A few weeks ago, I was browsing my local bookshop and spotted Sue Belfrage’s gorgeous book, Down to the River and Up to the Trees. I flicked through the pages, delighted by the whimsical illustrations and suggested activities for injecting more wilderness into everyday life. Needless to say, Sue’s book made its way home with me, as a lovely addition to my growing collection of writings on the natural world.
This summer, I’m keen to experience more of nature, both on my doorstep and further afield. I’ve made plans with friends to swim in the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, and I’m currently writing this post from the Artist Residence Hotel, nestled deep in the Oxfordshire countryside. I can look out the window and see the restaurant’s vegetable garden, surrounded by neighbouring fields and meadows.
Down to the River and Up to the Trees is the perfect companion for those wishing to engage with nature. Packed with fun activities, from sun printing to foraging tips, as well as beautiful quotes and illustrations, Sue Belfrage will open the eyes of even the most diehard urbanite to the natural wonders surrounding them.
I got in touch with Sue to say how much I enjoyed her book, as well as to ask her a few questions about herself, her work and her suggestions for infusing more nature into my city life.
Would you tell me a little about yourself and your career so far?
Besides painting and writing in my own time, I worked for many years as an editor in book publishing. I ended up specialising in non-fiction, which gave me the opportunity to work on a wide range of subjects with all sorts of fascinating people – from healers, witches and shamans to leading philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists. And, because of my love of nature, I ended up commissioning some beautiful books by brilliant nature writers.
What first sparked your love for nature?
Difficult to say. I remember being about two years old and peering into a paddling pool: a large dead spider was bobbing about in the water like a folded-up umbrella. Perhaps not the most auspicious start, but the main feeling I had was of fascination and wonder – and that sense of curiosity has stayed with me ever since.
Summer Garden, Sue Belfrage
Then, at the age of six, I moved with my family to Sweden for a few years. The Swedes have something called allemansrätten, which is basically the right to roam – but it also means taking care of the countryside, something you learn at a young age. I lived in the suburbs of a small city where there were lots of woods and streams to explore, so I used to take off with my friends, build camps, go sledding and make rope swings. We were left to our own devices even though we were relatively small, and would come back at the end of each day with dirty hands and knees, having spent hours outside in the fresh air whatever the weather.
Would you tell me a little about your book, Down to the River and Up to the Trees? What inspired you to write it?
I got to a point last year where I realised I needed to make changes, so I did a slightly crazy thing and quit my job. I was lucky to have some savings and the support of my other half, and had the opportunity to spend much of the summer outside, painting and walking – and reappraising. In many ways, spending time in nature was very healing, and it reminded me just how important that connection is for all of us. By the end of the summer I think the seed for Down to the River and Up to the Trees had been sown.
Oyster Shell, by Sue Belfrage
I love how your book encourages us all to get out and enjoy the nature that’s on our doorstep. What are some of your favourite outdoor activities to do in the summer?
I have the good fortune to work at home, so on a sunny day I will often try to work outside or – if that’s not possible – I’ll leave my desk and just go stand barefoot outside for a few minutes. Natural light is a much better pick-me-up than coffee, even if you can only get outside during your lunchbreak.
I also love going for long woodland walks, and down to the coast – not necessarily to go swimming, but to walk along the strandline, picking my way through the seaweed, shells and driftwood, and doing a bit of beachcombing. I’ve got all sorts of flotsam and jetsam decorating my shelves at home.
And, like many of us, I enjoy taking photos of wild flowers and the sky. I have a bit of a thing for clouds and the patterns of leaves…
What’s your advice to people who live in urban environments who would like to experience more of the natural world in their everyday lives?
Make the most of what you have and where you live. That might sound a bit trite, but having lived in cities such as London and Liverpool, I’ve been struck by the fantastic parks, public gardens and green spaces you can find there; you don’t have to live in a rural idyll to create your own special connection with nature. (That said, I once had a stand-off with a rat on a stepping stone in Liverpool’s Sefton Park, which is otherwise a glorious spot.)
Also, whereas people in the countryside tend to rely on their cars to get about, if you live in a city you’ll often have a greater opportunity to walk – and if you’re walking there’s usually a chance to see all sorts of plants and wild life, even in the very heart of a city. Alternatively, if you can’t get out to nature, bring it to you: give a home to a pot plant, place a window box where you can see it change through the seasons (replanting as necessary), or grow your own potatoes in a bag!
It’s really just about opening up our senses and taking the time to notice the life around us, which admittedly is often a lot easier said than done these days, when the temptation can be to keep ‘busy’ rather than just be.
Have you always loved to draw? How would you describe your artistic style?
Yes, I’ve always loved drawing and still have sketchbooks that I drew in as a little girl. While their artistic merit is extremely doubtful (I was definitely no Picasso), they show enthusiasm and a sheer love of scribbling; I wasn’t worried about getting things ‘right’ but just enjoyed making marks. The same is true today – for me the pleasure lies mainly in the process rather than the result. (Though of course it’s always nice if people do like your work.)
I’m mainly a figurative artist, and do quite a bit of life drawing. I also enjoy landscape painting and print making. You can see some of my sketches and lino prints in Down to the River and Up to the Trees.
Fur, lino cut by Sue Belfrage
Besides getting out into nature, how else do you refuel and feed your own creativity?
I love reading, especially literary fiction and poetry, and I like listening to music. I also enjoy good conversation, and sharing a glass or two – plus laughter – with friends. I meet up about once a month with a writing group to share our work in progress. As well as discussing our writing, we catch up on all the news and gossip, and generally offer each other moral support – which can be a real lifeline if you’re trying to work creatively on your own. Oh, and I suppose there are healthy things too like Pilates, which is a great way to unwind.
Are there any magazines or books about the natural world (besides your own!) that you would recommend?
Nature writing is experiencing a bit of a renaissance at the moment, and there are some wonderful writers out there, but if you want a hands-on experience, I would definitely recommend getting hold of the old Reader’s Digest Nature Lovers Library guides, which you can still find in second-hand bookshops. I find myself dipping into the Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain all the time!
Apple Tree by Sue Belfrage
Finally, do you have any upcoming events or future projects you’re able to share at the moment?
I’m looking forward to taking part in a Wild Women’s Retreat organised by HoneyWoods Camping later this month, and then I’m taking part in the Yeovil Literary Festival in October. I’m always open to considering invitations; if I can help any of your readers with an event, I can be contacted via my website: suebelfrage.com and on twitter and Instagram (@suebelfrage).
Thanks, Miranda, for this interview and your interest in my work. I hope you have a really wild summer!
Thank you so much again to Sue for her thoughtful answers to my questions. Are you inspired to get out into nature a little more this summer?
Down to the River and Up to the Trees: Discover the hidden nature on your doorstep by Sue Belfrage is published by Harper Thorsons, £9.99.