Early Encounters

28 November 2014 // Miscellany

2398716_504f2540Bettws Brook flows towards Lambourne Way, Newport. Photo: Jaggery

By Gavin Goodwin.
Originally published in Wales Art Review 3.22: The Welsh Nature Issue. Used with permission.

We are often encouraged to think of what is wild, what is Nature, as something other than, or outside of, the realm of urban or suburban experience. This makes sense. ‘But wildness is not limited,’ Gary Snyder argues, to ‘formal wilderness areas. Shifting scales, it is everywhere: … Deer mice on the back porch, deer bounding across the freeway, pigeons in the park, spiders in the corners.’ I feel the truth of this when I think of my earliest, and perhaps most intimate, encounters with the natural world. These occurred not in a wilderness, a national park or an ancient wood, but in the garden of a house on a council estate.

I grew up on Bettws, a large and much-maligned council estate on the edge of Newport. Though it was built in the 1960s, the estate planners eschewed the high-rise blueprint, and looked back instead to the cottage estates of the ’30s. Like an impoverished cousin of the Garden City, Bettws was and is a peripheral and stigmatised settlement bordered by woods of Leyland Cypress and green, dung-scented fields. The Bronze Age burial mound on top of Twmbarlwm mountain defines the horizon.

Each house on the estate had a small front and back garden. Our front was, for the most part, paved over with squares of concrete, but there were three soil vents, and a strip of earth at the garden’s edge where my mother planted roses. Our back had an uneven patio that each summer was overrun with tiny red spider mites. No larger than a millimetre, they were creatures possessed of a ceaseless, almost comedic energy. I would sometimes sit and study them as they scurried across the concrete in seemingly random, ever-changing directions. I would sometimes streak them across the stone.

Below the patio was a small lawn that sloped down to the back door, and alongside it a path that glistened each morning with the trails of slugs and snails. A robin would occasionally alight on our bin, and peer into the kitchen. And a host of sparrows descended daily to peck at the crumbs my mother would sling from the bread board after breakfast. Sparrows then, in the 1980s, were an abundant sight. They are now noticeably depleted in Britain. It is estimated that there are ten million fewer than there were twenty-five years ago.

I would sit a long time digging, disturbing earthworms in the autumn mud. I excavated and reorganised the garden with a holiday spade and a Tonka Truck, but could be distracted from any enterprise by the lives of the creatures whose habitats I’d blundered into. Ants, beetles, caterpillars. Earwigs held a special terror for me, for which I hold Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan largely responsible. And it is the earthworm I remember most fondly: the sensation of its damp, brown cylindrical body wriggling its way across my palm like an animated strand of spaghetti.

Worms were permanent residents, but the garden had more infrequent visitors, and I was always quite bewitched by the appearance of a slowworm. This glimmering legless lizard could curl itself around your wrist with such supple, liquid motion, but when the coil of its body tightened it was shockingly hard and muscular. The character of the experience was one of exhilarating but unnerving sensual paradox.

Though hedgehogs sometimes fell foul of the busy roads (it was not uncommon to see their distinctive, keratin-stiffened hairs flattened into the tarmac), they also found their quiet way into our garden. Their nocturnal appearance always provoked a surge of excitement, strong enough to break the narcotic spell of the television, and send us hushed and electrified to the back door. There we watched, in the distant sodium glow of the street lamp, as one would lick at a saucer of milk and bread (inflicting unknowingly on this hedgehog, as we had on many before, a bout of diarrhoea). After a time, our visitor would shuffle off into the blue night, disappearing under the dark conifers.

The garden is an intermediary or, as a psychoanalyst might say, transitional space. It’s not quite the home, but not quite the outside world either. In that it is an extension of the home, it provides a safe realm for a child to further his or her imaginative play. Anxiety is kept at bay by the close, but not invasive, proximity of a parent, and the child’s imagination is free to appropriate the objects it encounters in this vibrant, new sensorium. But in so far as it is also the ‘outside’, that is, a space of nature, it is as well a site of wild and unpredictable encounters, different from those with a stuffed animal toy or even a pet.

A confrontation with a wild animal in the garden, a fox or a hedgehog, say, is characterised not just by our seeing, but also by our being seen. We can, and do, appropriate nature into our world of play, but we are also presented with our first opportunities to recognise how we enter into their world. With this recognition our centrality, our solipsism, is, perhaps, for a moment displaced, and both the animal’s sentience and free agency can become shockingly apparent. From such an encounter might arise a sense of fellow-feeling, of care. But that the animal is not just an appendage to our world, but a being with a full and separate existence, can also engender a feeling of distance, a distance that cannot be met by a common language. It is for this reason that John Berger argues that ‘animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species.’

As I grew older and was allowed to venture beyond the back gate, I began to bring wildlife back into the garden – usually from the local brook. One of the planners’ wiser decisions was to make the brook a central feature of the estate. Beginning at the conflux of Nant Henllys and Pantyreos Brook, about a mile outside the estate proper, and picking up along the way another tributary rippling down from Mill Wood, Bettws Brook was and is a lovely waterway. It flows right through the heart of the estate, its natural meandering course straightened out. Tarmac paths are laid alongside it, and willows bend over it.

Some years ago the council decided to start charging for the pick-up of unwanted household items that were too big for the bin. The most immediate effect of this seemed to be an increase in old mattresses and fridges appearing in the brook. Still, around this time, the water, in its deeper regions, was home to trout, and if lucky or very patient you could spot a grey heron, standing on the bank like a still curl of smoke.

When I was growing up, though, it was not trout but the humble stickleback that occupied my attention. Three-spined sticklebacks are peculiar fish. Like seahorses, they have no scales, and are, instead, protected by plates of bone. We would often wade barefoot in the brook, and as our eyes became attuned to the action of light on the water, we could begin to make them out, their brown backs blending into the silt and stone, as they shimmered there in the riffles. I mostly remember them in small shoals, but this placid fraternity is ruptured with the arrival of breeding season when, with throats flushed red and eyes glowing aquamarine, they guard their territory ferociously.

I don’t think I ever brought a stickleback home. But I did bring back tadpoles and continued the time-honoured tradition of watching them metamorphose from black-tailed larvae to spring-limbed frogs too quick and nimble to be contained. Just as well, too, because my lingering memory is of a full-grown frog I caught one summer. I kept him in an empty ice-cream tub near the guttering by the back door. I’m not sure how long I had been holding him captive, but one particularly hot day I returned home to find him stiff as a twig. He lay there on the white plastic, with his scorched-red bulbous belly pointing at me like an accusatory finger. He had, on my watch, baked to death. I’d probably been playing football. Obviously, the recognition of a shared sentience was some way off. But the dark comedy of that frog’s burnt belly burned its way into my mind. I never did it again.

As I became an adolescent, I stopped bringing creatures home, no doubt to the relief of amphibians everywhere. And I, myself, became a more urban creature, spending less time in the woods, water and mountains (and when I did find myself in these places, I was usually drunk or high).

Now, I am always walking or running through one woodland or other. And frequently reading and writing – or trying to write – about the ‘natural world’. And though the details are sharper, the experience fresher, there is something lacking, a something that infuses those estate memories or reimaginings. Partly, of course, this is to do with the nature of childhood memories, often coming burnished with a very particular, not entirely trustworthy, glow. But there is something else – which is related, but not synonymous with that.

Paul Farley says of Netherley, the large council estate on the outskirts of Liverpool where he grew up, ‘I’ve never known any other place so intimately … and it feels like the last place I really, fully inhabited.’ I feel similarly about Bettws. And how I ‘fully inhabited’ this space is not just related to its municipal urbanity but a feeling of being deeply enmeshed in its natural world, a wildness that exists between and within urban spaces.

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