“In wildness is the preservation of the world.” – Henry Thoreau
Over time, and for as long as writing has existed, there’s been an ongoing relationship between literature and nature, profoundly connecting our inner imaginative world with the outer physical environment.
But, during the last 20 years, perhaps as a response to increased urbanisation and global insecurity – fuelled by environmental concerns – there has been a remarkable upsurge in brilliant new writing about nature. Indeed, nature writing has now become a publishing phenomenon and there would seem to be an insatiable appetite for it amongst readers and the wider public.
The inaugural Shaking Bog Festival of Nature Writing is based in the Glencree Valley in Co Wicklow – a county known for both its natural beauty and as a source of creative inspiration – and intends to bring some of this burgeoning field of work to a broad Irish audience. Local in spirit but international in aspiration, the festival draws on the surrounding landscape, the local community and accessible amenities, as well as artists and thinkers from further afield. It will seek to both thoughtfully reimagine our collective relationship with nature and offer the opportunity to pause and wonder at its beauty.
The festival hub will be at the historic military barracks and former reformatory that is home to our partners, the Glencree Peace & Reconciliation Centre. But it will also take place at other venues along the valley. Indeed, the idea for the festival emerged out of informal conversations with our friends in the Glencree Centre. After an extraordinary period of quietly creating a safe space for peace-building in Northern Ireland and beyond, the centre is now renewing itself in innovative and creative ways and I hope that the festival will be a humble part of this renewal.
The title of the festival comes from the ancient Gaelic name of Glencree – Gleann Crí, from the older Gleann Criothach – which loosely translates as Valley of the Shaking Bog, which seemed to capture something of the magical, shape-shifting nature of this beautiful corner of Ireland.
Wicklow has always been viewed as a place of retreat from the city, whether for the weekend walker, the daytripper, the tourist or indeed the artists and craftsmen that seek to find refuge there. John Millington Synge, who based his play In the Shadow of the Glen in the Glenmalure valley in Wicklow, found great inspiration from the language and landscape as he tramped through the county. (We’ll be staging an outdoor rehearsed reading of this classic play in Oak Glen during the festival).
Our fledgling programme includes many things that I’m proud to have been able to programme.
I’m delighted to welcome the award-winning John Lewis-Stempel, one of the world finest nature writers. John is also a working farmer on the family farm that dates back to 13th-century Herefordshire. His remarkable books are hymns in many ways to the natural world around him – intimate, engaged and knowledgeable. He has also written a number of remarkable history books and his latest book brings his two passions together in Where Poppies Blow, a beautiful exploration of the role of nature amidst the horrors of the first World War.
I’m also hugely looking forward to a very special reading by the great Paul Durcan and the extraordinary Pascale Petit, whose collection Mama Amazonica won the 2018 RSL Ondaatje Prize. As anyone who has witnessed his performances will attest, Durcan’s readings are always major events and Petit’s latest work – in an act of imaginative daring – explores her mother’s profound struggle with mental illness through the natural world of the Amazon.
Naturally – no pun intended – there’s lots happening outdoors including a fun family day with our other partners Fighting Words, culminating in a something special with Shane Hegarty; a morning nature trail with Declan Murphy, whose book A Life In The Trees has just been republished to great acclaim; and a wildlife camera workshop with Emmy award-winning cinematographer Theo Jebb.
Back at Glencree, the wonderfully entertaining and charismatic writer Carlo Gébler will explore his past – excavating memories of his elusive and mysterious father and his relationship with Wicklow. Poets Katie Donovan and Jane Clarke will also read the poems of – and pay fond tribute to – their friend Shirley McClure, the Wicklow poet who died in 2016.
The festival will conclude in the evocative setting of St Kevin’s Church, inside the walls of Glencree, with a stellar concert featuring unique musical performances from Liam O’Maonlai, The Square Pegs, Mary Coughlan, the Fugato Quartet and Flo McSweeney interspersed with writers reading short extracts from their favourite piece of nature writing.
Living here in the Glencree Valley, as I do, its extraordinarily beautiful landscape has been both my daily sustenance and my inspiration for this event. It is easy to take for granted, that which surrounds us every day, and I wanted to find a way not to do that - rather, to celebrate this precious resource on my doorstep and to share it with those who may also be seeking to reawaken their connection to the natural world, through what I hope will be an intimate, enriching and meaningful experience.
I have founded and run many other festivals – working on international dance events in London, Newcastle, Dublin and Limerick – so a festival of some sort was the obvious choice for me. But this is the first festival that I have done so close to my own home, within a place for which I have developed a deep and abiding passion – it makes it very special but also a bit nerve-wracking because it’s friends and neighbours, not anonymous members of the public, for whom I feel a strong sense of responsibility to make this work and to make it meaningful.
In conclusion, our profound and often forgotten connection to nature lies at the very heart of the Shaking Bog Festival. The urgent need to redraft this relationship is the festival’s core concern. We are endeavouring, through the art of writing, to touch on the essence of the natural world. We hope to create a space away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life in which we can collectively move towards a deeper and more intimate appreciation of that which is most precious.
It is in this way – through getting back to our instinctive connection to the natural world – that we may be compelled to meaningfully move towards safeguarding it for the future.
Catherine Nunes is director of The Shaking Bog nature writing festival, June 22nd-23rd