Prizing nature above all

Poet Matt Howard won a national prize for his first collection. Here we publish, for the first time, a poem specially written for the Norfolk Coast: and he explains what inspires him to write.

I’ve lived in Norfolk all my life and its wonderful mix of landscapes, habitats and all their constituent species inevitably seeds so many of my poems. To live close to places such as the Norfolk Coast area of outstanding natural beauty is a real privilege – proximity to such wild openness is part of why I try to write.

Taking just this coastline, there is such diversity of more-than-human life, resident or moving through saltmarsh, reedbed, freshwater lagoons, chalk grassland, sand dunes and beaches, etc. And though I actually live in Norwich, I like to think that there’s always some part of my mind trying to hunker in a reedbed.

It was a complete and wonderful surprise to be awarded Best First Collection for my book Gall, in last year’s inaugural Laurel Prize. The prize was established by our Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, to celebrate the best collections of nature or environmental poetry, all to highlight the climate crisis and raise awareness of the challenges and potential solutions at this critical point in our planet’s life. Moniza Alvi and Robert Macfarlane joined Simon Armitage as judges for the prize.

Writing poems is always slow work and the path to getting a first book out takes years, with many detours along the way. To have such recognition from three writers I hugely admire is a prize enough in itself. Yet in addition to that came the opportunity of a commission from one of the prize’s partners, Landscapes for Life, to write a poem that engages with one of our areas of outstanding natural beauty. I’m delighted to share the poem that came from that here.

Aside from the personal recognition, it is particularly heartening that Simon Armitage has founded this prize now as it wonderfully adds to a rapidly growing awareness of just how much nature, all of the more-than-human world means to us. It strikes me that for far too long our species has lived as if we have somehow imagined ourselves to be outside of nature. For the past decade I have worked for the RSPB in various roles, none of which are directly engaged with the boots-on-the-ground aspect of conservation. Instead the best way I can describe a lot of my work is to say that it is exploring ways to engage and inspire people, to ‘work’ the habitats of hearts and minds. It is inevitable that impulse flows into my writing.

2021 is such a vital year for nature and therefore, for all of us. As well as new UK legislation there are two massively important United Nations conferences that will set the path for global action to tackle the nature and climate crises, though these crises are one and the same thing.

With every study or report that is released it becomes ever clearer and more urgent that we must act now to meet these crises and set a course for nature’s, the planet’s and our own recovery. Despite what can seem so complex, the simplicity is that these really aren’t interchangeable. For the sake of future generations we cannot allow ourselves to fail. And once each of us makes a start in whatever way we can, just by looking at the ways we individually live our lives, our consumer choices, how we travel and work, how we engage with our communities and the political debate and process etc, all of it makes a difference that adds to a greater whole.

Despite all the lockdowns and challenges of this most difficult pandemic, I think this has never been clearer or more urgent. Nor, given the huge changes we’re all living through since last year has it been more possible to build such a necessarily ambitious recovery together.

In a small way I guess I was thinking about all of that in the back of my mind whilst I was working on ‘Northerly’. All it is ultimately thinking about is the ‘globally local’ with the wintering of pink-footed geese, what we take for granted and then the simple act of noting the things, people and places that it is such a privilege to know and love.


Look, a pink-foot’s feather – spinning there,

maybe a wing covert, adrift, out in the open 

somehow in the wind’s own parish – 

its little gravity with the first of the light, 

even on a dawn like this and through these gusts of rain.

Though the sun’s just arcing through and now the tide’s coming in,

a goose tide, a creaked weight of yaps, awake 

and rending, lifting themselves into the many,  

now fraying up, to stream inland

off the Wash. Their long-pull ordinance over things   

sunken in wintering: mudflats, creeks,

glasswort, sea rush, thrift,

sea lavender and then the strand line,

past the beach and the other few early walkers

and where you are, with each step, you and again you

but brighter there, off the path, reaching

up the gorse bank for the snagged feather,

more grounded now among the beautiful.