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Samantha Ellis' Play Journal :: second instalment

22 September 2006 - 31 January 2007
Samantha completes the first draft, turns carnivore, and hears a first reading of her play. When wolves hit the headlines, the playwright also receives a declaration of love.

::

22 September 2006

It's my first day back in London and the Highlands seem very far away. From my window I can see chimneys and Georgian stucco, 1960's tower blocks and glass-and-metal new builds, and further off, the flash of Canary Wharf to the left and to the right, the spokes of the London Eye, and everywhere, tall crooked cranes; the city is expanding as I watch.

If I look back at my screen, I can start to imagine myself into my play. It's already apparent that one of the trickiest things about writing this play will be establishing a sense of place. I find it hard to imagine the Highlands, where I have just been, but it'll be even harder for an audience sitting in a black-box theatre under artificial lights. I envy the makers of Monarch of the Glen. All they had to do was point a camera.

    Of course, we imagine landscapes all the time. Robert Macfarlane writes, in Mountains of the Mind, that 'when we look about a landscape, we do not see what is there, but largely what we think is there'. Two people looking at a landscape will see two different things. Our cultural perceptions, emotional baggage, thoughts and ideas, create a landscape as surely as geology has shaped it.
When conservationists bring imagination to landscapes, they call it 'opportunity-mapping'; this is the process of looking at landscapes not in terms of what is there but what might be. Could that slope be planted with native woodland? Might beavers thrive in that river? Could wolves roam those hills?
    I grew up imagining a landscape I have never seen - my parents are from Baghdad, but they haven't been back since my father left in 1951 for Israel before coming here and my mother left in 1971. As a child, living in London, I had a very clear picture of Iraq. It was a desert straight out of the westerns (cacti and saloon bars) with a dash of the Arabian Nights (flying carpets, men with cutlasses and flashing eyes). I was mortified to find that I'd imagined it all wrong.
Because I have no history here, I've always felt disconnected from the British landscape. So it's going to be a challenge to write about people who go back centuries on the same patch of country and know its every hill and hummock, who see roads hacked into hillsides as scars which time and careful planting will heal. To write about a sense of place as powerful as this, I may have to turn my feelings of displacement inside out.

28 September 2006

An email arrives today from a member of the Wild Beasts' Trust, a shadowy network of faunal rewilders. Winningly, they want to reintroduce the sturgeon so Scotland can be 'self-sufficient in caviar'. They claim to have already reintroduced lynxes to the Borders, and to have wolves ready to release and I wanted to find out how much of this was provocation and how much fact.

The virtue of guerrilla reintroductions is that the wolves (or lynxes, or sturgeon) would not be radio-collared or GPS-tracked or counted out by biologists but truly wild. 'We want more mystery not more facts,' writes my correspondent. 'Wolf presence invests the landscape with "wildness". Intangible but crucial'.

If it is intangible, mysterious wildness that is important, perhaps we don't need real wolves at all.

    Back in September, I went to a conference organised by the British Association of Nature Conservationists, about sightings of big cats in Britain. Some of those who believe that we have lynxes, jaguars, panthers, leopards and wildcats prowling our countryside have spent years examining suspicious paw prints, collecting droppings and interviewing eyewitnesses. They cite the example of wild boar-for years the Government denied that wild boar were free in Britain but then the evidence built up until it was inescapable.
There was a fascinating tension among the big cat experts between a desire to prove that the cats were at large, and a desire to preserve the mystery. It occurs to me that if the Wild Beasts' Trust do release wolves without telling anyone (and they certainly aren't telling me), the wolves would be wild in the way that big cats might be. We wouldn't be certain that they were out there at all, but the possibility might reconnect us to the wild. Maybe we don't have to reintroduce the wolf at all-maybe we just need to believe that they are out there.

24 October 2006

I'm in Surrey, working with a group of eight-to-ten-year-olds to make a play in a week. They like improvising stories set in outer space (we invent the Planet Marzipan) and magic toyshops, but the real surprise is asking them to make the sounds of a forest.

    They start with owls hooting, wind rustling through trees, leaves crunching underfoot, and then one boy starts making ghost noises while another howls like a wolf. They seem to have a sense that wolves are necessary to forests, but also that wolves occupy the same imaginative space as ghosts.

    Does this mean that we should leave wolves in our imaginations? Or does it mean that we imagine wolves because we need them, and therefore should bring them back?

Those opposed to the wolf might argue that wolves should stay in our imaginations. Those in favour of the wolf might say that we continue to imagine wolves because we need them. I've heard all kinds of arguments for the reintroduction of wolves, none in and of itself compelling to a rewilding sceptic like me, but taken together, they start to convince. I've been compiling a list as I go along, and so far, this is it:
    1. Wolves are wildness, and we need the wild.
    2. Biodiversity-and predators are particularly important because, since they prey on smaller animals, their health is an indicator of the health of the ecosystem as a whole.
    3. They should be in the Highlands because they used to be there; they are as much a part of our natural heritage as a painting, a first edition or a building.
    4. They could be useful 'management tools'-conservation speak for the way big predators contribute to the ecosystem. The wolves could help with culling deer.
    5. They could bring in money through eco-tourism.
    6. The presence of wolves might help to counteract some of our disconnectedness from nature.
    7. We conserve wolves and other predators in poorer countries while living in wolf-free comfort here. It's a double-standard.
    8. Reparations. We persecuted wolves to extinction and now have a chance to do them some good.
    9. Wolves have a right to exist in the wild.
    10. An exercise in toleration. If we can live with wolves, we can live with anything.
As the Wolf Trust puts it, 'wolves are applied ethics. Living with wolves in our backyard is a vital test to show how well humanity can learn to understand and live with other life.'

2 November 2006

I've finished my first draft.

3 November 2006

I'm ripping my play apart. I hope I'll be able to put it back together. At the moment I have thirty characters plus chorus parts (churchgoers, schoolchildren, sheep) and my action flips back and forth in time. It was supposed to feel exciting but when I read it, I'm just bewildered.

I do at least know what I am writing about: life and death, love and survival. It's a relief since for a while I thought I was writing a play about Scottish land reform.

The prey and predator relationship is what really fascinates me. Is human life separate or are we part of the food chain? Is life sacred or are we just meat?

E.O. Wilson pointed out in Journey to the Ants, that we humans are not alone in valuing life. Ants bury their dead. They also cooperate and were engaging in agriculture millions of years before it occurred to us. Perhaps we are not so separate and special after all.

    I've started to write a character who wants to shed the protection of civilisation and society (like Lear crying "Off, off, you lendings" as he tears off his clothes in the storm) and face raw nature, red in tooth and claw, to pit himself against the elements, alone on the blasted heath.

    For this character, losing our fear of predators has been a bit like losing one's faith. The wolf is not just an animal but a psychological function; just as God reminds us we are not on top of creation, so a wolf reminds us we are not top predator. We can and should still feel fear.

These thoughts have made me wonder whether when I became a vegetarian (because, at thirteen, I didn't like the idea of killing things), I abstracted myself from the food chain in an unnatural way.

This evening, at dinner with my family, I reach for a potato kubba my mother has made. It's an Iraqi-Jewish speciality made of beef, minced and mixed with pine nuts and raisins, wrapped in mashed potato, dipped in flour and egg and fried. I take a bite. And then another. The meat feels heavy, hard to process. But irresistible. As I finish it off I realise I have got closer to the wolf. I may not be a predator but I am now, once more, a carnivore.

18 December 2006

I've cried, well, "wolf", before but last night I finished a draft of the play that I am happier with. Ten characters have gone so the cast list is now down to only (only!) twenty.

    With some regret, I've got rid of a Hebridean Druid, a pair of fishermen, two ramblers, a City stockbroker, an octogenarian poacher, a Canadian retracing his Highlands roots, a historian and a squirrel expert.
However, I've had fun writing some ghosts. Eagan Macqueen, who killed the last wolf in Scotland in 1743, pops up to settle a pub argument while the Brahan Seer prophesies the end of sheep farming (he did this in the seventeenth century, and sheep farming isn't over yet).

I email the script to Hannah Eidinow, the theatre director working with me, and then run away to the V&A to see an exhibition called 'At Home in Renaissance Italy', expecting to lose myself in the domestic interiors that shut wolves and ghosts and darkness out.

    I'm looking at handkerchief presses, ear cleaners and fine lace when I come upon Vincenzo Campi's Kitchen Scene. It's a huge, uproarious painting of plump, red-cheeked women preparing birds for roasting, two men wrestling with the carcass of a cow, a cat and a dog fighting over giblets. His canvas teems with the business of making food which sustains us, keeps us alive, fends off death, but starts off raw and bloody and wild.
So much for escape.

31 January 2007

I'm barely awake when a friend texts me to say I should read a new study by scientists at Imperial College London. It suggests that the wolf needs to be reintroduced, that wolves could rejuvenate the Highlands by predating on deer and thus reducing the pressure on forests and woodland. They estimate that as many as 500 wolves could be reintroduced to the Highlands. That does seem an awful lot of wolves.

I'm excited to see the issue has finally hit the headlines, with big pieces everywhere, including my old paper, the Guardian. By the time I get to the Scotsman's website, over 60 people have left comments on the story.

I can't help joining in and then, when I log in again, I find that someone has responded by declaring love and asking me to be his vixen.

Samantha Ellis


return to the latest instalment of Samatha Ellis' Play Journal

return to the latest instalment of Samatha Ellis' Play Journal

 

A Day in the Life of a Controversy

Ian Johnston's report in the Scotsman on 31 January 2007 explained why scientists and ecologists are keen to re-introduce wolves to the Scottish Highlands. The article sparked a heated debate on the paper's website, writes Robert Butler, with over 100 posts that day, including one from Samantha Ellis.

 

The first post on the website came in at 1.40am GMT from Bill in Dunblane. 'I must say the full moon has never affected me toooOOOOOWOWOW much!' Forty minutes later, Sheena was asking if wolves would whistle at women.

 

At 5.29am, Mcsnagpile wrote in from South East Asia introducing the subject of guns. His favourite pastime was donning a backpack and heading for the hills. 'I would want to be armed'. At 5.46am, another early riser, The Daleks asked, 'What next? Releasing some eco-friendly Great Whites into the local public swimming pools?' At 6.40am, heather fae the hills introduced a nationalist angle, 'Why don't they try out their little experiment in London first?'

 

At 8.03am, Goggsy from South Torry compared wolves to cars. 'Far fewer people will be killed by wolves than on our roads each year.' Captain Fantastic from Glasgow ('a keen hill walker') wrote, 'These eco-nutters need their heads examining'. At 9.08am, Swilly Tisher from Loch Maree asked, 'What next? Adders?'

 

At 9.37am, Andrew from Aberdeen asked, 'Anyone have any idea of the number of hill walkers brutally butchered by a pack of wolves since their return to Yellowstone?' At 9.42am, Dave from Barra in the Western Isles predicted, 'It's only a matter of time before the wolves enter the cities.' At 9.58am, Andrew reassured Dave there would be enough space, 'They won't have to move into the cities - which aren't common in the Highlands anyway.'

 

At 11.43am, an NFUS supporter from Lothian said, 'Wolves have accounted for 80% of sheep mortality'. Flash67 from Edinburgh corrected him, 'It's not 80% of overall mortality caused by wolves, just 80% of predation. The biggest single cause of sheep mortality is hypothermia.'

 

At 1.56pm, Emet from Israel joined in. 'If wolves are such relentless predators why didn't they hunt the Scots to extinction instead of the other way round?' Two minutes later, Bob Simison in the USA assured readers that 'The farmer normally solves his own problem.' At 2.20pm Samantha Ellis wrote in to say she was writing a play on this subject and keeping an online journal at ashdendirectory.org.uk. At 2.38pm zigzag wrote, 'I think I love you Samantha Ellis. Will you please be my Vixen.'

 

At 3.22pm Shakopee from Minnesota recommended www.wolf.org which has three live wolfcams. 'Take the time to see and learn about wolves.' At 3.41pm Discretionpvs from Canada said, 'in my 75 yrs I have never heard of a validated case of a wolf attacking a human without cause.'

At 4.12pm, Wolf1957 from North Carolina said wolves had been 'a tourist draw' in North Carolina, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. 'At least Scotland doesn't have coyotes!'

 

At 7.55pm, T.McCarthy from Grangeville, Idaho warned about what happened when North Canadian Timber Wolves were 'forced' upon the people of North Central Idaho. 'Please consider the obvious vested interests of those who are employed in such programs.'

 

At 8.38pm, Harry Carnie from Northern B.C. said he would 'prefer to have wolves as neighbours' rather than one of the earlier correspondents.

 

At 8.50pm, Susan Caroline Periano from Topsham UK made the 105th posting. 'This is almost better than going to the movies...I had some good laughs. Kudos to the playwright. I wish you all the best... free research, why not?'

 

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