Column

The Horizontal Oak

Written by Polly Pullar

The new book by naturalist/author Polly Pullar, The Horizontal Oak, is a personal one, looking at how the natural world has helped her to rebuild at times when life has presented hard challenges to cope with. Here she explains the background.

Being human isn’t always easy. When you are a writer and have a new book, one of the questions you are asked is ‘What are you going to write next?’ There is seldom thought that perhaps you might need a breather from the endless effort that all writers would agree goes into production. You are expected to continue. When you reply that you are writing a memoir, someone will comment, ‘That’s brave.’ And then you doubt whether writing it is correct. Next, they ask ‘Why?’ This is a more complex question to answer. 

The American editor Shawn Coyne wrote, ‘Whether you know it or not, your desire to write comes from the urge to not just be creative, it’s a need (one every human being on earth has) to help others. A well-told story is a gift to the reader/listener/viewer because it teaches them how to confront their own discomforts.’

I had a perfect childhood immersed in the natural world. Animals and wild things surrounded me in the glorious places where we lived. In Ardnamurchan, I had unfettered freedom. This rugged, wind-honed peninsula fringed with Atlantic oak woodland lush with wildlife became my anchor and rock, particularly when later I found myself confronting family turmoil. Ardnamurchan taught me the vital importance of emotional ballast.

Many ordinary families like mine face challenging problems and issues. It’s part of the human condition, but it’s how we handle them that matters. We think of oak trees as mighty – trees to build bastions, boats or vast buildings, yet oaks come in many guises. Some are tiny.  High on an Ardnamurchan hillside is one such tree. It has been beaten into submission by the wrath of the Atlantic. It is horizontal. Yet it clings firmly to life, its sprawling root system finding succour beneath rock in that hard place. It is otherworldly  – the finest spot I know to sit and banish mental bedlam. Its tenacity is inspiring. 

A life enhanced

Recently, there has been a rash of books in the ‘nature healed me’ category. I didn’t want my book to fall into this mould. Instead, I wanted to weave my passion for the natural world around the story of my complicated relationship with my parents, my father’s alcoholism and his subsequent suicide, and include a family secret that consumed me. I wanted to write too about a life enhanced by close relationships with animals, punctuating it with humour. For even in the darker moments, humour can save us.  

As more struggle with melancholy, angst and uncertainty, I wanted to relate anecdotes of the fantastic situations that have carried me, for hopefully, they may indeed help others confront their discomforts. Our disconnection from nature is a worrying trend, yet absorption of a world apart from life’s inevitable stresses and tragedies can be more mentally grounding than anything.

I also wanted to be as honest as possible, but the truth is complicated. The past is hard to dislodge, but when we revisit it, is this perhaps a chance to reassess and view it from a better angle? And we have to learn, too, that we cannot always save those we love; there’s a great deal you cannot change when you are a child.

There is more in you

Is it only when you reach an ending that you start to think about the beginning, the middle and the bits in between? Reflecting now that my parents and my wonderful stepfather have gone, I know that I used to believe I could change things, fix Dad’s dire drink-related problems, and later I thought I could help Mum with her mental state. I don’t blame them for the things that went wrong. They, in turn, had issues to deal with that were not of their making – it is the same for all of us. And life is far too short for bitterness.

I will always be grateful to the three of them for the role they played, instilling in me a passion for the exceptional things that have made my life happy: nature, animals, hill walking and livestock farming, and for their sense of humour and the extraordinarily wild places where we lived. Mum, and my stepfather, also gave me incredible opportunities. My time at Gordonstoun proved invaluable and enhanced the activities I loved already. It was a school where they encouraged a wealth of life skills, and I was privileged to be there. Importantly, I learned the wisdom of the school’s motto,  Plus est en Vous – ‘There is more in you.‘An ethos for life.

Best of all, my parents gave me freedom, something that few chil­dren today will experience in the unique way that I did. This allowed me to be free, a true child of nature. Ironically perhaps, under the circumstances, it was the most potent tool they could have given me, for it is this more than anything that has carried me through.

Let’s go to the shore

Knowledge, love and respect for the natural world are the best groundings for a stable education and psyche. I have always been aware that nature holds the key to everything. For my mental stability, it is certainly vital. Sadly, nature education in schools is now almost non-existent. To take a class out, there is first a protracted rigmarole of risk assessments and miles of red tape to be untangled, causing a loss of spontaneity. Some days our primary teacher in Ardnamurchan might say, ‘The tide is out, the sun is shining, let’s go to the shore to explore the rockpools.’ Bliss. Teachers cannot do that now and understandably lose the will once forced into climbing an insurmountable mountain of paperwork. As a result, few children play outside anymore, and more and more adults spend little or no time in nature. The rise in mental ill ­health, as a result, is a worrying trend.

My parents were tricky and flawed, yet both flamboyant and kind. And they loved nature, and I loved them. However, like their parents before them, they dealt with situations that were not of their making – we are all the same. So I don’t blame them for what went wrong; it just took me years to understand.

In the words of the late Terry Pratchett, ‘If you don’t turn your life into a story, you just become part of someone else’s story.’

Polly Pullar spoke on Nurturing the Wild in the 2022 Orkney International Science Festival.

About the author

Polly Pullar

Polly Pullar is a conservationist, naturalist, writer and photographer specialising in wildlife and countryside matters. She is also a wildlife rehabilitator. She lives on a small farm in Highland Perthshire, surrounded by an extensive menagerie.