2020 will be remembered for many things – almost all of them bad – but a podcast and its new companion book, Melissa Harrison’s The Stubborn Light of Things, have shone an enduring light on nature which will not be dimmed for many years to come.
The Stubborn Light of Things, in both forms, are works of such high creativity, insight, emotion and humanity in their exploration of nature in the UK they border on genius. Stunning and joyous achievements in a year so devoid of light and joy.
Many films, programmes and books on nature give you memorable perspectives and knowledge about the natural world. But, despite technical brilliance – the close ups of animals, the sweeps of landscape, the sounds of birdsong and descriptions of trees and flowers – they often cannot adequately create in the viewer, the listener or the reader the inner-feelings and sensitivities nature presents.
Perhaps the genius of David Attenborough can do this, though even he leaves you with more the sense of overpowering awe and grandeur of nature rather than the little echo in your insides of what being in nature feels like. The Stubborn Light of Things gives you the what, how and where of nature but, in a leap of pure magic, delivers the sense and sensitivity of what being in and with nature means to the soul.
Melissa is a novelist and nature writer I first came across three or four years ago reading her novel At Hawthorn Time. A beautiful and rather haunting story, I sensed then being in tune with the way she describes and evokes nature. Later, I read her book Rain, four local UK walks in the wet stuff, including one I do quite often as it’s near me, through Darenth Valley to Eynsford in Kent.
So, when I heard at the onset of 2020’s lockdown she had started a podcast to help people keep in touch with the changing seasons through Spring, Summer and into Autumn, I liked the idea. What I didn’t expect, by October after listening to all 27 programmes (28 if you include one on her outtakes), was to be given new and precious pathways into experiencing, enjoying and living with nature than I have ever followed before.
I was born a city boy and have always lived and worked in and around cities. But I have always brought nature into my life – got out into the country whenever I could, walked mountains, national trails, birdwatched, holidayed close to nature at home and across the world. Nature has been a natural part of my day to day world.
Yet, The Stubborn Light of Things podcasts, week by week, while greatly deepening my knowledge, understanding and respect for nature, took me considerably further. Through Melissa’s personal harmony with the natural world around her Suffolk village, and the ways nature made her feel and integrated with her outlooks on life, she guided me to reassess my own relationship with nature and what it really means to me.
The structure, style, pace and intelligence of the podcasts draw the listener in, making you focus on the natural world through all your senses. Melissa enables you to feel what she is feeling whether it’s a barn owl appearing out of the blue, the shadow of an old oak, the sight of a combine harvester at work on the fields or the delight of swifts scything through the air.
Each episode explores a different theme – endurance, beginnings, care, mystery and so on - and, in a master touch bringing the past in touch with the present, also includes entries from the Rev’d Gilbert White’s famous Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne – his ground-breaking diaries of the natural world in his Hampshire village in the latter part of the 1700’s which has never been out of print since.
Praise here too for the podcasts’ producer, Peter Rogers, for a masterful creative touch. The sounds and effects are outstanding and his contributing music is mesmeric.
For several years Melissa has been a nature writer for The Times, setting down her thoughts and observations on nature in a regular monthly column. To accompany her podcasts, she has just published a collection of them dating from 2014 when she lived in London to the present day following her move to rural Suffolk where she can ‘walk out of my cottage into open countryside without passing another human being’.
The book is full of wonderful descriptions of life and events in the natural world from the inner city to remote countryside and acts as a companion to the podcasts. Essentially, it too makes you look at nature in different ways and pushes to you to analyse and ask questions. It glorifies what we have today in the world and what, if we do not cherish it better, we stand to lose as a result of climate change, bad practise, ignorance and lack of care.
The podcasts and book are Melissa’s but throughout them all she shares her canvas with many others, such as fellow nature writers and poets. She does so with a generosity of spirit, always appreciating that nature is many things to different people and each will have their own take on its beauty and meaning. The title – The Stubborn Light of Things – is taken from a poem, Brockhampton, by fellow writer Alison Brackenbury who reads her verse aloud at the end of episode 1.
Since hearing and then reading The Stubborn Light of Things, my eyes have been keener, my senses sharper and my interpretation of nature more personal. A testament to Melissa’s dedication in her book – For all the weekend explorers, urban observers, hopeful gardeners, all-weather dog walkers, garden bird lovers, city park sunbathers, the very new to nature and the lifelong outdoor types.
The Stubborn Light of Things – for podcasts and the book (published by Faber) and for more information on Melissa Harrison’s work:
Peter Rogers’ music
Alison Brackenbury’s selected poems are published by Carcanet