A new book, The Heeding, by award-winning writer Rob Cowen reflects on this through a collection of 35 stunning poems conceived and written during lockdown.
While it celebrates the comfort that nature can bring, it also warns that we must take heed – listen to the natural world and our own instincts to create a better future for the planet we all share. “It is about this unprecedented year of upheaval and crisis and the change in our relationship with ourselves and with the natural world,” says Cowen whose 2015 book Common Ground, which was shortlisted for the Portico, and Wainwright Prizes among others, established him as one of the UK’s most original writers on people and place.
Published this week, The Heeding has already been receiving high praise from readers and reviewers – Cowen says his inbox has been full of complimentary emails. “A lot of people have said that they found it useful and I’m very glad about that,” he says. “The response to Common Ground was big but this is something else. It certainly seems to have struck a chord.”
As well it might. The poems – raw, open-hearted, emotionally honest – attempt to make sense of a very difficult and challenging time. “Writing the poems was a necessary and cathartic process, to help me come to terms with what was happening,” says Cowen. “I know this sounds strange, but reading them now it almost feels like someone else wrote them.”
The poems deal, in real time, with the way in which as the extent and gravity of the pandemic became apparent, everyone’s world changed rapidly and irreversibly.
“The first poem I wrote was Moon Over Skipton Road in March 2020 which was when scientists were saying that unless we did something dramatic there would be half a million dead by summer. I went up to the attic with my son who was 7 at the time and we were looking at the moon and I was thinking ‘how am I going to explain to him what is happening?’”
It is an incredibly moving poem that beautifully expresses the terrifying responsibility of parental love. ‘Should these measures prove useless/And I be torn from you,/If it turns out my life/Held no other purpose/But to hold your hand/For this second or two,/It was still worth living for, my love./You were still worth living for.’ “Writing that was really helpful and after that I just wrote and wrote.”
The opening poem in the collection is Duel, which depicts a bird of prey’s ‘dance of death’ with a rat, was inspired by an actual incident that took place right on his doorstep.
“A sparrowhawk came crashing into my back yard, carrying its struggling prey, just as the news of the virus was starting to reach us,” he says. “And there was almost a kind of beauty in this act of savagery.”
It was a ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ moment and throughout the book Cowen is careful not to airbrush the often bloody reality of the natural world. “Nature can be brutal and vicious and for all its beauty and succour, it is completely indifferent to us. When you study it closely, it’s mostly about death, survival and reproduction. Nature was there long before us and it will be there long after us.”
It is this stark realisation – that as human beings we can’t actually control everything and in the end nature will always have the last word – which has led to a kind of reappraisal.
“It takes a shock like this for people to realise what is important to them,” says Cowen. “Nothing else matters except looking after each other and the planet we live on. We have come out of this with a fresh appreciation of what we really value.”
His aim with this book and all his writing he says is to appeal to people’s hearts and souls and explain what we stand to lose if we don’t take heed. “If you can open up nature to people and help them fall in love with it, they will care about it,” he says.
“The writing of this book became a sort of extension of observing and trying to take stock. I would sit down, put the antennae out and then the words would just come flowing out. Some of the poems were reactions to events – in a way the book is a kind of witness statement. It is born out of this intense crucible of emotion but it is optimistic too. If we have learnt anything, it is that we can change things if we work together.
“There are moments in the book of wonder and revelation as well as tragedy and horror but it all points, I hope, to a better future.”
The Heeding by Rob Cowen, illustrations by Nick Hayes, is published by Elliott & Thompson, £12.99.