Wonders of the wild



On the Tiger Trail: Ruth Padel believes conservation is important for our survival. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

On the Tiger Trail: Ruth Padel believes conservation is important for our survival. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan  

SHE is the Chair of the U.K. Poetry Society, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London. She's been on archaeological digs in Greece, taught modern and ancient Greek, myth, opera and horse riding in places as diverse as Cambridge and Oxford, Kalymnos, Buenos Aires, Princeton and Berlin. The subjects of her books include poetry; Greek tragedy and psychology; rock music in relation to notions of masculinity; and now wildlife conservation. Meet Ruth Padel, author of Tigers in Red Weather and great great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin.

"Actually there is a mix of science and art on both sides of my family," she smiles. "My father's family are descended from the Wends, a nomadic people from the Slav lands who were gypsies, musicians and physicians. My father's mother was Scottish, a descendant of the famous 18th Century surgeon John Hunter. Her own father was a local doctor who would take her with him on his rounds. The Darwin connection comes from my mother's side. And there are also poets on her side." Her current book was supposed to be about the different places the tiger lived in and the problems it faced but instead it became more about the conservationists and their fight to save the tiger. And it made her realise that both science and poetry are about accurate descriptions. "People think poetry is waffly, loose and vague but actually good poetry is utterly precise, no word is wasted. It's actually like science in a strange way," she muses.

Asked why poets do not get as much attention as novelists, she has a quick-fire response. "Poetry is still a metaphor for something beautiful. For example, we still use phrases like `poetry in motion'. In England, in moments of deep emotion people still turn to poetry." The other reason, according to her, is a general dumbing down, whether in the arts, politics or education. "There's more emphasis on visual culture than literate culture," she says thoughtfully and then qualifies, "at least in the West". As an example she takes her 19-year-old daughter's English A levels. "When I did A-levels, I did a Shakespeare comedy, a Shakespeare tragedy, a T.S. Eliot text, A Virginia Woolf text, Keats, Hopkins. But now my daughter does two texts and she can take one into the exam with her," she says indignantly. Poetry is suffering because you need to pay attention to it.

The U.K. is also seeing a movement that says poetry should not be difficult and Padel, as Chair of the U.K. Poetry Society, is trying to counter that in various ways. "Why shouldn't poetry be difficult?" she asks spiritedly. "We are difficult people. And we actually do quite a lot of decoding of difficult things in our lives, which we take for granted. Why can't we do that with poetry?" She wrote a column on poetry for the Independent on Sunday for three years and got a book — 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem — out of it. She's working on another book about poems and journeys — "Poems that address the journeys of life. I'm trying to show that poetry is essentially at the heart of our journey through life and of trying to make sense of our world."

"Media culture is not very poem friendly," she reflects. "In England, reading and writing poetry is on the increase. It's not reflected in newspapers but it is on radio. It's a smaller form but it's there and it's central. Oh, poetry is doing OK," she concludes with a grin.

As a graduate student in the 1970s, Padel went to the British School of Archaeology in Athens and participated in the excavations at Knossos. And the digs annoyed the local villagers no end, Padel recalls. "Whenever they wanted to build a house, they would uncover artefacts and archaeologists would stop them from building further. But in 10 years, the village that had no water, electricity, roads had all these amenities. And all because of tourism." Here she draws a parallel with wildlife conservation. People who live near protected forests react in much the same way as the villagers at Knossos did — resentful of the outside's world's interest in what they consider their own. But Padel ruefully accepts that the parallel ends there. "The palace of Minos will not get out of its enclosure and kill livestock and people," she says. "But if there was some way of the local people seeing that they would benefit from conservation, wildlife and the forests benefit."

Her tiger book was born out of travels over four years but tigers had been a constant presence. Her favourite books were Kipling's Jungle Book and Jim Corbett's Maneaters of Kumaon. On her first trip to India, she hadn't intended getting on the tiger trail but ...

Her travels for the book included India, Nepal, Bhutan, Russian Far East, China and Southeast Asia and her website says her best form of exercise was walking the dog. "If I'd known what it would involve... " she laughs. But she says she would do it again. Her voice holds all the wonder of the moment as she says, "There was a moment when we stepped aside and a tiger came past. We didn't see it but we felt the forest go still. I've never experienced before, the way a forest goes still when a major predator is on the prowl."

"In the end, I realised why I was writing this book. It was for the protection of wildness. Remember the Silent Valley movement in the 1970s. The words Silent Valley resonated all over the world. We need that Silent Valley in ourselves, in our hearts and out there in the world. We need these wild animals, who are other than us, to live out their lives because we are not all the world and we are invisibly dependant on the other, on the wild." The serious look vanishes and her face crinkles into smiles. "Am I making any sense?" she asks, laughing.

In the end, she says, art may not be able to change the world but it can be a witness to what is happening and share a vision of what should be.