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.