Culture First-Person Accounts

Against Nature

Struggling to connect with the great blue yonder.

At 2pm, I dragged myself to the beach near my home and stared up at the limestone cliffs. Thousands of kittiwakes were perched, jostling and screaming like babies. The cliff face was covered in glistening white guano that dripped down on to the pink thrift flowers between the rocks below and hung in them like tinsel. I moved to this small seaside town in the north east of England from London two years ago for reasons that change every time I access them, but one unwavering commitment was that I wanted to feel closer to nature. This was my latest attempt.

I had learned via the simple steps on the website of a mental health charity that when you’re trying to feel a connection to nature you should A) ‘Find nature’, B) ‘Get out into nature’ and C) ‘Use all of your five senses’. I took long deep breaths through my nose and tried to land on a word that could describe the smell of the splattered cliffs. It was fishy, deathly, metallic – then a nostalgic torch flickered in my body; it was childhood, or something from childhood. Toxic and inflammatory. Ammonia. The ammonia we made in chemistry lessons. My mind was rushing somewhere lucid and internal, then a white-hot shit flew past my right side and splashed at my feet, on to round rocks covered in green seaweed, like bad wigs on bald heads. I turned, crouched and began to huff heavily, but my nose had adjusted and I couldn’t get the same pungent thrill anymore. I was just a man breathing heavily over fresh bird excrement.

Since moving to the sea, I’ve learned a lot of things. I used to think that all gulls were seagulls. Now I realise there is no such thing as a seagull. There are herring gulls and common gulls, glaucous gulls and Caspian gulls, yellow-legged, black-backed, ring-billed, black-headed gulls and kittiwakes, but no seagulls. I left behind most of my friends in London; birds now comprise a large portion of my animal-to-animal interactions. In the mornings, I awake to the frantic footsteps of various gulls landing on my thin flat roof; knocking, cawing and shuffling, having their sex and their skirmishes. They stand on the ledge outside my window as I work at home, knocking on the glass with their beaks. It’s hard to tell if they are fighting their own reflections or trying to communicate something to me. Perhaps food, anger, or territory. I read that a lot of what gulls say amounts to, ‘I’m not moving’.

I learned all this in the books I now read about nature, especially nature that occurs in the sea, on the coast, at the edge of things. I read The Edge of the Sea by Rachel Carson and glanced over every bird in the Bloomsbury Concise Coastal Bird Guide. Most recently, I read The People of the Sea by David Thomson, in which the author travelled around Scotland and Ireland documenting the folklore surrounding seals among coastal communities, most notably the Celtic mythology of the ‘selchie’: seals that were once humans and can sometimes return to human form. No other animal, wrote Thomson, ‘has such a dream-like effect on the human mind’ as the seal. I also read The Peregrine by J.A. Baker in which the author spends a year in solitude, stalking peregrine falcons and tiercels – as well as countless other birds and rodents – around the forests, fields and beaches of the Blackwater Estuary in Essex, where land and river open out on to sea. I hoped these books would help me see the natural world around me with blazing clarity. ‘The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there,’ wrote Baker.

I’ve watched the seals laze about the rocks by the lighthouse near my flat. I’ve inspected crab skeletons, marooned jellyfish and driftwood. I’ve kept a respectful distance from a gannet with bird flu as it died a lonely death in the bay of brown rocks. I’ve gone for long solitary walks on the beach and swam in the brutal North Sea. It was always cold, painful and unpleasant, but I was led to believe that there is a spiritual nobility in pretending otherwise. When submerged, I hold my place in the water and stay perfectly silent, with the waves washing over me, and stare at the horizon or, on occasion, close my eyes and open my senses. I imagine that anyone observing from afar would think, wow, that man is really feeling nature right now, he’s in it, at one, oneness. ‘The sea,’ this version of me might have said, ‘the sea is my therapist.’ But in truth I was counting down the seconds in my head, waiting, and feeling something close to nothing. Moving closer to nature has not brought me closer to nature – I’ve experienced it mostly as dull and disappointing.

It was hard for me to admit this, because being connected to nature would have really suited the whole vibe I was going for. But the seals didn’t seem as mystical and absorbing as the ones in Thomson’s book. The gulls were not as dramatic as Baker’s peregrines. In fact, I was sometimes astounded by how little I felt connected to the sea as I stared at it on evening runs – like it didn’t realise how much I’d read. Reveal yourself! I wondered if there was an abyss inside me, a failing capacity to see how wonderful and strange the world really was. I tried and failed, again and again, like an embarrassed worshipper on his knees praying to a silent god.

I began to find it increasingly hard to even muster the energy to follow steps A (‘Find nature’) and B (‘Get out into nature’). Instead, I forged an increasingly deep connection with the mediated nature I found in books, poems, documentaries and podcasts.

It wasn’t until I finished both Baker’s The Peregrine and Thomson’s The People of the Sea, and read the forewords of each, that I realised both authors had thoroughly mixed in their own imaginations, and had in fact reimagined, re-presented and reordered what they had experienced in reality, while wandering those places on the edge of things. They were as much nature imaginings as they were nature writings. And I started to wonder if the rapturous experiences they described on the page actually occurred out there in nature, or at home as they sat at their typewriters reflecting on their experiences and transforming them into lucid reflections, giving their own voices to a silent god and making it speak to them.

The fourth step on the mental health website was: ‘Bring nature to you.’ The summer came and I started sleeping with my bedroom window wide open so the cool onshore breeze could fill my room and make it smell like salt. The crashing white noise of the tides floated in and penetrated my sleep, and I dreamed repeatedly of swimming, floating and drowning; of great waves crashing down my street and sweeping everything away. On one particularly hot night, I left the window open wider than usual and awoke in the dull blue of 4am to a herring gull standing in my room, at the head of my bed, a Dickensian ghost, silver-grey and white in the soft moonlight. It pivoted its head sideways and one yellow eye circled me, scoping out my human form, noting my white eyes looking back, then it began to back away. I could hear the soft pat of its pink feet on the white, painted windowsill as it sank backwards into the darkness. It let out a cry of ‘KYOW KYOW KYOW’, and I made a loud noise as well.

At least that’s how I remember the scene now, as I write this, months later. Nothing can pass from the eye to the brain without a little fiction being added; and from the brain to the page, even more. All I know is that for a second, I think I heard something.


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