Dr Julie Carter



Photograph by Jessie Leong

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”
― Aldo Leopold

The other day I was visited by a good friend who told me of his sadness at no longer seeing the dippers in the river near where he lives. Worried that the neat little brown-and-white bobbing birds have abandoned him, he struggled to share the depth of his heartbreak.

“Its only a small thing really”, he says unconvincingly—because it isn’t.

After my friend left, I was listening to three nature writers talking on the radio on the subject of whether so-called ‘nature writing’ can help to activate positive change and the nurturing of the ecosystems being written about. Can writing make an impact—socially, politically, emotionally, in ways that provoke change? Can writing make any sort of difference?


Writing, the authors agreed, can be a form of activism. But I think this is only true if the writing itself is untamed. If creative language comes only from an intellect, which could be equally well created by an artificial intelligence programme, then how can the work possess the active energy of a living, complex and self-contradictory, needy creature? One of the best pieces of writing advice I have ever been given was from the writer Professor Jenn Ashworth. Her direction to “try not to clear up the mess”, applies not just to the words we put on a page but also to the stories we run our lives by, in order to make sense, even to ourselves. This overvaluing of a clear narrative is one the things which has divided us from the messy biology and ecology of reality.

I have not yet watched all the episodes of the BBC’s “Wild Isles” series but the scene documenting slug sex was unforgettable—who knew? One of the first scenes that struck me though was of the Orcas hunting seals, the obligatory sinister soundscape helping to frame the well-worn story of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’. At school I loved biology but I unwittingly absorbed the view that nature was ‘out there’. Brutal if sometimes beautiful. Humans don’t live in the realm of ecology we live in ‘civilisations’. We are above. We have dominion. We are special. When I was at medical school our so called ‘Professor of Ethics’ was adamant that Homo Sapiens is the only self-conscious species. By then I’d begun to figure out how redundant that particular fairy-story is, and it sickened me to sit in his lectures.

There are many brilliant writers who have not fallen into the trap of othering the natural world. Many indigenous cultures do not even have a word for ‘nature’ in the way that English does. How can it be that there is a simple noun, a thing outside of ourselves, which we can call ‘nature’. This is one of the reasons good ‘nature writers’ are often reticent about the very term. At the moment I am half way through reading Merlin Sheldrake’s ‘Entangled Life’. This soundly scientific book goes beyond facts and shifts the very concepts of the existence of an individual creature or a defined separate species. These concepts were in essence only ever stories made up to fit the facts as far as we had got to know them. But it just turns out that many of the paradigms I learnt as a student of science and medicine, and upon which are based our understanding of what life is and how to go about it, begin to read like children’s night time stories compared to Sheldrake’s retelling of a much more complicated grown-up version.

Writing can only be activism if it is active and to be that I believe it needs to come a creature who absolutely buys into the idea that the othering of nature is ridiculous and therefore takes on the task of finding a new language. And maybe this task is in part to rediscover a very old language whose structure and wordery does not strive for the fable of neatness but is capable of embodying the mess. I want to start to dream of such a language but it’s hard to even get beyond the myths laid down by my accomplishing the recognition of mastery rewarded with an English ‘O’-Level grade C in 1980. Old truths die hard.

kentmere 2

I am well-fed, well-housed and well-loved and the physical experiences of hunger and hardship are for me largely a matter of choice. Yet I seek them, I even feel I need them. When I go out on the fells and feel my heart beat through my ribs in the heat of a race, or in the mountains when the muscles of my cold mitten-clad hands grip my ice-axes to keep me connected to the world, progressing up the next tricky move of a winter climb. After those experiences the glimmer of a long-forgotten knowing that I am an animal follows me in the door. Maybe it’s then that I can really start to write. I may not reach the status of ‘activism’ but at least sharing makes existing in a world of wounds a little less lonely.

A Natural History Lesson

A fellrunner is a gentle animal,

mostly it’s elusive, shy of crowds,

sometimes seen on or near summits

in the side-light soon after dawn,

or entangled in the lower slopes at dusk

pausing to drink from a stream,

scanning the horizon–and oddly

they often go out after dark.


A fellrunner is a gentle animal

approachable in its native habitat,

all across the northern uplands

you can hear their occasional chatter,

see the studded imprints of their swift passage,

but at weekends and on summer evenings,

driven by ancient instincts, they gather together

to perform the intricate rituals

of their impressive racing behaviour.

These are the times to be wary, the times

when this normally placid creature

can turn fierce.

When they are not in the throes of racing,

simply busy with their daily foraging,

it’s safe to observe them close-up

when it’s possible to notice

a trance-like look they have about them

as they run themselves over the fells

like fingers running over bobbles of braille,

quick and light and exquisitely sensitive

reading the flow and meaning and story

of everything which is being touched.


There’s something enigmatic about it –

experts seem to disagree about this species

which occupies a specialist niche.

Some say it’s a throwback, a soon to die out

evolutionary dead-end.

Others believe this unusual beast

should be nurtured and protected,

that humans may learn from its special abilities,

which might in the end prove difficult because

fellrunners soon die when kept in captivity.

They can only survive in the wild.

WG Dreamtime fellrunner promo resize

Photograph by Jessie Leong