Valuing what remains

Neil Ansell
Opinion - Books Monday, 27 November 2017

Neil Ansell introduces his latest nature journal, written as he experienced severe hearing loss


My previous books of nature memoir were written long after the event, but with the benefit of contemporary notes, which I hope gave them some sense of immediacy. For much of my life I have kept a journal, and most of the time it has been largely a nature journal, for the natural world has been a lifelong passion, and it is on nature that my gaze always seems to linger. So it feels like it is my natural state to spend as much time as possible out in the world, and then to write down my thoughts and observations and reflections. Publication has been more a by-product of what I would be doing anyway, rather than an end-goal in itself. It feels as though the literary world has come to meet me, rather than vice versa.

Other writers have carved out a space for the kind of thoughtful, personal memoir based around a love of wildlife and landscape that seems to be my natural home. Many people seem to be feeling increasingly alienated from a natural world that is shrinking away from us, both physically and emotionally, and these writers are attempting to find ways to show people how they might regain that connection.

My ability to roam free in recent years has been constrained by the fact that I am a single parent, but as my children have grown more independent my leash has lengthened, and I have started to crave some contemporary experiences rather than just dwelling on the long-gone. The Last Wilderness is the fruit of that new-found latitude.

It is not in my character to be much of a planner; it does not come readily to me to choose a theme, to research it, to venture out to places that would illustrate it, to have experiences that were undertaken predominantly for the purpose of writing about them, or to demonstrate some preconceived point. I am more of a make-it-up-as-you-go-along kind of guy. I liked the idea of writing a non-fiction book where I didn't know what it was about, where I didn't know what would happen next; where indeed it would only actually become a book if a book emerged spontaneously from my journals. I felt that this way it would be more like life: a journey without a preconceived destination.

I set out to the rough bounds of Lochaber, a remote part of the Scottish Highlands that I had last visited as a 20-year-old, for a week of solitary walking and wildlife watching. Then I came home and wrote up my notes, and the memories my journey had evoked in me, and then I went back. A week's walking, followed by a month or two of writing. In all I visited five times over the course of the year covered by the book, though I have been back since, after writing the end. It was my hope that the themes of the book would arise organically during the course of my wanderings.

One thing that became apparent over the course of the year was that I was rapidly losing my hearing. I have always been deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other, at least since infancy, before memory set in. It was not something I had ever thought to write about, for I have never known any different, and for me it was my own personal normal. Yet I cannot deny that it has hugely affected the course of my life.

On a day-to-day basis it affects every choice I make: my search for the optimum position in any room that I find myself in, the convolutions I go through to try to find a way of avoiding having to make a phone call. And I am sure that it must at least in part be the reason why one of my greatest pleasures in life is to be alone on a country walk, free of all pressure. I like to think that in some ways it has been a boon - that it has given me a quality of attentiveness that many other people lack.

For some time I had been aware that my hearing was deteriorating further, and the world was becoming still more muffled and muted. But this was different: certain sounds were now disappearing wholesale, like stars winking out at daybreak. As I walked, I would come upon birds singing, and discover that I could no longer hear them at all, not even a whisper. I began to keep a record of what I had lost forever. Sandpipers: gone. Pipits: gone. Wrens: gone. It became not so much a theme as a refrain.

It turned my mind to a reflection on loss in the wider sense, to habitat loss and species loss. It made me think, as I was watching an otter, would this be my last otter? And as I watched an eagle, was this my last eagle? It helped to teach me, I think, to really value and appreciate what still remains to us, and I hope I have been able to pass on this appreciation through my book.

Tinder Press (Headline) publishes Neil Ansell's The Last Wilderness on 8 February.

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