One of my favorite parts of the novel Hild, by Nicola Griffith, is how the title character uses nature to fuel her insights (which is also to say that I love how Griffith uses the natural world in her writing). When she is only 6 she becomes the seer for her uncle Edwin, the king of Northumbria in 7th century now-England. Given that she’s a child with limited understanding of adult interactions, her wisdom comes from what she observes in nature. One night, while she’s touring the country with the king and his entourage, accepting tributes from all the different tribes, she asks her nurse:
“Onnen, when you steal eggs from the nest, where are the birds who laid them?” and Onnen said, “Off finding worms for breakfast, no doubt. Why?” And Hild, who was tired from talk talk talking, all the time talking, couldn’t bring her thoughts from behind her eyes to her mouth. When she fell into sleep it was to evil dreams: Who protected the nest while the king was away finding worms? Who protected her mother and Hereswith? Old Burgræd and young Burgmod?
The knowledge that other animals steal from bird nests while the adult bird is off getting food sticks in her young mind. She dreams about it and worries it over until she has the words and the courage to say it:
“King.” The words, as they almost always did in Anglisc, caught in her throat like a bird bone or a mouthful of feathers. “The stoat steals fledglings from the nest when the birds are away catching worms.”
She has to spell it out:
“King. We’re the birds.”
Now his face was stone. “I am not a bird.”
“Boats,” she said desperately. “I dreamt of boats.” His whole face sharpened. “The stoat is coming in a boat. To the nest. My mother is there. And Hereswith.”
“Your— Bebbanburg. You’re talking of Bebbanburg?”
“And who is the stoat?” He was standing over her—when did that happen?
Her eyes were level with his throat apple. She raised them to meet his. “Fiachnae mac Báetáin. In a boat, going the long way around to take Bebbanburg.”
The king takes action and, indeed, their enemy was on his way to ambush one of the king’s holdings while he was gone feathering his nest with tributes. His people, and Hild’s mother, are saved.
These days, we do not have the same limits as a child in the 600s, but we are limited by what COVID-19 has done to our society. We writers no longer have coffee shops, libraries, restaurants, and fairgrounds as people-watching fodder. We cannot go to museums or art galleries to feed our imaginations. Lingering in public places no longer feels safe. Sure, we’ve got all the movies and TV shows ever made at our disposal, and we can watch human nature work itself out over social media, but eventually those drain as much as they give.
So we are left with what Hild had: the natural world.Whether you live in a rural area, can walk or drive to a park, have a yard you can hang out in, or can see only sky from your window, nature is accessible in some way to all of us. And if we look, it can feed and fuel our imagination.
Five years ago, when my marriage ended, I went on a lot of walks, and the natural world provided me with metaphors for what I was going through and taught me lessons I needed to take to heart.
Looking from the outside, this tree had been tall and solid and strong-looking. It had provided food and shelter for animals, cleaned the air. But it was hollow inside, and that lack of strength eventually brought it down. Where it continued to provide food and shelter for animals and plants, just in a different way.
Now and then, Lake Michigan will dump a bunch of black sand on the beach. It feels thicker and clammier than the regular sugar-smooth sand, and it clumps on your feet in an unpleasant way. But the beautiful sand is still there, just underneath. I know it’ll be revealed soon enough. The black sand doesn’t “win.”
Similarly, in real life, the water in this pond looked dead, flat black. To my naked eye, no light bounced off the water and it didn’t reflect the trees around it. It fascinated me, so I took tons of photos. In every photo, I could see light and reflection. There is always more light than I can perceive.
And these insect tracks under the bark show that there’s always more going on beneath the surface than I can perceive.
Of course, nature doesn’t always deliver deep messages. Sometimes it inspires whimsy. Like in the photo above, which I took because it looks like a winking face. Are the lines wrinkles? Whiskers? Tattoos?
These trees in the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Florida reminded me of women in fancy, big-skirted dresses. Why is the one with the biggest skirt by herself? Are the other trees jealous? Is she mean? Is she standing in the middle of a dance circle twirling her heart out?
Speaking of dresses, imagine the ruffly skirts that fairies or beetles could make out of these mushrooms.
Or out of these white caps. Or would they work better as hats?
How many little creatures (real or fictional) could this tall but tiny mushroom protect from the rain?
And doesn’t this driftwood look like a friendly dragon?
The sight of tiny birds harassing a predator bird away from their nests always reminds me that the biggest and strongest doesn’t always win–that the small and determined have methods at their disposal, as well. Watching how flocks of birds ebb and flow in the sky is endlessly fascinating and provides evocative descriptors for crowd movement, emotional fluctuations, power shifts. I’ve spend many happy minutes alone or with a couple of friends watching Canada geese in a pond, or two lizards on a log, narrating the story of the what we’re seeing, usually a grand struggle for food or romance. And who among us hasn’t played the “what does that cloud look like?” game?
So during this time of lower human interaction, look to nature to feed and fuel your imagination. There is both wisdom and whimsy there. Really look. Pay attention. Train your observation and story muscles. Nature is always there, whether it’s available to you in a sliver or in an environment you can immerse yourself in. You never know what you’re going to see or hear or smell that will trigger a story idea or a way to describe something in your life or your work in progress or that will provide just the flight of fancy you need to get you out of a rut. At the very least, it’ll feel good to experience something other than walls these days.
What has nature taught you? Any wisdom or whimsy you want to share from an interaction with the natural world? Where do you find nature near you? Anyone here hate nature and won’t go out in it no matter what anyone says?
** All photos taken by me, most within a 45-minute drive from my house in Michigan.