Kirsty Gunn: The life lessons of the natural world

Unexpected moments, off the cuff excursions. There's a lot to be said for taking a good day at its word, this time of year, and finding yourself doing something you didn't think you'd be doing in the late autumn sunshine.
Tentsmuir Spring Cycle with Keith McCartney.Tentsmuir Spring Cycle with Keith McCartney.
Tentsmuir Spring Cycle with Keith McCartney.

Unexpected moments, off the cuff excursions. There’s a lot to be said for taking a good day at its word, this time of year, and finding yourself doing something you didn’t think you’d be doing in the late autumn sunshine.

So it was that I found myself tootling off to Tentsmuir Nature Reserve in north-east Fife with my friend and colleague, Dr Gail Low, from the University of Dundee, in order to introduce one of our writing students to the conservation team there. Or rather, “not so much ‘conservation’, as such”, according to Tom Cunningham, director of the centre there for more than 20 years, “because we don’t so much want to ‘preserve’ or ‘conserve’ – to interfere that way – as to let the land direct us as to what it needs”.

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It was clear from the outset I was in for a whole new mindset around land management. The day was just beginning. We were there – meeting with Tom and Steph Haworth, his student placement officer, and the Forestry Commission team who share the responsibilities for overseeing this unique woodland and coastal environment – as part of an initiative to offer “bespoke internships” to our graduate writing students. Writing isn’t just about publishing books, we tell them. It’s about using their literary skills in a whole range of pursuits that benefit the culture in general. From running book events to organising literacy programmes, from working with new immigrants to Scotland on poetry workshops, to doing what we were doing on this very morning – planning a placement for one of our terrific students, Jed Edwardes, who’s come up to us from Plymouth and has all kinds of ideas for leaflets, websites and blogs, and ultimately a publication that will highlight Tentsmuir’s part in a larger environmental story.

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“This is amazing,” he said, as we drove out of the city, passing Morton Lochs and going deep into the forest. “Coming to this part of the UK, with its different weathers, biospheres... It’s incredible for me, being from the other end of the country.” He went on to talk about next week’s bivouacing lessons that he’d lined up with a gang of mates at Glencoe, and a variety of all-weather mountain expeditions and climbs. “Oh yeah,” he continued, in a kind of dream, looking about us as the cold sunlight slanted through the trees and the pale blue sky above seemed to be holding its breath for the loveliness of it all. “There are for sure a bunch of great of things we can be doing here.”

Gail had been telling him that by bike he could make the happy commute across to Tentsmuir twice a week as easy as anything. He needed to. “Go and see John Simpson at Fife Cycles in Leuchars. It’s an absolutely smashing bike shop and John lets you try out bikes and has a chat and there’s no hard sell at all,” she said, immediately selling me on the idea of an electric bike she and her husband are thinking of buying for all their various touring adventures.

“It just changes hills,” she said, “and how far you can go – 70 miles in a day if you want to.” Suddenly I saw Sutherland with my daughters on inherited push bikes with two gears in a whole new light. Elevenses with my sister in Caithness after a brisk start from Rogart? No bother. The information centre at Tentsmuir is also an education hub, with Tom giving a thorough overview of the area to whoever pops in, telling its history and varieties of species, heaths and sands and waters, as though he were talking about his own life, now and 9,000 years ago.

“Geomorphology, that’s the word” he said. “That we might recognise that we’re living somewhere that’s in a state of constant flux, of erosion and accretion, both.”

What I came to feel, as he was talking, was that we were standing in a minute – not of texts and meetings and emails – but in a present tense that was complicatedly and beautifully attached to a past and future.

“About a finger of land a day extends into the water. The rise and fall of the sands around us... that’s altering every year,” Tom explained.

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This idea that the world is re-ordering, healing – irrespective of our little human part of things – is deeply comforting at at time when the ghastlies like Donald Trump “bullldoze” a bit of Scotland, as Steph put it, “to lay down their golf courses.”

We pulled on gumboots and took a ramble down across the dunes while Steph pointed out the seaweed that was being washed up from the Tay and providing the nutrients for the re-seeding of different kinds of coastal grass.

“People think it’s just seaweed,” she said, “but this stuff” – raking her fingers through the dried kelp – “it’s the beginning of a new life cycle.”

I saw some ragwort, the bright yellow daisy that looks so pretty unless you have a young horsewoman in the family who changes your ideas about that. My second daughter did a whole pony club project on the evils of “struggles” – as horsey people call the plant – on account of the fact that it does nothing but terrible things to horses if they come across it. “Do you yank it out?” I asked, as we’re always doing that up north. “Well,” Steph mused, “We’ve got a certain kind of butterfly here – that just loves it.”

She pointed to ragwort plants that were being stripped bare by caterpillars and so had been unable to spread and proliferate in the usual way. “These guys have found their own way of keeping nature in the right balance,” she said.

Ideas of natural order and restraint – it’s is something we might all aspire to. Having, just this past weekend, emerged out of a London-to-Edinburgh train, dazed and physically exhausted – like so many fellow travellers I’d had no seat for more than half of the journey – by the shocking effects of privatisation upon what used to be such a civilised and decent way to travel, I found myself reflecting on the need for a more natural, “right balance” kind of life.