After I left my job in the conservation sector to go freelance as an illustrator, I experienced a magical reawakening in how I thought about the natural world.
I was often a bit of a square peg in a round hole in my old job, but I very much saw that as my super power. With a background in arts and communication, I was able to bring a creative twist to my work, to meetings, to project ideas and publications, which lead to some wonderful cross-pollination between science and art. Even so, there was still a necessity to think scientifically. To do my best to communicate in a technical, formal way and operate within the framework of the rational. And I didn’t realise quite how much I’d been doing that until I went back to my arty roots.
Not long after leaving, I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. I loved Stardust and Neverwhere and Good Omens, so was already a fan. But reading his weaving of the English landscape in this book, I fell in love with his writing all over again and realised something I’d been missing for a while…
“Hazels lined the side of the meadow. I picked a handful of the green nuts, put them in my pocket.
The pond is next, I thought. I just have to go around this shed, and I’ll see it.
… The pond was smaller than I remembered. There was a little wooden shed on the far side, and by the path, an ancient, heavy wood-and-metal bench. The peeling wooden slats had been painted green a few years ago. I sat on the bench and stared at the reflection of the sky in the water, at the scum of duckweed at the edges, and the half-dozen lily pads. Every now and again I tossed a hazelnut into the middle of the pond, the pond that Lettie Hempstock had called…
It wasn’t the sea, was it?”
I have quite a collection of nature books of different kinds (especially from second hand bookshops, I’ve had to stop going in them until we get more bookshelves) and I’m a nature junky, needing a regular fix of the outdoors, of flowers, moss, mud and animals, which obviously I’d been getting from conservation. I get it vicariously too from reading about people meeting seals, badgers, hedgehogs etc and exploring wild and wonderful places.
But part of my love comes from the way our wild places resonate with the echoes of our fairy tales and myths, something that’s generally missing from the more scientific observation style of writing and the conservationist way of looking at nature. And it wasn’t until reading this book that I saw the connection between the nature books on my shelves and the fantasy ones.
“I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children stories. They were better than than that. They just were.
Adult stories never made sense, and they were slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrets, Masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?”
Here was Gaiman, leading me down lanes fringed with foxgloves to meet witches and and dive into magical ponds, and suddenly my heart was singing. This. THIS. THIS! He sees it too! That overlaying of the mystical on top of the physical. One of the intangible parts of our natural heritage that lives in stories and songs. His writing conjures with the magic of the English countryside so beautifully; it’s more than just a backdrop. The wild woods where you have to beware of talking wolves who might lead you astray. Mermaids singing off the Cornish coast and selkies swimming around Scottish islands…I know now that I am passionate about conservation because I want to save wild places for the creatures that call them home. Including the fairies. And although I’ve suggested some pretty out-there stuff in meetings, that’s not something I’ve really confessed before.
Our wildlife is seriously magical.
And I don’t really see that as being separate from the science… science is just… kind of another word for magic in my head. It’s a way of trying to explain and categorise the beautiful and mind-blowing things that are around us, which we can never quite fully capture or exactly understand how they work. And that’s awesome; our trying doesn’t make them less magical and the mysteries that still elude us just engage my heart even more.
Every year, thousands of toads retread their migration paths back to their breeding ponds, and no one really knows how they do it. The life cycles of newts, frogs and toads are incredible mini fairy stories in themselves. Slow-worms look like Egyptian snake bracelets that have crawled away in search of a better, more private life. Dragonflies are spectacularly odd and we even have something called a fairy shrimp…
But talking about nature and magic feels a bit… embarrassing. If the conservation sector has been cautious to use the word Love (which it has been) magic is even more taboo. Childish. Irrational. But there is a really lovely historical link between nature and magic – like The Flower Fairies with those gorgeous, accurate botanical illustrations and the way that Brian Froud’s fairy books echo a natural history guide to cheeky, impish creatures. I think it can be another way to engage people’s hearts in conserving our wild places and animals. And I have been following the Fairy Land Trust for a while for precisely that reason. Because actually… as children, we so often have it right…
“Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.”
And the conservation sector knows this too, hence the big move to get more people enjoying a Natural Childhood. It was when I was little that my love affair with nature began. It’s never left me, its just changed shape a couple of times and grown up a bit.
Our fairytale places need us to fight for them. Our weird and wonderful wildlife needs us to protect and champion to save their lives and their homes. And by saving them, we give more space to magic.
So, it’s a couple of years since leaving rediscovering the mystical, and I’ve finally been drawing some fairies and allowing myself to connect with it again. I shared a load of fairies over on my Instagram and Facebook and created a Snow Fairy Christmas Card…
⭐️The self love fairy ⭐️ it’s not about being more this or less that, about giving anything in particular up or starting something else. She reminds us to ask in each moment “what would I do now if I loved myself?” And it’s not about being selfish, for no one benefits if we hurt others or take just for ourselves without thinking of tomorrow. The self love fairy gives you permission to be gentle with yourself, to worship your own body, to go at your own pace, to ask for what you need.
⭐️the kindness fairy ⭐️ this benevolent pixie may be little, but he is surprisingly powerful. He presides over both simple acts and grand gestures. He can be a bit tricksy – but never cruel. He might call on you to be firm one day to help another, to look further down the road than one action, to ask rather than assume what someone else needs. He can be found weaving magic over a cup of tea, helping to wrap gifts, smiling at self sacrifice, giggling over pleasant surprises and whooping at random anonymous acts of sweetness.
⭐️the comfort fairy⭐️ a warm and furry winged spaniel. Snoozing in flight as he bears a thermos flask full of hot chocolate. This snuggling being rules blankets, naps, sofas and cushions and protects all hibernating creatures.
⭐️the mirror fairy⭐️ oh this sprite is a tricksy fellow. He can appear at times when we find the behaviour of other people challenging. He shines that sparkly mirror and asks us to look at ourselves, check our own imperfections, looking at where we might have room to grow. But he can also pop up when we bask in the radiant brightness of others to say “don’t forget, you glow too…”
⭐️intention fairy⭐️ bound to Lady Luna, this hare-y fairy supports us in the new moon as we set intentions, sits with us as we bear the intensity of the full moon and whatever that may bring, and rests as that light wanes again and our world are renewed. He reminds us how powerful we can choose to be, how awesome we are at manifesting, and how a bit of conscious choosing goes a long way…
There are quite a few more fairies, but this has become a bit of a long post so I will save them for the next one!
Tags: animals, brian froud, conservation, fairies, intangible natural heritage, magic, mystical, natural childhood, nature writing, neil gaiman, wildlife