Last week in Extremadura in south-west Spain I finally resolved a conundrum I’ve been pondering for almost ten years.
I taught nature writing for the first time in 2007 and since then have been dogged by a question: how do you combine the inspiration from nature with its conversion to words? So often places where you can teach have restricted access to experiences that are truly affecting. On the other hand you can find great wild places, but there’s nowhere to sit and reflect on how to describe them. I’ve taken the same puzzle with me to teaching centres in central Wales, Devon, south Yorkshire, the highlands of Scotland and Norfolk. Finally with a week-long course entitled Recreating Extremadura I feel that I’ve solved the problem.
I’ve been working on it since 2014 with my old friend, Martin Kelsey of Casa Rural el Recuerdo. On a balmy Sunday afternoon in November he met our pioneer group, many of them now friends also, amid Madrid’s gloriously bleached winter sunshine. Then we drove to his home near Trujillo.
There were nine in total and the aim was to envelop a three-day writing course within the overwhelming sense of natural abundance that is the signature experience in this landscape. It was apparent even as we barreled along the motorway. Every few minutes there were red kites, vultures, harriers and buzzards while a Spanish imperial eagle swept directly over the vehicle but managed , alas, to avoid eye-contact with several of us.
The following day we took in the full range of landscape forms in this region, including Monfragüe NP. This was the first of two full-day excursions book-ending the course and providing word fuel and inspiring memories for our central time indoors, . We were soon among the dehesa woodlands that are visible almost to the horizon at every point of the compass, but especially from the Castillo at Monfragüe near Peña Falcon.
Vultures swept over and around us wherever we looked in numbers you now can now scarcely find either in India or Africa. And here for good measure – forgive the image quality – is a little bit of moving footage.
We rounded the day off amid an even richer sense of abundance at the rice paddies of Madrigalego just a little south of Casa Rural el Recuerdo. This is intensive agriculture at it most puzzling. Vast areas of chemically drenched rice, highly mechanised farming with a little (illegal?) stubble burning on the side, yet this landscape holds immense numbers of waterbirds or sparrow flocks on every side. It is extraordinary. The highlight is undoubtedly the opportunity to see wintering cranes as they come to roost.
This scene was an intended canvas on which we could develop our own writing exercises. So in midweek, after a further day and a half of exercises and of thinking about the work of others (eg Mary Austen, Annie Dillard, Norman Lewis, Cormac McCarthy, Gavin Maxwell and Katrina Porteous) we returned to Madrigalejo to remind ourselves of its details. We stayed until sunset when the cranes, harriers, sparrows and egrets were all gathering for the night. It was wonderfully atmospheric. Nothing really conveys it, but here’s some moving footage of the cranes that indicates how these birds in large congregations are an all-embracing encounter: a matter of smell, sight and hearing. We spent a lot of time trying to capture the exact quality of their calls but, like many natural sounds, I think it eluded us.
My own favourite of Extremadura’s key landscapes is technically known as pseudo-steppe, expanses of grassland interspersed with patches of low-intensity arable, which I have written about at the conclusion of my book Birders. I never tire of the exquisite light, the continental vastness of it, as well as the subtler and more detailed intimacies – the upper vault of larksong, the banks of flowers at your feet, or the momentarily spiralling birds of prey.
One of our exercises involved trying to use the inspiration of music to explore how the internal rhythms of language can capture or, at least, help to convey the qualities of nature. It provoked some great results from Angela and Karen while Jez later produced a short passage that was a perfect reenactment of a fox hunting craneflies that he had witnessed elsewhere.
Our work wasn’t all straightforward. We suffered the interruptions of celebrity when Angelique of the regional Extremaduran television company came to see what the crazy British were about. Here is Fiona explaining the fascination of nature and writing.
And here for good measure is the complete group.So why was it so much more satisfying to talk about nature writing in Extremadura than anywhere else?
I guess this little montage of images spells out much of the appeal. It was not just the fact that the middays were warm and sunlit (or the nights crisp and starlit) so that we could often do our lessons outdoors around Casa Rural’s lovely granite table and bench; nor was it simply the drama of much of the wildlife, including the vultures and cranes; nor was it the constant surprises, the hoopoes as we took lunch, the tiny viperine snakelet across our path; nor the omnipresent vibrancy of the evergreen trees – the dehesa oaks, the olive groves, the wayside pistachios or strawberry trees (with the red fruits). It is the fact that you are enfolded in a sense of abundance that can be replicated in very few parts of Britain today. Extremadura is still a landscape where people and place are intimately connected. It works for them; they work in and with nature. No wonder I’ve been going back for 35 years. Now I’m looking forward to the next time.
Anyone interested in joining our next ‘Recreating Extremadura’ course should click here.