In Vanishings, from Palewell Press (2020) skilled writer Rebecca Gethin uses poetry to show us at-risk-of-extinction creatures in the U.K. — large and small and in-between — species that we may never see ourselves or even have known of their existence. Rebecca is an observant, passionate and well-travelled naturalist who has studied the subjects of her poems closely. Her book is full of fascinating and eye-opening details and adventures. Highly recommended. Very enjoyable to read. And I like how the listing in the bestiary at the end of the book tells us which species is featured in each poem.
Black-tailed Godwit , illustration by Tom Harding
Here’s the post about pine martens which includes this video poem:
Q & A
Elly: Although each of the poems can be enjoyed on its own, there is obviously an overall theme to the collection. Would you go even further and say you have a purpose, intended message?
Rebecca: I have long felt that nature is slipping away from us. I have kept a nature/weather notebook for at least 25 years, recording weathers and sightings and I know that cuckoos and swallows return to this place earlier than before, that some plants flower at different times from 20 years ago.
In this book I wanted to explore transience and break down the reasons for it happening in the UK for myself. To look at in the face. I don’t plan things in advance so when I started out I didn’t know it would be a book. As with my two novels, I start writing and hope it will cohere. I was lucky that after I had written about ten poems Camilla Reeve at Palewell Press said she would publish them as a pamphlet. But after a while the idea grew like grass and became bigger than that. This early acceptance gave me permission to approach naturalists and ask questions of them which I wouldn’t have found that easy if I was just writing a poem.
The idea behind each poem was initially to find out what made each creature so vulnerable…there is a range of reasons why extinctions are happening. It isn’t just one. I found that sometimes it’s their very specific habitat that is threatened like the water vole in Backwater or the willow-tit in Calibration of Loss; sometimes it’s the requirements of their complex life-cycle like the Marsh Fritillary in Instar: sometimes their diet is now in short supply like the greater horse-shoe bats in Glints in the Echoes or the cuckoos in Natural Selection; sometimes its dependency on another rare creature as in the Large Blue poem, Charm. My aim was to explore the creatures’ lives and try to capture it a little in words. I didn’t want to shy away from scientific words and didn’t worry if all readers wouldn’t be familiar with them if it felt like the most suitable word. I also wanted facts to sing and so I deliberately walked a very delicate line.
One rule I imposed upon myself was that I should see and experience the creature in real life and I shouldn’t just write from watching videos. So I saw (almost) everything in this book. I didn’t see the corncrake but I would have done if Lockdown 1 had not prevented me from travelling to Orkney. I think seeing the creature gives writing more of a spark. It certainly meant that I fell deeply in love with every creature I wrote about for this book.
No, there was no “message” planned, other than Look at This! I love taking photos and take my camera everywhere. I think the urge to write the poems was the same …to catch the fleetingness. I also wanted to investigate and see as much as possible what lies below the surface. The facts are often far stranger than any fiction.
Elly: Invertebrates appear in some of your poems, as well as a whole range of other creatures. Would you select one of your insect or spider poems that we can include in this post, and tell us how you came to write the poem and more about the creature itself?
I am lucky that as well as having moorland we also still have an area of lowland heath in the vicinity which is where Heath Potter Wasps can be found. I went with a local entomologist called John Walters to discover the wonders of their lives. As in the poem, they build these tiny capsules out of clay they mine from the ground. There are many kinds of wasp and you might not realise this is a wasp if you saw it. We sat and waited for one to arrive at a scrape of clay (John knew exactly where they would fly to) and it scrabbled in the clay and rolled it into a tiny ball and then it zoomed over the heather to where it had already started building its pot on a grass stem. The intricacy of it was amazing. They build twenty of these in a summer and after that they die. The egg hatches inside the safe little pot and the larva feeds on the larder of dead caterpillar placed inside by the mother wasp and, then after pupation, it hatches out next summer to enjoy its summer of pot-forming. Magic!
It’s on this lowland heath that John also took me to see the Narrow-headed Ant which is just about the last stronghold in the UK for this type of ant.
Ants may seem small and unimportant but they are part of the web of life. It isn’t this ant that the Large Blue relies on but it is another sort of ant the Myrmica red ant that likes chalk hillside. This is where wild thyme grows which is the foodplant of the Large Blue’s larvae. Without the Myrmica red ant the Large Blue will die out as its larva is totally dependent on being able to overwinter in the nest of that species. I find this almost unbelievable! How scientists discovered this is also a marvel to me.
Elly: We hear about citizen scientists, urban naturalists, birding activities, all sorts of ways to volunteer and get involved in group activities and activism. We can also, of course, do something personally by opening our senses to the world around us – and enjoy what we can and not take it for granted. . Do you have advice for people in these hard times?
Rebecca: Open your eyes and look beneath the surface.