Saari Residence


Interpreter of plants and animal tracks – Interview with Tamara Colchester


Saari Residence


Interpreter of plants and animal tracks – Interview with Tamara Colchester

“Close your eyes. Now take three deep breaths with me.” I am standing outside the main building of the Saari Residence with author and forager Tamara Colchester on a pleasant winter day. I can feel the sun on my face and see its light through my eyelids. The grass under my feet is still hard in places after last night’s frost, but the sun has already begun to soften the earth. A light breeze plays on the branches of nearby trees.

“Pay attention to the scents that the wind is carrying to your nose,” Colchester instructs. I can smell the thawing earth – light notes of grass mixed with muddy undertones. “Now open your eyes and look around you. Look up – and down. Look at what is right here next to you and what you can see further away.” It is a simple but effective exercise. We have activated our senses and are now ready to step into nature.

Colchester is in a cheerful mood. She leads me around the grounds of the manor with an air of confident familiarity, constantly scanning the soil beneath our feet. We come to a green spot bathed in sunlight. Colchester kneels down, picks a plant and explains: “This one is called chickweed, Stellaria media, which is really yummy, super fresh.”

In addition to writing, going on walks has become an important routine for Colchester in recent years. Last year, she set up a group called Plant Listening, which organises walks to introduce people to the skills of foraging and tracking. Her stay at the Saari Residence has made Colchester love her daily walks all the more: “Being here I have realised that actually the thing I have most wanted to do is go on walks.”

Having a deep bond with nature has not always been a given in Colchester’s life, however. In fact, growing up in London meant that nature was a relatively alien concept for Colchester in her younger days.

“It was like a kind of theatrical backdrop to the human world,” she reminisces. And this world of people was full of drama. It was a scary place that Colchester found hard to embrace. But that was all she knew back then.

“I did not know then that you could turn to the world and meet it and have a relationship with it. I did not know that you could spend time with trees and spend time in the presence of animals and find other forms of life, other forms of knowing.”

Colchester was trying to find her place – both professionally and in her personal relationships. On one side were her dreams of a career in the visual arts, although she soon dropped out of art school. On the other was the emotional burden of chaos in her family. Colchester describes this period of her life as a mess and a blur.

Writing gave her direction, however: it provided a vehicle not only for self-expression but also for dealing with difficult emotions. Colchester’s debut novel, The Heart is a Burial Ground (2018), was inspired by her family history. Although she is pleased with the book, talking about it now feels surreal to her. Writing the book was almost like a therapeutic experience for her, which is a big part of the reason why it now feels distant.

“When that book came out is when I began to learn about plants and go through this big change. And so, in a sense, the book belongs to my life before,” Colchester explains.

For Tamara Colchester, learning from plants starts by forming an emotional bond with them. “I see you, I see you changing. I see you in winter and spring, in summer and autumn. I get your rhythm and how you look.”

After her debut novel, Colchester was involved in the making of a documentary about nomadic hunter-gatherer communities, which inspired her to learn more about foraging and just spending time in nature. Colchester describes her transformation as both rapid and profound.

“It sounds a bit dramatic to say it, but it was about survival. I suddenly found a reason to live, and I found a way of making life bearable and beyond that increasingly wonderful. And so I started walking to make myself feel sane, and to fill my heart with joy again.”

After the hazy days of her earlier years, the natural environment that she had previously felt was just a backdrop suddenly presented itself as the centre stage of her life. She began to see the world – and even familiar places – with new eyes. “The more you pay attention, the deeper and the richer the world gets. And I think we have a lot to learn from cultures who have lived in close contact with nature in that way,” Colchester says.

Scholars in the field of environmental aesthetics have debated extensively about whether meaningful experiences of nature should be based primarily on knowledge or on emotional and imaginative responses. Colchester sees benefits in both approaches, although she says that she usually starts by forming an emotional bond.

“I try and spend a lot of time just looking and not knowing what plants are but recognising them. ‘I see you, I see you changing. ‘I see you in winter and spring, in summer and autumn.‘I get your rhythm and how you look.’ And then after a while of that, then it is time to, ‘OK, I am going to try and learn who you are’.”

Colchester builds her knowledge using a number of learning techniques and sources of information. She learns directly from others who have studied plants, animals and different kinds of ecosystems, and she also consults conventional textbooks as well as various apps. “The plant apps are actually very good now at giving you a clue as to the name and genus of a plant. But we should never make the mistake of making that understanding of ‘OK, now I know your name’ any sense of knowing that plant,“ Colchester emphasises.

No apps are needed today, however. As I chomp on chickweed, Colchester tells me all about the plant and its properties, and laments how often it is ignored – or simply seen as a weed. A few steps later I find myself being educated about juniper berries and pine trees. Knowing the facts makes it possible to build an even stronger bond and a deeper understanding: “It is like OK, now I know that you are safe. You are not poison. Then I start tasting you. Eating you. Making tea with you. Getting to know that plant.’

“To actually meet that plant in person, you have to be outside to do that,” Colchester explains. Without knowing what to look out for, however, these encounters cannot happen.

Colchester’s own early experiences prove that people who only see nature as a backdrop do not, in fact, see it at all. Learning to connect with nature takes more than reading books, searching online and consulting other sources of factual information – you also need to be able to clear your mind and open your senses. This is exactly the kind of connection that Colchester wants to promote on her walks.

“It is just about opening a doorway. I know how profound that doorway was for me. And so, if I can create a day or a weekend where someone else can go through, then great.”

In addition to the benefits that can be achieved on a personal level, embracing nature wholeheartedly also has an ethical dimension. Colchester explains how learning the art of tracking has opened her eyes to the existence of other animals everywhere.

“But I did not use to see them. And that makes me think how, for so many people in the world, you do not know what is there because you have not been taught to see it. And in terms of where we are with protecting the environments we have left, if we do not know that something is there, then how are you meant to take care of it? There is no love because there is no relationship.”

What Colchester is saying about love as an element of understanding nature and caring for nature makes me think about the early German Romantic Friedrich Schlegel. In one of his fragments, Schlegel writes: “Whoever does not come to know Nature through love will never come to know her.”* Colchester’s habit of addressing plants as ‘you’ is reminiscent of the attitude that Schlegel champions. Although this is naturally a linguistic choice, Colchester maintains that her use of the personal pronoun is because of ‘a genuine sense that these are living beings’.

As I walk and converse with Colchester, I realise that nature also represents something sacred to her. “I love the idea of being able to live a life in which everything is sacred. Because you are being given so much by the earth, and you want to take care of it in return.”

For Colchester, however, it is important not to sugar-coat nature, as its splendour always goes hand in hand with death. “The variety of animal life, the way they live, their form, their architecture. All of it is endlessly joyous. But contained within it is often real horror.”

We as humans are not detached from this dynamic, but woven into it: for all her making friends with plants and talking to them as individuals, Colchester has no qualms about uprooting them and eating them either. According to the American philosopher Crispin Sartwell, to truly love the world, humans must accept that nature does not care about our aspirations or what is good and what is evil. Only by seeing the world exactly as it is can we love the real world and not a false illusion. This is the kind of level-headed love that Colchester is after: “I think that ultimately what our hearts are here to learn to do, is how to hold the paradox of both,” she says, referring to the necessary alternation of joy and horror, birth and death.

Colchester is currently working on turning what she has learned on her walks into a new book. Her original idea was to write specifically about her time with Scottish hunters, which made a lasting impact on Colchester.

“I wanted to learn directly from them and hear their stories. Drink a lot of whiskey. But go for some fantastic walks. They have spent their life and their career outside, doing a job and doing it very well. And they are not asked that much about what it is like to do what they do. People do not go and learn from them unless they are taking part in a quite expensive sport,” Colchester explains.

The idea for her new book has changed shape over time, however. Colchester has spent much of her residency thinking about the best way for her – as an author – to approach the topic of nature, which is so important to her. She has even questioned the very essence of the project. “I am here to work on my next work, which I am not at all sure is even meant to be a book.”

While she definitely wants to share what she has learned and experienced, Colchester has come to realise that capturing what it is like to meet a plant or an animal in person and get to know them is simply not possible in book form. Colchester nevertheless believes that a book could inspire people to step outside with their mind and senses open. At the moment her next work is shaping up to become a collection of essays that reflect on the processes of foraging and tracking – and the challenge of writing about them.

Although Colchester’s next book is therefore unlikely to focus exclusively on Scottish hunters, she promises that the book will be heavily influenced by her time spent with them. Learning the art of tracking has left its mark on Colchester in other ways too, as it colours the way she understands writing in general: “Writing is a really interesting form of tracking to me, because it is like you find a clue or an idea, and you want to follow it and find something at the end. But you are not 100% sure what that is going to look like at the start.”

Colchester’s thoughts turn again to the idea of nature as a book that a forager and especially a tracker can learn to read. “Tracking in the snow, as I have discovered coming to Finland, is a dream and very beautifully metaphorical. I mean you have got this white  page and these clear marks. Tracking in the UK, in the winter, there is no snow, and so it is just in leaf, litter or in mud. It is much harder, the signs are much less clear,” Colchester explains.

The notion of a book of nature and the closely related concept of the universe as a poem have been explored in different forms throughout the history of Western philosophy. Both scientists and artists have been fascinated by the idea through the ages. Colchester’s description of the precision that a tracker often needs to interpret the subtle signs of nature brings to mind what the Romantic poet and thinker Novalis said about deciphering nature’s alphabet.

“It seems to me like a kind of magic. I want to learn that language. And I know that you can because I have seen more experienced trackers do it. I cannot see what they are talking about, and yet I know it is there. And slowly I am beginning to feel like I am beginning to see it,” Colchester enthuses.

We are back indoors. Colchester makes tea and serves it with lichen that she has dried and flavoured with honey. I still want to know about the human side of her residency – what it has been like to get to know and exchange ideas with the other artists-in-residence. According to Colchester, the diversity of projects has inspired her and reminded her of her time at art school.

“I want to be in a dance studio, or just in a studio not using language. There is so much play involved. I am very envious of that. But I am also so grateful to have been given the experience by Saari, and by the very fact of being invited to come here and say, ‘OK, spend two months working on your practice’.

*) From Friedrich Schlegel: Philosophical Fragments. English translation by Peter Firchow. University of Minnesota Press, 1991.