At Lackford Lakes with

Melissa Harrison

Cormarants on Lackford Lakes by Maria Nunzia @Varvera

I attended Melissa Harrison's talk at the Suffolk Festival of Ideas held at Lackford Lakes nature reserve on the 8th October this year. The event took place in a long narrow two-story wooden building; a double-decker bird hide next to a lake.  The second floor of this building doubled up as the venue for poets and writers to tell their stories and read extracts from their books. 


Melissa Harrison is the author of three successful books: Clay,  (2013), At Hawthorn Time, (2015) both published by Bloomsbury and  Rain (2016), published by Faber and Faber. At Hawthorn Time was nominated in 2015 for the Costa Novel Award. She is also known as the Nature Notes column writer in The Times. 


Hosting the event in a bird hide flavored it with a sense of theater.  It brought people into a building built into a landscape that aimed to camouflage, rendering them invisible to the wildlife outside.


On that day the clapping of wings was drowned out by the clapping of hands, the cries of wading birds became woven into the threads of poetic words that chased one another out of the mouths of poets and story-tellers.  




The room was set out with rows of chairs and in front of them, a space for the poets and writers. Along the wall were wooden benches, providing more seating. I sat on one of these close to the performing area. There was already an attentive and enthusiastic audience who remained seated after Kate Blincoe the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Green Parenting had finished her talk.   


Melissa was sitting in the second row; I recognized her from photographs on the web. Bright light streamed in through the long narrow windows that faced reflective pools, wading birds, a lone white egret and lakeside woods. The autumn sunlight illuminated the side of Mellisa's face; at first glance, my impression of her was that of a Joan of Arc sitting in a Hollywood movie set with her neatly cut boyish hair style, fitted jacket, and large bluish scarf.  That impression intensified when Mellisa stood up to give her talk. Her left side was bathed in the streaming light as she stood next to the window. 


Joan of Arc, Melissa is not. Her battle is not with foreign armies but with her craft. She expresses a commitment to capturing moments in human time,  place and nature that are fleeting, transient and elusive.

Her intense feeling towards her writing and what she sees as the need to let go and open up the subconscious is evident in the passionate way Melissa talks about her work and her writing process.  


Her driving force is to allow the natural world to penetrate through her words and inspire her imagination. Her method includes walks in the rain through landscapes inhabited by people and nature and recording them as being one and part of each other. 


Melissa's loss of her mother and the underlying sadness of that loss seems evident not only in her writing but also in her exploration of the world around her as if searching for that which is hidden,  known to exist through a deep knowingness that it is ready to be revealed. 


The process of writing for Melissa is challenging. Several times she expressed her hatred for it. Even when questioned that there must be times when she enjoyed it, Mellisa assertively responded that she did not. 


There seems for Melissa a deep emotional investment in the way she writes that makes it difficult for her. The process of writing instinctively and without a plan means that the process may be inefficient but for her, "Your method is your method, for good or ill." Melisa believes that any attempt at shortcutting the process of self -discovery "merely short-change a writer in the long run." 


Outside the bird hide the guelder-rose displays its scarlet but poisonous berries and in the distance, the sounds of wild birds can be heard. I take my photographs and images that remind me that we are not alone but linked to the world around us in ways that we will never fully understand and perhaps don't need to.