William Henry Searle’s Threads is a call to order and serves to remind us of our material and spiritual reliance on the natural world. But is Searle’s encounter with nature relatable? asks our arts writer Gabriela Frost.
Today presents us with a rich opportunity to relate. Even amidst the horrors of life, there is a chance to bridge the divide between ourselves, one another, and the natural world through intimacy, paying attention to the mysteries rather than the solutions, to start the long walk back home. […] Stay with living things – the trees, the sky, the rain, the rocks, the very ground beneath your feet that supports not only you but those you love and those who love you in turn – and, in time, you’ll be rocked into a rooted place, settled.
There is so much for which I want to praise William Henry Searle’s Threads. It is a rallying-cry, a call to order which serves to wake us from our slumber and remind us of our material and spiritual reliance on the natural world. Simultaneously, it is a moving account of a single human experience laid bare in all of its love and pain. But there is a knot at the root of this memoir. Gnawing away at the comfortable and gratifying beauty of Searle’s book is a question which I never got off my mind. Speaking from across the divide of just under 200 pages, did Searle, by his own word, really relate to those on the other side?
Let me begin by clarifying that Threads is without doubt a stunning piece of creative non-fiction. Searle weaves a personal history from branches of beech, stitching in fox figurines and the silhouettes of ravens, building up a tapestry which bears witness to his own lived experience and mapping it onto the wider story of the natural world around him. The different threads of his life are twisted around a common root: his proximity to the wild and to nature.
The work is staged as a non-linear patchwork of recollections and poems: amongst these gems, Searle shares with us the world-shattering wonder evoked by a swarm of fireflies stumbled upon in an abandoned building, and the awe-inspiring ancient, living power sensed at a river’s humble source. We clamber with Searle up rocky mountain trails and reach numerous peaks, none of which are the final goal, but all of which are ultimate unto themselves. We watch streams gurgle over glossy pebbles, and in moments of pure stillness we share with him the rare and precious silence of the undisturbed earth. There is a notable absence of dialogue, and a tendency for sensory deprivation: we as readers are blinded as we wander the woods at night, so we might better hear the river beating its song along the hidden banks.
Threads is all presence, all intimacy and all proximity, and it cannot help but ignite a desire for these things
Every interaction between Searle and the world, whether joyous or mournful, is marked by quiet contemplation, acceptance and gratitude. His ability to distil into prose the complex beauty of a single moment of kinship with the earth or with a loved one is captivating. At a time when the earth’s natural resources are under constant threat from indifferent human activity, a work which brings human life and the natural world into dialogue so convincingly and with such sentiment can only be a good thing.
On this note, Threads walks an odd line between non-fiction and escapism. We could easily be drawn into the wilderness of Searle’s text as a sort of refuge from the fast-paced world of technology and virtual communication. After all, for a contemporary text centring on nature the work is decidedly unpolitical, casting no guilt for the wellbeing of the natural world onto the reader. This is perhaps because Searle focuses in on nature with a small ‘n’ – the individual encounters with specific wildlife, rocks and trees – and steers clear of sweeping generalisation. This allows him to keep his text intimate, but it also keeps it separate; Threads is trapped in a pristine other-world where the only tangible atrocities against nature are those of cruel farmers with guns.
Yet Threads is not about escapism, but reorientation. Indeed, it is anti-escapist by definition, as it calls into question our flight from the essential – our bonds with those around us, our relationship with the land, sea and air – into the superfluous and virtual. Searle tugs on the threads of our existence, to pull them, us, it, closer together. Threads is all presence, all intimacy and all proximity, and it cannot help but ignite a desire for these things.The non-escapism of the text is also a symptom of its flaws. Anyone can write a memoir of their own experience, but in order to publish that memoir, there must be something in it for the readership.
It is obvious that those who have grown up amongst rolling hills and fields might feel a fondness for nature, but how do we make that world relevant for those who have not?
Threads’ introduction is full of promise, much of which is fulfilled. Yet there is something which does not sit right. Searle calls on his readers to follow his lead, to reconnect with loved ones and to step back into nature for guidance. When it comes to bonding with family, Searle’s reaffirmation of his relationship with his far away brother can certainly hold truth and nourishment for others. Yet when it comes to his return to the earth, Searle’s prose speaks of a very specific engagement with nature, typical of a certain type of experience. For those of us who have not grown up with expanses of garden and hills to stretch the legs of our imaginaries, for those who haven’t the time – regardless of desire – to get out into the remote countryside, who haven’t the expensive kit to camp out there under the stars – what next? The issue with Threads is that Searle makes no provision for engaging with nature in the everyday.
For contrast, consider Chris Packham’s memoir Fingers in the Sparkle Jar. Packham also explores lived experience as inextricable from his encounters with nature, and recounts these in a poetic and heart-felt prose. However, unlike Searle, Packham describes the upturned trolley and the broken bike parts by the stream. He finds wonder in small patches of earth and sky, in insects kept in jars and in slimy spoonfuls of tadpoles fished out of a public pond. While Searle’s prose is inspiring and while his emotional journey may be relatable to many, his tangible relationship with nature is not, as it is largely rooted in vast wild expanses and secluded beauty spots. I found myself almost relieved when he mentioned a house, a road, an object, anything which made his experience more mutual. Searle splits his life between Snowdonia and the New Forest – and good for him for doing so. But many are lucky to get to a park at the weekends. Surely there’s a way for them to reconnect too?
Anything which encourages readers to get closer to nature is in my view a positive thing. But there is also an urgency to our current situation which must be considered: the natural world is straining under the burden of humanity. It is obvious that those who have grown up amongst rolling hills and fields might feel a fondness for nature, but how do we make that world relevant for those who have not? I couldn’t help but ask myself: who is going to read Threads who does not already know and love the poetry of nature? And if they do, what will they be able to gain from their reading? A memoir will always be about a specific experience, and will often be a little self-indulgent. Indeed, it has no duty to relate to its readership at all – it can be read for mere voyeuristic curiosity. But this is not what Searle claims – and if the goal is truly to relate, then more effort is needed to go into making it relatable.
William Henry Searle’s Threads is published by Penguin Random House and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops around the UK now. To learn more about William Henry Searle and his work, click here.
Image Credit: ‘Snowdonia Shades’, courtesy of Zoltan Fekeshazi.