Navigating everyday life

It was my sister’s birthday and on the way back from visiting her I was listening to the radio as usual and came in halfway through a programme about people’s engagement with the countryside and nature. There was what you might call a panel of about three and a chair person who asked questions in a conversational way so it was fairly informal but within a cosy structure.

It made me think back to my engagement with nature from being a small child. I guess I know a little about wildlife because both my mum lived in the country as a girl, first in the very small village of Pavenham in Bedfordshire, and then in the village of Harston, which although equally small, was very near Cambridge. My Dad was born in Saffron Walden in Essex but spent all his life in Cambridge, apart from the war years and until we moved to the west country when I was sixteen.

From them I learned the names of plants and trees and insects and the more common birds – just through conversation and them telling me and my sister things when we were out for a walk or a picnic. We followed  Dad in spending a lot of time on or near the river, my lovely rivers Granta and Cam, and new the fish, the plants and waterfowl without even realising we had learned their names. When my children were growing up I tried to do the same as my parents, but we didn’t live in such rural areas – although we did have access to green places, and my knowledge was superficial compared to Dad and Mum.

What I was listening to on my drive home was a new series, Guide Books, about how books might help people navigate everyday life. It was presented by writer and broadcaster Damian Barr, someone I’d never heard of before. Although I love books and could never be without them, I’m not sure the description of how they might ‘help people navigate everyday life’ would have appealed to me. However, I had jumped in the car, set off and was quarter of an hour into it so kept listening.

Each episode takes a life experience – such as grief – and talks to writers about they handle it through their own reading, writing and lived experience. We explore the fiction, non-fiction, memoir and poetry that might help us better understand our own stories.

Again, the main idea of using writing and reading to help deal with life (sorry, ‘the lived experience’ sounds so corny to me) was not really something I would have tuned into, but using life stories and experiences in writing, and through doing that understand aspects of our past, is intriguing, and is something to an extent I practice though my fiction.

I began by mentioning my early life and nature and it’s because of the content of this week’s programme, part of which I caught, and the rest of which I will catch up with later :

 – how can we deepen our engagement with the natural world around us? Many of us experienced a shift in our relationship with nature during the pandemic; how can we stay tuned in to nature, and keep looking with fresh eyes, as the world grows busier once more?

There were only two guests who Damian was speaking to,  Helen Macdonald who wrote ‘Vesper Flights’ and  ‘H is for Hawk’, and Melissa Harrison who has written ‘many books including ‘The Stubborn Light of Things’ ‘By Ash, Oak and Thorn’ and ‘All Among the Barley’.  it was very interesting and I must say really made me think, although as usual I had a few ‘tuts’ and disagreements with some of what was said – which is somewhat typical of me!

The two previous episodes had firstly Sinéad Gleeson and Sarah Perry, and in the second episode Stella Duffy and Cathy Rentzenbrink. Here is a link to the programme I heard today: How can books help us navigate the messy business of living? Writer Damian Barr and guests discuss fiction, poetry and memoir that might help us better understand our own stories.

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