17 November 2016
‘Autumn: An anthology for the changing seasons’ edited by Melissa Harrison. This is third of a four-part seasonal series.
- Firstly, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about Autumn, Melissa…We will be mostly focusing on the third volume of the quartet, but before that, can you tell a little about how this series began? Did you initially envision a quartet of seasonal anthologies, or did you start off wanting to cover one particular season?
Elliott & Thompson had already come up with the concept of the series, and in fact had begun the initial research for Spring . They were looking for a series editor, someone to help steer the tone and content of the books, and who could help with the commissioning process. When they got in touch I was interested straight away, but a little worried aabout whether I’d be able to do as good a job as I knew the series deserved, what with having a day job and also writing a new novel in my time off. But I loved the idea of the books, and I was already buzzing with ideas for writers and extracts we could include, so I said yes. Fortunately, the team at E&T were so good that I never felt overwhelmed by the commissioning or editing process.
- Can you tell me a little about The Wildlife Trust, and how it is involved?
E&T had previously published an anthology in support of The Wildlife Trusts, called Nature Tales: Encounters with Britain’s Wildlife, so the relationship was already there. I’m a member of the London Wildlife Trust and have links to other Trusts, too, so I was very keen to support their work, which is of vital importance across the UK.
- How did you select the pieces you included?
Our researcher, Bronagh Woods, spent a lot of time in the British Library, looking for extracts from classic works of literature and nature writing. I had my own list of older and more contemporary works I wanted to see represented, and established nature writers I wanted to commission. Meanwhile, The Wildlife Trusts put out a call for submissions among their members, and both E&T and I spent time looking for nature bloggers and conservationists who might be persuaded to contribute. Throughout the process, we kept an eye on the balance of male and female writers, the geographical spread of the pieces, and the range of subjects covered; we also looked for pieces by writers of colour, who are underrepresented in writing about nature.
- Did you encounter any particular challenges along the way?
There were some extracts we weren’t able to include, either due to space constraints or because of copyrights issues, which was a shame – but anthologies can never be exhaustive. And the editing process was necessarily different with new and less experienced contributors than with established writers, who are used to being subbed. But overall, the process was very smooth – and really enjoyable.
- Any future projects?
I’m working on my third novel at the moment, which is taking up most of my time. And I have another couple of ideas I want to get cracking on once it’s done…watch this space!
In her introduction Ms. Harrison describes her love of autumn…She notes that although this time of year has qualities sometimes associated with dying (or at least dormancy), we can definitely discern in it the vital interconnectedness of decay with new life. Although plant growth slows or stops as fall progresses, it is also harvest time with its bounty of food for wildlife and people. At the same time it’s a key season for saprophytes: fungi, moulds and relations, the recyclers of the world…A few writers take us along as they forage for fungi…Kate Blincoe writes, ‘It was macabre from a distance; a pure white, human-sized skull glowing out from the darkness of the woodland glade…It was a giant puffball mushroom, the size of a football.’
Through a variety of accounts, we experience the seasonal bounty ready to nourish humans and wildlife; sloes, blackberries, elderberries and more. In a piece from The Farmer’s Year: A Calendar of English Husbandry (1933), we are transported to apple harvesting in Kent where one of the party has picked ‘this seventy year’, and horse-drawn wagons are filled with bushel baskets. More recently, Janet Willoner brings the reader along with her into an old Yorkshire orchard, picking apples with fanciful names like Keswick Codlin, Blenheim Orange and Peasgood Nonesuch, and then through the fragrant (and sticky) steps of making cider.
For bird watchers, fall migrations are full of anticipation and activity, both in the skies and on the ground. Dr. Rob Lambert describes frenetic annual pilgrimage of birders to the Scilly Isles or Shetland, where birders can witness mass migrations and ‘make or break reputations.’ Chris Murphy shares a similar autumn ritual at St. John’s Point, where he observes the return of hundreds of seabirds, including gannets, kittiwakes, razorbills and occasionally Sabine’s gull or storm petrels.
Each piece in this collection conveys its author’s unique voice, which combine to create an ode to autumn. We are drawn into each writer’s experience of the UK landscape at this particular, often poignant season… Most are contemporary pieces, but there are a few works (usually short) from the 19th and 20th centuries. Several are by Thomas Furley Foster, from The Pocket Encyclopedia of Natural Phenomena, published in 1827. Here’s a portion of one:
‘Fieldfares, when they arrive early and in great abundance in autumn, foreshew a hard winter, which has probably set in, in the regions from which they have come. They usually come in November.’
It is comforting somehow to read observations of nature from previous times, as they punctuate a cycle of appreciation for similar plants, birds, wildlife and landscapes that we continue to experience today…
Some of the entries from current writers are particularly lyrical. Ginny Battson gathers strands from natural history and ancient Greek philosophy to weave a poetic tapestry on the ever-changing connectedness of the natural world:
‘A leaf is not a leaf forever. It is in a state of flux between leaf and particulate, living and dead. A leaf that falls in the stream is the beginning of a chain. Spin, yaw, pitch and submerge, it’s hurrying downstream in a thrum of fluvial energy and I lose sight of it.’
Another current contributor, Jo Cartmell, eloquently shares her experiences of wildlife at her local wetland, Barton Fields, in Oxfordshire, where her patience is rewarded with sightings of water voles and Tawny owls. She writes:
‘I love this season of gradual withdrawal. It is not only a visible withdrawal by nature, but a subtle inner withdrawal, too; a slow imperceptible retreat into ourselves…A chance to recharge the soul after a spring and summer of almost constant activity.’
Louise Baker creates a multi-faceted tour of the sensory pleasure of the season, from the plethora of berries, the perfume of wet leaves, the crunch of leaves underfoot to the soft sounds of wildlife in the growing stillness.
The format of this volume offers several benefits, apart from the pleasure of reading each piece. It provides an opportunity to discover new writers, (there is an index with short bios of each contributor), and to follow up by reading more of their work elsewhere. It also presents a diversity of styles and voices, whilst remaining under the umbrella of the theme… yet within that framework are a delightful range of perspectives and experiences.
I thoroughly enjoyed this entire book. This volume or the entire set would be a great gift for anyone, especially a nature-lover, or anyone who appreciates good writing. The length of individual pieces makes it perfect for busy people…easy to dip in and out of, yet satisfying to delve into for a satisfying bout of seasonal immersion.
Postscript: A boxed set of the entire series: Seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter (boxed set of four paperbacks) is now available at the usual outlets and online at: http://www.amazon.co.uk.
Very highly recommended…