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Charismatic Animals

Is it cheaper to weep for a sea otter – clutching paws in the water – than a lake? The scientist herself is moved by ospreys. The poet is guilty of magical thinking, reads each tip of the barn owl’s head as a message, each heron as gift, each slow worm, each bee as a personal envoy. Her neighbours. But the lake is a grandmother. She has her own charisma. She hides galaxies in her core with her gilly heart as huge and as heavy as a moon.

Notes on Notes from a transect

Blaise Martay works for the British Trust for Ornithology, and is based at Stirling University. We spoke by videochat and email, and in person when I visited Stirling. The different parts of the poem reflect different aspects of her work and our conversation, which I wanted to include not just in content, but in form. I wanted to reflect the scope of the work she does, whilst also reflecting what motivates people to contribute to data gathering.

Some of the vignettes are more to do with Blaise’s world, some with mine, and tap into other conversations and discussions. ‘Charismatic Animals’ owes a lot to two keynote lectures at ALECC 2018, in which RosemaryClaire Collard spoke about commodification of sea otters, and Jacinda Mack, a member of the Secwepemc and Nuxalk Nations, spoke about the Mount Polley mine spill in 2014, and her role as the coordinator of First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining (FNWARM) and Stand For Water. Whilst people were getting weepy about the plight of the sea otters, Jacinda spoke of the lake poisoned in the mine disaster as a family member, as a grandmother. For Jacinda’s community, there is no separation. The lake is not a body of water, it is a living body; it is a person who is an essential member of the community.

My own thinking on this has been cemented by my work on Dorothy and William Wordsworth and the influence of their writings on the way we understand the Lake District. William Wordsworth held a sense of an “active


universe”, in which “every pebbly stone/ That paves the brooks, the stationary rocks/ The moving water and the invisible air” have as much presence and agency as people or animals, and the landscape is made of “living stone”. In his Prelude he writes “in all things/I saw one life, and felt that it was joy”. This sense of joy in the relationship with the living world is something Blaise and I kept returning to. I always feel like my reaction to certain animals is part of a problem that needs to be picked apart, that there is an anthropocentric naivety in my thrill, or an undercurrent of hunt mentality. I was reassured by her excitement over the comeback of ospreys and beavers. Blaise spoke positively about excitement, arguing “we’ve been inspired by nature for millennia”, and that there is worth in that. Excitement is important if it can build connections. It can instigate change. It’s vital to recognise the reality of climate change, and to counter misinformation, but that doesn’t, and mustn’t, preclude joy.

Polly Atkin lives in Cumbria. Her first collection Basic Nest Architecture (Seren: 2017) is followed by a third pamphlet, With Invisible Rain (New Walk Press: 2018). She is a Penguin Random House WriteNow mentee 2018, for a non-fiction book on living with chronic illness.

Blaise Martay is a Research Ecologist for the British Trust for Ornithology. Most of her research has focused on the impact of climate change on birds and other animals.

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