Grave Goods – Nicola Chester
Welcome to Grave Goods, an occasional series of interviews in which we ask a person of interest to select five items to accompany them to the afterlife. For this outing, we have the rather splendid Nicola Chester.
Nicola Chester is a nature writer who lives as a tenant in a former dairyman’s cottage below the highest chalk hill in England in the North Wessex Downs. She began nature writing in earnest after winning the BBC Wildlife Magazine’s Nature Writer of the Year in 2004. As a columnist for the RSPB and her local newspaper, she was one of a very small handful of pioneering women nature writers.
She is also a Guardian Country Diarist and her writing features in several magazines and anthologies, including Red Sixty-Seven and Women On Nature. Nicola is also Librarian at a Secondary School. She has written a book – a memoir of place, environmental protest, estate cottage living (tied & tenanted) & of the remnant, rural working class. It includes an eviction (because of a well-aimed mangel-wurzel) a horseman’s tied cottage on Highclere Estate, a smattering of ghosts & hills as conductors of lightning & dissent. On Gallows Down will be published by Chelsea Green this Autumn.
Tools of the Trade – My dear, now long dead Romany Grandad, advised me two things before he died: don’t put all your eggs in one basket and never be bored. I set great store by his words and have always been a bit of a Jill of all trades. I’d need rather a lot of tools … I cannot not write, it’s how I make sense of, and explore the world, so I would need an everlasting notebook & pen. I stopped painting and drawing aged 29, when I seemed only to have room for one creative outlet and I miss it. The afterlife would provide the perfect opportunity, so, some cartridge paper, pencils, acrylic paints & brushes. I rarely go anywhere without my beloved binoculars. I shoulder them like someone might shrug a handbag. (I have mistaken them for exactly that before and embarrassed myself at till points). But as soon as I am on ‘the other side’ I’d like to get to know the local wildlife. I find it’s the best way to begin to belong anywhere.
I’d also need a bridle and a hoofpick. I’ve never stopped being that mud-spattered girl hanging around stables offering to muck out, clean tack and sweep in return for a ride. There have always been horses in my life. It’s how I met my husband. But they’ve always been borrowed horses; horses that have come my way, one way or another. And if they do in the spirit world, and are willing, I should have a bridle ready (and a hoofpick, in case of stones stuck painfully in hooves). I won’t need a saddle. I’m hoping some bravery will return after death. I used to ride any horse anywhere. I worked as a mountain guide and cowgirl in my late teens. I’ve ridden into the snowy Rocky Mountains at night with coyotes under the unfurling silks and knives of the northern lights; I’ve ridden through houses and church porches and swum horses across lakes: my campfire party trick was to jump a beloved horse over a single chair, bareback. I miss that borrowed freedom of flying with an animal you seem to share the same body and reactions with. Anyway. It would be nice to have a lot of things to do.
Food for the Journey – Cake and apples. There would definitely be cake at my funeral feast, with icing and buttercream, so I’d like a party bag of cake please. And apples (for me and the horses). Apples are the best portable food.
Memento Vivere – I should love my phone with all my photos on, so that I could remind myself of happy family times and how proud and astonished I am by the loveliness of my three children. It would also be comforting to look at views I’d miss. There are lots of those.
But if not my phone (I might be tempted then to Tweet beyond the grave …) my three little wooden and bronze talismans that sit on my bedside table. An owl, a coyote and an otter. Each fits into the palm of my hand and is smoothed with thumbing, comfort and memory. The owl came to me during a properly lonely criss-crossroads in my life, where I didn’t know what I wanted to do – or at least, how to do it. I’d temped in offices, waitressed and worked as a groom, on a farm and as a sales assistant in a newsagents, fish and chip shop, Our Price Records and in the Lingerie Department of Debenhams. I knew the key to living my best life lay somewhere between books, learning and the chalkstream, the woods and the open downs. I found it, I suppose, in the flint-knapped Library at Winchester, and wound up studying English and reading and writing about nature. The owl reminds me wisdom is to be found in the wild and in books (and answers, always, in libraries).
The coyote is a talisman of my sometimes wilder, slightly haunted self. I brought him back from Canada, the only time I’ve properly travelled and could, perhaps have stayed. Sometimes that pull, for the wild outside, is very strong; to leave, to roam about, to go the other side of the hill, high above and away from everyone I love and who loves me and expects things from me. Sometimes, I stay out too long. But I know I will always come home, that I can live with that wildness inside a house with a family – even in the spirit world.
And that leaves my little bronze otter. I spent over a year tracking otters, which are tricksy and mercurial animals. My writing life is informed by them. It’s how I write. Furtive, fierce, flowing around and between obstacles. Watching – and trying to watch them – bordered on the obsessive. I felt as if my brain had become otter and river water dripped constantly from my eyelashes; but a wonderful memory I’d like to revisit is of staying with my husband in a shepherd’s hut beside a chalk stream for a rare weekend away. The time (always problematic for me) stretched like elastic. We didn’t see otters, but we swam where they swam, skinnydipping in the bright clear stream, oozing bankside mud between our toes, laughing and reminding ourselves of why we came to be here. I have never felt so free.
Ex Libris – It would have to be a Thomas Hardy, or Wuthering Heights, which I come back to time and time again. Had I reached the spirit world at a younger age, I might have said Tess of the d’Urbervilles; but I love the spirit of Bathsheba Everdene, and a happier ending in Far From the Madding Crowd. If I truly could only take one book, it would be an (as yet unpublished) enormous volume of poetry, featuring old poets and new – I’ve discovered so many in recent years; diverse voices; particularly through Melissa Harrison’s brilliant podcast The Stubborn Light of Things (which in itself draws its title from a poem by Alison Brackenbury). Poetry has the power to move and connect you through time, space and place. Phrases and rhythm stay with you: inform, comfort, inspire, alarm and get into your walking and dreaming. So yes. Yes please. Poetry is the actual thing.
Lucky Deposition – A radio. I’d tune into some friendly voices … talking about stupid (and thoughtful) things … but. Could I have a dog? Not mine now, I wouldn’t be that cruel or selfish, but mine that have gone before. I could do an adoption service from beyond the grave: look after beloved doggos until they came over to be happily, tail-waggingly reunited. I could do this until my own came along. I’ve never been without a dog – a constant, forgiving, confiding, adventurous spirit-animal in life – so I couldn’t contemplate it in death!
A Message from Beyond the Grave – Thank you for all the kindnesses. I have been known and loved. Stand up for what it is right, however you can do it. Protest is always worth it down the line – even if it hurts you a little – it makes life richer in the end. And, to paraphrase Emily Bronte or Belinda Carlisle (that’s for my husband) heaven is a place on earth. Look after it. And don’t put all your eggs in one basket.