When people ask me what I write, invariably these days the answer that I give is that I write a blog called Noticing Animals. When, however, they ask the natural follow-up question – “What’s it about?” – I find myself struggling to answer quite so easily. It’s about a lot of things: animals, of course; but also memory and reminiscence; amateur sociology; metaphors and parallels; personal appreciations. I guess, though, that if there’s one theme which has consistently underpinned the whole enterprise, right from the very start, it’s that animals are everywhere; that they are always in our company and we in theirs; and that even in the most urban of environments we see more of them every day than we realise or stop to consider. In my own way, what I write about – and what I’ve always been besotted by – is nature.
Which is why nearly the first thing I did when I arrived in London for a brief holiday three weeks ago was get the Tube east to Shoreditch, where I walked down Brick Lane to the site of an old brewery. It was a pilgrimage of sorts. I was there to go to a record shop, a branch of London’s famous Rough Trade records – because within that record shop are a few short shelves devoted to books championed by the website Caught by the River.
Caught by the River, which updates nearly daily and sends out an email newsletter at the end of each week, is devoted to all manner of things: the pleasures of drinking good beer; the thrill and joy of discovering or remembering great music; the more arcane or esoteric avenues of British history. Most of all, though, it’s dedicated to writing of – and from – the natural world; and nature – that peculiar British kind of nature, existing in a profound and time-worn relationship with humanity – is Caught by the River’s constant undercurrent. Caught by the River is a daily reminder of the very fact of nature, its undeniable presence: in turning on our computer, or checking our phone, or engaging with whatever our screen of choice is, and catching up on the website’s latest dispatches – sent in by contributors in the Orkneys, in Wales, in London, anywhere in the British Isles – we (those of us who have discovered and cherish the site) are brought into awareness, and thus in a way into contact, with the natural world. We’re invited to reach out to it, and if reading about it on a screen can never replicate being there in person, it at least settles a little bit of that natural world into our minds. It balms our souls.
So it was with great excitement that I stood before the Caught by the River bookshelves in Rough Trade East and picked out what I wanted to buy – books I’d been eagerly looking forward to, and those I’d never heard of before – and took my purchases to the cafe at the front of the shop and settled in, hunching my shoulders against the cold air coming through the open door, to read some of the best nature writing around. By and large these books – or any books like them – aren’t readily available in Australian bookshops. I don’t know why the British have taken to nature writing but Australians largely haven’t – perhaps because our nature is more often hostile, and uncomfortable, and more harshly indifferent to our presence. Perhaps we – those of us of European heritage, who still drive Australian culture – simply haven’t been on this continent long enough to feel the same kind of deep affinity with our land that the people of Wales, and Scotland, and particularly England, seem to.
An engagement with nature doesn’t necessarily need to involved hiking out into the forest, though, or driving miles from human habitation. Nature is everywhere, and animals and plants are constantly doing what they can to assert themselves: that is, if not the meaning, then at least the constant aim of life; all life. I wasn’t thinking about any of this as I sat down, though; I was thinking only of how excited I was to finally be where I was, and how much I had to discover and take back home with me. But as I sat I looked around the shop, taking everything in – and, unexpectedly, I noticed a tiny movement from beneath the table in front of me. Seemingly unseen by anybody else, a small spider – barely larger than a pin – slid down from the table’s underside on a single strand of silk; and then it climbed up again, disappearing once more from sight. The animal was visible for only a second. It was mid-April, and everyone I talked to in England told me how cold this year’s spring had been; and I could feel that cold myself. The sky was grey, nearly white, overcast. Icy rain was threatening. There was no sign anywhere of any insect life – what insect could have yet hatched into such weather? Yet the spider was there, all the same, investigating its world, and waiting.
I could hear the traffic. The streets outside were dirty with pollution. We don’t usually think of cities as being friendly to wildlife, or to nature at all; but in its purest state a city is nothing so much as an aggregation of chaos: a jumble of lives and experiences of all kinds all pooled together and somehow conspiring to cope with each-others’ presence. Those lives are frequently non-human. One of them lives under a table at Rough Trade East. I hope it keeps its head down; I hope it makes it through to the summer, and the coming feast. I hope it’s still there next time I visit, to see what’s new on the bookshelves and what I’ve missed. And I know that from now on, every time I check my email and see that another Caught by the River newsletter has arrived, I’ll remember the first time I opened those books in that shop – and I’ll remember that tiny spider, that tiny intrusion of the natural world into the indifferent streets of London. Every time.
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org