As mentioned in a previous post, this semester (Fall 2016) I am teaching my Literature and Environment course for the University of Nebraska in an online format, while I am spending the year in Cambridge, England. I thought I would take advantage of my presence in the UK to learn about, and to teach, some books of recent British nature writing. As it happens, there’s currently a revival of the genre going on
One of the books I decided to teach, and one that’s very much a part of that revival, is Richard Kerridge’s new work, Cold Blood: Adventures with Reptiles and Amphibians. Richard, who teaches in the Creative Writing MA program at Bath Spa University, is one of the UK’s leading ecocritics and has been a guiding force in ecocriticism since the earliest years of the field. I’ve known him from ASLE conferences since the late 1990s.
In this book Richard blends his lifelong love of cold-blooded creatures with his understanding of ecocriticism into a highly readable memoir. He uses tales of his boyhood infatuation with collecting animals as the narrative around which he weaves information about the animals he loves, as well as ideas about a wide array of other matters of ecocritical interest including speculations about consciousness and awareness in animals, the value and limits of anthropomorphism, notions of what constitutes wildness and wilderness, species declines and restoration efforts, and the loss of nature experience for children. All this is combined with a reckoning with his trouble relationship with his father, a WWII veteran who suffered symptoms of PTSD, into a complex and rich but coherent and eminently readable narrative.
One of the things I’m most impressed with in the book is Richard’s ability to seamlessly weave together a personal narrative with natural history information about the animals being discussed as well as ecocritically oriented reflections. In many books of this kind, the seams are quite visible, and the transitions between different types of exposition are often clunky. Not so here. In the passage about the first time he attempted to catch an Adder, for example, he intersperses a highly dramatic tale, full of excitement and tension, with factual information about Adders in such a way that we don’t even realize how much we’ve learned until we’re finished, caught up as we are in the excitement.
The book portrays a seemingly long gone world of childhood (he’s the same age as I am, so I can joke about how long gone it is), in which children, when not in school, spent most of the daylight hours outdoors. I certainly did. In Richard’s case, he and his buddies crawled around in the thickets, fens, streambanks, mud, and mire collecting their beloved reptiles and amphibians and putting them into aquariums, terrariums, and back garden ponds. Portions of his narrative remind me of a young Loren Eiseley’s similar activities gathering small critters in the ponds and streams of Nebraska forty years earlier.
I thought the book would work very well for my class, so put it on my syllabus. Only later did I discover, to my dismay, that the book was not yet available in the US. The publisher hadn’t made it available for US distribution, and customs rules prohibited shipping bulk copies. God knows why. I did discover, however, that Amazon.com had numerous used copies available, many from UK bookstores with delivery times to the US of several weeks. I warned my students at the beginning of the semester that they would need to purchase the book via Amazon as soon as possible. Most seem to have heeded my notice.
It’s puzzling to me that the book hasn’t been made available in the US. Certainly it has aspects of being a field guide to the reptiles and amphibians of England, and so in that sense US book stores might shy away from selling it. But, as I’ve tried to make clear, the book is so much more than that. It’s a compelling, well-written narrative about issues of pressing relevance anywhere: how do we develop a love, and an ethic of care, for the animals, even the cold-blooded ones, whose planet we share?
Searching for Adders
Early in October we rented a car and my wife and I drove across England. On a partly cloudy afternoon in the first week of October I connected with Richard at his home in Bath, and the two of us drove out into the countryside, ostensibly to look for Adders and other reptiles. Richard chose the Ubley Warren Nature reserve in the Mendip Hills Southwest of Bath as a likely location. When we arrived we encountered a landscape of rolling green hillsides slipping towards autumn. This proved to be an old mining area. The website for the nature reserve explains that
With its rakes cut into the limestone and deep mine shafts, Ubley Warren bears the scars of an industrial past. Lead mining here dates back to Roman times and continued until the late 19th century. Romans were mining the site in AD49, only six years after landing in Britain and mining continued in the area reaching a peak in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, the site, which sits just south-east of Charterhouse-on-Mendip has become an important wildlife haven and is an element of the Cheddar Complex SSSI. Ubley Warren is characterised by the uneven ground of old spoil heaps and worked out mineral veins or ‘rakes,’ known locally as ‘gruffy.’
Ironically, the remains of the mining activity actually improved the reptile habitat. There were a number of exposed rocky slopes warmed in the sun. We wandered around looking at likely locations for Adders, but, alas, it was too late in the season. We found no Adders, though we did come across the shed skin of a grass snake. And under a piece of currogated iron Richard turned up a slow worm.
Searching for Adders and finding a Slow Worm
I wanted to film Richard in this landscape and get him to read some passages from his work for my class. I had brought along a little video camera, and Richard had a copy of his book. After an hour or so of wandering the “gruffy” landscape, we settled down in the bottom of small ravine, actually an excavated and collapsed vein of ore referred to locally as a “rake.” This was the most probable location to find Adders, and I like to imagine them hunkered back in the rocks, drowsing into hibernation, while Richard read them a bedtime story about themselves.
Richard discussing the genesis of Cold Blood
Reading and discussing a passage about Adders
Reading and discussing a passage about his father
As Richard and I were leaving after filming these clips, a funny thing happened. We encountered a woman on the trail who was gathering blackberries, rows of which bisected the landscape. We stopped to chat with her for a few minutes, exchanging pleasantries. She noticed Richard was carrying a copy of Cold Blood. She said, “Oh, I’ve seen that book in the bookshop and was thinking of buying it. Is it any good?” And he said, “Well I think so, but then I wrote it.” We had a good laugh over that. Then Richard gave her the copy he was carrying, and signed it for her.
Excerpts from Cold Blood
“This book is about what these animals mean—what they meant to me in childhood, and what they mean now. It is also about the animals themselves, Britain’s newts, frogs, toads, lizards and snakes. What is happening to them now, in a country where the human imprint is everywhere? Where and how can we watch them? What is their likely future?”
“The thought of these animals made the smallest patch of wild ground full of promise. Suddenly, my garden and the park at the end of it no longer seemed to be enclosed spaces, thoroughly finite, whose possibilities could quickly be exhausted. They seemed part of an infinite space, a depth of wildness on all sides, receding into the distance. This depth was wild England in its immense completeness, held together across the cities by secret corridors: railway-banks, river-banks, wasteland. Frogs, toads and newts—just the thought of them—did this for me.”
“. . . on a hot May morning we set out, cycling through the suburbs and freewheeling headlong down the great chalk drop into the Weald Valley, aiming for the heaths of Ashdown Forest. It was 1968. I was thirteen.
And then, just yards from the road, everything went still. I was poised above an Adder, which looked up at me, its tail-tip wriggling like a worm. The furious little face was oily black. White scales like tiny pearls lined the top of the mouth. Adders have faces intense with hatred, hot with it. The eyes were like blood-blisters.
What had caught my eye in the heather was the zigzag, a pattern too clear to look natural. The shadows cast by bracken leaves have similar shapes. In these shadows, the zigzag evolved, presumably, but somehow the scatter of light and shade on the forest floor became on the snake a regular wavy line. It breaks up the animal’s outline. Hawks and crows see the snake from above. People do too. When the snake moves, winding through stalks and shadows, the zigzag goes in different directions, confusing the eye. On a motionless snake, it is insolently clear. In the heath’s debris, the zigzag looks stylised, like a printed or ceramic pattern, a logo or uniform, a badge of power and purpose. When we thought of Adders, the other creatures in our zoo seemed weak and flustered—the little biscuit-coloured lizards and soft, gaping frogs. They were low status. An Adder was deadly cool.”
Originally posted Oct 29, 2015, 3:23 PM