WetlandLIFE writer Victoria Leslie explains the rationale behind the Hide & Seek Project and invites you to step inside and share a story…
Dylan Thomas spent the last four years of his life writing from a boathouse perched on the Carmarthenshire cliffs, looking down over the town of Laugharne and the Taf estuary. Virginia Woolf wrote daily in the summer months from her writer’s shed in Monk’s House, Sussex, as did Roald Dahl, from his writing retreat, Gipsy House, in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling are more recent champions of the writer’s shed, joining a long tradition of creatives seeking spaces within nature to write and reflect, away from the commotion of their living areas; a tradition arguably canonised by nature writer doyen Henry David Thoreau who wrote about his experiences of a simpler life, Walden or Life in the Woods, whilst living in a one-room cabin he had built himself on the shores of Waldon Pond in Massachusetts.
It was with this in mind, as I sought refuge from the rain while walking through the Avalon Marshes, that I began to think about the virtues of the bird hide. Bird hides are iconic spaces for the study and contemplation of nature, where to some extent we can coexist with the natural world, seemingly concealed and unobserved. Ensconced in the dry, I was also struck by how well-suited bird hides are for creative pursuits. As well as promoting observation and reflection, relative quietude (my thought process was accompanied by a chorus of marsh harriers and the booming of bitterns) they also provide some practical benefits, the absence of which can sometimes make writing in the field difficult: shelter, a comfortable perch, a ledge to write upon, a view to inspire. It made me think of Virginia Woolf’s great polemic on women’s intellectual freedom and the formula necessary to facilitate a literary career: an independent income and a room. Tucked within four slatted walls, peering out from rain-splotched glass, I could at least tick one of Woolf’s requirements off the list.
But I didn’t always regard bird hides as inviting spaces. Growing up in the city, spending the occasional weekend walking in the countryside, these were not structures I came across readily and ones I entered even less, mainly for fear of the people inside. Bird hides are the province of the serious nature enthusiast, donned in waterproofs and khaki, armed with specialist equipment; an assortment of lenses, who might look up from behind black-rimmed binoculars to turn a scrutinising gaze on me. What did I fear they would see? A nature fraud, someone incapable of knowing the difference between a wigeon and a teal, someone who didn’t belong. Though I am rediscovering bird hides as egalitarian spaces, I think this same stereotype still endures, barring the door for many would-be visitors as it did for myself. Whether consciously or not, who can and cannot access certain spaces in nature is systematic of wider societal problems and draws attention to the need to open the door on discussions of inclusivity and diversity.
It is partly in response to this that I wanted to show bird hides as the creative, welcoming spaces I now regard them as, spaces in which I now find myself writing more and more. But also drawing on my research with WetlandLIFE, exploring how the stories we tell about landscape defines our idea of landscape, I wanted to think about the kinds of stories we tell. In two bird hides on the Avalon Marshes you will now find story corners furnished with creative ideas, folk stories and book recommendations designed to inspire and promote the democratic sharing of stories.
The story corners themselves are inspired by the manmade structures that litter nature reserves, designed to hide and house wildlife: nesting boxes, bat boxes, butterfly and insect houses. But to emphasize the storytelling component, I constructed many of these structures from redundant books, repurposing old stories to provide new foundations for fresh perspectives. Using text and texture to echo shapes in nature – a hanging word mobile for instance, imitates the honeycombed cavities of bee habitats – I couldn’t help but think of the book sculptures created anonymously and placed in Scottish libraries and public buildings a few years back to highlight issues concerning Scottish literature and poetry. These structures were surprise discoveries, delicately-made paper constructs, not intended to last. Likewise made from paper, my story corners are ephemeral, transient installations, which, in the spirit of environmentalist and nature writer Roger Deakin, who literally adopted an open door policy at his home in Walnut Tree Farm to accommodate the abundance of wildlife which took up residence, will similarly house nature, providing perhaps a burrow for a ladybird who may have chanced inside, or a ledge for a spider’s silken web.
Because after all it is the stories in all their mutable forms, which will endure. With the Hide & Seek Project, all the visitor contributions will be collected and digitised so we can continue to share and contribute to an evolving storytelling network, though it is the process of creating and sharing stories itself which will undoubtedly generate renewed resonance in how we view our landscape. And in doing so, I earnestly hope, will provide room for all within the spaces we construct in nature.