The Ginkgo Prize for Ecopoetry 2022: Straight-line mission

On 30th September 2021 a pair of hikers became the first people to walk the longest straight line in the UK without crossing a paved road, after spending four days crossing 78.55km (48.8 miles) from the Pass of Drumochter to Corgarff in north Scotland. Their route passed through the Cairngorms National Park, which is home to 25% of the UK’s most endangered species.

I’m a keen walker and love the challenge of a long hike through beautiful scenery. But I read about this ‘straight-line mission’ with a mixture of respect and horror. The 18th century garden designer William Kent famously said, ‘Nature abhors a straight line’, and I think that helps to explain why I found the whole concept of this walking challenge rather chilling. There are good reasons why footpaths rarely follow straight lines, something I’ve reflected on previously in my poem ‘Desire lines‘. When I discovered how many endangered species have a home in the Cairngorms National Park, I wondered how many nesting sites the walkers might have waded through, and worried about the impact on other ecologically valuable environments if straight-line missions become more popular.

I decided to explore all of this in a poem, and after trying various formats I elected to superimpose the reasons the walkers had given for completing this mission over the top of a list of the endangered species that inhabit the Cairngorms, presenting the walkers’ justification in bolder type and with justified edges to represent the way in which their mission had passed directly over the various creatures’ natural habitat. The fact that this piece of text is about the length and width of a ruler seems to fit the calculatedness of this mission.

In composing the background list poem, I was particularly struck by the beauty of the names of so many of these species, such as ‘shining guest ant’, ‘northern silver stiletto fly’, ‘Kentish glory’, and ‘aspen hoverfly’. There were many species here that I had never heard of, so I hoped that listing them in this poem would be a way of drawing attention to the need to preserve and protect them.

I am delighted to say that the resulting poem, ‘Straight-line mission’, was Highly Commended in this year’s Ginkgo Prize for Ecopoetry, and appears in the competition anthology here, on page 17.

It was lovely to be able to go to the prize giving ceremony in London on Monday, and to hear the winning poems read aloud. I have been haunted ever since by the final lines of the 2nd and 3rd placed poems. Liz Byrne’s ‘An owl the size of my smallest fingernail’ imagines the speaker holding a tiny owl in her palm and finishes:

‘He is mine. I can do what I want; so small,
no-one will ever miss him.’

Hilary Menos reflects on the speaker’s ambivalent relationship with her friend’s environmental activism, but memorably ends:

‘the only one of us prepared to give your real name,
the only one to own up to the mess we’d made.’

It was a privilege to hear these poems read aloud by their writers, and just so lovely to be able to attend an in-person poetry event again.

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