Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Melissa Harrison

Melissa Harrison | 29th December 2020

It’s time for the annual end-of-year musings known as Shadows and Reflections. Since so many of our lives were lived in thematic overlap this year, we’ve asked our contributors and friends to focus on the small, strange and specific as they look back over the last 12 months. Today it’s the turn of Melissa Harrison.

On April 6th 2020 the first episode of Melissa Harrison and Peter Rogers’ ‘Stubborn Light of Things’ podcast went out. Produced in Suffolk and South London, Mel and Pete used WhatsApp to collaborate, and have returned to the app for a look back at how it went.

Mel: Holler. You there?

Pete: I am

Mel: So I’ve been thinking back to when we started the podcast – how we just threw ourselves in, tried to get the first episode out as quickly as possible, because spring was rolling on, the chiffchaffs were singing and we wanted to tell people about it all. We knew it was going to be 26 episodes, or 27 I think, but we didn’t really have any concept of what that actually meant, did we? 

Pete: Not a clue.

Mel: And I remember we got to ten and we were like, wow, that’s basically a whole series, and we’re not even half-way through. We made six months’ worth of weekly podcasts, from a totally standing start. How do you feel now, looking back on it?

Pete: On a basic level it taught me it’s possible to create something brand new, from scratch, in an area you have very little hands-on experience, and make something that’s valuable – as long as you’re passionate, determined and you have something you really want to say. I’m generally someone who likes to stick to things I know and already feel comfortable with, so having done something so new makes me feel like more things are possible in my life. I certainly never thought I’d make a podcast AND release an album of music I made for it all in a six-month period! What about you, has it changed you? 

Mel: YES, I’ve started turning into you! Well, not you *exactly*, but someone who listens and hears completely differently, more like I imagine you do. Do you remember, right at the start we were trying to work out where I’d record the bits of the pod that weren’t ‘out in the field’, and you suggested we try to use my car as a booth? And I did, and you were like, ‘Yeah… sounds like a car’. I couldn’t understand what you were on about – like, what does the inside of a car sound like, exactly? – but a couple of months later my ears had totally changed and I could listen back to that early take and go ‘Yes, it sounds JUST like I’m in a car’. 

Pete: Ha!

Mel: And I notice much more now, from the rustle of my clothing to every distant plane. By the time we got to the later episodes, people would send in their guest spots and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, that sounds compressed’ before I’d even sent it to you for checking! That would never have happened before. I’m not saying it’s turned me into Chris Watson, but my experience of the world is different now, and I really like it. I want to keep it going, too – I’m really hoping we can make something else and I can learn more, though we did really need a break by the end of it. 

Pete: I love the fact your brain is doing this. Although it does concern me I might end up out of a job for future projects. 

Mel: Do you miss it?

Pete: Yes and no. It gave a structure to my weeks, and I enjoyed every moment of it, but it was hard work. And there was a sense of resolution when it was done. It finished on such a perfect note for me, I don’t think we could have done any more. And people seemed to respond amazingly well to it. Were you surprised how much people connected with it? You received so many messages from people saying it really helped them this year.

Mel: Those messages were for both of us! But yes, hugely surprised. I don’t think either of us had any idea we’d get over 16k listeners a week at its peak, or that people would listen from all over the world. And they’re still discovering it now! So yeah, there’s a sense of having made something that really mattered. And I think our decision not to put any ads on it, or do a Patreon or anything, was the right one. It was a gift offered to the world, and so people took it in the spirit in which it was offered. It also meant – for me anyway – that some of the pressure was off, you know? If we’d been making it for a podcast company, or the BBC, or we’d been charging for it in any way I’m not sure I’d have had the balls to do it, given that we had so little experience and could well have fucked it up. But this year people were ready to be very forgiving. There was a sense of people doing their best, things not always being perfect, and that being OK. I found it liberating. So when you look back now, what are the natural details that stand out for you, which birds or creatures or plants or images really stick in your mind? 

Pete: Oh, your barn owl encounter from episode 3, which was just an amazing moment and one that so many people have mentioned to us. The pure joy of it! What I’ve enjoyed most though, I think, were the changing textures over the course of the series. From the birdsong of those first few months, through the hot summer with crickets and the gentle susurration of the trees, through to autumn where it was so much quieter, the sound of acorns crunching under your feet. I obviously KNEW the natural world was in a state of flux throughout the year, but to hear it and pay such close attention to the development and change really deepened my appreciation of what’s around us all the time. 

Mel: That’s nice to hear. Sometimes you can know something theoretically/intellectually, but that’s very different from it really becoming part of your lived reality.

Pete: But you’ve obviously been much more invested in this than I have, and a love of the natural world runs through your veins. Is it possible you gained an even greater reverence for it in 2020? 

Mel: I think what I gained was a chance to really plug into my new home. I’d only moved into my cottage a few months before lockdown, I didn’t really know anyone, it was my first spring and summer in the village. Getting out as much as I did, discovering all the footpaths and hidden spots, really looking and listening and noticing – it grounded me here and helped me put down roots. So now I’m really hoping someone backs us to make the series we want to make next spring, aren’t you? I think it could be really special.

Pete: AGREED. I think it could be a beautiful thing. There was a natural resolution to the podcast, but I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface of what we can do in the future. We’re a pretty good team!

Mel: Hell yeah.


You can listen back to all episodes of ‘The Stubborn Light of Things’ here. Pete’s accompanying album can be found here.

Melissa Harrison’s latest book, ‘The Stubborn Light of Things: A Nature Diary’, was our Book of the Month for November. Read an extract here, a review here, or buy a copy, with limited signed bookplate, here.