Updated: Aug 22, 2022
By Katy Emma Partridge
There is a convivial hum of chatter from the overwhelmingly female audience. We choose a spot by the window, where the table top has a nice big slab of rough-cut wood, pleasingly rustic and solid, somewhere to sit and enjoy our welcome drink, a fruity little mock-tail.
We are here, at The Lost Kitchen restaurant, to enjoy the company of two writers, Sophie Pavelle and Claire Ratinon, who both fall within today’s broad remit of nature writers. Our hosts for this evening’s Lost in Conversation event, are Jackie and Kayleigh, the mother and daughter team behind the Tiverton independent bookshop, Liznojan.
The Lost Kitchen is located in an elevated position on the hillside at Chettiscombe, in a converted Linhay Barn with exposed chunky roof trusses. The atmosphere is relaxed with an agreeable buzz. There is a smell of wood smoke coming from their wood-fired pizza oven. We look over the lichen-tipped rooftops to see the countryside rolling out beyond and part of the town of Tiverton is visible across the valley. The outlook is undeniably pretty, with the abundant greenery of high summer contrasting with the peachy and pink painted walls of the houses below. A pair of white doves serve to complete the bucolic scene as they hop about on the roof tiles beside us.
Sophie and Claire’s books are quite different but they overlap. Both writers say they want to combat feelings of helplessness and disenchantment with the state of nature in today’s Britain. In a way, each book speaks of what it took for the authors to fall in love again with this country.
Claire Ratinon’s book, Unearthed, relates her experience of moving to the countryside; to what could be any number of archetypal English villages. She describes trying to fit in, and gradually embedding herself through working the land which helped to entwine her with the place.
Sophie Pavelle’s Forget Me Not tells the story of ten journeys throughout Britain, searching for ten endangered species. These species are not the usual suspects that you might find in picture books or charity fundraising advertisements, however. They include the grey long-eared bat, dung beetles and sea grass. She laughs as she describes them as ‘unglamorous’, although it is clear that she is deeply invested in their conservation.
Claire is an organic food grower and writer. Her book is ultimately the telling of how she unexpectedly became a food grower, having spent her childhood disconnected from the natural world. For Claire, it all began when she became involved with a rooftop farm in New York City. The book intertwines the history of her ancestral Mauritian heritage with her personal journey, including the story of her mental health. She says, ‘it is a percolation of lots of channels of thought’.
Claire had an ambivalent relationship to having been brought up in Britain, and never really felt like she belonged. She adds, ‘Brexit debates were ugly for people like me’, and they brought to the fore her troubled and painful relationship with this country. Claire hadn’t known much about her Mauritian history when she was growing up. But she has since discovered the stories of those who were enslaved on the island, who rebelled against their forced labour of the land. She was fearful at times that her book, of her own personal return to working in the earth, might be dishonouring to her ancestors. She has had to reconcile their narrative with her own.
Sophie’s writing is not like traditional nature writing, she says, as she professes to be ‘no expert’. Instead, she felt like she was learning together with her reader. There is no lack of research in her book though, and she benefited from the input of some 70 experts. Her book, Forget Me Not, also details her incredible feat of travelling the low-carbon way around Britain. For instance, she took a cargo ferry to Orkney, at some considerable effort. The low-carbon angle of the book was important and difficult, she said, making the travel often stressful, long and expensive.
Sophie says that she had millennials in mind while writing the book, and she hoped to foster greater interest in the global climate disaster that faces us. Nevertheless, she wanted the book to feel good, to intersperse light with dark and to introduce some buoyancy and levity to the issue. ‘It is a funny and serious book’, Sophie says.
Sophie lives in Devon and works for the Beaver Trust. Before the book, she had published the occasional article, including one about the State of Nature Report (2019), for Metro when she was approached by a publisher who asked if she had an idea for a book. Sophie felt that her book could build on some of the ideas in her MSc in Science Communication (which was about finding new ways to communicate with new audiences) although it ended up being about much more.
Claire’s book, Unearthed, is readable and accessible with a deft structure, interweaving the historical and the personal. This book saw Claire breaking into the nature writing genre as a Black female author. She says that in June 2020, publishing was trying to correct an imbalance. Disarmingly humble, she relays her discomfort in the thought that timing may have facilitated her access to a book deal. Her book contains an emotional rendering of her story and, whilst she was apprehensive that it would feed into the trope of narratives about black trauma, her book came from a place of honesty, and is searingly truthful.
Claire smiles when she says, ‘Sophie’s book shows you don’t have to be in crisis to write a nature book’.
Sophie agrees, saying ‘I was not writing from a place of trauma, but because I loved it’.
Sophie remarked on the inevitable feelings of imposter syndrome given the number of experts in climate change - ‘but it’s a great leveller, even though it is intimidating’. She despaired about all the ‘sitting around and talking’ at DEFRA and Natural England.
The audience raised questions about how we might encourage organic farming: ‘How do we raise awareness and help people to understand why it matters?’
Claire responded that, ‘food is such a gateway for connection. We can teach heritage farming systems, which will remedy some of the more destructive elements of farming’.
And starting with young people doesn’t hurt. Claire has worked with children in school gardens and encourages them to get their hands dirty. She argues that we need greater transparency and a dialogue between food production (which is very hidden) and the natural world. We need to interrogate processes and systems. Clarkson and Monbiot are raising awareness which is a good thing (whether you agree with them or not).
Sophie makes the point that there are so many ways to learn. For instance, if we look at farming practices through the prism of dung beetles, it becomes clear that there is not enough quality dung. A good cowpat should have the consistency of a brownie, rather than the runny samples that are the norm today. We are overprotecting and overmedicating our cattle who spend their winters indoors.
‘Dung beetles boost the food chain’, Sophie said, ‘and once they go, we really are in the shit’.
Both authors agree that the issues are systemic and believe that democracy should help us to achieve change, encouraging voters to study manifestos carefully. We need to be asking ourselves, what food is accessible and affordable? Whose health does the government take seriously? We have a farming policy but no food policy. An attempt to create a policy about our food production was side-lined. We need to learn more about the provenance of what we eat to promote best farming practices. The solutions are simple and do-able. We just need the will and the leadership which is currently lacking. The priorities of those elected are ever important.
Claire believes in the benefits of providing food and nature-oriented teaching. The current curriculum does not focus on this (although there is a new Natural History GCSE in the pipeline which can only be for good). And it is not the teachers who are to blame. Teaching is under-resourced and focuses on the wrong things sometimes. There are class differences. Both writers agree that it is difficult to implement change, but that we need to foster sustained connection with the natural world.
At the end of the talk, I purchase a book from each author, and they kindly sign it for me.
We move outside where there are parasols and tables on the gravel with apple trees and fairy lights trained along wires. Herbs, fruit, and vegetables are growing in utilitarian planters, buckets, lead troughs, and raised beds - with thyme, mint, and lemon balm - and in the sky above us there are at least two dozen swallows and house martins.
Delicious cooking smells waft from the kitchen. We enjoy a ‘kitchen garden’ curry of tomato, squash, onion, potato, aubergine, and green beans, with rice and bread. Pudding is described as ‘stone fruit crumble’ and is topped with a cinnamon biscuit and flaked almond crumble, served with ice cream. Trying to identify the cooked fruit once the flavours have melded is not easy, but I would hazard a guess that there are peaches and plums in the mix.
For all the disenchantment, there is still so much left to love, and to fight for, in this country of ours. In the twilight, the swallows and house martins continue to amass over the valley, with their gliding, then faltering flight, looking sleek and black against the sky. It was a delightful evening with great company; a timely reminder of what we might achieve. If only the will was there.
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Katy Emma thrives on capturing stories about people, place, and the appreciation of nature, through her writing and book arts. She lives in Devon, UK.
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