Nature writer Jules Pretty's unusual poetic take on the Essex countryside
PUBLISHED: 13:16 13 March 2018 | UPDATED: 14:31 14 March 2018
Acclaimed nature writer Jules Pretty shares an insight into his latest book, The East Country, where the professor at the University of Essex integrates memoir, natural history, cultural critique and spiritual reflection into a single, compelling narrative
Every place has an east country, where dawn and dusk come first, writes Jules Pretty. This one is just a degree to the sunny side of the meridian of zero longitude. This East Country is like no other place, yet it is every other place. My 74 stories interweave several years in valley and along the salty shore. There are 12 monthly acts to this almanac, and stories gathered over five years.
I wrote these stories to encourage us all to develop long attachments to the local. Being on the land does change us. This bricolage of tales emerged from journeys on the land and coast of Essex and Suffolk, echoing the ebb and flow of seas over seasons. Everything we do is influencing the world; we create the world by experiencing it. It creates us too by our experiences and discoveries. Slow down, take time, live local, keep your mind deep. Here is one east country. There are many others, where everything is in fact paradise.
Long ago, winter was dark and always cold. These days the east country sighed silence. There was not a natural sound. There were neither dogs nor barking deer. The birds had flown, or were dead. Jupiter was bright on the dome of night sky. By Cassiopeia flowed two shooting stars, a streak of silver, a short golden tear of the fabric. Underfoot crunched frozen snow. The raw night heaved hard, beating at walls.
Yet out on the saltmarsh was a tropical bird. The glossy ibis was on the scrape, probing pools with curved bill. The flood tide swallowed sinuous creeks, rising so far that the marsh was gone under glassy miles of sky. The burgundy bird fed on. A flock of avocet glittered on the cold river, disappearing as they shivered, whirling white over ranked shield duck. On two marsh posts were hard-eyed peregrine. There will be panic and plucking, before long.
A mid-winter gale shrieked on land and sea. Trees failed to flee the methodical violence, sprung back, were lashed again. Many went down, blocking ways. It had been a genial winter, until then, of light winds and squally rain. The previous year all had been stranded by a month of snow, sledging at the airfield on the hill. Not this year.
The last was the second warmest on record; Essex had the second driest ever. Yet birds had sensed a passing: they were singing for spring. In the garden, a forsythia had three flowers; it was thinking of March. The lilac was leafing out; it guessed April. Two roses flowered, a yellow and a marble-white.
One day, the trapdoor tipped.
It spilled the blue light of spring.
The mist of morning lifted and crystal sunlight blushed the land
Far, far away, two buzzards spiralled in sapphire sky. A hooting rook climbed from the valley and mobbed them. The buzzards planed upwards, mewing, becoming small, the tiny corvid labouring to the south. The east country has red kite too, both self-spread from the west, outdating bird guides, breeding on platform nests in craggy willow and reshaping rabbit numbers.
Then sunshine and warmth, for nearly hours.
More planting for the coming spring. Shadow faded and cloud raced in. The rain speckled leaves again. Doves wheezed; a green woodpecker cackled. But it was the alchemy of change. Continental air advanced northward, a froth of yellow green appearing on willow. Late blackthorn burst icing in the hedgerow now lime with hawthorn too. A hare stood bold in the middle of a road, skylark hovered and pigeon squabbled. A single glossy bird crowed from a furrowed field of clods.
In thicket of cherry plum and blackthorn,
By a pit dug for the brick of labourer’s cottage
The song of nightingale.
Officials declared drought. Hosepipes were banned, water anxiety grew. Reporters stood in empty reservoirs. There will be the effort of carrying cans and pails, perhaps all summer for allotmenteer and gardener. This spring had been strung. Without warning came a shift. Dry heat dissolved to the gift of fronts and bubbling storms. Thunder grumbled across the dust. A month’s rain fell in a few hours, the rivers gushing fast with raging water.
At dusk, two stag beetles whirred, clattering into birch and pencil elm as a bat slid silently in the warm air. They seemed early. The village is a hotspot and they fly each summer, even though nationally rare. In deadwood, larvae grow for three years. More evidence that local choice in gardens and the wilds work. The idea of a contemplative economy is appealing. If we spent more time immersed in nature, attentive too to one another, then perhaps there would be less need for material consumption. The planet could be saved.
A skylark appeared. It started singing. It blurred in a hover, the song cascading over chuckling river and banks of tall vegetation. A thrush sang paired clauses from a rowan. The air gently shifted, just a wash and ebb. Willow-down floated near motionless, dropping to cover the wooden bridge and water. Above the slow flow were pairs of dancing river insects, taking turns to rise as the other fell.
The land was glorious, a tapestry of drought. Lawns had gone over. A clear spring bubbled from a hillside road, where it always had, always frozen on winter mornings. Poppy were dying, yet barley ready, wheat grey-green still. In evening, cool air leaked into the kitchen, a moth outside daring to dance.
It had been the hottest day for seven years.
An insistent wren, nothing more.
After sunset, a dusty wind blew in the trees,
Buzzing cockchafer beetles clattered close.
A silent bat quartered.
A horse huffed. The moth rose slowly.
The bat turned.
And thus, the summer that rarely seemed to sparkle had turned, the tapestry of fields white under waves of gulls. Tractors rumbled, the fields brown, barns full, grain driers pouring energy into food. There have been two years of poor yields, dry spring/wet summer, then cold spring/hot summer. Neither good. More rain fell, gales sweeping leaves from birch and poplar. The roads under rusted horse chestnut were a rash of crushed conkers.
Night frosts burnish autumn. Now days were filled with haze. Cumulus burst by fierce wind raced over blue sky, sheared trails crossing the upper air. Warmth brought flocks of greenfly, the village a bloom of busyness: paint seared from window pane, churning concrete mixer, repointed brickwork. Leaves of poplar were on the road, the trees themselves bare. Always the last to turn, oak were tannin-green.
Normal November. A slow moving front halted. Mizzle filled the air, wind tugged at bush and branch. Up and down the valley, the colours associated with pre-Halloween were rich long after ritual of firework and fire by the stone-cold church. The light was from the land. Beneath maple and sycamore were mirror trees plastered on wet road. Yellow, gold, russet, orange, trees glued to tarmac. In deep lanes, wind blew rivers of leaf, spinning slow dancers, gathered in gutters, piled in lines that linked one field to another. Leaves swirled, soon to rot and decay, mildew and rust to come, skeleton ribs and then back to soil.
Grey morning, cold. The sun climbed in the hilltop trees, all morning never more a hand¬span high. The sky was polarised blue, roads turning silver as they wound in deep lanes. It was window weather, colder than it looked, the wind harsh, the sun weak. Pairs of rook gleamed glossy in the kale and wheat, searching frozen seas of clay. A barn owl flighted up from reeds and quartered back and forth. Another ghosted by a creek, flying by marsh and mud and field. The tide was low, mud oozing, the sky down here and up there too. It was cold as the bones in the barrow.
Thomas Merton wrote: ‘Everything is in fact paradise. This day will not come again.’ We already have everything. Every year we change. A year of life is good; one hundred years of life is good too.
Get the Book
The East Country – Almanac Tales of Valley and Shore by Jules Pretty
Priced £17.50 and available from bookshops or via Amazon.