Author Jen Campbell reviews Wanderland by Jini Reddy for TOAST Book Club.
Recently, we've all been trying to find that something, whatever that something may be, that brings us some certainty, some semblance of structure. For us, that has been going for a walk at dawn. As someone in a higher risk category, it's the safest time for me and my husband to go outside. There is a small wood nestled at the end of our street, and we've become familiar with the blackbird who sits at the entrance to it, singing his heart out at 5am. We count squirrels and predict how many foxes we will see slinking through the allotments.
It's strange how meanings come to us. While these forest walks have come to feel like our secret our escape one day we stumbled upon a group of starlings imitating ambulance sirens. The sirens had been echoing around the streets for weeks, so it was no wonder the birds were copying those sounds, but it was a stark reminder that the forest is not another world. It is another space, yes, but always cradled by its external environment.
Likewise, a young fox who we saw every day, started to become a symbol of so many things. We were due to start IVF this summer, which of course has been cancelled, and seeing this young fox felt like a good omen. A promise of things to come when, quite frankly, my heart was breaking. However, one morning, when we entered the wood, we found the remnants of a party. There was rubbish all across the path, scattered everywhere cans, plastic bags, a barbeque. And no sign of our fox, who'd clearly been scared away. I was so angry at this lack of respect, at this mess within a bigger mess. I wanted to scream. We had no gloves or bags with us to help clean up, so we vowed to bring them with us the very next day, and when we reached the littered space the following morning, someone had already cleared up most of the rubbish, which warmed my heart. We set about cleaning up the rest. As we did so, our little fox appeared. At first, he sat far from us, his orange head tilted to one side, trying to work out what we were doing. When he understood, he jumped to his feet and tried to turn it into a game. He ran up behind us and stole a crisp packet and hid it in the hedgerow. Next, he grabbed a plastic bottle and tried to dig a hole for it in the grass. He allowed us to chase him around the clearing, ducking in and out of the grasses, before he collapsed happily on the ground, panting like an exhausted child. In that moment, everything made a strange kind of sense. Like the world was reaching out and telling us something: going to be ok.
Unable to explore the countryside right now, I've turned to nature writing. Jini Reddy's Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape is all about the hunt for those moments when we feel the world is really speaking to us. Or rather, the moments when we feel we are able to truly listen.
How will I know which bird is what? I won't, but I'm happy to think of them as a great feathered choir.'
Her approach to wilderness is similar to my own; she writes that she often [feels] too conventional for the hardcore wildlife tribe not logical enough for the scientists, not listy' enough for the birder types, not enough of a green thumb' for the gardeners.' She doesn't know the names of all the trees, but she's learning; she wants to go wild swimming but often feels self-conscious. I'm not ostentatious about my eccentricities,' she writes and I express my wild inwardly.'
Her book is a search for the magic, not the mythical. Ancient stories, crafted narratives and legends (the Green Man, King Arthur, St. Helen) are all very interesting but, as Reddy explains, they can also feel like impossible canon. A manmade riddle you have to solve or memorise and whisper back to the trees, so they'll let you in on their secrets. But, of course, nature does not work like that, and there is no one right way to appreciate the history of the British countryside. Reddy explains her want to unearth the Other in the nature around her, in a country that often Others her for the colour of her skin. So, she decides to document her year of tracking living art', hunting for wild strawberries in Lindisfarne, wandering The Great Loneliness and Hermit's Cell on the harsh coasts of Scotland's islands. She speaks to people who approach life in different ways, asks child-like questions, is frustrated when the land around her doesn't always yield its answers, and locates that balance of learning and teaching herself about the world around her.
Have you ever had a dragonfly eyeball you? It's a funny sensation, like being anointed by a tiny astronaut in a helmet.'
Wanderland has been such a comfort, and if you would like another way to explore the world from your own home, I heartily recommend it. I'd also recommend How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, a nonfiction book that reads like a walk through a forest, and Salt on Your Tongue by Charlotte Runcie, a magical exploration of the relationship between women and the sea.
Wanderland (Bloomsbury Wildlife) by Jini Reddy has been shortlisted for the 2020 Wainwright Prize for UK nature writing. Please share your thoughts and observations below for a chance to win a copy of Jini Reddy's Wanderland.