Scotland's environment provides comfort and relief from video calls and the stresses of life amid Covid – Laura Waddell

A new anthology about nature and the environment of Scotland, Antlers of Water, helps fend off ‘Zoom nausea’, writes Laura Waddell

An image of a soft grey heron standing elegant and alien in the rain came into Laura Waddell’s head as she took part in a 90-minute video call (Picture: Phil Wilkinson)
An image of a soft grey heron standing elegant and alien in the rain came into Laura Waddell’s head as she took part in a 90-minute video call (Picture: Phil Wilkinson)

Is there a cure for Zoom nausea? Ninety minutes into a work call looking at eight small screens besides my own face mirrored, I could feel the descent of a headache as heavy as the rainclouds on the horizon. There’s something about video calls in particular – in principle about connectedness but in practise unexpectedly draining – that sucks the fresh air from a room and fills the brain with crackling over-stimulation.

I thought about the soft grey heron I’d earlier spotted standing in the rain like a furled golf umbrella, elegant and alien on a grassy verge beside the tarmac’s pothole pock marks. All I wanted was to close my stinging eyes for a moment and let cold droplets wash over them too.

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Our relationship with nature has changed under lockdown. Being aware of just how far we were permitted to roam caused many to take the gambit and do so, looking with more purpose at the outdoor spaces immediately nearby, making discoveries about other species as well as ourselves.

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Birds, centre stage as traffic noise dwindled, appeared to sing more loudly. We were noticing what was already there. There was a rush on seeds; not just from experienced gardeners tending to carrots and cabbages, but lured-out newcomers. Some tenement dwellers wholesomely pitched together to turn neglected shared gardens into welcoming places. Others felt the lack of their own accessible green space strongly; cooped up and frustrated, without the health and sanity benefits of outdoors access. That feels deeply wrong, deeply unfair.

‘An act of resistance’

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Many books are born into the pandemic without meaning to be (I know this intimately – my own, Exit, is out next week). We will reckon many times with what Scotland’s land means to its citizens as the climate crisis worsens and politics evolve. But it was with a newly tuned lockdown mentality I opened Antlers of Water – billed not as “nature writing” but as, precisely, “writing on the nature and environment of Scotland”, a new anthology edited by Kathleen Jamie.

I sometimes struggle to relate to a concept of nature writing in which boundless skies seem to emerge from an author’s abundance of time, travelling solo to remote locations by car which I lack, and rattling off subspecies. Some of this is a kneejerk reaction to the genre’s least generous stereotype, rather than its modern reality. Perhaps some of it is also resentment of train prices.

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What I do like are interior journeys; navigation of the natural world which is curious and welcoming of the unexpected and unknown, and willingness to share some of the learning around. There is much of that open-hearted spirit in this anthology. As Jamie says in her introduction, “In a time of ecological crisis, I would argue that simply insisting on our right to pay heed to natural landscapes and non-human lifeforms amounts to an act of resistance to the forces of destruction.”

A beautiful pigeon

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Nethertheless, I found myself gravitating to the few pieces which contemplated nature within working and urban settings. I liked Malachy Tallack on taking breaks from work, and how each time a walk is repeated, its meaning deepens. During lockdown, I started to shake off each day’s anxiety by the mid-point of my own circuit. Perhaps there’s no bad time to walk in the woods. As poet Em Strang writes, “But don’t wait thinking you need better boots or a waterproof that’ll keep out the rain. / It won’t. Don’t wait.”

As Tallack continues, wintertime approaching, “This was, in some ways, the ideal time to get to know a place, where there is less to see and be distracted by. Everything felt stripped to its essence. This refuge is never truly divided from things we might wish to escape. It is not possible or responsible to pretend otherwise.”

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Chitra Ramaswamy describes the wonder of standing by the window of a Leith flat on a busy road, her son delighted by a humble pigeon. She realises the bird is beautiful. “Being a mother does this to you. Sharpens our senses as forcibly as it prises open your heart.” Jacqueline Bain also writes about what is close by. No longer having “the mobility to roam the braes”, she watches the wasps instead.

The raven iconography of Lerwick’s Up Helly Aa is explored in a galvanising piece by Sally Huband, as well as the fact women and girls are still excluded from the procession. “Few people dare to speak up, to call for girls and women to be included in the Lerwick event; it’s not worth the hassle. I didn’t at first but then something inside of me snapped.” Go Sally!

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Something bigger than ourselves

Linda Cracknell dreamily considers the low tide. “It invites us to walk out onto a shiny no-man’s-land that lays another sky beneath our feet. Here we might fall through into a different world or a seal adopt a human form.” Just as magical is Jim Carruth’s poem about human meeting roe deer, each staring at the other. I held my breath while reading it. Later I was warmed by Jim Crumley’s enthusiastic observations of eagles.

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But this is a collection that understands danger as well as beauty. Several writers ruminate over warships lurking in our waters. Gavin Francis notices the submarine hangars of Rosyth Dockyard while paddling with his kids on the beach, wondering what future generations will make of the risk to human life.

Amanda Thomson, after describing delightfully the “blue, black, white noise” of sea birds, says “It was clear that everything would go on whether or not we were there, indeed, despite us being there and, as a gust whipped up to unsteady us and we found ourselves suddenly too close to the edge, or on a bank down to another cliff edge that was slippier, or steeper than we imagined, we knew how vulnerable, and how remote, how isolated we really were.”

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This knowledge, that out there is something bigger than ourselves, is a relief. How deep the water is, how old the mountains. Scotland is wild. I’m going out to look again.

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