NWR Issue 108

Climbing the Fish Ladder

Philip Hoare’s recent piece for the New Statesman, ‘The Naming of the Shrew: Language, Landscape and the New Nature Writing’, explores a perceived lack of diversity within the genre and welcomes the ‘sterling work’ of Robert Macfarlane’s new book Landmarks in ‘addressing [such] a gender imbalance’, particularly in its attention paid to post WWII writer Nan Shepherd. Hoare describes the publishing sensation H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald as ‘a breath of fresh, if grief-inflected air’. Mourning (for a miscarried baby) also tinges, Katharine Norbury’s new hardback, The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream.

The author was a foundling baby and her book’s premise is a journey tracing a river back to its source, a place for her, associated with conception, birth, rebirth and baptism. Set partly on the Llŷn peninsula, in beautiful locations such as Garn Fadryn and Porth Dinllaen, where Norbury seeks respite from feelings and an overworking literary husband, the book is a promising addition to the genre. However, this female author doesn’t add much in terms of a wider interpretation of diversity, as she and her daughter have a privileged existence, flying easily outside of state-school holidays between Barcelona and Wales: ‘The beach was the reason I had bought the cottage in the first place – or rather Rupert had bought the cottage. It was his extraordinary wedding gift, funded by a film deal from one of his books….’

The sense of appropriation left in me by the book in relation to its settings, would have been allayed by the greater use of Welsh names (for example, having noted the Welsh names Abergeirch, Norbury continues to refer to the anglicised Cable Bay). Names are important, as Macfarlane’s Landmarks emphasises; indeed, Hoare describes his book as ‘in part an idiosyncratic glossary of ancient or newly invented words.’ My favourite from Hoare’s review is the Gaelic ‘grunt-like èit’ from Lewis: ‘the “practice of placing quartz stones in moorland streams so that they would sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them….”’ A fish ladder, by any other name.

In co-judging our inaugural Awards for nonfiction nature writing, I weeded out quite a few entries that represented appropriation by visitors, part-time residents and recent newcomers to lovely natural places. The winning entry, Eluned Gramich’s essay published here, is about nineteen months spent in Japan, mainly in Hokkaido in the far north, as a Daiwa Scholar. She was indeed also a visitor, but her humility and respect, especially to the language, is palpable; as Mark Cocker’s adjudication stated, hers is ‘a minutely detailed yet nuanced evocation of place and personalities that is full of ecologically precise imagery; it is as attentive to the Japanese language as it is to local landscape.’ I’m proud that Gramich is one of four women out of the six nominated and highly commended entries from the Awards, published here.

Martin Kratz’s poem, ‘Rivers’, in this issue, loops back to our original theme: ‘At the tip of its long finger / the source feels / the toothless gums of the estuary [….] Rivers search for their mate by hand. They pat down the ground at night / like drunks for dropped keys.’


previous editorial: Seeking Riches
next editorial: Falling Storeys or Tall Stories


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