The acclaimed British poet, nature-writer and novelist Ruth Padel was in attendance at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2017, where she appeared on panels on poetry and wildlife. In a freewheeling conversation with Scroll.in, she spoke about the pleasures of poetry, finding patterns in the mythology of Christmas, wildlife and the influence of her great-great-grandfather Charles Darwin on her work. Excerpts:
On her career as a poet
I have always loved poetry. I wrote poems when I was a child – my mother has a poem somewhere that I supposedly wrote when I was three. I learned poems by heart, especially Kipling’s poems – not the jingoistic ones, but the animal ones, because I was also a great animal-lover.
At school, I learned a lot of verse poems by heart, Keats and Tennyson and so on. But when I was doing a PhD in Greek and Latin in Oxford, I kept finding that I was writing poetry out of the research I was doing.
I published one or two poems in the Times Literary Supplement then – I must have been in my late twenties. But I didn’t actually publish a book of poems until I was 39 or 40, about the same time that I had a child. So my daughter thinks of my career as a poet as her sort of sister.
My book Tidings is dedicated to an Indian friend of mine from Maharashtra who is a psychiatrist in London for the mentally ill homeless. He’s taken me round all the homeless hostels in Camden in London.
There’s a team called Focus Homeless Outreach who work there who are really wonderful, and they are doing what they can, but homelessness has increased in Britain even in just this area of London by 37% in the last two years. People just walk past homeless people.
On finding light and dark in the Christmas myth
I’m fascinated by the way myths are a kind of deep archive of our thoughts. And the most recent book I’ve done is about Christmas. I’m not a Christian. I was born with Darwin on one shoulder – my mother’s mother was his granddaughter – and Freud on the other, because my father was a psychoanalyst. But I’m a singer, and I got religious imagery through singing carols.
I was thinking about the Christmas myth and how important it is nowadays. We have two people, parents who are displaced. There is no room for them in an inn so they are sleeping rough.
Everyone thinks of Christmas as hope and happiness but actually, a lot of single people are really lonely at Christmas. It’s also a time of disappointment. There’s a little girl in the book who’s longing for a puppy but doesn’t get one. In the end she gets the friendship of a fox.
And then there’s the star that the three wise men follow to get to Bethlehem. Stars are very pretty and tinselly and all that, but they have sharp points and edges. Because the wise men are led to Bethlehem, King Herod does the massacre of the innocents. So that star is very double edged; it leads to the killing fields.
I also found something in St Francis – the wood that leads to the manger is also the wood of the cross. So there are these patterns of light and dark here.
My friend Valmik Thapar was very pleased that for the first time, wildlife features so much on the first day of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Wildlife is so important, it’s the breath of India – if the wildlife and forests go, nobody will have any water for one thing, and nobody will have any spiritual feeling and linkage with anything else for the other. The tiger’s sacred, the leopard’s sacred, the elephant’s sacred, and what’s happening to them?
The wild is dangerous, but it’s also beautiful, and it also should be left to itself.
On the influence of Darwin
I really started reading Darwin properly when I was doing the tiger book. I took the Origin of Species with me. I had this vision of understanding when I was going down this river in Laos. We were sleeping in villages and it was extraordinary and terribly sad because there were no animals in the forests. The people who live in the forests eat them all, because they’re so hungry. There is huge poverty.
So I realised that I was going down this tropical jungle, just as my great-great-grandfather had gone down one in South America. He was trying to learn how species came to evolve, and what I was sadly learning was how species went extinct.
It was so nice to work on Darwin because he was such a nice man. There have been some negative questions about him in India, because he is perceived as someone who said “survival of the fittest,” and it chimes with colonialism. Well actually, he never said it, and it’s rather sad people think so, because he was very conscientious and kind, and he was really only trying to understand how evolution happened. The phrase was used by one of his disciples.
He learnt it very harshly because his daughter died. She might have died of anything, nobody even knew how to find microbes at that time. (When he was going around South America, Louis Pasteur was 13.) But what he felt was that it was his fault she died because he had married his first cousin. He’d understood from his researches that inbreeding can weaken things. And so it was very, very hard.
The whole idea is that if you have an environment which is changing, like ours is now, the animals that can adapt will survive, and the ones that can’t adapt won’t. You can see that in India, leopards are surviving better than tigers because they can hide more easily and they’re more adaptable. The elephant is hardly adaptable at all, it needs what it needs. So that was Darwin’s insight but it’s rather a complicated thing to explain over the rather negative label of the ‘survival of the fittest’. Also, that label suggests that Darwin thinks it was a good idea. He did not. He thought nature was very cruel.
Darwin simplified means so many different things to different people. When I went to China I kept being told that Darwin stands for progress, which isn’t true either. Actually, China is the place which is driving the poaching of wild animals, and there is a total split between human and animal. They think that animals are put on the earth for human beings to use. I nearly had a nervous breakdown in China from the lack of nature.
On what she’s working on next
This morning I went down to talk to an emerald cutter in Jaipur, because my next book of poems is going to be called Emerald. My daughter is an anthropologist in Colombia and it’s extraordinary to me that these emeralds were dug up in the 16th century in the Andes and were taken here to Jaipur to be cut, and they’re still cut here today.