Friday, 16 July 2021

Land in Mind - Nicola Davies by Steve Gladwin


 For two years now these blogs have carried the heading, 'A Writer/Artist/Musician in their own Landscape'. Now, however, because 'Land in Mind' will eventually be a book, I have decided to use the title of the book from now on. Next month I will be explaining more about the book and its intent, as well as extracts from two years of interviews.

In the meantime, however, I am more than a little happy to welcome Nicola Davies to 'An Awfully Big Blog Adventure and the 'Land in Mind' project. Nicola is a wonderfully inspiring children's writer with over 50 books to her name, an experienced and committed zoologist, and one of the original presenters of the BBC's 'The Really Wild Show'. Her answers illustrate as much as anyone can the essence and ethos of 'Land in Mind' and the relationship between the two. So, witout any more ado, I'd like to welcome her to these pages.  




Nicola, thanks so much for agreeing to talk to us at ABBA and 'Land in Mind'.


It's my pleasure, Steve!


I'd like to begin with the question I always ask people. I want you to imagine that you are either standing staring out from the front door of your childhood home, or perhaps taking a favourite walk as a girl. Can you describe for us what you see?

My parents moved quite a bit when I was a child so there are a few childhood homes. My first landscape was the landscape of the garden around the house in the midlands. I was pretty small then so the large garden on a Victorian house was a whole world to me and I inhabited every bit of it…

Looking out from the front door is the money puzzle tree. In the winter it throws down thrilling spikes branches. Next to it is a redwood with soft Sienna coloured bark that I can press my cheek into. They are at the top of the rockery. That's forbidden territory - too many plants for me to trample on but I find it fascinating and long to climb up and down on the rocks. On the other side of the front lawn is a forest of yews. Its dark in there and dusty. The berries that I know are poisonous are so beautiful; velvety and a shade that isn’t quite pink and isn’t quite red. They are odd, unfinished looking as if someone forgot to sew them up so you can see the seed inside. Round the corner from the front door is a round shady lawn dotted with crocuses in spring. The blue ones are my favourite. They seem like a kind of magic and I get very excited about them when they first appear. There’s a long wide lawn beyond the round one, bounded by a walled veg garden. I don’t like it in there because that’s where Daddy cuts the heads off the chickens. He carries the ones that have stopped laying eggs by their feet, screaming as if they know. Sometimes they go on running without their heads.  I like the long border opposite that, with big old clumps of phlox, in pink and white, the blossoms impossibly silky and smooth, with a scent that I think could be my favourite. I have a tree house made of old wooden surfboards in the pear tree above the flowerbeds. The back of the border has a tall wall. I can squiggle my way in there and crouch, in the green hidden, hiding, secret. In the far corner of the garden in a huge damson tree that drips with purple fruit in the late summer. It stands in its own lovely little space, like a person in a room. I love the squareness of it and the way the canopy of the tree fits the space. The path from there runs to the back of the house. Its gravel. Hard to ride my red trike on so its better just to run. If I want to go fast on my trike I can take it to the brick covered yard and listen to the pigeons cooing in the space above the garage. Sometimes I go up there with Grandpa or with Daddy. It smells of rats and pigeon poo but I get to hold the baby pigeons. They look like dodos, with their stuck on feathers starting to sprout and their funny wonky beaks. Daddy says they are called squabs, a special word just for baby pigeons. I like knowing the real names of things.


Magical St David's


Everyone has a moment, don’t they, where they make a connection with the thing they are going to fall in love with for the rest of their lives? What was yours and how did it happen?

I think it happened for me so early that I feel like I was born with it. I don’t have many memories of ‘inside’ when I was little- everything that mattered to me was outside…the flowers, the birds. All of those early memories are steeped in such joy and curiosity, such deep love and wonder. I had no idea at all about what my life would be or what I would do, but I remember deciding early on that outside is where I wanted to be.


Having fallen in love with it all at that moment, how easy was it to get where you needed to go, and what were some of the boundaries you had to leap, or places from which help came.

I didn’t have much of a career plan…just things I wanted to do. I wanted to be in the wild with animals, so a zoology degree was the way to do that. I did internships (as they are called now) although as an inexperienced girl, with no skills beyond dreaming and reading, I wasn’t really much use - but I did have some wonderful experiences. I studied barnacle geese on the Solway firth, helped hand rear jackdaws. Then through an entirely chance meeting with a post doc called Hal I ended up studying humpbacks off the coast of Canada. That friendship has been lifelong and has let me see wild whales in many parts of the world. 


Crickhowell in the Brecon Beacons



What about children’s books. You probably weren’t thinking about a career as an author of children’s books, but you presumably read a lot of them. Can you tell me some of your favourites?

ALLL of Gerald Durrell -  especially the early ones about catching animals for zoos in West Africa and S America. They are a bit dated now, a bit colonial. But what shone through in the wiring was his love for the animals AND the people: The Fon of Bafut is still one of my favourite people in books. They instilled in me a kind of unfocussed glow of desire for travel and adventures sense that the world was out there full of animals and I wanted to see them all. My Family and Other Animals filled me with envy - I wanted to wander about catching things, looking at things and never having to go to school. I HATED school.


It's really interesting how many people I've interviewed have had that or a a similar reaction, Nicola. Let’s look at the idea of landscape now, Nicola. Another reoccuring theme is the idea of landscape being something important right from childhood, and then taking it on into adulthood, often as some sanctuary, or form of security, which is something we could never have put into words as a child?

Yes I had many sanctuaries as a child…I had a den in the house and garden I've described, whose every detail I remember. I had the top of a pollarded elm in one house in Suffolk where I sat on the bole, surrounded by green shoots and peered through at the goldfinches. I had a favourite field corner, where I found my first orchids - tway blade and common spotted - which felt like a space in which something incredible was about to happen.

What does a landscape have to do for you to connect with it? Are there particular landscapes which do that more than others?


That’s a great question, and I’m not sure I have an answer…I’m not sure what the formula is. Its wildness, or a feeling of wildness but that doesn’t have to mean remote. I’ve experienced an exquisite sense of wildness in some of the most human used landscapes - a memorable dusk walk along the banks of the Waveny on the Norfolk Suffolk border…alll the human were indoors and the wild came out, marsh harriers, barn owls, otters, deer.There are landscapes that Ive bonded with and those that I haven’t. Suffolk I adore, Uist, too and the Southern slopes of Exmoor, the valleys around Dulverton - all are in my heart. But although I loved the landscape round my home in the Brecon Beacons we didn’t bond. All  remote tropical islands Ive been to  I love- Aldabra especially, and Kakadu in N Australia I found utterly ravishing. But there are many places that I know Id fall for if I went there - the Pantanal, N Mozambique, British Columbia…

We’re in a position now where species and habitat are more endangered than they would have been in our wildest fears when we were eagerly thumbing through our wildlife encyclopedias, or our ‘Observer Book of Animals’. As a zoologist do you have any areas of particular concern, and what would be the best ways of educating people?

Everywhere and everything! But I suppose what I find most alarming and upsetting is the way UK wildlife has slipped through my fingers - some of the things I love most vanishing before my eyes. Curlews, lapwings, sparrows, swallows, the abundance of insects, moths buffeting the bedside lamp on a July night…All of that was part of everyone’s experience and now you have to seek it out, or its just not there. And people adjust to the impoverished world that they see. I’d like an awareness of the natural world to be a sort of national campaign…with resources for education and opportunities to encounter and engage with wildlife poured into all layers of education and social provision, encouraging the most deprived communities to engage with nature




I know that you spend an awful lot of your time teaching through actual contact with children as well as writing books. Do you feel there is a real urgency in communicating with school-aged children, and what kind of responses do you get from them? When I’ve talked to children about the crisis with our wildlife and habitat, some of them have been positively scared, and I don’t think that’s something we connect anything like with – our attitude to Greta Thunberg, for example.

I think the key to stemming the fear is action and engagement - and by that I don’t JUST mean activism and advocacy but personal connection. EVERY school should have a garden, every child should experience planting at first hand, know the cycles of nature on which we depend through their own senses not a diagram in a book. But it is parents who need this as much as the children…the lack of opportunity to know what nature is has been lacking in the lives of urban dwellers for two generations now and we urgently need to address that.

Nicola, you’ve been involved in so many projects over the last so many years and I know you’ve ventured back into the field in the last couple of years. Are you asked to get involved with projects, or drawn to them? How does it happen.

My involvement in field work - studying whales - happens because of friendship and my long association with one of the greatest whale scientists of his generation. But my work as a writer has now become so all consuming that I haven’t really escaped from my desk for almost a decade.

What about the beginnings of your career as a children’s author? Was it just a step that made sense, or was there a particular project involved?


I don’t really do career planning - I'm a frog that jumps to the next nice looking lily pad. I was asked to be a scientific adviser on a book about blue whales…the person who was writing it did soooo badly that the publishers asked me to write it instead…It took ten years of writing around other jobs at which time I was also trying to keep my kids afloat as a single parent … to be able to live on my writing.

There are so many peoples throughout the world who know proper respect from the land, but often the communities that do, don’t inhabit cities. What have you learned from being amongst those people and being part of their land?

I wish I had had more contact with indigenous people but the small amount that I have had has been wonderful. In Labrador forty years ago we anchored in little bays and met outlying families of mixed Inuit heritage who lived from the sea in the Summer. In the Garo Hills in NE India a few years back I met villagers who had decided to keep their forest rather than sell it to the loggers because it was part of their identity. I spent an afternoon with an old gentleman who told me stories about the spirits of his ancient forest that Understood even though we didn’t share a single word of a common language.

Have you had any experience of the land where it’s been especially healing for either you, or the people you’ve worked alongside?


When my marriage ended the land healed me. My relationship with nature was entirely outside of anything I had shared with my partner and so it was untainted by the loss and grief. I quite litterly lay on the grass and wept into the bosom of the earth.


How difficult is it choose what endangered species or disappearing habitat you put your focus into when there the difference between levels of endangerment is often so slim? And if could devote the rest of your life to a single cause, which one would have your heart?

I have only one voice and one pair of hands. My ability such as it is is to get into people minds and hearts with words. To do that I have to pass through the gatekeepers of publishing so I don’t have a free choice about what species to represent; increasingly the decisions about what my books cover is limited by the marketing department. So I put the focus where I can. But my greatest aim is to reconnect people with nature…its the most important thing, from that all the other awareness comes, all the change we need to make.

Maybe if we can just return to the first question. Unless you have remained in the place you were born, you’re currently living somewhere else where you’ve made a new connection with the land. Whereabouts are you and what do you feel and see when you leave your front door.

I live in Pembrokeshire, from my front door I look over the arable desert of corn fields but they are bounded by gloriously divers hedgerows and beyond that, there is a slither of blue sea. This is the landscape I have known and loved consistency all my parents came here wherever else they were living and retired here when my father stopped work. I love the light, the wide sky, the smell of the air and the proximity of the great love of my life, the sea.

Any explored regions you have yet to explore?

Really? We’ll be here all day and night - but now my desire to travel must be secondary to my responsibility for my carbon footprint. Its important that we can all still care for those things we’ll never see. I’ll never see a wild giant anteater or a hyacinth macaw but I want to close my eyes and know they are still out there. That the wild is still itself, big and scary and untamed.

One of the things which has been most remarkable about the on-set and continuation of Covid seems to have been what little differences it made in the lives of some writers, artists and others. How did you deal with that adjusted life, and what sort of things did you learn?

Actually life WAS pretty different for me. Like many authors bookshop closure has hit us hard and we have had to deal with very sharp drops in income from royalties.  But on the upside, pre Covid I travelled ALLLL the time…visting schools, doing research. I was hardly ever home for a whole week at a time. Although I miss seeing kids - I don’t miss the constant exhaustion, so I may never go back to that pattern. Also it allowed me time to write something big: so I have a proper length novel-  an attempt to do that re engagement with nature through fiction - coming out this Autumn. Its called The Song That Sings Us and it re taught me how to write and how to imagine, how to use a fantasy world to shine a critical light on our real one.

Thank you, Nicola.


Steve Gladwin

Land in Mind - July 16th 2021


And in case you didnt get the message above, 'The Song That Sings Us', the full-length novel which was gifted to Nicola during lockdown will be out on 14th October.You can find out about that and all her other books on her website here.


And 'Land in Mind' now has a facebook page, where I will be posting extracts from these interviews, pictures and news about the book. The current piece is all about selkies! Please visit and like us.


And more selkies on 28th July when I talk to storyteller Sharon Jacksties about one remarkable encounter with a seal/selkie? Thanks all.




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