The Metropolis

In-depth interview: Helen Babbs on creating a new generation of urban nature writers

Mike Pollitt | Monday 19 November, 2012 12:16

“I looked everywhere for the head – it could have fallen anywhere – and perhaps some distance from this resting place where meat was ripped…From the way it was lying and eaten, I could imagine an instant of perfect predation – a peregrine – intersecting paths with this migrating woodcock.”

Woodcock, Waterloo by David Perkins

“…the slide rule, Roman-built A10 out of Liverpool Street can be as important a navigational aid to a long distance migrant as the relative positions of Taurus and Cassiopeia in the night sky.”

Fly Away Home by Mark James Pearson

These are two excerpts from posts on The New Nature, a website set up by Helen Babbs to explore London’s wildlife through writing.

I asked Helen to explain why London’s nature matters to her, what it means to her writers, and whether it’s really possible for Londoners to escape their city without ever leaving it.

Snipe: Can you explain why you set up The New Nature, how it works, and what you’d like it to become?

Helen: I set up ‘the new nature’ because there aren’t many outlets for urban nature writing, especially the more unusual kind. The UK nature writing scene is also dominated by men of a certain age, writing about the countryside, and it feels good to challenge that a little. For the reader, the website offers a different perspective on London and invites a new way of seeing the city.

The aim is to fill a simple website with both journalistic and creative content from a range of different writers that’s inspired by London’s wildlife and wild places. The project is labour of love with a quietly political heart. It feels important, at a time when economics is greatly valued over environment, to highlight how valuable wildlife is – even in a city setting – and how important it be protected.

I’d like ‘the new nature’ to become a place people go to for a really good read and where writers want their work to be published. Contributions of 1,000 words or less are invited, so please get in touch if you’d like to write for us.

Snipe: Can you talk about your personal response to nature in London…how you experience it and why it’s important to you?

Helen: My growing awareness of urban wildlife has changed the way I experience cities. Once you know where the wild things are, it’s hard to ignore them. London’s wildlife is one of the many quirks that make it such a great place to live. Learning about it means discovering a million tiny and brilliant secrets about the city. I think roof gardening and becoming a cyclist have been two things that have greatly increased my sense of connection to nature here.

Snipe: Is this a site for writers as much as for readers?

Helen: Yes, absolutely. We can learn a lot from each other and sharing our work. It’s for both – readers need writers and writers need readers!

Snipe: Are you trying to foster a particular approach to nature writing? What do you think makes a good post?

Helen: I’m not trying to foster a particular approach, although I suppose there are certain things that I think work and others that I definitely don’t. I don’t like the sentimental or the twee, which can be a temptation when writing about nature. Or anything that suggests there is an irretrievable gulf between humans and wildlife. I’m a fan of rich description and of challenging people to see things in a different way. I like work that is brief but startling, that’s simple, adventurous, atmospheric and revealing.

Your site collects work by several contributors, and that makes it a good place to look for trends, to gauge how a group of contributors are collectively responding to the tension between human life and the natural world. Do you think any themes, or shared concerns, emerge from the different pieces you have posted?

So far, a sense of surprise and of the secret are common threads through the different writers’ work. Contrasting wildlife with urban grit and gristle is another theme, but also showing how interwoven the wild and the human can be. I think there’s a shared desire to find a little bit of London to call one’s own, a personal space within the urban sprawl. All the writing celebrates London in its own way.

Snipe: In several pieces on the site, for example Mischa van den Brandhof’s quest for the Gray’s Inn Fox (which is my favourite piece I think), an encounter with London’s nature seems to make the rest of London, and Londoners themselves, fall away. Mishca writes: “Never before have I seen what the city looks like when there are no humans around.” Do you think we all harbour this feeling? Deep down, do all citizens of London secretly want to destroy it?

Helen: Peter Ackroyd says in his biography of London that “The crowd is not a single entity…but the condition of London itself.” There’s something both brilliant and awful about the crowd, about London. It offers us a place where we can disappear and be whoever we want to be, but it is also cloying, lonely and frustrating. In the same way a vast rural landscape of mountain and river can both inspire us and highlight our insignificance, London can empower and disable.

Rather than a desire to destroy it, perhaps we all want our own relationship with London that is intimate and unique. We want to experience the city in a way that feels meaningful. The wealth of writing – be it books, blogs or magazines – that has London at its heart is vast. Writers want to see and say something new, to come up with an interpretation that is fresh.

Snipe: Our relationship with nature is now very complex, especially in the city. Much of the best habitat (I’m thinking for example of Barnes Wetland Centre, the city’s reservoirs, its cemeteries) is artificial. It’s made and maintained by man. Can you talk a bit about your feelings about this, about whether a pure wild nature can exist in a space that is so overwhelmingly human?

Helen: It’s not just the city that is shaped and maintained by humans. Much of the countryside has taken and continues to take its shape from human intervention, be that agriculture, industry or a decision to protect something as a nature reserve.

I think the romantic notion of a ‘pure wild nature’ is a flawed one. What makes the rubble filled but biodiverse brownfield site, which teems with a certain kind of insect and plant life, any less valid than the cliff top by the sea? Both are important, in different ways. And why should the city’s reservoirs and cemeteries be devalued as wild spaces by the fact we built them?

I think the places where the manmade and the wild coexist are the most interesting and exciting, where nature thrives despite what it has to contend with. Peregrine falcons on Parliament, owls minutes from Marble Arch, bats zipping down the canal in King’s Cross – all these things are brilliant if ‘impure’. They are also phenomena that would likely not happen without the intervention of certain people who fight for city creatures’ rights.

At the same time, it’s dangerous to see wildlife purely as entertainment, laid on by and for humans. Nature is vital in urban areas, especially as the climate changes to bring hotter spells and fierce downpours. Vegetation absorbs heat and water, and can offer cool shade. It is also well known that access to nature improves people’s mental and physical health. Put simply, we need nature. And maybe in the city, nature needs us.

To read more of The New Nature’s content, or submit some yourself, go here

More in-depth London interviews:

Photographer Mike Tsang on the blessing and the curse of growing up a Chinese Londoner
Iain Sinclair and Andrew Kötting on their Olympic pedalo film Swandown
Kate Flowers of CoOperaCo on her mutualised operatic finishing school
Stratford filmmaker Winstan Whitter on what got lost in the gentrification of Dalston

And more from Snipe on London’s nature:

Interview with @FaBPeregrines, the Twitter account following the peregrine falcons of Charing Cross Hospital.

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Mike Pollitt

About this writer

Mike Pollitt

Mike Pollitt is the editor of The Metropolis.

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