It’s Sunday morning and the air smells of lethargic autumn life. A double-layered carpet of dry and mushy leaves crackles and sinks under my boots as I try to keep up with the group of poets. Faces and voices moves through the woods, following Tanesha Allen, one of the researchers who will be presenting her work on badgers.
On the edge of a small cliff, Tanesha points out the badger traps. Under us, a hidden world of tunnels hosts the furry creatures we will soon see up close in the laboratory. As Tanesha talks about the lives of badgers, the camera takes in her excitement, the poets’ attentive looks, the traps, the ground, the sun shining through yellow and brown leaves. Heading back towards the chalet, I let the poets walk away from me, becoming smaller and smaller against the forest, and slowly blending into it.
In an interview only two days before, Sarah Watkinson, Wytham’s first poet in residence, had spoken about her observational way of approaching poetry. Now I am here, observing poets who observe scientists who observe a sleeping badger. Some take pictures, some take notes. The badger lays on its side, the paws touched and measured, then flipped like a pancake and analysed further. Who knows what it might be dreaming of.
Chris Newman, the lead researcher, explains how the badgers of Wytham are used to being captured and released. For them, he thinks, it must be like a routine alien abduction. They pass out, humans analyse and prod them under strange lights, only to finally return them to their burrows. As Chris talks about alien abductions, the poets scribble faster, and I move the camera to capture hands, pens, eyes, delighted looks. I am the last link of an odd chain reaction.
Chris finally marks the badger, and as it is sprayed with blue paint, the sleepy animal sneezes. A few hours after, it will be released. The mood is light. When I replay the sneeze on my small screen I can’t help but smile.
Back in the chalet, Tanesha presents her research. She talks about promiscuous badgers, and about the cost of producing quality secretion for signalling - it turns out, it’s totally worth it. I wonder what the poets will write about, and think again about the interview with Sarah a couple of days before. For her, one thing science and poetry have in common is the search for truth. Who said the truth can’t be surreal?
Romola Parish, who is leading the workshop, invites the poets to work in pairs. The camera observes them a little longer: exchanging ideas, reading to each other, writing about badgers. As both Sarah and Romola have said, this is only the beginning of a process. An immediate but essential reaction to the impressions Tanesha, Chris and the badgers have made on them today. A spark that might turn into a long lasting fire.
I finally stop recording, and step out of the chalet. The air outside still smells of lazy, humid autumn. Walking back to the car park, I look up. The moon has never seemed bigger. It’s a magical night. A night for badgers.
Maria Galliani Dyrvik
Here follows a selection of poems submitted by workshop attendees:
The Worm and the Badger,
Or Whose Earth is it anyway?
The worm and the badger met one day
on a beautiful tree-green hill.
Said badger to earthworm “your wriggling form
Would make me a scrumptious meal.”
Worm said to badger “inelegant codger
What gives you the gall to eat me eat me, eat me?
You haven’t the right to eat me.
You have lice, yes, and fleas, you carry disease,
You stink, you’re not bound for extinction.
Let the DFE cull you, the farmers expel you—
a creature without distinction!”
“What a curious notion” said Brock with emotion
“This woodland belongs to me!
I’m lusty and single and ready to mingle
With gals from my top-secret sett.
My subcaudal secretions are buttery rich
with a quite irresistible scent.
My rump has suave wobble, my snout savvy twitch,
The claws on my forepaws can delve a deep a ditch,
while these stripes down my maw keep the wolf from my door.
Whereas you, Worm, you’re dull. You have no bum at all
You ‘re a featureless ribbon of flesh!”
“OH yeah?” sneered the worm. “This earth is mine!
Without my excretions and writhing exertions
This delicate humus would fail,
Then where would these trees be, would you and your fleas be—
This whole blooming Earth would fail!
Badger ignored him and bit him in two
But worm silently laughed as his uneaten half
Slithered expertly under the soil.
Rosalind Bleach and Laura Spence
This path of mud and leaves
These five hundred years
An opening into my world below
Just big enough
For my pear shaped body
The scent of old earth
Young life, new floods, dry summers
Leading me on
A hand, a trap, a dream
A thunderous roar
That scares me unwillingly to sleep
Below in comforting darkness
Warmth of the bodies
Snout against snout, paw against claw
Breathing the breath of each other’s torpor