Wild Words: Rewilding the library
Christina Riley of The Nature Library writes about the works that inspired her
Christina Riley, creator of The Nature Library, was inspired by our Wild Words campaign to write about the books and writers that inspired her to start her wild library.
Every day the sun rises to spill light over rolling hills and grand mountains, lush forests and hedgerows, wildflower meadows, flowing rivers, lochs and sandy beaches decorated with shells in every colour of the rainbow. Rainbows! Soaring across the sky and hugging waterfalls.
It’s a wonder how we can even attempt to take it all in and, as ludicrous as it is to suggest that the gift of sight and an abundance of beauty could ever be considered a problem, I think we can be forgiven for feeling paralysed by choice. With so much to look at it can be possible to see nothing at all.
Putting the world into words
Thankfully, wild words are here to offer a little bit of clarity — whether its John Muir’s exuberant and intricate observations of individual “flower friends” alongside his astonishing tales of survival atop the rock faces on which they bloom, Nan Shepherd’s bewitching journeys into the mountain, Kathleen Jamie’s poetic and stark sincerity on our need for nature (but not necessarily nature’s need for us) or Rachel Carson’s startling findings, written with the urgency of someone confronting the loss of irreplaceable love — our eyes and mind are given the opportunity to focus on a single place, a single element, a single petal, one wild word at a time.
“Books are your ticket to the whole world … a free ticket to the entire earth.”
Exploring our relationship with the landscape we inhabit and so significantly inhibit, I believe the more we understand nature, the more we connect with it, and vice versa; when I read John Muir recall his wanders “along the seashore to gaze and wonder at the shells and seaweeds” in Stories of My Boyhood and Youth my response is to take a wander of my own, finding ways to display these coastal treasures for others to gaze at too.
This ripple effect of looking closely at nature is perfectly illustrated by Eliza Brightwen, a Scottish naturalist and writer, in More About Wild Nature, her second book exploring the delights of the natural world found in and around her home:
“How hopeless a task we have set ourselves. We stand and gaze at the gorgeous sight, but how are words to tell of the lovely tones of orange, pink and crimson, in delicate streaks and flecks on a pale blue, or it may be almost sea-green sky (for a stormy sunset will sometimes suggest that colour). I am not going to attempt the task, but I would say, try to do it, if only for the increased power of appreciation of all succeeding sunsets which will be the sure result of even the feeblest attempt at word-painting. The friend will be able to conjure up from your description not perhaps the sunset you saw, but something bright and beautiful that will bring refreshment to a mind possibly very wearied with the monotony of everyday life. Sweeter still will be to her the thought that, whilst nature was giving you such exquisite pleasure, you received only that you might bestow, you took thought and pains that she might be the sharer of your joy.”
She highlights that when we look closer, and importantly when we share what we see, it leads to more looking.
The power of wild words
John Muir changed my understanding of nature and the power words have to force change. So convincingly he took me to the top of a Douglas Spruce, clinging to its highest branches to look out over the valleys of Yosemite with the cool California breeze on my cheeks, that I can still feel the imprints of pine needles on my palms. His writing gushes with unapologetic enthusiasm towards beauty for beauty’s sake, and I was left awestruck by his ability to force such a monumental change of attitude towards the land while stepping on it so lightly.
“The question comes up “What are rattlesnakes good for?” as if nothing that does not obviously make for the benefit of man had any right to exist … They are all, head and tail, good for themselves, and we need not begrudge them their share of life.”
John Muir, Our National Parks
Startled by the similarities I was reading between the environmental concerns of 1895 and 2018, I joined the John Muir Trust to learn more about the wild places on my doorstep, realising that a new generation now faces the same challenges Muir did. Volunteering with the Trust on the Isle of Harris not only did I see first hand its iconic white beaches and turquoise waters, changing hues every time the clouds moved, but had the opportunity to protect them from one of the many current threats to our oceans — the group cleared over two tonnes of plastic in one afternoon.
Philip Hoare’s The Leviathan or, The Whale is a love story which plunged me into the history and mystery of the sea’s gentle giants. Enormous as the whales within it I almost expect to be splashed with saltwater as the book slammed shut. Hoare’s intrigue and infatuation flows from the pages and I wanted to immerse myself in everything there is to know about leviathans, caring more with each new discovery. I went from admiring whales as much as anyone does (surely?), from afar with a sense of detached wonder, to feeling genuine emotional attachment for an animal criminally underappreciated.
“As products of a different branch of evolutionary selection, they appear to have arrived at a superior way of being. The open ocean, without barriers and with a ready supply of food, is an excellent medium for the evolution of such huge, long-lived and intelligent animals; an environment in which communication and socialising take the place of material culture. Theirs is a landless race, free from mortgages and fossil fuel, unconstrained by borders or want, content merely to sing and sleep and eat and die.”
Philip Hoare, The Leviathan
Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain tapped me on the shoulder and revealed Scotland’s landlocked beauty when I was looking unwaveringly out to the ocean. I walked with her into the mountain and felt the air around me cool as she led me to the water trickling from its peak or laying still in hidden lochs. From the centre of a mountain she showed me the depth of the ocean’s magnitude and I wished I could look at her face to face, nodding in bewildered agreement about the sea — both afraid, intimidated but all the while in awe, sharing a mutual respect for the power of water.
When Shepherd wrote that “Light in Scotland has a quality I have not met elsewhere. It is luminous without being fierce, penetrating to immense distances with an effortless intensity”, I knew it immediately. Closing my eyes it pierced through the black haze and I could watch it burn through clouds, spilling over faraway hills. It was a light I loved already and now I understood why. Not only that but she confirmed my suspicion... it really does only exist in Scotland.
(It’s worth noting here that the word ‘shepherd’ means ‘to lead’ - “to make a group of people move to where you want them to go, especially in a kind, helpful, and careful way”.)
I recently finished Kathleen Jamie’s cuttingly beautiful new collection of essays, Surfacing. In the fourth chapter Jamie pin drops you into the expanse of Alaska’s west coast; a luminous landscape where she’s excavating the intricacies of human nature from ice and earth, from stories told on fishing trips and at birthday parties. Within this chapter, titled In Quinhagak, is one of those lines that you have to read two or three times over, carving it in a little deeper with every glide of your eyes from left to right:
“One had to make allowances for this extraordinary light. But then again, maybe it showed how readily, in this unfixed place, the visible shifts. Transformation is possible. A bear can become a bird. A sea can vanish, rivers change course. The past can spill out of the earth, become the present.”
The final chapter I read while sitting on my couch, looking down at those last three pages and taking one long and quivering inhalation in preparation. As my breath unsteadily reached the top I chased down the book’s last words with difficulty; they floated around and off the page, swimming through tears that couldn't be blinked away despite all efforts.
Jamie exposes the everyday aspects of human life—politics, work, family—to the often harsh and always inescapable elements of the natural world. These elements shape the planet every day above and below ground, in light and dark, on land and water, whether a person is there to tell us if they’re making a sound or not. It’s impossible to see it all but when you read Surfacing, Jamie commands you to feel it. And I do. Fragments of these essays found their way under my skin, placed beneath the surface with the soil gently patted on top for safekeeping, stacking one on top of the other. There they’ll be left, sheltered from the elements and maybe even forgotten until someone comes along with a brush, brought to the surface when it’s their time to be retold, revealing foundations of an era represented by bone and flint, shells, language, truth - the past becoming the present.
I enjoyed reading about nature for a long time but something was changing. Nan Shepherd, Rachel Carson, Kathleen Jamie, Eliza Brightwen, Amanda Thomson, Helen Jukes - finally, though until now I hadn’t realised how long I’d been waiting, I was reading about nature in ways that felt real to me. Gone was the narrative of “affluent white man walks off alone; finds himself”. Here I was reading thoughts that had swirled around in my mind a month ago, written by a woman who had the very same thought and put it into words almost a century ago.
Their wild words were touching so much of my life from my artistic practice and daily habits, to how I treat others and how I treat the planet. Each showed me different ways to be wild — that isn’t always about being “outdoorsy” or an “adventurer”, counting scars and Munros, or renouncing all possessions to live as one with the land. It can be quiet and slow, and in fact it can be wild to stop altogether and choose only to look, opening your eyes and letting a new form of wildness flow in. It can be unyielding without being violent. It can be self aware. It can unfurl gently as a gentian and still force change with the uncompromising power of the sea. Suddenly I felt that to be wild is simply to be, growing unrestricted upwards and outwards towards whatever light feeds you enough to grow and flourish, allowing the winds to shape and break and carry you, or a cold snap to frost over your petals until spring sunlight gently thaws them back to life.
The Nature Library
Over time I realised that these words were also making me more aware of and in awe of the landscape. Furthermore this was affecting my proactiveness in taking care of it and I figured that if books could even begin these shifts for me, then they could do it for others.
I thought about starting a library. It’d be very small (because I had no idea how to start a library) and it’d travel around (because the idea of keeping books about the world in one room felt counterintuitive).
I wavered on the name The Nature Library — “nature writing” is a very broad term. Reading Silent Spring is not the same as reading The Outrun, and yet both will take you to landscapes so vivid that you can taste the air, misty with DDT (Carson) or salt (Liptrot). There might be books on the shelves that people would argue aren’t nature writing at all and that’s okay. I don’t mind, and nature certainly doesn’t care, as long as just one person can pick it up and find something within its pages that makes them walk a little slower.
In September I approached Civic House to be the first location of The Nature Library. A public canteen, workspace and venue in Glasgow, I admired their economical kitchen creating one batch vegan dish a day at a set price. It’s a simple concept where nothing is without a purpose and nothing goes to waste. No menus are needed since the daily offerings were written on a blackboard each morning, and the bright canteen is lined with bright orange dinner hall style tables, allowing every visitor to comfortably dine in company or in solitude.
The walk from Civic House from my own is a loud one. Quickly taking the roaring, trash lined shortcut under the M8 I reach the other side by crossing an overpass, through a natural archway of trees and am greeted on the other side by the towering glow of the building, bright white in industrial radiance. Not only am I welcomed by its light but by wildflowers. Overflowing onto the path in front of me was a walkway of vibrant, naturally chaotic flowers and grasses. I slowed my pace to look at them all but my botany skills leave much to be desired and again I thought about what knowledge is being lost, what superstars of the plant world are at our feet and we don’t even realise. I figured Eliza Brightwen would know each one and wondered what she’d say about each.
Meeting the team at Civic House I learned that they had a beehive out back and two years ago had dug out that entire front garden, previously desolate and unwelcoming, to fill it with wildflowers for the bees. Having very recently read A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings by Helen Jukes I’ll unapologetically, perhaps lazily, describe my mind and stomach at the time as buzzing with excitement. This was the perfect first home for The Nature Library.
I wanted the library to provide a place to see the beauty of the natural world through other people’s eyes, enticing them to “look at nature’s loveliness”. From classics (John Muir, Rachel Carson, Henry David Thoreau) to contemporary and local writers (Kathleen Jamie, Amanda Thomson, Jessica J. Lee) the books on its shelves take readers to the edge of the sea, into the mountain or up the tallest of trees. Places that are thriving, struggling, rising, and burning.
To continue Eliza Brightwen’s ripple effect it was important to me that visitors could able share their own thoughts and recommendations. A visitor book created by Juju Books has been made for people to write their favourite books, what they read from the shelves that they’d recommend for the next reader, what page to turn to in one book, or their favourite quote from another.
The Nature Library is just one tiny corner of earth, hopefully one of solace, hope and inspiration; somewhere for people enjoy looking closely at nature. I hope for it to grow, organically—wild, even—shaping itself to the needs of each reader and unavoidably changing as the climate does, creating more wild words that need to be heard.
In A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings an encounter with an open bee hive is described as “wild” by Jukes’ friend. The friend was referring to a fierce rush of exhilaration, a chaotic energy, and Jukes reflects, “I’m not sure wild is how it felt. My eyes are wide and my heart is beating faster, but I also feel calmed and - well - sort of contained”.
I hope for people to find this at The Nature Library - eyes wide, hearts beating, calm. Wildness can be contained. It can be inside a book.