Books about trees, chimpanzees & National Parks

Hello…I’m here again…dropping in to talk about books and nature, my two favourite things.

I often go through reading phases – a memoir binge here, a YA-fantasy roll there – and my recent inclination has been towards books related to nature and animals. Since moving to England I’ve become a certified rambler; someone who takes walks through green spaces and the countryside for no reason other than to walk and enjoy the scenery. I’m not walking a dog (sadly), I’m not going anywhere, I’m not looking for anything. It’s literally just walking. Be it in one of my favourite London green spaces, like Hampstead Heath or Epping Forest, or a day trip to a countryside walking trail like the Chilterns or the Coast, hanging out in nature has become one of my favourite English pasttimes.

Second only to reading of course. So it makes sense that lately I’ve been reading a lot about nature.

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It started with a trip to Daunt Books in Hampstead before a late summer picnic on the Heath. I normally have a long to-read list that I try to stick to in book shops, but every so often an unknown title just jumps out at you. Fredrik Sjoberg’s The Art of Flight‘ was one of them. I wouldn’t even call this delightful tome strictly a nature book – it’s undefinable really, a tangential mash-up of memories and stories ranging from the author obsessively researching the life of a US National Parks artist and a forgotten Swedish entomologist, to his thoughts on hoverflies and earthworms. Sjoberg is self-deprecating yet thoughtful, with hints of a Scandinavian Bill Bryson about him. And this book reminded me how lovely it is to read someone writing passionately about the eccentricities of nature.

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Then there was Jane Goodall. I’d recently learnt about the wonderful Masterclass programme, a series of online courses taught by industry legends, e.g. Film Making with Martin Scorcese and Writing with Judy Blume. When it was announced that Dr Jane Goodall herself would be teaching a Masterclass on Conservation, I signed up straight away. To fill my time before the class started in September, I bought Jane’s ‘Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey‘ memoir on audiobook to listen to. I love audio memoirs narrated by the writers themselves, and this one didn’t disappoint. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I connected with Jane’s story as if it were spiritual scripture. Not only is her journey incredible (she had minimal academic or scientific training before being sent to lead the first ever study into chimpanzee behaviour), but her attitude and philosophies on life are so inspiring. A staunch nature and animal lover, Jane is a passionate, kind and determined woman who’s also gentle and balanced – she gives critics time, she strives to understand, she’s forgiving. Her musings are the perfect blend of science and spirituality. Jane Goodall is my new idol.

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After I finished, I needed to find something even slightly comparable to replace Jane’s soothing voice speaking to me as I walked my morning commute from Hampstead to Paddington. Listening to an audiobook about nature was so appropriate for that walk, which takes me through gorgeous Primrose Hill and along leafy Regent’s Canal (sorry tube commuters). I’d heard rave reviews about Helen Macdonald’s ‘H is for Hawk‘ for a while, but to be honest, I didn’t quite get them. Surely a book about falconcry was a bit…niche? I decided to give it a go anyway, buoyed by the fact that Helen herself narrates the audiobook.

I was wrong. ‘H is for Hawk’ is so much more than a book about falconry. In essence, it follows three interwoven narratives – Helen’s journey through grief following the death of her father; her attempt to train a goshawk named Mabel; and her fascination with British writer T.H. White’s book on the subject, The Goshawk. The latter element seems a bit jarring, especially the parts where you jump back to the 1950s into White’s life as a writer, academic and man struggling with his identity. But somehow – I don’t quite know why – it works. This book is fascinating. The sections in which Helen finally comes to terms with her grief were most hard-hitting to me, having lost my own father. And ultimately, she rejects her desire to become wild like the goshawks. She grows to appreciate that community and civilisation are a thing of beauty too, and that nature shouldn’t be the ideal. This was also a good lesson for me to learn. Thank you, Helen.

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Now, I’ve got two books on the go. One is a physical copy of ‘The Long Long Life of Trees‘, which I picked up (from Daunt Books again) after reading a recommendation in my favourite Facebook group ‘The Ancient and Sacred Trees of Sacred Britain’ (honestly, I don’t know how I have a boyfriend). Each chapter of this book is an absolute delight, delving into the folklore, history and science of Britain’s favourite trees, like the yew, the cherry, the holly, the oak, the cypress…you get it. It also inspired me to download this wonderful app from the Wildlife Trust that will help me identify the trees I come across in my walks.

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And my new audiobook listen is ‘Autumn‘ by Ali Smith. Despite the title and cover, this isn’t really a book about nature, but it’s still an appropriate companion to my morning walks, as the orange-gold leaves fall around me and my time in England draws slowly to a close. It’s been called the first post-Brexit novel, and certainly has some sadly relatable scenes. Others are a bit of a mess for me to wrap my morning-fogged brain around at 8am, but still, something about it just ‘works’. And I’m looking forward to ‘Winter‘.

 

There’s just something so comforting in retreating to the natural world, given the tangle of times we live in these days. Ancient trees have seen many-a political parties rise and fall, rolling hills have bore the footprints of cultures from all over, and animals like chimpanzees show us the dark and light parts of humanity in a more basic form. Thanks to Helen Macdonald, I’ll be careful not to idolise the idea of becoming truly wild too much, but I will continue to enjoy a tale or two that bring me closer to Mother Earth.

Any titles I should add to my ‘to-read’ pile? Let me know!

Kahli xoxo

 

 

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I Said I’d Chill Out This Year…

…and I have. Kind of. My focus for 2017 was meant to be working hard in my new day job, enjoying London, spending time in nature, and finding an agent for my recently finished YA novel ‘The Arcade’.

I’ve been doing all those things. But I’ve also taken on two small writing projects on the side, because I can’t help it! Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Blogging about magic
Back when I lived in Vancouver in 2011-2013, I worked at a shop on Granville Island called ‘Dragonspace‘. It was, and still is, a dragon shop. That is, it sells dragons and other mythological, esoteric, Celtic and fantasy-related items. I love that place. I still think about it all the time, and it will always be a second home for me. So when my old friends there contacted me and asked if I’d want to write the blog for the recently launched Dragonspace website, I had to say yes! Writing these kinds of features does not feel like work at all, and I can’t wait to do more. You can read what I’ve done so far, and check out our beautiful inventory, here.

Road-tripping, in fiction and real life
I’ve written a ‘social story’ for LongShorts, a digital platform featuring stories told through a social feed by fictional characters (as if you were reading the characters’ Twitter feeds). My story is aptly called ‘Road Tripping’ and is about three unlikely road companions traveling through Western Canada and the troubles they’ve left behind. You can read a preview here, and the whole story via the app. I’m in the process of writing Part II at the moment.

I also went on a real road trip last weekend to the Jurassic Coast and Cornwall. We went fossil hunting along Charmouth Beach, drank until 2am in a campsite bar with Cornish locals, spent Easter Sunday at the famous Roskillys Farm eating as much clotted cream ice-cream as we could fit, admired the turquoise waters of St Ives, visited the breath-taking Tintagel Castle of Arthurian legend, and had lunch at Rick Stein’s bistro in Padstow and then saw Rick Stein himself in the deli! I think when you’re an ex-pat in London, you always feel pressured to see as much of continental Europe as possible, but England has so many treasures itself and I love discovering them. They might not be as exotic, but they’re delightful.

Agent Hunting
I’m still seeking an agent/publisher for ‘The Arcade’. It’s the first book in an intended YA trilogy, and is a low-fantasy story with environmental threads. It’s set amongst a network of utopian islands (modelled off the Canadian Gulf Islands) that come under threat from a sinister outside force. More info readily available to anyone who might be interested!

Meeting New People
Tomorrow, I’m hosting my first attempt at a London Meetup group, focused on Walking + Storytelling, at Hampstead Heath (my favourite place in London) – details here. 

Reading
And finally, I’ve obviously been reading a lot. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels truly transformed me, and taught me how honest and jagged good writing can be. Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle had me obsessed and reading in coffee shop lines for weeks. Ruth Ozeki’s ‘A Tale for the Time Being‘ and Eden Robinson’s ‘Monkey Beach‘ taught me so much about atmosphere and location as character. And Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids‘, Joy Harjo’s ‘Crazy Brave‘ and Bill Bryson’s ‘The Life & Times of the Thunderbolt Kid‘ – all starkly different memoirs – had me absorbed in varying experiences of youth, privilege, and art, and gave me an unsettling realisation of how times have changed, and how they’ve stayed the same.

All in all, I feel at peace, frequently creatively inspired, and more comfortable in London week by week. More to come soon.

Kahli xoxo

My Pursuit of Green Spaces

I normally only blog about books/writing here, but I wanted to share my second big love today – nature and the outdoors. I’m no Katniss, and I probably wouldn’t survive a night out in the wild alone, but moving to a big smoggy city like London has made me realise how much I crave being around trees or general leafiness.

Luckily, London actually has an amazing range of green spaces within a commutable distance. I’ve been trying to discover as many ‘green’ day-trips as I can. These are my favourite places for woodland walks and field frolics so far (travel distance is from where I live in inner-east London, via public transport).

Hampstead Heath – 40 mins

Hampstead has a wonderful literary history, which originally attracted me to it, but its heath and woods and fields are prime terrain for ‘wandering aimlessly’. I went for a long ramble the other day and found Kenwood House, an old country manor with a history stretching back to the early 17th century. The whole area is perfect for jogging, dog-walking and just sitting back with a book, too. And John Keats’s house is just nearby if you fancy a visit…

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Richmond Park – 1.5 hours

Two words – wild deer. You do kind of feel like you’ve stepped into another world at Richmond Park when you spot your first lot of deer – both Red and Fallow kinds wander the space freely. My first sighting was of towering antlers poking out from the grass under the shade of tree. These guys were very handsome. Even at the height of summer, it’s easy to find a secluded spot amongst trees to picnic and feel like you’re lost in the woods, when really, the quaint Thames-side town of Richmond is just a walk away.

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Epping Forest – 1 hour

Epping Forest is an area of ancient woodland between London and Essex. I’ve gotten lost in here a few times before, once stumbling upon Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge from Tudor times. The forest covers around 2,500 hectares, so you can definitely spend all day walking, cycling or riding along the wooded paths. It’s no wonder the forest was once called ‘the lungs of London’.

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Highgate Wood and Queen’s Wood – 45 mins

We visited these woods on the day before Halloween and they were aptly spooky. It was very misty that morning and the shaded pathways were cloaked in silver fog, conjuring images of witchy gatherings and ancient rituals. These oak-hornbeam woodlands are said to be a part of the original wildwood that covered most of Britain about five thousand years ago.

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The Chiltern Hills – 1.5 hours

We explored this lovely area last weekend. I’d read that the Ivinghoe Beacon was an easy hike close to London, and there are a few different trails of varying levels you can take to reach the beacon. We did the Ridgeway Trail, which took us through vast green fields and butterfly reserves, past friendly sheep, horses and Belted Galloway cattle, over tall hills and through stunning orange forests. When we reached the top of the beacon, I marvelled at the beautiful English countryside around us. Apparently these trails have been used by merchants and soldiers for centuries, and it’s easier to feel transported to different times when you’re on the peak of a mountain or beacon.

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I’m excited to explore more of the lush green world around London. I just discovered the Capital Ring walking trails, which look like an awesome way of seeing a bit of everything without going too far out.

If you have any of your own recommendations, feel free to comment!

Kahli xo

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Calling from a red phone box…

Hello! I’ve done that thing that most Australian twenty-somethings do, and I’ve moved to London.

I’ve only been here for three weeks, but just like when I paid my too-brief visit to Portugal and the Netherlands last year, I’ve found myself gravitating towards literary places around the city. Which, in London, is kind of like using a metal detector in a bank vault. This place is so full of literary history and promise, it’s overwhelming (truly, it’s overwhelming…I’ve been bowled over by a horrible cold, but maybe that’s due to the persistent silver skies). I’ve only just scratched the surface, but here’s a quick photo journal of the places I’ve seen so far (click images for captions). More to come! So much more to come…

 

Story City

I’ve just wrapped up my recent project, working as a writer for Story City– an interactive choose-your-own adventure story app.

Story City was started by the wonderful Emily Craven as a way of celebrating the cities we live and play in through digital locative storytelling. The stories you’ll find on the app are like old school Give Yourself Goosebumps/Choose Your Own Adventure branching narratives. However, instead of simply flipping to a numbered page to make your next move, you physically walk to various locations in metropolitan and suburban areas of Brisbane to unlock the next scene. We incorporated artworks, architecture, landmarks and landscapes into our stories to create an immersive and reader-driven story experience.

I chose to set my story, ‘The Curse of the Bramble Spirit’, in my home suburb of Sandgate. As Sandgate is a coastal suburb with a lot of rich history and heritage architecture, it felt only natural for me to write a ghost story, focusing on a mysterious ghost ship sailing around Bramble Bay.

This project was a huge challenge, but so rewarding. One of my writing weaknesses has always been structuring and planning, but you simply can’t write a branching narrative without a lot of forethought. So I learnt the value in sketching and re-sketching dozens of story maps. The other great thing about working on Story City was collaborating with other creatives. As well as two fellow writers, I also got to work with local artist Clare Neal and musician/sound designer Schae to make these stories multi-sensory.

If you’re looking for something fun to do, or a way to see Brisbane and its suburbs through different eyes, download the Story City app and start adventuring! All the stories are family-friendly, but they’re definitely not just for kids. And if you make it to Sandgate and catch sight of the Bramble Spirit, let me know how your journey goes!

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(Art by Clare Neal)

Finding stories in Portugal & the Netherlands

I just came back from two short but full weeks exploring Porto + Lisbon in Portugal, and Amsterdam + surrounds in the Netherlands.

While I was away, I became a little obsessed with writing TripAdvisor reviews, only because I’d found them so helpful when I’d been scouting hotels/restaurants/medieval churches etc. to visit, and I wanted to give back to the community. When you sign up as a TripAdvisor reviewer, you’re meant to pick your ‘Travel Style’ from a list of badges such as ‘Nightlife Seeker’, ‘History Buff’, ‘Foodie’, ‘Eco-tourist’, and so on and so forth. I struggled with this, because I’m kind of just a person who wanted to see beautiful and strange sights and learn some interesting things about the world and its inhabitants. I didn’t have a specialty.

But if I had to pick a specialty, I’d say that I did gravitate towards places that had some kind of literary significance – notable bookstores, spaces writers & artists frequented, attractions that celebrated story or literary culture in some way. Here’s a quick collection of those places, their history and my experiences.

1. Guerra Junqueiro House Museum – Porto, Portugal

This lesser-known attraction is the 18th-century home of a famous Portuguese poet, preserved and turned into a museum that boasts an intimate and impressive collection of Portuguese silverware, ceramics, jewellery, furniture and religious artwork. While the collection isn’t ‘literary’ as such, it seems in line with the poet’s vision of preserving and promoting art and cultural artefacts. You can read Junqueiro’s poem The Digger in English here. The melancholy nature of it seems common in Portuguese art.

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(Casa Junqueiro exterior)

2. Livraria Lello Bookstore – Porto, Portugal

Livraria Lello is one of the oldest bookstores in Portugal, and one of the most beautiful in the world, according to sources such as the Guardian, Lonely Planet, myself and now you, once you look up all the photographs. The rich wood, pressed copper and stained glass decor is so gorgeous, you almost forget to stop and look at the books. Luckily there’s a cute little cafe on the top floor where you can sit and have a coffee and admire it all.

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(Staircase inside Livraria Lello)

3. The Majestic Cafe – Porto, Portugal

This historic cafe, with its stunning art nouveau decor, has been frequented by significant Portuguese politicians, artists, writers, academics, and other important public figures since its opening in 1921. (Including, apparently, everyone’s favourite J.K. Rowling when she lived in Porto in the 1990s and was penning a little story about a wizard.) We had some fantastic cheeses and glasses of port here. It was quite busy and cramped inside, so I’d say it’s a better place for artistic conversation than artistic meditation these days.

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(The Majestic Cafe exterior)

4. Livraria Bertrand – Lisbon, Portugal

This is meant to be the oldest bookstore in the world, founded in 1732. It was destroyed in 1755 by the earthquake that annihilated basically everything in Lisbon (seriously, look it up), but was rebuilt shortly after. The bookstore’s stock and interior now resemble the clean and bright shelves of chain bookstores such as Waterstones or old Borders (R.I.P), but the decor and furnishings hint at its longstanding history. (I picked up a copy of Pessoa’s selected poetry here, as it seemed necessary I check out Portugal’s most celebrated poet when in his home city of Lisbon).

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(Livraria Bertrand on Rua Garrett)

5. Lisboa Story Centre – Lisbon, Portugal

This one doesn’t necessarily have literary history attached to it, so much as it’s an example of history presented in a literary way. The Libsoa (the local way of spelling Lisbon) Story Centre is an interactive museum where you’re given an audio guide that leads you through colourful and entertaining exhibits that present Lisbon’s impressive history in chronological order, beginning with the Phoenicians. It’s like walking through a pop-up history book, with a notable segment being ‘the earthquake room’, where you hear and see the story of the 1755 earthquake played out.

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(Exhibit at the Lisboa Story Centre)

6. The Anne Frank House – Amsterdam, Netherlands

This is, of course, a must-see for any visitor to Amsterdam, literary significance aside. But as a young writer, I was struck by the experience of walking through the house where Anne and her family had lived in secrecy for all those years, and seeing the physical journals in their glass cases at the end of the tour. Everyone finds a different way to connect to Anne’s story, but for me, it’s a testament to the power of the written word, and the importance of preserving human experiences.

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(Anne Frankhuis from across the canal)

7. Efteling – Kaatsheuvel, Netherlands

This is a theme park a little outside of Amsterdam that celebrates all things fantasy, fairy tale and folklore. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to stepping into a different world. The attention to detail in this wonderland is astounding–every inch of it is a work of art. Park highlights include the Droomvlucht – a suspended carriage ride through multiple fantasy settings, and Raveleijn – a live stunt show featuring trained ravens, swordfights, and real horses on fire. The dragon rollercoaster is also a must-do, because it’s a dragon rollercoaster.

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(Entrance to the Droomvlucht ‘Dream Flight’ ride at Efteling)

8. The Bench – Amsterdam, Netherlands

I’ll end on a contemporary one. Fans of John Green’s young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars will know that a part of the book/movie is set in Amsterdam, and you can visit the very bench one of the story’s most heartbreaking scenes takes place on. I found it. I sat on it. I felt sad.

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(Hazel and Gus’s bench by the Leidsegracht canal)

I saw other amazing things too, like the still-sturdy walls of Sao Jorge Castle, the dim halls of multiple port cellars, vibrant Porto from the dizzying heights of a cable car, the gorgeous floral universe that is Keukenhopf Gardens, and Sunflowers by Van Gogh IRL. Even the non-literary places were rich in story and personal experiences. I’m glad to have seen it all, and to have brought little pieces of multiple worlds back in my suitcase.

The Krampus Collection

Thanks so much to everyone who sent through submissions for my ‘Krampus Crackers’ project with Tiny Owl Workshop. I loved reading the varied and fantastic stories Krampus inspired. It was hard to choose the final twelve, but I’m pleased to announce that the following stories will be appearing in Christmas crackers around Brisbane this December:

Christmas Cake – Amanda Niehaus
Mum, I’m In Love With Krampus – Andrei Seleznev
The Story-Stealer – CC Macdonald
The Horns of Christmas – Omar Sakr
Krampus Meets the Original Slashie – Glen Donaldson
The Gift – Ira McGuire
Give a Shit This Christmas – Ryan Sim
How to Survive a Family Christmas with the Norse Gods – Robert G. Cook
Kramme Pass – Stuart Dunstan
The Christmas Wish – Mish Gittens
Reindeer in Admin Roles – Harlan Ambrose
Horns – Nicola Nixon

I endeavoured to get back to everyone who submitted, as I did really appreciate the response. So even if you didn’t make the list, check your inbox for some feedback!

Now the editing begins. Stay tuned for where and how you can read these darkly festive pieces.