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Amy Liptrot chooses the best of Nature Writing

Amy Liptrot, whose bestselling memoir The Outrun won the 2016 Wainwright Prize for nature writing, talks to Five Books about her favourite writing about landscape—and how her immersion in island life helped her recover from alcoholism.

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Amy Liptrot

Amy Liptrot's first book, The Outrun was a Sunday Times bestselling title and winner of the 2016 Wainwright Prize for nature writing. It was also shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize, for the Saltire Non-Fiction Book of the Year, and was recently announced as in the running for narrative non-fiction book of the year at the British Book Awards.

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Amy Liptrot

Amy Liptrot's first book, The Outrun was a Sunday Times bestselling title and winner of the 2016 Wainwright Prize for nature writing. It was also shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize, for the Saltire Non-Fiction Book of the Year, and was recently announced as in the running for narrative non-fiction book of the year at the British Book Awards.

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Your bestselling first book, The Outrun, follows your story of recovery from alcoholism in Orkney, it’s a blend of memoir and nature writing: a very visceral sort of nature writing. The phrase ‘the nature cure’ springs to mind—is that something you believe in?

Rather than it being a philosophy I set out with, it was more something that I came to see the truth of through my own experiences. If the book is quite visceral, it’s because it was written at the same time as I was going through it, often from daily diaries that I keep. It’s set mainly during the time I lived on the small island of Papay and that’s also when I was writing the book.

This time in the wee house on the island was where I had the space to figure out what was going on with myself, how I’d ended up with an alcohol problem and in rehab and all that but also what helped me out of that was getting to know the island, the people and the culture and the coastline and the birds and the changes of the sea. I think often what I found most rewarding was not just, you know, going out for a walk, but time when I was actually in the landscape either immersing myself physically, by swimming in the sea, through the winter, or doing something like building the drystone walls. Going back to the same place as it changes through the seasons and physically linking myself to the land in some sort of way could be more rewarding and I could gain a deeper understanding of the place, and myself.

“I was doing more and better writing than I had done when I was pissed…that was helping me to keep sober”

While all that stuff has helped me—learning about the birds, connecting myself to something bigger than just me—while I am interested in that, what I’m specifically interested in is writing about the birds, and the place, and the fact that I had struck upon a great new source of material and was doing more and better writing than I had done when I was pissed…that was helping me to keep sober. So I was writing about the place and getting sober but that writing itself was keeping me sober and helping me with my recovery as well.

When you read other people writing about nature, or wild swimming, or other focuses of your own work, what do you look for, what do you admire?

I suppose I look for people that have more knowledge than me, who’ve done their research or…it’s a combination of both first-hand experience, often expressed in an unusual or poetic way, but I think that has to be combined with background research.

I also like it when somebody describes something that I have seen myself, but they’re able to do it in a better way than what I could have come up with—that recognition, I’ve seen that too! That’s true! And I’m glad that someone else has noticed it, or that they’ve corroborated my experience. That can be satisfying.

That reminds me of why I like reading film reviews, I often prefer to read them after I’ve seen the film, to get that sense of ‘yes! That’s it, that’s why that worked.’ Once I remember seeing you tweet that you’d learned as much from music criticism as you had from other nature books, do you still feel that?

Yes. I was actually a little nervous about doing this interview because there are lots of experts in the particular field of ecological writing, which I’m certainly not. Growing up I wasn’t a keen young ornithologist, or naturalist, although I was a keen reader but the books that I read as a kid were, you know, about boarding schools and babysitters and stuff far away from Orkney. Then, when I was a teenager and a student, I liked cities and rock’n’roll and angst, and I started writing a little for the music and style press.

“I was a keen reader but the books that I read as a kid were about boarding schools and babysitters”

And I think that was what formed me as a writer. I realised recently that when it’s come to me writing about the natural world, I think I’ve taken some of the things that I learnt through music journalism and magazine and fanzine writing, which often has a certain poise and wit or  a sense of the absurd detail, and enjoys slightly odd, fringe type characters—then applying that to looking at island life, or bird life.

Speaking of fringe characters, maybe that brings us to your first book choice: Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water. Maxwell himself was a rather complicated character, but his book was just so captivating and gorgeous.

It’s a cult book that I had been aware of but never read, until my mum recommended it to me recently. I’ve actually read a kind of spin off book about it, Island of Dreams, by Dan Boothby, a chap who lived more recently on the island under the Skye bridge which Maxwell had owned. I did an event with him last year. So I was aware of the captivation Maxwell had held over a generation of young naturalists, often kind of loner type men, I think.

Particularly the first half of the book is just wonderful. He’s this aristocrat that just manages to acquire the lease on this lighthouse keeper’s house, and the sense of place that he evokes…he’s a brilliant writer. I got that recognition I mentioned before, of things that I myself have experienced in Orkney. He talks about the eider ducks and their mating calls: I’ve heard that! Or just the effects of the wind and the sea on the west coast of Scotland. That really struck something deep in me.

You can just imagine it—he’s very good with physical detail and how they descend the hill to the house, which is surrounded on three sides by sea, the ‘ring of bright water’.

It has a wonderful sense of freedom, perhaps because he’s doing something that people dream of. Living alongside an otter—laying aside whether or not someone should try to have an otter as a pet—it’s the dream isn’t it?

Yes, he’s retreated to this isolated place, where—although he gets a lot of help from people—he’s sort of alone, in the natural world, which is very appealing. As I think I discovered myself when I wrote about being on Papay, readers seem to relate to that, and it has a relationship to another book I thought about choosing, Walden, the archetype of this lone person in a small place in the countryside.

“The book is very of its time, it wouldn’t get published or written today”

But like Henry David Thoreau, Maxwell is…Well, the book can be read as a psychological portrait of a somewhat damaged person, actually. He’s from this privileged background and has, perhaps, problems with other human beings. That makes this lifestyle—and as it happens in the second half of the book, the relationship he has with his pet otters—attractive to him. It’s a weird portrait really. He’s brilliant, and funny, on the behaviour of the otters and how they differ from other kinds of pets. They’re not meant to be pets really. The book is very of its time, it wouldn’t get published or written today, I don’t think—someone taking wild animals from the Middle East and attempting to tame them with all the chaos that it causes and taking on local lads to help him out. But there’s something very idealistic about this world that he creates.

There’s a wonderful section when he takes the otter on the sleeper train and puts him in the sink, where he splashes around merrily.

Yes and the guard comes in in the morning and the otter’s actually in bed next to him, lying on its back with its hands over the cover and the guard says, ‘Would that be tea for one or two, sir?’

He’s a special and unusual guy who’d probably have been infuriating to deal with. He gets live eels sent up daily from London for the otters at great expense, huge amounts of money are spent on his outlandish plans—but you’re rooting for him, really, to be able to carry this off.

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Then there’s this fantastic coincidence—after his first otter dies, is killed by a local person, which is heartrending, he’s desperately searching for a new otter and one just happens to turn up. Somebody hoping to find someone to take on their otter happens to walk by when he’s having lunch in a local hotel. You’re delighted, as delighted as he is when you read it.

The rural idyll Maxwell creates is so different to the world of your second book, JG Ballard’s The Drowned World. Here, instead of a paean to the pristine environment, it’s set in a post-apocalyptic catastrophe. What made you pick this?

Well, I think it’s a good example of using the natural world in fiction, and dystopian fiction, and I like the way that it uses the natural world, animals, and they are threatening and dangerous and strange rather than a source of solace or escape. They are the opposite. It was ahead of its time, it could almost be seen as a novel about climate change: ‘de-evolution’ is the word used.

Ballard is a master of the surreal but revealing detail, often using plants and animals. I remember one section in High Rise, a bit that stuck with me, was a seagull picking a diamante from a pair of sunglasses abandoned at the top of a building. And in The Drowned World, he has what was London, now flooded, and all these hotels now silted up where only the top floors are still accessible. And when it’s drained there are all these sea creatures—giant anemones and starfish and kelp—in Leicester Square, and dinghies stranded on traffic islands. This idea of the familiar being made strange and awful is part of what creates his distinctive, and highly influential, atmosphere.

The main character is almost perversely attracted to this new, ruined, world.

Kerans, the main character, the biologist—when the other people are retreating further towards the poles where it’s cooler, he’s going deeper in towards the equator…into the heart of darkness…A lot of Ballard’s books are about dark psychological stuff. But I can relate to being attracted to some of the more brutal elements of nature. I chose to go and live on a small Orkney island during winters rather than summers, when most people would choose the opposite. The big winds and the wild seas that sometimes cause damage are appealing to me, in their power and inhospitability.

Is there something in you that is drawing you back there? Or was it a time of your life when you needed it, when it suited you?

I think there are two parts of me. The island lass and the city dweller. I think I tend towards one extreme or the other, either inner city or outer isle for me—although, currently, I’m living in small-town Yorkshire which is a completely different environment. But I think these kinds of places, that are quite tough, quite sensory, appeal to me.

Absolutely. In Orkney, you were working for the RSPB looking for corncrakes. Kathleen Jamie, in your third book, Findings, has an essay about corncrakes. Was that something you came across before, or after?

Good question! I was writing a series of columns for Caught by the River, a nature writing website, and I think I’d already done the first four and my friend Morag said to me, ‘Have you read any Kathleen Jamie?’ and directed me towards Findings, which I just gulped up. It was interesting to discover that she was operating in some of the same territory that I was trying to—in an extremely skillful and much more developed way. And a little bit of me was like: ‘Damn you Jamie! Back off!’

“I spent two summers being out every night, looking and listening for corncrakes”

But I’ve gone back and looked at this book recently, and realised how influential she has been on me—just by showing what can be done with the nature essay. I think she’s wonderful. She’s a poet, which you can just see in her work, in her tight descriptions. She describes the weather in Orkney as there being ‘frequent scraps of rainbow,’ which is just right.
So yes, it wasn’t like I read Jamie’s stuff and thought I’d go and do something similar, but during the writing of The Outrun, I came across her near the beginning.

The first time I came across your writing was an essay for Aeon, “The Corncrake Wife”. Perhaps it’s the quest element, the idea of these corncrakes being so tricky to find, that makes them so compelling to read about.

Yes—I spent two summers being out every night, looking and listening for corncrakes, and I only ever saw one of them. They almost became a sort of phantom, or symbol, or a way of allowing me to see the island as much as find the bird. There’s a lot of mythology and theory associated with them. It was something that I randomly applied for, got the job, and working for the RSPB opened a lot of doors for me. That was the beginning of my deeper interest in the natural world and realising, through writing and also through reading people like Jamie, that it was something that I could write about.

I’ve given this book to a number of people and recommended it to more. She’s a poet, but she’s also a realist—she talks about details of modern-day Scottish life, the people that she meets, and a little bit about her own daily life: she has to be back to pick the kids up from school, things like that. And she’s just really smart, in terms of the research that she does and sometimes, not in a too heavy handed way, but the way she relates it to wider ecological issues.

“They almost became a sort of phantom, or symbol, or a way of allowing me to see the island as much as find the bird”

The title essay, “Findings”, is about beach-combing and the things that she finds. I like how she describes, on the same poetic level, the gannet skull that she finds but also the unusual plastic objects she finds washed up, which is obviously about the pollution of the seas. Her tone is really well judged and her beautiful, clear-eyed descriptions show the reality of what’s going on on the coastlines.

I think she’s fantastic and a worthy winner of the Saltire Book Prize last year.

And a very different style to George Monbiot, next, with Feral. Is it accurate to describe him as a polemicist? He comes from a very different direction.

This is a bold and radical book, which introduced me to several new ideas and changed the way I look at the countryside in quite a challenging way. As you say, it’s different to Jamie in that he’s unafraid of stating his opinions. The book broadly is about this idea of ‘re-wilding,’ which was a new idea to me. A really exciting one, I found it. All the stuff about the return of large predators and the effects that the loss of the top predators has had on the landscape was really eye-opening, and also—particularly as a sheep-farmer’s daughter—it was quite difficult to read some of his opinions. Because he hates sheep. Or rather, he hates the effect that sheep have had on the uplands of this country.

He describes sheep farming as ‘having done more damage to the living systems of this country than either climate change or industrial pollution.’

Yes! Which is a really radical idea. But I think he might be right.

How does that feel, coming from a sheep-farming family?

Well, I guess there might be some differences  between the Scottish islands and the uplands of Wales, in that they weren’t really wooded places in the first place. But I think I’m open to looking at the way that agriculture is very protected, sometimes, and it’s difficult to criticise. Perhaps we should be looking at new ways of using the land, and diversifying what landowners and farmers do.

My dad is an organic farmer, which is slightly less intensive and slightly more varied, and has a lower impact on the land, but after reading Monbiot, I do look out, even in Orkney, and see the ‘green deserts’ he describes, the monocultures of grassland for beef.

“After reading Monbiot, I do look out even in Orkney and see the ‘green deserts’ he describes”

However, I put Monbiot in a category with two American writers I love, Naomi Klein and Rebecca Solnit, in that he’s an outspoken writer on conservation and the environment, but he does offer some mitigations and some ways forward: in his ideas about re-wilding, and talking about localisation and how landowners can diversify or be more creative about how the land is used and the species that can possibly be introduced. So while it is very challenging and difficult, there are also some exciting ideas and suggested ways forward that could provide some blueprint.

He uses very emotive language, phrases like ‘sheep-wrecked’—do you think that is necessary to shock people, almost, to make people look afresh at landscapes, the way you described?

I think that’s his style, and I commend it and quite admire it, really. It might not make his ideas palatable to a broader audience, including some farmers who might just dismiss it, but I think there’s absolutely a place for what he’s saying. Some people might think he’s too strong, or he’s not allowing a place for looking at how small farmers, who are small business owners, might just be doing what they need to do to survive, and how it’s been in their families for generations. But no, I don’t think he’s too dramatic, the natural world is in crisis.

Let’s move on to your last book, the illustrated Orkney Book of Birds. You say you’ve learnt a great deal from this book. Why would you recommend it?

I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, just to people who are in or visiting Orkney. It’s a little masterpiece of local knowledge and research, presented extremely readably. It’s a guidebook, and over the last few years, as a novice birdwatcher in Orkney, it’s the nature book I return to the most. Unlike the Collins bird guide, it only includes the species found in Orkney, which is different to what you find in other places, and includes lovely details such as the Orcadian dialect names for all the different birds: puffins are ‘tammie norries’, and lapwings are ‘teeicks’.

“In Orkney, puffins are ‘tammie norries’, and lapwings are ‘teeicks”

It also includes their specific local locations, the different islands or habitats they are found on, their numbers and how they have increased or declined over the years, looking at data from local surveys. Then it often has specific, almost poetic, facts, like how there was a starling roost on the Kirkwall lifeboat, or that most farms in Orkney tend to have a pair of pied wagtails. It really helped me to appreciate my local patch. The birds I’m now most knowledgable on are the seabirds and the farmland birds that you get in Orkney.

And as well as the text, which is fabulously researched and written by Tim Dean, there are also the illustrations by Tracy Hall, which are beautiful. What I particularly like is that they are shown in their specific Orkney locations where they are found, you can see identifiable buildings and coastlines. I think the corncrakes are on the island of Egilsay, which has been a place that has encouraged them. I love this book.

Having moved to Yorkshire, do you feel you’ve had to learn a whole new population of birds and wildlife?

Well, I’m just starting off! I was out for a walk yesterday and I saw some grey wagtails, a bird we don’t get in Orkney. There are so many species down here that you don’t get in Orkney. I hear  tawny owls, hooting at night, which feels very exotic to me, as the only owls we have in Orkney are the short-eared owls, which are silent. So I’ve been learning a new landscape. But I can’t help comparing it—I keep saying ‘oh, we don’t get that at home!’ I do feel like Orkney is my heartland, my local patch, and I can see myself returning there at some point. I’m just having an interlude here in Yorkshire. The islands are really…particularly the curlews and oystercatchers and the gannets and the tysties [black guillemots] are the birds that speak most to my heart, that I grew up with and got to know deeply over the years that I lived there.

It’s something that is dyed in you, almost. What you said there reminded me of Nan Shepard, and the way she was always going in and out of the same hills over years and decades, how rich those layers of experience can become. It’s all imbued with this history of yourself.

Yes. Although I said that I wasn’t a birdwatcher when I was a kid, I grew up on a farm so I was aware of the birds, and knew their names and their calls were already in me. I think it was there all along, I just avoided admitting it for a long time. So it’s been very rewarding to study it all and write about it more closely.

Interview by Cal Flyn

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