Stephen Rutt is a writer and amateur naturalist, specialising in creative non-fiction prose and birds. He won the Saltire Society’s first book award, as well as a Roger Deakin award for his debut book, The Seafarers. His second book, Winteringwas one of The Times’s best nature books of the year for 2019.
Stephen’s most recent book is The Eternal Season: Ghosts of summers past, present and future, which has been described as combining ‘lyrical meditations on the abundant beauty of British summer with measured, poignant and vital reminders of the unsettling effects of global warming’. The book charts the many ways in which the season is becoming deranged by a changed and changing climate: the wrong birds singing at the wrong time; August days as cold as February; the creeping disturbances that we may not notice while nature still has some voice. It is both ‘a celebration of summer and a warning of the unravelling of this beautiful web of abundant life’.
Folk Horror Revival has a strong affinity for the natural world and is a committed supporter of the Wildlife Trusts. In light of this and noting the distinct whisper of hauntology associated with The Eternal Season, John Pilgrim took the opportunity to ask Stephen a few questions about his writing and what inspires him.
FHR: What were you hoping to achieve when you started to write The Eternal Season – and how did this turn out by the time of publication?
SR: I wanted to write a sort of almanac. I have a bit of an obsession with old almanacs, I scour charity shops and second hand bookshops for them, most from authors I’ve never heard of. Observations of historic wildlife are fascinating to me, partly for how they’re framed but also for what they found: they seem like a great starting point for trying to work out where we’re at currently. Often the most banal passages illustrate how far things have changed. And then as the ideas for this sort-of almanac of summer were settling in my head in the autumn of 2019, I was reminded by the incredible exuberance of hawthorn berries that year that to take a selective timespan of nature is or can be misleading. There are no neat cuts to be made: it really can only be contemplated properly in the whole. This isn’t new, this was my re-realising the truth of John Muir’s seeing nature as a universe of hitches. And then I wanted to explore, taking those old almanacs as a starting point, the way that seasonal writing hasn’t really properly responded to the anthropocene.
Almanacs present a vision of nature as a place of ordered happenings, a fixed schedule of emergences and migrations, which may well once have been true, but nowadays isn’t. Hence I had to begin on the Solway Firth, as storm tides threatened natterjack toad habitat, then in Liverpool where a blackcap – a common summer migrant warbler – had been spending the winter in my friend’s mahonia. This in particular is an increasing phenomenon that has actually led to blackcaps that winter here beginning to evolve differences from those that spend the winter in the Mediterranean. That destabilising was something I had planned to trace out… all the way until March, when lockdown hit, I was marooned in Bedfordshire instead of Dumfries and Galloway, and my planned research trips lay in tatters. The book benefitted from it though. It meant the rare stuff was out and I was refocused on the everyday, the common place and what was at hand in the fields and woods around, which were nothing special. I still found special things of course – and to return to those old almanacs, what they found and what I couldn’t, well that began to haunt me. By the end of the summer, when I was able to return to Scotland, I found that this had completely shaped my thinking.
As I turned to think about the role of climate change in all this more directly (it is woven everywhere of course) at the end of the book, I began to be a bit more hopeful. All I have as a naturalist is my observations. I am not alone. There are myriad naturalists observing, calculating, noticing the changes, expanding our knowledge of nature and what’s changing. That, I think, is where hope lies most of all. The absolute dedication and belief of conservationists thrills and inspires me.
FHR: The Eternal Summer can be seen as a hauntological meditation on summers past, present and future. Our memories of summers past shaping our sense of loss of summers yet to be. Different conceptions of the future are now playing out. Some are dark, yet others offer hope. As the American philosopher and baseball coach Yogi Berra has observed with great insight ‘the future ain’t what it used to be’. A sense of nature’s abundance slipping away is probably much more part of a younger generation’s experience and future anticipation – although of course The Silent Spring was published in 1962. How did writing the book help you to grapple with these sorts of issues?
SR: Nature is full of hauntings and full of the haunted too. Some of these on a basic, emotional level, some requiring a bit of knowledge. I’m still of a younger generation and I’ve grown up with the idea of loss in nature. Birding has been my obsession for half my life and in that time it seems like the narrative arc of it has headed inevitably (irretrievably?) towards loss. Not just loss as in absence but a loss of abundance. I don’t know if I agree that there’s a sense of abundance slipping away, because to me it slipped away before my time. For some of the haunting presences in the countryside, I need to educate and remind myself of it, like a snag that I can’t quite move beyond: it may be pretty but where are the turtle doves, and when did they disappear from here?
I should say also that there is obviously still abundance in the countryside, and these are things worth celebrating. Often though these tend to be new species, spreading in response to a changing climate, conservation work or habitat creation. Which is great, but I worry it can hide what’s happening. It’s only normal to be distracted by something new. It’s easier to focus on presence than absence, even if absence has a way of being naggingly, insistently present. I was left with hope, though, on finishing the book, which surprised me. There’s an incredible seam of hope that runs through conservation to Greta Thunberg and the school strikers for future, people like me who grew up never needing to learn about climate change because it’s just always been there as the great impending threat.
We have people doing inspiring things on every level, from the borderless world of the climate to looking after incredibly tiny, niche species. For us in-between, noticing and witnessing the species we find, the landscapes we see, the changes happening and how we talk about it: that’s a pretty good place for us to start. That’s what I wanted to say in the book. I offer no solutions and no answers, just an attempt at thinking and understanding.
FHR: Can you say a bit about your interest in folklore and why you draw on this? If you’d like to do a third and final one that would be ‘What projects have you recently been involved and is there anything in the pipeline which we should watch out for? Answers can be really brief if you wish as you’ve given great detailed answers to the first two questions.
SR: Folklore is fascinating. One of my guiding principles is that as birders, ecologists, naturalists, whatever, that we like biodiversity. I like a cultural biodiversity too. It’s never just the science, or the folklore, or my experience of nature in my narratives. Everyone’s experience of nature is valid and folklore is another expression of that. Where it interacts with science or experience: that’s gold. Also, when I was a teenage birder it wasn’t something I spoke about (except for online, forums and social medium were a godsend then). It was very easy to feel alone in my interest at that age. I’m always looking back, wanting to know the deep history of human interest in wildlife too, deeper than Gilbert White and organised birding. We’ve always looked at animals and thought things. I love that. I long to know what the Pictish thought about birds.
FHR: What other nature writers do you admire?
SR: Kathleen Jamie is the contemporary I most look up to. Her essays are something else: clear and thoughtful and wild and with an unparalleled way with words. I was an undergraduate when she became professor of poetry at Stirling. I was too shy to take her classes. As someone who is only capable at prose, I’m in awe of those who can master it and do poetry and criticism too. Recently I’ve been reading novels again. My literary diet has been nature heavy over the past decade and sometimes there’s just a comfort in being swept along in a plot-rich novel. I’ve been reading Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy and the way he gets the details without being overbearing is perfect. I’ve been reading a lot of Graham Greene too. Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is the perfect dark nature novel.
FHR: What projects have you recently been involved and is there anything in the pipeline which we should watch out for?
SR: Wigtown book festival will be publishing my latest project soon: a short manuscript about life and literature of saltmarsh, called The Saltmarsh Library. I’ve been jointly running walks across Wigtown Bay, out to the mud and creek dipping with Elizabeth Tindal for this year’s festival. It’s the most amazing, magic place. Because of the timing of the project, conceived in the first lockdown and finished in the second (here, it was the third for England), I really delved into what place means and how we interact and think about it, and what it means to be there in a habitat that is well described in ecology textbooks, yet is also nothing like that in real life. After that: just ideas, and no time to make anything of them yet. But always keep an eye on my social media.