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Wolves, whales and a wee moose, with Jim Crumley – 8 March 2017

Nature writing comes naturally to Jim Crumley.

We were delighted to welcome Jim to the club as our guest speaker.

A well-known and respected nature writer with a journalistic background (twenty years with major Scottish newspapers), he still contributes monthly to the Dundee Courier and The Scots Magazine.

Describing nature writing as the “problem child of literature”, Jim explained how bookstores struggle to know where they should place nature books, usually relegating them to the basement or the third floor to be sandwiched between gardening books and pet care manuals. He also emphasised that he’s not a naturalist or a biologist or a wildlife expert. All this however hasn’t prevented Jim from writing over thirty successful books since his first, St Kilda – A Portrait of Britain’s Remotest Island Landscape, published in 1988.

Jim read to us from three of his books.

Jim Crumley with club Presidents, Janice Johnston and Fiona Atchison

Firstly, he read the Prologue –The Painter of Mountains – from his 2010 book The Last Wolf. Jim was inspired to write this piece while teaching a creative writing workshop with school pupils at Strontian. Beautifully descriptive and emotive, it imagines the landscape of a Scottish glen and its wildlife after the re-establishment of wolves.

The Last Wolf, gives the history of the wolf’s decline in Scotland, repairs its damaged reputation invented by Victorian writers and makes the case for the animal’s re-introduction to Scotland while interspersing chapters with the fictional story of “the last wolf”. Jim’s research for this book led him to visit both Alaska and Norway to talk with people who worked with wolves.

Next he shared with us the first chapter Why Whales Die from his book The Winter Whale and introduced us to the Tay Whale.

Jim’s childhood fear of a whale’s skeleton suspended from the ceiling of Dundee Museum led him years later to investigate the mammal’s demise.

The Winter Whale is based on the historical event of the poor humpback whale who had the misfortune to swim up the Tay Estuary to Dundee, home of Scotland’s largest whaling fleet with over eight hundred whalers anchored in port, in 1883/4.  A sensational story at the time, Jim immersed himself in newspaper articles from the period to write his book.  His research also took him to Alaskan waters where he had the thrill of a close encounter with a humpback whale. It’s amazing to think that The Famous Tay Whale (as immortalised by McGonagall’s poem) could potentially still be alive and swimming the oceans today had it not been slaughtered, now that evidence suggests whales can live for between a hundred and two hundred years old.

Lastly Jim focused on his most recent book The Nature of Autumn which explores his favourite season and encapsulates several genres of writing – poetry, essay, memoir and short story.

He read The Ploughman’s Apology – his thought-provoking short story based on the backstory behind Robert Burns’ famous poem Tae a Moose, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough.  The distracted poet/ploughman destroyed the harvest mouse’s nest with his plough then contemplated where he now stood in nature’s eyes.

Good nature writing, Jim said, should build a bridge between our own species and other species while promoting a degree of understanding.

After a refreshing half-time cuppa, the floor was opened for comments and questions.

Jim advised that the best way to observe nature was simply to go out for a walk, take a notebook and scribble down what you see, hear, feel and smell. A vast area of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park is his usual stomping ground where he does most of the field work for his writing.

Jim revealed that his favourite nature writers were Americans Nancy Lord, Barry Lopez and Aldo Leopold as well as Scotland’s own Gavin Maxwell. Ring of Bright Water, Maxwell’s story of a man’s relationship with an otter was hugely influential. After reading it, Jim wanted, one day, to be able to write an important nature book which made as big an impact on public opinion as Ring of Bright Water did.

Jim Crumley certainly made an impact on Ayr Writers’ Club. It was a great pleasure to listen to his readings and his thoughts. We look forward to seeing The Nature of Autumn’s companion books – The Nature of Winter….Spring….Summer prominently displayed and promoted in bookshops very soon.

So boots on folks, wrap up warm and get out into the great outdoors. Inspiration for our nature articles (Scottish article competition) awaits us on our fantastic rural Ayrshire doorstep.

Linda Brown

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