Libby B Bushell, from Homer, Alaska, has won this year’s The Moth Nature Writing Prize with her story, Homage to a Halibut Eye, which will be published in The Irish Times on December 28th. She wins €1,000 and a week at Circle of Missé, a retreat for writers and artists in the Loire Valley in France.
“This short story is revolting in its smells and its heat and fishy gore,” said Kathleen Jamie, this year’s judge. ‘A different sort of nature-writing, literally visceral, it doesn’t tell us what to think but manages easily to horrify us with lived experience and first-hand knowledge of what we’re doing to the oceans. With a black humour, quick-fire dialogue and descriptions, and two characters trying to make some sort of spiritual sense of the world they are enmeshed in, if it doesn’t make you pause and consider what you’re eating and where it came from, nothing will.’
Bushell is the founder of HoWL, a wilderness expedition camp for children. Raised by artists above the cold, shifting sand of the beaches of Homer, where the daily tidal flux is as dramatic as the daylight and weather of Alaska, Bushell has always found inspiration in nature and in change. She studied creative writing at Colorado College, in between weekends in the Rocky Mountains. She also studied in Wanaka, New Zealand and Avignon, France, where her fascination with steep snowy slopes and her romance with language was born.
Bushell works odd hours as a waitress and wilderness guide so that she can spend the majority of her time doing that which gives her inner peace amidst this volatile and warming world ‒ skiing and writing. She’s currently revising her first novel, Salty, about love, loss and glaciers.
“When I found out I won The Moth Nature Writing Prize, I immediately called my mom, screaming. With no context for the call, she started screaming too. ‘Happy screams! Happy screams!’ I had to say. The Moth Nature Writing Prize is my first piece published outside the small circulation of my alma mater and hometown publications,” Bushell said. “As such, it feels transformative. Today, as I go about my normal routine, chatting with customers about the rockfish special or the blustery weather, I am the same but also new. With this prize, I am grateful and honoured to be part of an international literary community and I cannot wait to continue the conversations with you.”
Jamie chose Molly Lanzarotta’s poem, Sending Texts During the Holocene Extinction as her 2nd prize-winner. She will receive €500.
“This poem grew on me,” Jamie said. “A deceptively simple piece, it’s economical but carefully considered. Though it maintains its conversational tone, it is packed with assonance and consonance which delivers a rich sound. The device is a back and forth of text messages and photos between mother and son, with the young man out there doing his best to help species survive, having adventures, still filled with boyish enthusiasm, while also reaching out for his mother’s reassurances. It is the mother herself who needs reassurance, as she cannot pretend all is well …”
Lanzarotta, who lives in Massachusetts, writes short stories as well as poetry. Recent recognition includes selection for the 2023 London Independent Story Prize anthology and a nomination for Best New Poets 2022. She has been a finalist for numerous awards, and her story Everything I Learned I Learned in Vaudeville was shortlisted for the 2021 Fish Flash Fiction Prize and published in the Bath Flash Fiction anthology Snow Crow.
“I grew up in Los Angeles which is a place where you can be oddly separate from nature even though you are surrounded by natural beauty,” Lanzarotta said. “There’s an obliteration-by-paving that occurs. In my adult life spent in New England, I feel I have been slowly reconnecting to the natural world.
“I’m a writer who learns where I’m going through the writing. The text messages and snapshots that build this poem came together framed by the responsibility and guilt and desperate protectiveness parents experience. Also awe at how much we can learn from our children if we’re able to listen.
“Writers who have influenced me in recent years are Terry Tempest Williams, Robert Macfarlane and Barry Lopez. There’s a cherishing of the natural world that can coexist with dread and regret. The word ‘hope’ appeared in a very late draft of this poem. I’m glad it worked its way in.
“It means a lot to me to have this work validated and to find a wider audience for writing that faces our current peril but refuses despair. Ralph Ellison said, ‘I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest.’ I’ve always been a take-to-the-streets sort of person, but as I get older, I’ve been taking to the streets with my pen.”
The 3rd prize of €250 goes to Mark Lawlor’s short story Ride.
“Ride is a vivacious and bodily piece of writing,” Jamie said, “with the lad on his bike witnessing horses mating at a mart, despite the efforts of the farmers to prevent it. The horses’ desire will win out! It’s funny and tense, told in short sharp sentences. Aside from the mare, it’s a male world. The farmers can do little more than grunt and swear, and the scene catches the atmosphere and the boy’s recognition of sex before he pedals away at speed. ‘The bicycle is caught between my legs and I can feel the energy of the horses. It feels beautiful.’ A vivid story of animal nature at work, and adolescent initiation.”
Lawlor is a writer and a visual artist originally from Cavan, but now based in Sheffield. He sees himself as something of a wanderer, the way of zooplankton, drifting in deeper water during the day (to avoid predators) and then at night swimming to the surface to eat phytoplankton. He won a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2021 and he is currently working on a novel.
He has kept sketchbooks for the last 25 years and has exhibited in Ireland, England, Estonia, Poland and Italy. He recently returned from Poland where his show, The war is going well, consisting of 100 large painted maps accompanied by 100 poems, was exhibited at the DELTA Gallery, Szczecin.
“The Moth means so much to me,” he said. “I want to thank Rebecca O’Connor and Will Govan for producing such a magazine. Really, you don’t know what you have done for the readers, writers and painters, you gave a lift to the days.
“My wife, Frances, gave me Findings by Kathleen Jamie years ago. A bright book with the sound of falcons ringing in a bright sky. I remember reading in “Crex-Crex” an almost passing remark on the migration of these birds. One corncrake ringed in Scotland was discovered in the Congo. It came to me how little I know about the migration of a bird that stalked through the folktales of my childhood. There’s something zesty or shore-like in the prose of Kathleen Jamie’s work. She picks things that ramify outwards to new readers. I am stunned that Kathleen picked my work.”
Jamie also commended a poem by Ari L Mokdad, Detroit-born poet, choreographer, dancer, performance artist and educator who lives with her partner in Northern Michigan on the ancestral and unceded land of the Ojibwe, Odawa and Pottawatomie people, The People of the Three Fires, and not one but two poems by Antrim-bred Mary-Jane Holmes, who is the recipient of several prizes, including the Live Canon Poetry Pamphlet Prize and the Bridport Poetry prize, as well as being awarded an Arts and Humanities Research Council studentship to complete a PhD in poetry at Newcastle University.
The next deadline to look out for from The Moth is December 31st, for the annual Moth Poetry Prize, one of the biggest in the world for unpublished poems, with an €11,000 prize fund for 12 lucky winners, judged this year by TS Eliot prizewinner and associate professor of English at Oxford, Hannah Sullivan.
Sending Texts During the Holocene Extinction
By Molly Lanzarotta
My son shows me how to identify conifers:
needles in clusters infer larches or pines,
singles mean cypress, spruce or fir.
My boy describes bat species in Colorado,
explaining why white-nose disease spread by
careless spelunkers hasn’t killed them all yet.
He texts photos of himself holding a bear cub.
I text back, ‘Where is that baby’s mother!’
‘Asleep’ ‒ and I think, mothers can’t sleep.
Ping: picture him tagging peregrine falcon chicks,
placing his park service hat over the nest so they
calm down, can pretend nothing scary is happening.
Who left the babies alone? Did we fall asleep?
Maybe if I close my eyes, I can pretend too.
But my son doesn’t blink, he keeps hoping.
‘Mom’ he pings ‘Mom, look—’
By Mark Lawlor
A man’s voice comes from a building up there, concentrated, naturally quick, through a loudspeaker, roaring so half the countryside can hear. No traffic on the bouncy road. Air rushes past my ears, legs peddling freely on the light Triumph. I had escaped doing my homework and left the house and my grandmother. The road opens into a clearing. A railway bridge spanned the space once, gone long ago with the railway. A dusty wide track leads uphill past a no man’s land to the mart and to the loudspeakers.
Relentlessness of the voice marches on, more depth now that I am near it. Tractors with tough plastic fertiliser bags on seats, red paint getting hot in the sun. Smell of animals. Old cars with trailers, a few short cattle lorries. The trucks, warm and empty, click in the heat, bright straw carpet spilling out. The sound of the river broadens the day with its trickle over small stones. A couple of grey wagtails skim the shallows, beat of their tails keeps time with the water. The river courses out of a huge barrel of a bridge.
The bicycle wheels make a light sound as I take the turn on the slack gravel crossing this bridge. Standing up on the pedals, handlebars wave from side to side, the force of my legs propelling the bike. The river laps and flows with a cool echo under me and leads me away for a moment.
I can see the goods shed up ahead of me. Its large red doors are shut and in its length the grey and brown cut stone seems to reinforce its foundations. A few men are about the doors talking.
The man sounds as if he is tripping over the price.
Other men have rough hands out in front of themselves and wear cattle dealers’ boots. A workman for the mart cups a cigarette in his hand and brushes ash off his blue shop coat with the other.
The ground evens at the side of the goods shed. This side is in shade and stretches for a long way. Tendrils and light branches, bright green leaves come down from the wood. I have to duck down a couple of times. A stone wall cut in the same stone as the shed banks up the ground. I can smell piss and ripe shit, farm shit that is natural. Animals hidden behind the wall release coughs and hoof noises. The grips are getting sweaty from my hands as I come out round the back of the goods shed. A trough of dunghill wild with huge rich green grass looks as if it is pouring into the next field. Pens, runways, shutes and further pens where animals wait. A mini herd of cattle wait among the stout steel bars, but it is a horse mart. They take me by surprise, nervous, they move around the pens. One lifts its head up, repeatedly shaking its mane. The wet smack of balls of rich dung are pushed out through the arse of another. Warm olive green balls roll. The sweet smell of horses is everywhere.
‘Hup, hup, go on there.’
The workman who has finished his cigarette is shifting a couple of horses from one pen to another. Young, skittish, they are not used to him at all. One clamours using his hoofs quickly on the strange concrete. The other is taut in its fine tawny skin, muscles in play as it moves. The workman has a length of hard black narrow pipe and tips the bars constantly. No one seems to notice me as I look on.
Bullocks are bumping into one another, getting trapped between themselves and the steel bars causing sharp sounds, their heavy breaths. Legs slide on muck. Black and white skin merges with shadows and camouflages them. They cough and roar. A donkey motionless in a far pen. Daylight brightens even more, a breeze appears and lifts the aroma of the whole place. I feel thirsty and push on.
Farmers are coming out of a small building with tea in big white mugs, pale brown liquid dribbling down the sides. Some of them have sandwiches, lumps of boiled bacon in white batch loaf. They continue talking to each other with mouthfuls of bread.
‘Are you buying?’ a farmer asks, light in his damp eyes.
‘Maybe,’ I say.
The farmer laughs. ‘Good man.’
A clarity to the air now as the voice on the loudspeakers has ceased. I am still getting over the tan Czech boots some of the farmers are wearing. My eyes keep going down to them.
Hot, sitting on the bike, sweat gathers around my balls.
One farmer lifts his head to me as he passes.
‘Hello,’ I nod.
A horse almost bolts from the side of the goods shed. Scared for a second, as if the bike has my legs in a tangle.
The man under her grabs tightly to her halter and has trouble leading her, she is a mare.
‘Fuckin’ tinker,’ says the farmer I have just said hello to this second.
The man with the horse stands back, leaning on the rope.
The mare looks crazed, pushing, stepping noisily, whinnying, chucks its neck and head, can smell something, her nostrils are open. Before the man can do anything, she rears. Down come her front hooves with a percussive sound. And she rears again. Handfuls of dust rise. The man holds his place, both feet down, dragging on the rope.
‘Get her out!’ roars a farmer, his stick in the air.
A rust-coloured cat speeds out of the goods shed, jumping over the farmer’s feet and disappearing behind a wall.
I know the man with the mare. Open shirt, hair sprouting out of it, he looks changed. Is it the mare that rattles him? She is trembling, forced into this position, wild at the farmers who are gathered.
‘Fuckin’ get out now.’
The atmosphere swirls round them.
The man, the mare, step out from somewhere unexpected. A whirlwind of dust and scraps of paper blow at their feet.
‘Ya clown ya,’ says another farmer. A flight of derision flies around. Bolts are sprung on the back of the red doors and they open, a stallion trots out in high agitation. Black, his muscles twitch. All alert, his teeth bared show his lips gathering the smell. The man who holds on to the stallion is red in the face.
‘Fuck ya, go on, take her ta’fuck away!’
The mare has wide eyes, backs into the stallion and suddenly kicks.
She moves around. The men can hardly hold the horses. The stallion draws in air. The mare’s tail is up and she is winking. A soft moisture runs.
A shiver through the stallion.
‘You’re causing trouble.’
‘For sale, a cob.’
‘You’ve no intention of it,’ says a farmer.
Another commotion starts with the two horses. The stallion and the mare make the place right for them. They shift, both move to another space away from the farmers. The farmers who are forgotten about hurry back from the horses.
They shout and curse.
‘Ya haven’t a place to go.’
Horses stamp gravel. A blackbird runs on top of a wall, then stops to screech with its tail.
The bicycle is caught between my legs and I can feel the energy of the horses. It feels beautiful.
The man with the mare stands his ground. He is defiant. The stallion is excited and moves.
‘On away, you tinker you.’
Her haunches shift right under the stallion. The stallion nickers. Mad eyes, his lips curl. Teeth bared, he suddenly rises. His front legs flay, fail to grip. His cock is hanging down like a forearm and is mottled. He gets strength and it stiffens but can’t find a home.
The horses are communicating, with smells, touch, with the future. Newness of it, the aliveness. The hulking muscles of the two animals. A woman comes out of the small building bringing a blast of music from the radio as she looks under her hand which shades the sun.
The horse mounts with ease. The thrusts of the stallion, something like hunger in the mare, come together. A desire to kill or to would runs through the men. Nothing can be done about the horses’ power. Two animals concentrate, are away. Lunges of his hind quarters, steadying of his two hooves, steadying of her four hooves. The day contains nothing else for the horses.
The stallion man makes an attempt with his whole body to get the stallion down.
Whimpering of the stallion and mare.
Farmers move with their anger.
‘Get her out.’ A man holds his stick out before him.
‘You’re looking for it.’
The stallion spills all inside of him into the insides of the mare on a last heave of his pelvis. She moves to accommodate it and walks out from under him. Stallion slumps into himself, his buttocks twitch, his soft mouth touches the mare’s side.
I’m away from there. The bite of wheels on the gravel, my legs tumbling against the land.
A farmer shouts something at me.
I don’t look back.