WHEN is a tweet more than a tweet? When it’s a gateway inviting us into another world.
That’s the “through the looking glass” feel you encounter in the social media feed of novelist and nature writer Melissa Harrison, the latest in our Sunday night series focusing on Twitter accounts which help to inspire and brighten people’s lives.
Journal, diary, podcast, book – Melissa is a woman of many talents, but whichever means she uses to communicate, her writing is full of humour and kindness as well as delight and wonder at the natural world.
Of course her most memorable writing is reserved for her books and newspaper columns, and she clearly has something of a love-hate relationship with social media and the “grinding daily labour of trying to compose a tweet about some minor thing X in such a way that 26 ppl don’t reply advising you how to do thing X better, informing you that thing X doesn’t reflect their own lived experience or telling you that thing X is problematic, actually”.
But she has encountered much fun and friendship on social media too, which goes some way to counterbalancing the inevitable belligerent point-scoring and mansplaining likely to be encountered by any woman brave enough to openly express an opinion about anything in the twittersphere.
The great joy about Melissa’s feed is not so much to be found in the wit and wisdom of individual tweets, but from the introduction they offer to such a powerful voice in modern nature writing.
Her social media output is prolific, with some 178,000 Tweets since her account opened in 2010. But while much of this is standard author chat about book launches and new publications, or retweets from other nature lovers, writers and commentators, the feed is a very personal one too, with welcome occasional glimpses of Suffolk country life that echo familiar themes in her newspaper columns.
Throughout all her writing, including those latest nature novels for young people, By Ash, Oak and Thorn and By Rowan and Yew, any underlying environmental messages are not trying to engender guilt or fear, but tend to extol the power of noticing and being curious, and how that just might change the world.
For those delighted by the lyricism of her third novel, All Among The Barley – a subtle and haunting tale of the realities of country life in 1930s Suffolk – her 2020 “nature journal”, A Stubborn Light of Things, might have appeared a little more down-to-earth and prosaic, chronicling her relocation from London to rural Suffolk and compiled from entries from her Nature Notebook column in The Times.
But its publication at a time of pandemic makes the diary resonate more deeply than might otherwise have been the case, since the author’s joyful engagement with the natural world coincided with many families’ deeper exploration of the beauty on their doorstep – and a dawning recognition of the need to preserve it.
The diary is also something of an almanac that benefits from close re-reading, especially for anyone discovering the quiet richness of nature with similar wide-eyed wonder.
As a Londoner for over 20 years, moving from flat to Tube to air-conditioned office, Melissa Harrison knew what it was to be insulated from the seasons, as so many of us are, despite growing up in a Surrey commuter village where a rambling garden and the local woods and common became a playground that fuelled her love of wildlife and fascination with creepy crawlies.
But if wildlife then was something of a refuge, as she explained in a recent newspaper interview, her relationship with nature persisted. Adopting a dog and going on daily walks helped reconnect her with the natural world, and moving to a quiet farm cottage in ancient, rural Suffolk allowed her to complete her transition from townie to true country dweller, lucky enough to be able to walk out of her cottage straight into open countryside.
Inspired by that new-found freedom, she added a new string to her bow during lockdown when she discovered the joy of podcasting, eventually producing a 28-part series that attracted thousands of listeners each week.
“It saved me through lockdown as much as it helped anyone else,” she says. “I didn’t have to feel so guilty about having fields and woods that I could walk into and not see anyone and be safe when lots of people I knew were stuck in flats in cities and couldn’t get out at all.
“It’s easy to forget how frightening it was at the beginning. The only thing I wanted to do was keep people connected to nature because I knew it was going to be important.”
A year on and her children’s books are helping to fulfil her desire to get young people outdoors and connecting with nature in much the same way that she herself was inspired by the writing of British naturalist and children’s author Denys Watkins-Pitchford.
His books, she explains, “helped me understand that the lives of birds and animals are just as real and important as our own”.
She continues, writing for Caught By The River: “It’s vital that today’s children grow up into custodians of nature, so I wanted to write something that might do the same.”
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