nature as enemy, nature as friend

We’re all scared of some things at some times. Whether the threat is imaginary or real. Sometimes the world of nature can be seen as unpredictable and menacing. Other times it can be seen as familiar, satisfying and fulfilling.

In The Pigeon, Patrick Suskind describes a character with a carefully constructed ordered routine life. The unexpected sight of a pigeon disrupts his fragile equilibrium.

He knew every noise on the floor. He could interpret every crack, every click, every soft ripple or rustle, the very silence itself. Then unexpectedly he saw a pigeon. And this is how he perceived it …

It was crouched there, with red, taloned feet on the oxblood tiles of the hall and in sleek, blue-grey plumage: the pigeon. It had laid its head to one side and was glaring at Jonathon with its left eye. This eye, a small, circular disc, brown with a black centre, was dreadful to behold. It was like a button sewn on to the feathers of the head, lashless, browless, quite naked, turned quite shamelessly to the world and monstrously open; at the same time, however, there was something guarded and devious in that eye; and yet likewise it seemed to be neither open nor guarded, but rather quite simply lifeless, like the lens of a camera that swallows all external light and allows nothing to shine back out of its interior. No lustre, no shimmer lay in that eye, not a sparkle of anything alive. It was an eye without sight. And it glared at Jonathan.

Writer Helen Dunmore must be a gardener. Nature for her isn’t some alien threat, it’s part of who she is. Her writing is a world away from the horror that Suskind describes. This quote is from With Your crooked Heart.

The birds don’t really sing in the middle of the day. They drowse away the heat in the jungle of buddleia and bamboo, and sometimes you hear a bubble of song rising in their throats, but it never bursts… Inside the sycamore by the wall, there’s a wood-pigeon. Prr-ccoo, it goes, prr-cooo. You love its hot and sleepy stammer more than anything else in the garden…

There’s smell of cat-piss, and buddleia. A honeyed smell which draws the butterflies. The garden simmers with heat and wasps, cat-piss and cabbage whites. In the little fountain, water wobbles then spurts up.

One day you’ll chop everything back, or Paul will. But you’re at home in London gardens like this one, overgrown, rank and fat with weeds. It reminds you of when you were a child, when you were four or five, tagging after the kids, in and out of fireweed and rotten fencing. You like buddleia and bramble, and jam-jar traps for wasps, and flying ants, and the Russian vine that’s climbed like a wave over the back wall, and swamped it. There’s honeysuckle in your garden, and a stand of bamboo. You pull out the new shoots of bamboo from their shafts and nibble the cold, moist tips.

One pigeon, two interpretations. Paul is uptight, an automaton, alienated from himself, other people and the natural world. In marked contrast, Dunmore’s sensual character Louise luxuriates in her fertile ramshackle garden teeming with plant life and wildlife.


  1. Dear Catmint, I was delighted to read your posting featuring the work of Helen Dunmore. She is an all-time favourite writer of mine and, I think, that I have now possibly read all of her novels. Whatever she writes of, she evokes a very real sense of place.

    Happy weekend!

  2. interesting comparison here!

    As a side note, I drove by a buzzard today going at some smashed squirrel. I found myself speaking aloud about how much I hated that disgusting creature. I wonder if someone has written about this bird in a positive light?

  3. Hi Edith, this is the first book of Dunmore's that I've read. Very rich, I look forward to reading more.

    Hi Wendy, I find this interesting too. Why do we hate buzzards, cockroaches, rats and hyenas and love pandas and butterflies?

    Thanks for the comments, dear cyberfriends,catmint

  4. Hi Catmint, I was impressed when I read The Siege and also House of Orphans. I love it how she describes the garden.
    Yes there is a big difference with the two writers. I am not keen on abstract writing, it is somehow disturbing.

  5. Good Morning Catmint, I think I will have to call the library today and get Dunmore's book! I love her writing. This book sounds perfect for me. Yes, I did get your comment only for some odd reason it went to my other neglected blot on photography. Still I got the message and feel the same ... nice to meet another kindred spirit! ;>)

  6. PS I noticed Wendy's comment. Buzzards seem really gross to most of us but if we did not have them ... think of the smell of death that would pile up. Nature has a way of taking care of all levels of life. They are beautiful when seen from far away soaring in the open sky.I am sure there are those that love buzzards but i cannot think of any authors right now. ;>)

  7. Hi Titania, thanks for the comment. I must get more Dunmore books to read. The other kind of writing, like Suskind is weird and disturbing. I must say I prefer to read weird and disturbing rather than wholesome. I hope it is not a serious character flaw. cheers, catmint

  8. Hi Carol, so lovely to get your comment. I don't know much about buzzard prejudice but one of my interests is pigeon prejudice and I've written a few posts on them.

    I agree all creatures have their place in nature. It' s when their numbers become too great to coexist easily with us that it becomes a problem. And the reason they are moving into human territory (if they can) is because we have destroyed their traditional food source.

    cheers, catmint

  9. Helen Dunmore is a new author for me and I definitely want to find that book. Suskind wrote one of my other favorite novels, Perfume. I swear that book totally changed my sense of smell!
    But it is also weird and disturbing :-)


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