Finding Nature Right Before Your Very Eyes

Was asked to write a short essay for ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ on its latest ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards’ offering 1,000 euro in prize money, 500 words maximum, flash fiction and creative non fiction, deadline December 10, with Nature as a central theme.

Before discussing the important role Nature can play in setting scene, mood and suspense in creative writing, let me confess a couple of things.

First and foremost, I’m married to someone who in a previous not-too-long-ago era might have been accused of witchcraft, perhaps even tied to a stake and burned on a pyre for her beliefs and her potions – basically for her comprehensive understanding of Nature.

My wife is a medical herbalist. Here is a video of her beloved garden.

Secondly, I am one of those lucky people who happens to live in what I modestly describe – to plagiarise the Carlsberg beer commercial (which was probably plagiarised from somewhere else) – as ‘probably the most beautiful place in the world,’ plum on the picturesque ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ on the northwestern coast of Ireland. A place known as ‘the Forgotten Land.’

As such, it is easier for me than for many other writers to access relevant information on Nature either through what I’ll lovingly call ‘pillow talk.’ Or simply by gazing out my front living-room window across to the forest, over the turf bogs, past the mountains and down to the ocean and the basket of islands that nestle snugly quietly below (what, you don’t believe me – well then, have a look at this.

So, integrating Nature into my novel ‘Pretty Ugly’ was less due to the power of my imagination than the power of my senses, mainly seeing, hearing and smelling. And to a great extent, feeling, using my heart-brain.

That being so, I’d like to share with you some of the instances in which I relied on Nature to help me encourage a certain mood or expectation in my readers.

I hope this will encourage you to enter this edition of the Wild Atlantic Writing Awards (WAWA). It’s a lovely autumn writing challenge. And remember: deadline is coming soon, midnight, Thursday, December 10th.

CURIOSITY AND INTRIGUE

“Ernie turned, moving upwind towards the abandoned houses, the bog moss soft underfoot, brown water oozing out from under his heavy boots with every step. He felt strange, as if he was trespassing on sacred ground, walking a place he didn’t belong to anymore. In the distance, he could see fog approaching, a fluffy gray pillow rolling gently along the sky. He watched it creep silently landward. It was as if the floating mists carried wisps of memory curled in their spidery nets. As if ghosts were coming ashore. Out at sea, in the caesura between waves, an eerie lull lurked. He remembered the wailing winds and the loneliness. He shrugged off the thought. He wouldn’t stay long. A quick check things were fine. He’d promised. Then he’d be gone. He took a folded sheet of paper from his coat and opened it. Two lists were typed neatly on it, one on each side. He scanned the first – ‘Arthropoda – cockroaches, millipedes, termites, earwigs, crab-spiders, grasshoppers, dragonflies.’ He flipped the paper over. ‘Lower Invertebrates – ribbon worms, mussels, anemones, hydra, jellyfish, slugs, limpets, cockles, moss animals, abalone.’

Above him lay a menacing sky. He had to be up at the house before dark. He’d promised Patricia. He fingered the keys in his pocket. He felt trusted but an inexplicable sense of apprehension rushed over him, of events out of his control. Secrets were hard to keep around here.”

excerpt from ‘Pretty Ugly

SUSPENSE/FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN

“Below, a band of mist stretched across her vision etched with tiny lights blinking like stars indicating the whereabouts of scattered homes among the hills. The silhouetted slopes of Errigal and Muckish mountains loomed around her, their respective pyramid and bread-loaf shapes barely recognizable in the gloom. Beyond lay the endless sea, its constant ebb and flow the sound of a slumbering giant snoring softly, each rhythmic breath, she imagined, blowing a ripple of surf along the surface of the water. The dark humps of Gabhla, Inis Oirthir and Inis Meain islands lay in a disheveled cluster, mismatched jigsaw pieces, their jagged edges like fingers reaching valiantly out to each other.

Trees swayed beside her, their branches waving to and fro maniacally as if delivering a dire warning, ‘Stop, go no further, go back, go back…before…’ She felt goose pimples form on her arms and started to shiver, the damp seeming to enter her very bones. She felt a sudden urge to rush back to the house but when she turned the house had melted into the fog, which had grown denser and was billowing all around her. It seemed as if she had stepped into a limbo, a non-man’s land between the living and the dead. She stopped nervously in her tracks listening, sensing a presence nearby. But there was only the groan of the wind, the smack of raindrops splashing against leaves. She started walking again but felt ever more disoriented in the fog and was forced to stop every few minutes to avoid sliding into the deep ditch that ran along the side of the road.”

excerpt from ‘Pretty Ugly

IMPENDING DOOM/TRAGEDY

“He raised his hand slowly to the thing stretched across his cheek. It felt spongy, string-like. He brushed it off then tried moving his other hand but jolts of excruciating pain shot through him almost making him black out. With sheer willpower he remained conscious staring into the gloom. Within minutes, his eyes began to decipher vague shapes and forms. Stones, rocks, weeds. A desolate terrain bereft of bushes or trees. To his fevered mind, it seemed a futuristic, post-Armageddon world. His eyes fell upon the spongy substance, recognizing it for what it was – a clump of sphagnum moss.

Then realization dawned: he was lying in the middle of a bog. He could feel it under him, soft as if alive, clasping him closer. Thinking back as to how he had got here his mind conjured up a series of fast-moving images as if on a film spool. A woman’s sad face; raised voices; a slammed door; heavy rain; tendrils of fog; screeching brakes; the world turning upside down; pain. Then nothing. Feelings rushed at him snarling like rabid dogs foaming at the mouth – guilt, fear, loneliness, an abject sense of failure.

Feeling a tugging sensation from behind, he turned his head slightly. A thick swathe of mud had encased itself around his legs, just below his waist. It clung to him tenaciously like wet cement. Then he felt the tug again. Was there a reptile below the surface pulling at the cloth of his pants? The sinking sensation made him stiffen but he couldn’t muster the strength to pull himself out. The more movement he made, the more pain he endured, the more he was being sucked in. The viscous mud itself was dragging him slowly downwards into it.”

excerpt from ‘Pretty Ugly

ACTION

“Yanking open the door, he strode purposefully outside, the sudden chill making him shiver.

The storm had gotten worse, matching his mood. Clouds as black as ink. Rain pelting down as if heavens’ drains had opened. Fog as thick as cement draped the coastline, blotting out buildings, fields, islands. He could scarcely see his car standing in the driveway. A blustery wind howled around him, plastering his hair in a wet mess against his forehead. Impatient to put miles between him and this brooding place, he twisted the ignition key sharply, stamping down hard on the pedal. The tires squealed, tossing up gravel. He didn’t care. There wasn’t too much he cared for anymore. Past memories, present frustrations, they made for a potent cocktail. He careened out of the driveway, the car slipping and sliding on the muddy ground. Then he was on the steep slope leading down between the bogs, Patricia fading into his past with each passing second.”

excerpt from ‘Pretty Ugly

INTROSPECTION/GUILT

“A line of hefty oak trees bordered the road, a battalion of soldiers keeping intruders out of the ancient turf bogs beyond, but these gradually gave way in the glare of the headlights to straggly bushes like war-weary remnants of a bedraggled army in retreat, then to stunted patches of grass and reed. Sturdy drywalls that had defied a thousand storms and the bone-chilling winds sweeping across the Atlantic seemed to retreat now in the glare of his headlight, leaving behind a sullen emptiness, a bitter, forlorn landscape that matched his mood.

Questions rushed at him, tormenting him, reminding him of feelings he thought he’d buried deep inside. It was as if his heart had been ripped from his chest and tossed raw and bleeding into the cold, wetlands around him where it lay inert and shapeless. The mask of hope he’d dared to wear upon entering her home had been torn asunder and cast into the billowing waves below. And the awful, gut-wrenching truth that whatever he’d tried, whatever efforts he’d made, he’d failed, rushed at him, drowning him, sucking his emotions in a downward spiral. Then a sudden realization dawned. It wasn’t Patricia he was hearing. It was the ghost of Maria. Taunting him, blaming him, accusing him of not caring enough to believe in anything. Or was it just himself, refusing to forgive himself for not being there for her? And now, here he was. Running away yet again.”

excerpt from ‘Pretty Ugly

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