Category Archives: Green

Riding with a King

Image
The highlight of the route: at the top of Butser Hill, South Downs Way. Worth it for the view looking towards the south coast. Photo by Kevan Manwaring

Riding with the King

While working full-time at the University of Leicester I had the pleasure of being able to cycle to work, which meant I rode most days. This got me back into cycling on a regular basis, although I have been cycling all my adult life, and first enjoyed going on rural cycle rides as a boy, exploring further afield than I would get comfortably on foot: this expanded the ‘map’ of my world considerably. I always remember reaching the edge of a village, and looking out from its hill-top site over the vast unknown landscape beyond, and feeling a certain frisson of ‘here be dragons’. To a lad who hadn’t travelled far at that point, this was terra incognita.

            I have loved getting to know a landscape under my own steam ever since. By walking, running, or cycling a landscape you get to ‘know’ it in a visceral, embodied way. You have a physical sense of the lay of the land, not just a mental map. And this makes where you live (and its environs) so much more tangible. You have come to know it through your feet, or effort.

The end of Day 1 – and the first 60 miles. Honeystreet, Wiltshire, after a much-needed pint! Photo by Chantelle Smith.

Having recently purchased a shiny new bike through work (a Specialized Diverge E5) I thought I would try out the King Alfred’s Way – a 350km circular off-road cycle route created by Cycling UK, and launched in 2020. As this passes close to where I live (near Avebury, Wiltshire), and where I used to work (Winchester) it seemed like a tempting one to do. I have done some cycle rides in my area on my old mountain bike, and despite a tumble earlier in the year which left me with serious gravel burn, I was determined to get back in the saddle and to hit the road.

Image
Lord Wantage’s monument to his wife, Ridgeway National Trail. Photo by Kevan Manwaring

Bikepacking is very much in vogue. Back in the day it used to be called cycle-camping, and to my mind there isn’t much difference, except the popularity of pricey kit for mountain bikes (e.g tail-packs and other funny shaped bits of micro-luggage designed to fit onto the frame). Well, having invested in a pair of really decent Ortlieb panniers I thought they would be more than adequate. Some advise against low-slung panniers, but I didn’t have any issues – it was more likely that the pedals would clip the top of a rut if anything. I took the bare minimum I needed for 4 days of wild-camping: food, shelter, and warmth (water, snacks, and meal pouches, stuff to make an essential cuppa and my morning porridge, a sleeping hammock and tarp, and thermals and fleece for the evening). Nothing more than I would carry on my back if backpacking – which I did earlier in the summer, walking the Wessex Ridgeway. Letting the bike take most of the weight makes a huge difference, although of course one still has to exert energy to make progress, especially up those hills! Unlike walking though, one has the joy of coasting – the reward for all those ascents; and of whizzing along an empty country lane. On a bike one can cover greater distances (my average was 55 miles a day; on foot it’s 15); see more; and get through long, boring sections quickly (e.g. traversing a long section of road, or escaping a city).         

Image
River Itchen, Winchester. Photo by Kevan Manwaring

The guide book from Cycling UK (recommended for planning and info about the features along the way, if not the mapping – which at 1:50,000 is not useful at the nitty gritty level) suggests between 2-5 days (or stopovers). I opted for 4 nights, as I didn’t want it to be a complete slog. Unlike some people I don’t like turning the countryside into a backdrop for some macho endurance competition – hats off to those who do, but it’s not my bag. I just love the great outdoors, and during the ongoing global pandemic crisis, a local bikepacking adventure seemed like a sensible choice, and one also good for the environment.

Image
Waiting for the train to Winchester, Bournemouth Station. Photo by Kevan Manwaring

With my bike fully-loaded, I caught the train to Winchester – South West Trains has free bike spaces on their local services. You can’t book ahead for these, but I was in luck. Deciding to set off on Thursday early evening I managed to avoid the bank holiday weekend rush. This meant I could make a start on the trail, and hopefully avoid the crowds I had been told to expect (as it turned out, I saw maybe half a dozen cyclists doing the King Alfred’s Way). Getting out of Winchester, and finding somewhere to pitch up in the rapidly fading light were the first challenges. I tried to use Komoot with the downloaded GPS map of the route, but found it very unreliable and frustrating: trying to use that, plus the guidebook map and compass, created a cognitive dissonance: 2 different mapping systems and mindsets clashing. Having intended a digital detox as well, I found the constant focus on the GPS distracting and jarring (that sat-nav voice shattering the bucolic idyll!). And so in the end I opted to just go analogue. I found it easier to navigate the old school way, although map-reading on a bike is hard! One is going faster, and there is less thinking time. One can keep pulling over, but that becomes tedious and time-consuming. The problem with the King Alfred’s Way is it is not signposted like a national trail (with the good old acorns in England, or thistles in Scotland), so one has to orienteering continually – except for the mercifully well-signposted sections of the Ridgeway and South Downs Way. This really reduces the enjoyment: it is just tiring, especially at times when you are not entirely sure if you’re going in the right direction. Even the best maintained trails can have obscure sections. Trail signs can fall over, or be damaged or obscured. I’ve navigated several long-distance trails successfully over the years by myself, so I know I can use a map and compass. But when you are tired – after several hours of walking or riding – you inevitably make mistakes. I would not recommend undertaking the King Alfred’s Way without a decent GPS device like a Garmin (as opposed to just some app on your phone). Also, I found the trails a bit too hard-core at times for bikepacking. Okay for the seasoned mountain-bikers with minimal kit (luxuriously staying in B&Bs and dining out every evening – which makes for a pricey holiday). I don’t mind pushing my bike up a steep track, but coming down some was pretty hairy on a top-heavy bike. I must admit to preferring smooth country lanes to rubbly tracks, which were bone-juddering to ride along. There were some lovely sections following peaceful B-roads through pretty villages, but the route-planners had obsessively avoided roads – sometimes resulting in ridiculous and very obscure diversions when the common sense thing was to simply go straight ahead. I like the concept of off-road trails, but not when it’s the choice between a pleasant green lane, and a miserable rutted track. There was something rather anorak-ish at times about including certain off-road sections, e.g. the Pilgrims Trail into Winchester, when it would have been far nicer just to have continued coasting into the city, rather than have to detour up another undulating, rocky track. Also, it baffled me why they planners made the route go through the sprawling city of Reading – which was mercifully quiet on a Sunday morning, but still an urban maze – when it would have been far nicer to have come off at Wantage (a key Alfred site), and avoided most of the densely populated conurbation along the Thames Valley into Hampshire altogether. A route westwards across the Somerset Levels to Athelney would have been far more meaningful, but it didn’t feel like King Alfred’s story was made much of on the trail – it seemed like an arbitrary way to created a route, and not one hard-wired into his narrative. There were also key sites on the Ridgeway that could have been mentioned. And Westbury – site of Alfred’s famous battle – could have been included at the expense of a tedious trek across the middle of the militarized zone of Salisbury Plain.

Image
An old milestone, Queen Elizabeth Country Park, South Downs Way. Photo by Kevan Manwaring

So, I would have created a different route! Nevertheless, the King Alfred’s Way is a great initiative to encourage folk to get on their bikes and explore the amazing ancient landscape and more recent history of the south of England, and despite my grumbles it had its highlights: certainly the Ridgeway (my favourite section), riding across the Stonehenge landscape, and the South Downs Way (especially Butser Hill, the views from which made the effort all worthwhile). Aching from top to toe, I was still filled with joy to finally reach the end, at the King Alfred statue in Winchester: a satisfying glow of achievement, which was hard-won and all the more appreciated for it.

Image
The glow of a good ride.

I would certainly consider more cycle-camping trips – although I am not entirely convinced by this ‘bikepacking’ lark. Maybe with a super-light kit set up it would be a different experience. I wouldn’t be amiss to do overnight mini-adventures. Quality, not quantity I think is the key! It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to do something, but how much you enjoyed it along the way. My favourite moments were when I stopped to have a brew-break and watch the world go by.

Image
Connect to your inner sovereignty

It is interesting to reflect that the majority of highlights on the ride were when I made a decision to come off the route: for me, this is about tapping into one’s inner sovereignty*, so completely in tune with the spirit of the way. Such trails should be seen as only guides – a suggested route and one that you should be able to customize according to one’s needs and preferences (after all, you are one doing it; only you will complete it; and it is meant to be a recreational thing, not some kind of official race). Strict adherence to every nook and cranny of the route is for completists only. It is an interesting moment – to be in the middle of nowhere, with a guidebook, trying to follow someone’s artificial route (a particular frame or narrative mapped onto a landscape, but only that), rather than listening to your body or to common sense. When we turn off the script (or the device), and listen to our own motherwit and become empowered – then we start to step into our sovereignty.

Kevan Manwaring, 31st August, 2021

Image
Made it! King Alfred’s Statue, Winchester, 350km later.

*Which is the main concept behind the pilgrimage route I created last year, the King Arthur Way – a 153 mile walking route from Tintagel in Cornwall to Glastonbury in Somerset.

Belly to the Earth

Inspired by my recent wild-camping experiences on the Wessex Ridgeway, I consider how can we live a more soulful, sustainable life.

Wild camping on the Wessex Ridgeway

How can we live a more soulful, sustainable life? This is perhaps the most important question to address in the present age. Certainly, it is one that I find myself dwelling upon – an undertow to my days as I get caught up in the endless (and often vexating and trivial) ‘to do’ list of life. It is so easy to become enmired in Maya, or Samsara – the illusion of the world, and forget why we are really here. I see this ‘illusion’ not as some do: a world of matter to be rejected, denying corporeality, the body, and this good Earth — but as the surface of things. To be fully alive is to live deeply and fully – to be awake in the moment, to be present in one’s body, in one’s life. To revel in the bountiful sensorium of it all, its vivid, messy actuality. To be grounded and real. And by doing so, tapping into the ‘immanent moment’ (as I termed it in one of my poetry collections) and to realise how every embodied experience on this Earth has many levels, and can be an opportunity to awaken consciousness – to pierce beyond the veil of things (like the Arthurian fool-knight, Perceval/Parsifal, who ‘pierces the veil’ with his pure heart and cleansed perceptions and achieves the Holy Grail). To see things as they truly are: ‘infinite’, as Blake puts it, exhorting a cleansing of the doors of perception. Or as William Stafford expresses it in his poem, ‘Bi-focal’:

So, the world happens twice—
once what we see it as;
second it legends itself
deep, the way it is.

Sometimes we have to go down into the mud to see the stars, and so it was the week I spent walking the Wessex Ridgeway, a 127 mile long-distance footpath, which runs from Marlborough in Wiltshire to Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast. As this runs by my back-door I’ve been considering walking it for a while — it sat there expectantly, like a dog with a lead in its mouth, ready for walkies. I liked the idea of walking to the sea from my doorstep – and after the most challenging academic year in living memory I, like Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, heard the call of the ‘Grey Havens’. I wanted to change my skyline. The clean line of the chalk downs of Wiltshire are soothing, but there is nothing like seeing the horizon where the sea meets the sky to get a perspective on things. And so, with a full pack on my back, I set off. Carrying one’s home on one’s back certainly makes one feel snail-like, and that was pretty much the pace at times — especially on the uphill sections (which in Dorset were quite frequent). Yet slowing down, and noticing the details is part of the experience of exploring the world at walking pace

Resting my poor old pinkies

The highlight of my week of walking was the day I woke up at dawn in a peaceful flower meadow, and walked all day to finally arrive (with a lot of huffing and puffing up its steep flanks) to a spectacular hillfort, where I also wild-camped, watching the sunset as I savoured my simple but satisfying camp meal.  Although I was at one of the highest spots on the south coast, there was not a breath of wind. It was pleasantly mild, and I had the most peaceful night’s sleep, feeling like a king to be sleeping in such a place by myself.  That night I had a vivid dream, which was sufficiently stirring to wake me up and make me write it down. I dreamt of being part of an Iron Age tribe, no doubt influenced by sleeping in a hillfort (before turning in, I walked the impressive ramparts with their commanding view, and got a strong sense of what it must have felt like to have dwelled there, to call such a place ‘home’, and to wish to defend it – and your loved ones within – to your dying breath). Faced with the prospect of moving yet again (such is the life of the modern academic), thoughts of home have been at the forefront of my mind. And, having been carrying my humble little home all week, it was perhaps not surprising that my vision upon the hill related to notions of home, community, and belonging. The details of it seem less relevant than the messages I received from it, which I summarise below.

  • The importance of community – a reciprocal ‘ecosystem’, an entangled, resilient, co-supportive network.
  • The importance of leadership – of stepping into your power, drawing upon the authority of experience and self-reflexive insight. Creating and guiding, not controlling and censuring. This could manifest, for example, by running a space for the sharing of wisdom and mutual empowerment.
  • The importance of embodied ‘beingness’ – listening to the body, listening to the earth. Rejoicing in tactile, sensual, human touch.
  • The importance of living an ethical life, and showing the courage of one’s convictions – of ‘stepping up’, of speaking truth to power. Of being unafraid of being seen, heard, known for what one believes, what one knows is a ‘core truth’ – beyond the playacting, and posturing of much of modern life, the neurotic concern for status, approval, and ‘fitting in’.
  • The importance of place – of being ‘rooted’ in where you live, making a commitment to your community and digging in. Of belonging. And this is the essence of my phrase, ‘belly to the earth’ – an act of vulnerability and connection. Are you able to live somewhere so intimately, so lightly, that it is as though you are literally sleeping on the ground like a small child laying on Mother Earth? (try it – lay down on the grass, and feel the earth beneath you as you breathe upon it: simultaneously held and holding).
Sunrise on the hill-fort

I awoke at dawn, and with a precious mug of tea (the last of my water) watched the full orb of the sun break free of its pall of cloud. Feeling shiveringly alive, I quickly struck camp and set off on my way, keen to not forget my dream on the hill. How to manifest it felt less important at that moment than bringing it down from the heights and sharing it. Perhaps it will inspire you to consider how you can live with your ‘belly to the earth’?

Kevan Manwaring, 11th July 2021

Greenwood – a review

Michael Christie’s intricately-constructed eco-novel dramatizes a multi-generational saga dominated by trees.

Image
Greenwood – a novel of a family tree in a dying forest

Michael Christie’s second novel is like a well-built house, with solid sections, precisely fitted together – so it is perhaps not surprising to discover the author, a former carpenter, lives in a house he built with his own hands. The structure of a novel is architectural, indeed cathedral-like in complexity (and to echo this, the grove at the heart of the novel – a priceless remnant of old growth redwood on a remote island off the coast of Vancouver – is referred to as the ‘Cathedral’). Walter Benjamin in The Storyteller suggested that they are three essential phases to the construction of a piece of writing: ‘a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven.’ Certainly, we can see evidence of the latter two in this finely fashioned, and beautifully-woven novel. Adopting a technique of biomimicry, Greenwood is structured like the rings of a tree. The outer ring is the framing narrative set in an eco-apocalyptic 2038 in which a biocatastrophe known as the ‘Withering’ as decimated the tree population of the planet, resulting in toxic dust-storms, climate refugees, and a general breakdown of society, which only the super-rich can escape the consequences of. Elite eco-tourists visit some of the only remaining redwoods to have survived the catastrophe on the semi-fictional ‘Greenwood Island’, (loosely based on Galiano Island, off the coast of British Colombia, where the author lives with his family in his handmade wooden house). An over-qualified guide forced to suck up to the corporate dollar due to her crushing student debt, Jacinda (or ‘Jake’) Greenwood discovers she may be descended from the original owner of the island, the timber tycoon, Harris Greewood, just as the world around her is collapsing. Within this frame there are sections set in 2008, 1974, 1934, and 1908, which chart the unusual providence of Jacinda’s possible ancestor and the fate of her descendants (not so much a family tree, as a ‘forest’, as Jake eventually reflects – each independent, but connected to and supporting the other members of the ‘fictional’ construction of the family). Each of these sections is well-researched and well-dramatised, although the longest – set in the dust bowl of the post-crash Thirties – is the most impressive and comprehensively realised. This is really the heartwood of the novel, or perhaps that should be the xylem, the outer ring of a tree, just below the bark, where the nutrient-filled sap flows, drawing water and minerals up from the roots to feed the growth of the tree. The double-portrait of the ill-starred brothers – Harris and Everett – and their inner circle provides the ‘engine’ of the plot, and it is Hardyesque in its scope and fatalism. Outside of this, the sections seem, at times, a little wooden – solidly hewn, yes, but lacking in some vital spark. It is interesting but perhaps unfair to compare Christie’s substantial endeavour with Richard Power’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Overstory. Both display a profound knowledge of tree’s – with Christie as a worker of wood, perhaps having the edge. But Greenwood lacks the breathtaking scope and vision of Power’s novel, which transcends the mere mimetic in its daring shift into the non-anthropocentric. Whileas Christie’s prose always stays on the surface, the material – depicted in a solid, convincing way, without a doubt, but never transcending itself. Nevertheless, the plight of the characters, who suffer the vicissitudes of fate, is affecting at times. And there are moments of rare poetry, notably when a cyclone sucks ten thousand books out of a hobo library, up into the air, making a sound like ‘birds’. And the concentric structure of the novel shows a poetic touch to. At one point a dying man realises time ‘is not an arrow. Neither is it a road. It goes in no particular direction. It simply accumulates—in the body, in the world—like wood does. Layer upon layer. Light then dark. Each one dependent upon the last. Each year impossible without the one preceding it. Each triumph and each disaster written forever in its own structure.’ Christie seems to be implying that the fates of each of the characters is written into their nature. What that suggests in a wider sense of the human condition, and our problematic relationship with nature, it is hard to say. There is certainly a profound reverence for trees here, but also a pessimism about our collective fate, and treatment of the planet and each other. This is just realism, you may add – but where does it leave the reader? Greenwood is an ambitious ecological novel, but one that seems to lack a clear message. Perhaps Christie wishes for the reader to make of the generational tale of dysfunctional lives what they will. We are left staring at the wonder of the forest of interconnected lives who share this small, vulnerable ball of dirt we call home. If the novel ‘achieves’ anything it must this – the simple, but powerful, act of attention and appreciation.

Kevan Manwaring, 10 Mar. 21

Greenwood is published by Scribe

The Book of Trespass – a review

Nick Hayes asks who owns the land and who has the right to access it?

Image result for book of trespass

Nick Hayes is an illustrator, best known for his graphic novels and distinctive black-and-white prints, but in this substantial hardback he shows he has the chops to carry off a very well-researched and engagingly-written non-fiction book. With the same precision that he renders the natural world through his art, Hayes, identifies the various layers of rights, rules, expectations, and entitlements around land-usage in Britain – the ‘spells’, as he puts it, of law that prevent us from crossing the sometimes invisible walls, fences, or thresholds of property. Each chapter is named after an animal – instilling an atavistic presence into Hayes’ conceptual and physical forays and incursions – ones often heedless of the artificial barriers humans impose on nature. The author weaves in his own experiences of trespass into his erudite interrogations into notions of property, space, boundaries, the rights of the commoner and the landowner, corporation, community, and individual. His firsthand accounts of stealthy flits into the vast estates of the mega-rich have a visceral frisson of transgression to them. And yet these aren’t macho versions of ‘urb-ex’ or rural flâneury, but often reflective ramblings with plenty of time to stand and stare, or, in Hayes’ case, sit and sketch. The ruminations on the rights of the (rambling) citizen amid the forests of legalese and doxas (ultra-orthodoxies considered a sacrosanct part of the status quo) and shibboleths of society, are counter-balanced with beers and sausages around campfires, and even the odd illegal high. Forbidden fruit is here to be tasted, Gardens of Edens scrumped, and grass definitely not kept off of. Two chapters stand out – one about the colonial spectre that haunts the ‘picturesque’ countryside: the slavery in stone of many a stately home; and the other about the Greenham Peace Camp and the rights (or lack) of women and property. These are impressive in their own right, but add to the heartfelt deconstruction of the glamourye of the property barons and (Conservative) consensus reality.  To his credit, Hayes consider both sides of the fence, and wishes for a more porous communication between polarised positions: it is the legal fiction of the fence that makes criminals of the commoner, and sows enmity between those who live on and love the land. Hayes considers other models of land usage and rights – and shows how the Scottish model is perfectly workable, with education and shared obligations of care and consideration. Other countries in Europe offer better access than the United Kingdom where 92% of the land and 97% of the waterways are off limits, often owned by offshore companies registered in tax utopias like the British Virgin Islands, and subsidised massively by government grants. Like Don Quixote, Hayes tilts at these windmills. His chutzpah and sheer cheekiness has to be admired, for it is done with wit, skill, and an artistic flourish. He is a most civilised interloper, even as he yearns for our wild roots to be see the light of day. Full of fascinating, eye-opening facts about the ‘countryside’ and the ‘rights’ we are deprived or begrudgingly granted by the descendants of those who stole the commons from us, The Book of Trespass is a must read for anyone who cares about access to the land – wherever one lives. Hayes reminds us that the stories we tell change our perception of place, of ecos and community, and it is time for those stories to change.

‘Trespass shines a light on the unequal share of wealth and power in England, it threatens to unlock a new mindset of our community’s rights to the land, and, most radical of all, it jinxes the spell of an old, paternalistic order that tell us everything is just as it should be.’

Nick Hayes, The Book of Trespass

Image result for book of trespass

Kevan Manwaring, 8th February

The Book of Trespass is published by Bloomsbury

https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/the-book-of-trespass-9781526604699/

Spirits of Place

I have been mapping place through poetry, fiction, and non-fiction for as long as I have been writing

I enjoy finding wildlife corridors of creative connection in my neck of the woods and beyond, for by knowing the land with our feet we come to know ourselves.

For as long as I have been writing I have exploring spirits of place. Recently, when preparing for a talk about my latest ‘deep mapping’ (The Herepath Project: a Wiltshire songline, Freebooter Press, 2020), I realised that genius loci have been something of an obsession of mine. My restless peregrinations – exploring Britain and beyond on foot, two wheels, and in my research – have been the inspiring companion to my journey by pen. My first published poem was one celebrating the Northamptonshire ‘peasant poet’, John Clare (in Stealing Ivy: Northampton Poets, 1992); and my first novel dramatised a thousand years of my old home town from the perspective of a tree (The Ghost Tree, unpublished).

When I moved to Bath in Somerset I won the annual Bard of Bath competition with my long poem, Spring Fall: the story of Sulis and Bladud of Bath, which celebrated the rich mythscape of that remarkable city.

The winner of the Bardic Chair of Bath, 1998

Subsequent poetry collections have also charted place through a collection of paeans, and poetic ‘snapshots’: Remembrance Days; A Pennyworth of Elevation; Gramarye; Waking the Night; Green Fire; Thirteen Treasures; Lost Border; Pen Mine… I have found that a poem written in situ can capture the totality of the experience far more effectively than a photograph, and, along with sketching, is my way of tuning into the spirit of place. Often I have performed these poems ‘back’ to the site that inspired them – a form of animistic reciprocity: a way of expressing gratitude. One poetry commissioned poetry sequence, Dragon Dance: a praise song to Albion, ambitiously evoked the spirit of place as it manifested in each of the nations that comprise this ‘cluster of rocks’, the British Isles: Cornwall, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland (adopting a geographical, not political, stance, and celebrating the wonderful distinctiveness of each of these neighbours, ‘thrown together by fate’). Conceiving the genius loci of these five nations as mighty goddesses, I have performed the respective sequence in each, as well has as having it performed chorally at Stonehenge in a private access ceremony.

In prose I have mapped the British Isles in fiction (The Long Woman; The Knowing), in folk tale (Oxfordshire Folk Tales; Northamptonshire Folk Tales; Ballad Tales), and in creative non-fiction (Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels; Lost Islands: inventing Avalon, destroying Eden).

In numerous creative writing workshops I have helped my students explore and celebrate their relationship to their environment too – in ‘Creative Writing and the Environment’ at Envolve, Bath (which led to Writing the Land: an anthology of natural words); ‘Wild Writing’ at Hawkwood College; ‘Writing the Seasons’ at Delapre Abbey, Northampton; and modules for the University of Leicester and the University of Winchester. I have hosted many ‘open mic’ events where I have created a platform for writers to share their words – often with a seasonal or local focus.

As a writing professional I have won several site-specific commissions, such as ‘Marginalia’, which explored the graffiti culture of the Cultural Quarter of Leicester; or ‘Well Heeled’, which celebrated the shoe industry of Market Harborough. I started a monthly feature for the Cotswold Life magazine, ‘Cotswold Ways’ – researching and writing 30 literary walks; I then went on to create ‘Rural Rides’ for Derbyshire Life, exploring the Peak District on two wheels; and most recently I have been contributing blogs to a website about Stonehenge, here in Wiltshire where I now reside.

For the London Magazine, I wrote about my ‘songwalking’, which I started doing while trekking the West Highland Way. And in my academic work I have authored articles for peer-reviewed journals on my experiential research.

Last year I created and inaugurated a new long-distance pilgrimage route, the ‘King Arthur Way‘, a 153-mile footpath from Tintagel in Cornwall to Glastonbury Tor, Somerset. I have made a website for it, which charts the route in detail.

No doubt my ‘field research’ will yield further foragings. This creative mapping is something I am fascinated by, for our relationship to place is fundamental to the well-being of ourselves, our communities, and our planet.

Kevan Manwaring by Jay Ramsay, Sheepscombe, Gloucestershire

Kevan Manwaring, 2nd February, 2021

Earth Abides: a retro review

George Stewart’s 1949 novel, Earth Abides, is singular in both senses – it is the only science fiction the University of California Professor of English ever wrote, and also a remarkably prescient and deeply moving epic. Set in the aftermath of a virus that decimates the global population – the Great Disaster that derails the human project catastrophically (at least in terms of what we think of as ‘civilisation’) – the opening chapters depict an eerily quiet and depopulated land that could easily be one in lockdown. Yet as the protagonist, Isherwood Williams, (or ‘Ish’ as he becomes known) makes his solitary way back from the wilderness where he had been undertaking field research, it soon becomes apparent that a devastating plague has swept the land, leaving fly-ridden corpses in lonely gas stations, mummified ones in the desert, and rendering the former population clusters of cities as no-go zones. And the near mass extinction event of humankind allows for a rewilding of America, in a similar way to how Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies imagined a ‘wild England’ in his post-apocalyptic novel of 1885, After London. Yet, unlike in Jefferies, where the first half of the novel is a detailed natural history survey sans character or plot, in Stewart’s narrative, Ish is our viewpoint character who has agency. We experience this biological apocalypse through his thoughts and senses – an academic, he reflects upon what he beholds stoically. Used to his own company and absorbed by his own preoccupations, he is able to cope with a depeopled California, until finally jarred out of his solipsism by first a dog, and then by chance encounters with the diseased, deranged, or decadent few who have also survived. He embarks upon a bleak road trip to the East Coast, only to be unimpressed by the remnants he encounters. Returning to the West Coast and his former childhood home, he settles down to a quiet life, until … well, I’ll leave that for you to discover. What is refreshing about Stewart’s post-apocalypse is the anthropological approach he takes in charting the vicissitudes of the remaining survivors. He takes the long view of history, and prophesies a circularity to it … the survivors subsist upon what they can scavenge, but eventually the shelves empty or are overrun by the swarms of ants, rats, and feral canines, and the scattered tribes regress into a future primitive state. The novel shows its age in some places – most notably in its problematic descriptions of people of colour, the handicapped, and of women. And yet Stewart nearly redeems himself by lauding the main female (and mixed race) character – who is shown to have greater strength and stamina than the men.  She is rather put on a pedestal and is frequently referred to as the ‘mother of nations’ – and so this idealised feminine is just as problematic in its own way. Stewart also is far off the mark in his disavowal of climate studies as being of any relevance to future life on Earth: ‘Climatic change was not a practical problem.’ Yet for a novel written in the late 1940s, we can hardly blame the author for that blindspot, and in many ways Stewart’s sole foray into the speculative is a seminal work of Climate Fiction, and in that sense it is far ahead of the curve. It rightly won the first International Fantasy Award in 1951. So, despite its weaknesses of representation, the novel has many strengths – not just the breadth of its vision, but in its non-anthropocentric shifts, and its proto-ecological tone. It foregrounds the importance of environment, and exhorts (of the earth): ‘There is nothing else by which men live’. Stewart emphasises the Earth will survive us, and is indifferent to our plight. He destabilises our imagined position as the pinnacle of creation; he also challenges the vanity of ambition, the empty intellectualism of academe (whenever it ceases to have practical purpose), and the myth of progress. All that matters, he seems to infer, is our immediate community of connections, the family (or ‘Tribe’ in its extended form), our inner resilience, adaptability, and capability. Simple skills of survival become more important than the vainglorious dreams of betterment and posterity. And yet although this heartbreakingly charts the end of the Enlightenment Project and western civilisation’s brief moment in the sun, this is ultimately a humanist and humanitarian novel, and there is deep poetry and compassion here – in the poetic, pseudo-Biblical epigraphs; and in the loving record of marriage and friendship. A haunting vision of a plague-stricken America, there is nevertheless a quiet beauty here that lingers long after the book has been put down.

Kevan Manwaring

Writing the Earth (part 3)

I continue my brief account of my long association with environmental writing…

In 2014 I contributed a chapter to Storytelling for a Greener World (Hawthorn), a significant contribution to the growing ‘field’ of environmental education and the use of storytelling as a tool for raising awareness about environmental issues, increasing eco-literacy, encouraging positive action, and enhancing our perception and appreciation of the natural world.

Here’s the blurb:

The what, why and how of storytelling and storywork to promote environmental mindfulness and sustainable behaviour in adults and children. Written by 21 cutting-edge professionals in story-based learning and pro-environmental change. Shows how to apply this practice, indoors and outdoors, in organisations, NGOs, schools, colleges and communities. A treasury of over 40 stories, many creative activities and detailed descriptions of inspiring practice for both new and seasoned practitioners. Clearly explains how this practice works, why it is effective and how to adapt the ideas to the reader’s situation.

From 2013-2018 I focused on my research degree at the University of Leicester. My main project in this time was my novel, The Knowing – a Fantasy, which imagines a descendant of the Reverend Robert Kirk receiving a copy of his lost journal detailing his captivity in Elfhame – but I also wrote two other novels: my eco-science fiction novel Black Box (discussed in Writing the Earth part 2) and Thunder Road, a transapocalyptic mash-up of Viking and Biker culture, which was my most explicitly CliFi novel to date (serialised on this blog, starting with Meltdown).

Shortly after completing my doctorate I started to develop a project around the concept of the ‘ecoGothic’. I was asked to contribute a creative keynote to a symposium on Gothic Nature at the University of Roehampton. Here I met the publisher of the Tales of the Weird Library which the British Library is creating. I pitched him a recalibration of my intended book, and it was commissioned. Heavy Weather: tempestuous tales for stranger climes was due out in early November, but Covid-19 has delayed everything, so it’s out on 18th February, 2021.

Here’s the blurb:

Since Odysseus’ curious crew first unleashed the bag of winds gifted him by Aeolus, the God of Winds, literature has been awash with tales of bad or strange weather. From the flood myths of Babylon, the Mahabharata and the Bible, to twentieth-century psychological storms, this foray into troubled waters, heat waves, severe winters, hurricanes and hailstones, offers the perfect read on a rainy day — or night. Featuring a selection of some of the finest writers in the English language — Algernon Blackwood, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe and more — this collection of weird tales will delight and disturb.

As well as editing this, this year I contributed a short story for a RSPB anthology – We Are A Many-Bodied Singing Thing – part of a project called ‘Back from the Brink’, raising awareness about Britain’s endangered species. My CliFi short is called ‘The Rememberers’.

Here’s the final blurb – I promise!

A new sci-fi and speculative anthology inspired by endangered species and the people saving them.

Writing has always helped us to imagine possibilities for ourselves and the world around us. We wanted to imagine a future for England’s most endangered plants and animals – to explore how human and more-than-human beings relate to each other, and ways that we can live together better.

To do this, we asked writers to take inspiration from two Back From The Brink conservation projects: the Willow Tit Project, who are protecting this little bird and its post-industrial habitats, and Ancients of the Future, who are working to protect 28 threatened species which live in ancient trees.

The resulting anthology is tender, fierce, wondering, sad, and ultimately hopeful. We hear the voices of the animals and plants, see a thousand years into the future through the growth of moss, and experience several metamorphoses.

And most recently I’ve been working on a collection of poetry and artwork – the result of my deep mapping of my local universe here on the Wiltshire Downs during lockdown. I have already given a couple of talks about this – in Bardfest, and Storytown Corsham. It is due out on 20th December (advance orders being taken).

Herepath by Kevan Manwaring, Freebooter Press, 2020

No doubt my environmental writing projects will continue. Watch this space!

***

In the meantime, check out the fantasic pilot episodes of Black Box from Alternative Stories and Fake Realities – part of their excellent CliFi season:

https://www.buzzsprout.com/411730

If you like what you read why not buy me a coffee?

https://ko-fi.com/kevanmanwaring

Writing the Earth part 2

Soul of the Earth: the Awen anthology of eco-spiritual poetry
Soul of the Earth, published by Awen 2011

I continue my account of my long association with environmental writing…

So moving into the 2010s (what do we call that decade – the Tweenies?), I moved home – from Bath to Stroud (not a great distance physically – 30 miles – but drastically different in terms of ethos and aesthetic). Here, in 2011 I published Soul of the Earth: an anthology of eco-spiritual poetry. It was edited by the late poet Jay Ramsay, although I came up with the title, designed the cover, and co-ordinated its production and launch (at a great group author showcase in Waterstones, Bath).  It was one of the titles I am proudest of during my stint as director of Awen Publications (which I founded in 2003, and ran until 2013).  We were able to negotiate an endorsement from the (then) Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and includes a fantastic cohort of contemporary poets.

Black Box by Kevan Manwaring – audio drama coming soon from Alternative Stories and Fake Realities (Chris Gregory)

In 2013 I handed over Awen to the capable husband-and-wife term of Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis, to concentrate upon my PhD at the University of Leicester.  While there I collaborated in some interdisciplinary writing commissions, and had some inspiring conversations with colleagues engaged in cutting-edge research into Artificial Intelligence and Space Research – this, alongside my ongoing concerns about the environment, fed into the mix that led to me writing Black Box, a science fiction/CliFi novel that asks ‘What will survive of us?’ On a whim I entered it into a national science fiction novel manuscript competition run by Literature Works (a Plymouth-based literature development agency), ‘One Giant Write’, and it won. I got serious attention from Marcus Gipps, the commissioning editor for Gollancz. After a couple of aborted launches, it has now achieved lift-off thanks to Alternative Stories and Fake Realities – a brilliant podcast with a strong track record of producing excellent CliFi audio dramas. I adapted 3 pilot episodes, which have been produced by the talented sound engineer/wizard, Chris Gregory, and they are being premiered 27th November, 4th December, and 11th December. I wrote a draft of Black Box in a croft on the coast of Wester Ross (see my blog ‘The SciFi Croft’), and in it I stared hard into the abyss of our possible species extinction and chose to saw there a gleam of light – because in my doctoral research into Fantasy I forged an ethical aesthetics of the genre. Tired and disturbed by the cultural dominance of Grimdark, a particularly nihilistic and Neoliberal view of the world, I devised Goldendark, which acknowledges the challenges we face (re: Climate Chaos; geopolitical turmoil; the rise of the Alt-Right), but takes creative responsibility and offers a gleam of hope in what stories we chooses to tell and share.  Black Box is my first intentional Goldendark novel and I am glad it is finally seeing the light of day.  

Listen to fantastic CliFi on the Alternative Stories and Fake Realities podcast here.

Next: In ‘Writing the Earth part 3’ I look at my most recent CliFi outputs…

If you like what you read why not buy me a coffee?

https://ko-fi.com/kevanmanwaring

Writing the Earth (part 1)

Cli-Fi: Writing the Land, Awen, 2003; An Ecobardic Manifesto, Awen 2004; Lost Islands, Heart of Albion, 2008

Climate Fiction, popularly abbreviated as ‘cli-fi’ is literature that deals with climate change and global warming. Traditionally such works would have been categorised as Speculative Fiction, but in a world of increasingly frequent extreme weather events, where many institutions, authorities, and governments have declared a Climate Emergency, cli-fi appears to chart the state of the modern, not near future, world.

My connection to creative writing that explores environmental issues started with my very first poetry, penned in the first year of the 90s – so I have a 30 year connection to the subject, long before Cli-Fi became a trendy tag. Much of my early poetry was inspired by the landscape and an ecological sensibility (and still is). This was performed at open mics and appeared in my home-made chapbooks throughout that decade. By the end of the 90s I had become the Bard of Bath, and had started to get my work into print.

In the early Noughties after working towards an MA in the Teaching and Practice of Creative Writing at Cardiff University, I started to teach creative writing in earnest. I applied for a small grant, which enabled me to run a series of workshops on ‘Writing and the Environment’ at Envolve, Bath’s environment centre, during the spring and early summer of 2003. This resulted in Writing the Land: an anthology of natural words, which I put together with my students. It raised funds for the local Friends of the Earth group, and I got a piece in the Bath Chronicle, with me appearing next to Terry Coulson, the much-loved and missed chair (he died a year later). To publish the anthology I created Awen Publications, a small press, which I ran for ten years. It specialised in writing with an ‘ecobardic’ sensibility, an ethos outlined first by the storytelling group I was in (Fire Springs) and then adopted by the press. An Ecobardic Manifesto: a vision for the arts in a time of environmental crisis came out in 2004, and as a co-author, can be included as my second substantial environmentally-themed publication.

And for my third in this survey of my personal Cli-Fi list I would now turn to Lost Islands: inventing Avalon, destroying Eden (Heart of Albion Press, 2008). Imaginary, otherwordly and lost islands frequently feature in literature. This study considered these mythic isles in the context of climate change and Earth itself as a threatened ‘island’. I think of this as my ‘Climate Change’ book, as in it I looked hard at the (then still) emerging facts about humankind’s decimating impact on the Earth’s biodiversity, and regulatory systems. Concerns about this stem back decades, indeed centuries (Victorian polymath John Ruskin first noted the impact of pollution on air quality and cloud formation). I certainly became concerned about it from the late 80s, when the Ozone layer and the effect of CFCs upon it first appeared in the media, alongside campaigns to Save the Whale and the Amazon rainforest. That famous footage of the hole in the Ozone layer above the Arctic chilled me to the core, and prompted me to join many eco-protest marches. When awareness grew of the potential for sea levels to be effected by global warming I started to think about islands and the many legends of lost ones. I started to research it in earnest and visited as many as I could – writing a draft of the book on Bardsey Island, off the Llyn Peninsula. With the publication of Lost Island, I felt I had truly nailed my colours to the mast. I was green, through and through!

I continue my potted history of personal Cli-Fi in the next blog…

To purchase any of the titles mentioned visit: www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk

My prize-winning science fiction/cli-fi novel, Black Box, has been adapted into an exciting audio drama by podcast wizards, Alternative Stories and Fake Realities. The pilot episodes (1-3) are being launched 27 November, 4 December, and 11 December, 2020. FFI: https://www.buzzsprout.com/411730

If you like what you read why not buy me a coffee?

https://ko-fi.com/kevanmanwaring

Survival Manual for the Human Race

2013-09-21-bigeuropa002

Things may seem pretty bleak out there at the moment – geopolitical unrest, climate chaos, displaced populations – and threats are real not only to the peace and security of our families and communities but to the very existence of humankind as the dominant species upon this planet. It all feels like The Eighties: the sequel. It was back then, living in the shadow of the Cold War as a teenager, that I first started to get seriously interested in science fiction as a way of speculating about the future. Alternative versions of now. For SF holds a dark mirror up to the present day. It has done this since its inception, in Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, published 200 years ago, but haunting us still about the perils of playing god, of science running amok. In the 30s Aldous Huxley explored the spectre of genetic engineering, or eugenics as it was known back then;  in the 40s George Orwell contemplated a Fascist future which feels eerily prescient; and in the 80s Margaret Atwood depicted a dystopian state that has struck a chord with many. And that is just a few.

I humbly join the conversation – not to compare my efforts with the giants I stand upon the shoulders of, but because it is hard not to speculate about where humankind is going; whether we’ll last the decade, let alone the century. It is hard not to be pessimistic, but one thing I am sure about – the limitless power of the human imagination – and that gives me hope. While we have the freedom to imagine and express other futures, other ways of being in the world, there is always hope.

In Black Box, I wanted to look into the abyss, but I also wanted to offer a glimmer of light. I offer not another bleak dystopian vision of the future, nor a wildly optimistic utopia, but what Atwood terms an ‘Ustopia’ – for one man’s heaven is another man’s hell.

Of course it can be argued that novels, like poems, don’t really ‘change anything’, but they can offer an aesthetic, intellectual, emotional or moral counter-balance to the prevailing discourse of the times, an articulation of inarticulated or silenced voices, sobering thought experiments that project possible outcomes based upon current trends (often by taking things to their logical conclusion), or the healthiest form of escapism from the mad prison of the world (as Le Guin and Tolkien have pointed out). Science Fiction and Fantasy in particular facilitate this – by encouraging us to imagine what is beyond, what makes us human, and what is home, we can find a renewal of meaning and deepened appreciation for the fragile miracle of existence.

Black Box has been adapted into an audio drama by the amazing podcast team at Alternative Stories. The first three pilot episodes are due to be launched 20th November, 27th November, & 4th December. FFI: https://alternativestories.com/