By Nancy Campbell

06 June 2018 - 15:00

A red house in an Arctic landscape
'Air is invisible, but it holds just as much information as ice.' Photo ©

Filip Gielda used under licence and adapted from the original.

Scottish author Nancy Campbell tells us about her approach to writing about the natural world, ahead of her appearance at the British Council Nature Writing Seminar in Munich.

Why did you become a nature writer?

Nature has always been a part of my life. I spent my early childhood in a small town in the Scottish Borders, and later, as a teenager, moved to the Northumberland moors. My earliest points of reference were the landscape and the wildlife it supported. The first poets I read were those who responded to nature at a time when people were just beginning to understand climate change – Norman MacCaig, Ted Hughes and Elizabeth Bishop.

I didn’t begin writing about nature until I travelled beyond the UK. I was living in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, where I was completing a letterpress printing apprenticeship with Barbarian Press. I collaborated with Abigail Rorer, an American artist, on a tribute to one of the area’s least majestic inhabitants – the giant slugs who emerged every evening. Abigail used wood engraving, while I wrote accompanying text in the style of moralistic Victorian nature writing, like Charles Kingsley’s study of the seashore, Glaucus. That early publication spurred me on to look for other ways of communicating the natural world.

I’m still involved in the ‘book arts’ and take an interest in the work of independent presses run by artists. Roni Gross, a New York artist, has published two of my books – The Night Hunter and Tikilluarit. I’ve also worked with The Old Stile Press in Wales, and the artist Sarah Bodman in Bristol. I admire the level of attention these artists and craftspeople give to the book as a material object.

In an era when publishing operates on a large scale, consuming so many resources including paper and power, it is a refreshing contrast to see the work of these individuals. Some are so invested in traditional crafts that they even make their own paper and ink.

What different approaches do you take to nature writing, in poetry and in narrative non-fiction?

My work is often a commission to respond to a specific place. The demands of that commission and the place itself may define the theme and even the form.

In 2018 I was appointed the UK’s Canal Laureate. I am working with The Poetry Society and the Canal and River Trust to write about the 2,000 miles of waterways looked after by the Trust. The Canal and River Trust presented my poems in many different ways: sprayed onto towpaths in hydroponic paint, engraved into benches, and voiced over films. It’s an exciting challenge to fit my work to the requirements of these different media, and also to ensure my writing is interesting and accessible to everyone.

My narrative non-fiction book, The Library of Ice, is about ice from both a scientific and cultural angle. I needed multiple visits to the Arctic and seven years’ study to find a way to describe its complex, temporal landscape. The book is about different ways of writing and the cultural records which survive us, as much as the changing environment.

Can you tell us more about writing in the Arctic?

During my residency at Upernavik Museum, Greenland, in the dark polar winter, I spent many evenings reading Barry Lopez’s book Arctic Dreams. I began to write my poem, The Debate, in response to a passage in which Lopez describes the borderline drawn between the Arctic and Temperate Zones. 

The Debate is a pair of sonnets, a form which deals with relationships (in the interlocking rhymes of the stanzas), and resolution (in the concluding couplet). The sonnet gave my language a frame. It also gave an echo of the way explorers have imposed their ideology on landscape, from the charting that began with Mercator’s world map, to modern science. The desire to know and understand the world, the excitement of seeing new landscapes, so quickly becomes bound up with land ownership or intellectual property.

Where does the Arctic end? Asked how far south / the region reaches, scholars disagree.

(excerpt from The Debate, Disko Bay, Enitharmon Press)

I wrote the first sonnet in the pair, following Lopez’s account of the different ways that borderline is drawn:

Experts argue that the northern treeline, / first patch of permafrost, or – in July – / the fifty degree isotherm define / where temperate becomes arctic...

(excerpt from The DebateDisko Bay, Enitharmon Press)

The second sonnet is about another way cartographers have mapped the Arctic – the many different northern poles. The North Pole was once a goal for nineteenth-century voyages of exploration, and still appeals to today’s adventurers and nations.

Despite its iconic status, there are actually several different poles, and their location on the map is not fixed. The location of the Geographic Pole, for example, changes according to: 

the slow lure of lunar gravity / tectonic shifts.

(excerpt from The DebateDisko Bay, Enitharmon Press)

Together, the pair of sonnets describe the Arctic landscape while suggesting the limitations, and the dangers, of defining the natural world from one single cultural viewpoint. 

What would you say to other writers who want nature to be a bigger part of their work?

My poem, The Vostok Ice Core gives a creative writing lesson, gives advice for the nature writer which can be applied in any setting, not just glacial ones. Ice cores are cylinders of ice drilled from ice sheets or glaciers, which contain evidence of past climates. Scientists read slices from the core for data on the weather and past pollution.

The Vostok Ice Core gives a creative writing lesson (first published in The Rialto)

  1. Be complete. Tell the whole story: every day in every season, summer and winter, from the present until the beginning of time.
  2. Be discrete. Record events in one location only; preserve the unities of space, if not of time.
  3. Be precise. Do not get distracted by your own fears, the imminence of extinction. Never decide your results in advance.
  4. Be concise. Do not use too many words. Do use a language that everyone can understand.
  5. Air is invisible, but it holds just as much information as ice.
  6. By the time they reach your readers, the events you describe will seem infinitesimal. That faint grey line left by a volcanic eruption that grounded all the world’s planes? It’s nothing to them.
  7. Remember that ice is the frozen state of water. Your document may take on other forms.
  8. If you want to find ice, go to the cold places, but keep your own temperature constant.
  9. The work will not be quick. Anticipate seven seasons.
  10. Keep going deeper. The story is already there: extraction is the reader’s art. Reading in the cold, drilling through the dark.

The British Council Nature Writing Seminar, featuring Nancy Campbell and five other British writers, will take place in Munich from 7-9 June 2018. More information about the event as well as ticketing information can be found on the British Council Literature website

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