continent and that’s probably because he’s a chef. We ask how he is and he says he can’t complain because there’s no-one to complain to, and that the cherries are British. I say I saw a load of cherries yesterday tossed on the ground in the woods but they were only half ripe, it was the wind that blew them down. He says I should have brought them in anyway, he’d have pickled them and given me a jar.

When Elwyn rocks up, he puts a cabbage in a carrier bag and tells us his tomatoes are coming ripe, and that he looked behind a leaf yesterday – and there was a cucumber, quite long but not very thick. He says one of his apple trees has gone brown and he’s worried the roots are getting under the hedge. He’d better pay for his cabbage, he says, and as he does he spots the yellow new potatoes which make him jump and point, and turn back to check we’ve noticed them too.

Rob goes for the bus and I’m finishing my tea when Mike turns up, and I say I don’t much like summer and he says he doesn’t either and that’s why he’s wearing this old jacket that the moths have got to. Then he says we need to appreciate travelling in our local area, that we need to cultivate an enthusiasm for it for all sorts of reasons, and I say that I think he is right.

Last week I finished writing a book. I know it is actually finally finished, because for the first time in nine years I want to write other things, like this blog, instead of tweaking THE BOOK. I’m afraid there were lots of false finishes. The first was more than a year ago, which embarrasses me now because a lot of kind experts ploughed through an excruciatingly baggy text to give me feedback. The second (and third) finishes were some months ago – cue more embarrassment.

But the false finishes have been crucial. The feedback has helped me shape the book (which is about Cymru). And the process has given me insight into what it is like out there in that world where what you think you have written isn’t necessarily the same as what everyone else thinks you have written. That’s no bad thing – I like blurred edges. I prefer them to pigeonholes. I prefer them to striving for a particular niche or readership, or being something I’m not. These are concepts I perhaps should engage with (if I am lucky), now my book is out there seeking attention. I am for example, sometimes described as a ‘woman nature writer’. I would argue this is not the case.  

People are still telling me that for too long, ‘nature writing’ has been dominated by middleclass white men. They are probably right, being more expert on the subject than me. But I am not entirely sure they are right, and the excellent anthology ‘Women On Nature’, superbly edited by Katharine Norbury seems to bear my doubt out, comprising as it does more than a hundred female writers.

My guess is that there have always been female ‘nature writers’, though whether they would describe themselves as such is another matter. That they have not been given the same profile as men, by the people who control what gets out there, what is seen, and what is on trend, is perhaps at the heart of the perception that they have not existed. But the people steering – a swelling industry of agents, promoters, publishers, commentators, creative writing course tutors and critics, having perceived the apparent dearth of female ‘nature writers’ have bent to the task of addressing it – and successfully. I would argue there is no longer a dearth, perceived or otherwise.

Less happily, this industry also contributes to what my writer friend Sarah calls the ‘commodification of writing’. There is a danger, when a book sells well, of wanting to follow it up with something similar. If you have an interest in this subject, you will have noticed that the current trend within ‘nature writing’ is for confessional and very personal experiences with nature, often from a female perspective. Helen MacDonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’ is one, Amy Liptrot’s ‘The Outrun’, is another, and Raynor Winn’s ‘The Salt Path’ another – all books incidentally, which I have thoroughly enjoyed.

Three of the many people who gave me valuable and particularly useful feedback after my false finishes (all three from the publishing industry) regretted that my book wasn’t more personal and dramatic – ‘like Raynor Winn’s ‘The Salt Path.’’ Now this was great feedback and my book is better for it. Nevertheless, while I do hope (I even have faith) that the book I have written will appeal to someone out there, I can guarantee it won’t appeal to anyone looking for another ‘The Salt Path’. My book has ended up being literary and cool in tone, with none of Winn’s courage and immediate drama. What intrigues me is that the comparison was made in the first place. Even back then, in its shabby unfinished state, my book was clearly about Cymru (Wales) – wasn’t it? A travel book if one must choose a genre. Likely, it is more difficult to define than I knew. But while Cymru was a concept my Welsh subject specialist critical readers grasped immediately, it was one that was completely overlooked by my readers from the publishing industry. To them perhaps I was a nature writer, and an awkward one at that.

I understand the industry’s need for labels – it is struggling like every other sector. It needs to know what sells well, and what shelf – either digitally or real, to place a book on. But what of writing that slips between genres or that doesn’t follow current fashions? My writer friend Sarah thinks this writing should be embraced rather than forced into pigeonholes. I agree. I am particularly fond of books which cross genres, especially those which stand the test of time. I would put my favourite books of recent months in this (non) category – Mike Parker’s ‘On the Red Hill’ and Sylvain Tesson’s ‘Consolations of the Forest’.

I would also prefer the marketing of writers themselves to be allowed to cross genres, to occupy that liminal space. As I say, I have, on occasion, been described as a ‘woman nature writer’ and both prefixes cause me concern. The first I find unnecessary and distracting. I applaud and understand the need for positive discrimination (I would for example, advocate more Welsh voices in the non-Wales based publishing industry, especially in the publishing houses claiming to represent British writing). But while some people display their gender as being important to their identity, I am not one of those people. I don’t want my gender to promote an agenda. I could do without the extra baggage.

I find the second prefix – ‘nature’ much more worrying. Even though I do write about nature – it’s hard not to. I write about history, people, place, ‘wildlife’, travel, and mostly I posit, I write about their interconnectivity. It is true of course that the modern definition of nature writing is more general than the old-fashioned one, which pertained to expertise I don’t have on non-human subjects. Old-fashioned nature writing was more akin to the Oxford English Dictionary definition of nature:

‘The phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.’ 

Whereas modern ‘nature writing’ according to the publishing industry, describes the writer’s relationship with nature – apparently. But for me this doesn’t help. Not a bit. That it is a category at all suggests that nature is something ‘other’ – and that is troubling. As if nature were a hobby, an indulgence. As if it were optional. As if it didn’t underpin all life, and thus all genres (with the exception perhaps of fantasy). As if humanity and all our constructs can survive independently of it – a dangerous and ludicrous notion as we teeter on the brink of environmental collapse.

I had the same concerns in my former career as a sustainability education officer. My aim then was to embed sustainability into the curriculum in all subjects and at all levels. What schools and colleges wanted though, by and large (with some exceptions), was sustainability as an extra-curricular activity. They wanted ‘Green Days’ – job done. But nature is not extra-curricular. It is endemic. The only thing that matters.

By contrast, my quest for blurred boundaries is not important. This blog is only the musing of a writer between projects, and probably not worthy of discussion. My quibbles aren’t meant as criticism (far from it – boy was I grateful for and privileged to get constructive feedback from all my expert readers), and they don’t perhaps help the supportive and struggling industry on which I (particularly now), gratefully depend – I don’t know how to promote books that fall between genres and refuse to follow trends either. But I do know two things. My book is nothing like ‘The Salt Path’. And I am not a Woman Nature Writer – not in my book, anyway.

It is all green light, like being inside an empty wine bottle. Woodchip is soft underfoot and moss grips the panes like strange putty. I can hear squabbling jays, and the stream, which sounds like polite applause. For shade, my laptop is inside a box. I always knew this would make a good office.

It was 2012 when I announced that if anyone needed me they’d find me in the greenhouse, writing. It wasn’t true – till today. I had this other notion you see, about greenhouses, that they were for cultivating plants in. But both inside the greenhouse and at large in the garden, the plants had demands which I did in fairness, attend to; pots, tools, beds, compost. Time, money, light. Space. Effort. There was no room in the greenhouse, for a laptop. (I wrote my book elsewhere and now it is finished.)

My botanical attentions resulted only in squares of miserable soil. So little of what we planted thrived – we live in a narrow wooded valley you see, where the trees almost meet overhead and the sun spotlights its way over the garden, one small plot at a time.

This year we tore it all up. The garden is free to express itself now and it does. The greenhouse is plant-free and anything but. Around it are wobbling walls of ferns and rushes, blobbed here and there by a colourful petal. Wild roses tap on the glass. Leaf layers quiver – dogwood, damson, blackthorn, hazel, and overhead a filigree of ash, a dance of sycamore, a susurration of larch, all waiting for me now, to also find new expression.

From the summit of Mynydd Tŵr (Holyhead Mountain) you can watch summer showers roll in, from over the Irish Sea. Some douse mainland Ynys Môn (Anglesey), others quench Eryri (Snowdonia), and one blesses me with a shawl of effervescence before rolling on, to leave a sparkling view over Ynys Gybi – or Holy Island. To the east, accompanied by the sound of sirens and ferry honks, is a bustle of transit around Caergybi (Holyhead) – docks, railway, and the A55. And to the west – in the west there is none of that.

Read more in the July 2021 edition of BBC Countryfile Magazine, with exquisite photography by Dan Struthers https://www.loveadventure.co.uk/adventure/

One May evening, already enchanted by hedgerows and estuarine coast, I ducked into Whitehill Down and was overwhelmed. The meadow was almost too glorious – an innate memory of something now so rare (we have lost 97% of flower-rich hay meadows) it was almost intangible. But Whitehill Down is no dream. You’ll find it sandwiched by the A477 and Afon Tâf, halfway between Sanclêr (St Clears) and Lacharn (Laugharne). Drivers might miss it, but Wales Coast Path walkers will not – the path goes right through.

Read more in the May 2021 edition of BBC Countryfile Magazine

But maybe you’ll let your mind wander, as you cruise along this wavy-edged clearly-marked route, whooshing through puddles and weaving around ornate rusting lampposts with the westerly wind at your back (take note if planning a there-and-back journey). There are icecream shacks. There are old fashioned puddings at Fortes in Llandrillo-yn-Rhos. There are fairgrounds and rock pools and concrete sea defences that resemble Jacks and Fivestone pieces tumbled by giants. There are turnstones, and fishermen strung hopefully along the seafront, along which a brown wave slaps and rolls, barely breaking, full of sparkles.’

Read more in the April 2021 edition of BBC Countryfile Magazine