Nature Writing Beyond the Page: Tracks, Traces, Trails

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of English


This 12-month project is designed as a direct follow-on to the original 'Land Lines' project, which was funded over 2 years from April 2017 to March 2019 and is consequently in its final stage. Bringing together researchers based at the University of Leeds (lead partner), the University of Sussex, and the University of St Andrews, the main aim of 'Land Lines' has been to chart the history of British nature writing from the foundational work of Gilbert White in the late eighteenth century to the present day. 'Land Lines' has already generated extensive impact, notably through its 2017 poll to discover the nation's favourite nature book, the media coverage of which is estimated to have reached over 30 million people worldwide. While the ambitions of the follow-on project are more modest, they are still significant, namely to engage new audiences for British nature writing that make good on its potential to restore lost connections to the natural world.

Two types of audience in particular are envisaged: primary schoolchildren, whose senses may be alive but whose reading skills may be limited; and older adults who, though often avid readers, lack opportunities for more direct interactions with the natural world. The follow-on project aims to provide opportunities for these two groups to interact with one another and, in experiencing local natural environments first-hand, to make them fully animate to the senses while also helping to bring nature writing off the page.

Nature also 'writes', and one of the aims of the project is to create new nature trails and other ways of illuminating natural environments and the creatures often hidden within them, making their movements ('writings') visible and enabling them to be tracked and traced, across space but also across time. The emphasis will be on birds, one of the primary subjects of the project's original research. The follow-on project's proposed activities (trails based on bird-tagging, audio listening posts, etc.) will be combined with learning materials on birds, a highlight of which will be an illustrated book on the nightjar, produced by children for children in collaboration with a local writer and illustrator. Nightjars are nocturnal creatures, and a further aim of the follow-on project will be to 'make the invisible visible', ranging from simple lantern-lit nature trails to a son et lumiere extravaganza. The grand finale will be a spectacular installation at 2020 Light Night Leeds, which will feature commissioned art based on work produced during the course of the project, 'writ large' for a sizeable audience (approximately 85,000 people) on giant public screens.

These and other events will have a regional focus. The primary activity sites will be two of Natural England's Yorkshire-based nature reserves, at Lower Derwent Valley (LDV) and Humberhead Peatland (HH), while the project will be overseen by the two Leeds-based members of the original 'Land Lines' team. This isn't to say, however, that the project is 'just' local in scope; on the contrary, its activities and outputs are designed to reflect on the global dimensions of our current environmental crisis. This works, as British nature writing does, across different levels -- local, regional, national, global, planetary -- enjoining us to consider new ways of reconnecting people with their natural surroundings, thereby giving them insight into the importance of protecting natural environments in what is now overwhelmingly accepted as being an ecologically threatened world. Hence the project's emphasis on reaching out to children, empowering their sense of agency in caring for our shared planet; but hence also its aim of connecting them with older adults, who have rich stories about the natural world from which they -- and we -- can learn.

Planned Impact

Impacts derived from the project will be threefold: (1) educational, (2) material, and (3) inspirational.

Of these three, educational impact is probably the most important. Most of the project's main outputs are explicitly designed as educational tools. These include a series of classroom work packs on migratory and nocturnal creatures (mainly birds) that will accompany its group activities with children, a co-produced book on the nightjar, trails based on bird migration data, and a series of oral histories. While the group activities themselves might be considered to be ephemeral, the materials associated with them are not, and the project aims to create repeat-use educational resources that will last long beyond the lifetime of the award. It is too early to tell whether these resources will produce a step-change in the way that natural science is taught at primary schools, but they are likely at the very least to be of lasting benefit, and the nightjar book will follow in the footsteps of another popular book produced in association with Natural England's LDV site on the whimbrel: a book that continues to be used widely in Yorkshire primary schools.

The materials produced by the project also have the potential to kick-start a new wave of activity at Natural England's nature reserves (NNRs). As Craig Ralston, the Senior Manager at LDV, has told us, these materials will form part of a pilot study that has the potential to be rolled out across the whole Natural England network (224 NNRs).

Last but not least, the project aims to inculcate early critical thinking in children, inspiring them to care for the natural world that we all share. In bringing these children together with a small group of local older adults, the project also aims for each of these two groups to inspire the other, with both individual benefits for the individuals involved and a benefit for the larger conservationist cause. Finally, the project aims to inspire the general public by (a) increasing the number of visitors to Natural England's NNRs and (b) providing them with educational family entertainment through, for example, its bespoke contribution to 2020 Light Night Leeds, which has recently attracted more than 85000 people across its annual two nights of son et lumiere display.


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