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The Spirit of the River by Declan Murphy

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Non-Fiction
The Spirit of the River

By Declan Murphy

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For me, writing is not just challenging, it’s frightening.

When I speak to a person, my message is often reinforced or further expanded through the subtle use of gestures, emphasis and tone. It’s possible for me to gauge the listeners’ response from their cues and tailor my delivery accordingly … not such easy a feat when writing. Black text on a white page is as stark as animal bones on a hillside, and the disclosures they may contain can be equally as bare, there is no place for a ‘smoking gun’. Because writing requires clarity and preciseness to ensure it is conveyed correctly to the reader, the author is often required to lay bare his soul in a manner that he would never dare do when interacting directly with a person. With this in mind, one has to ask – why would anyone do it?

I wrote my first book, A Life in the Trees, because I wanted a pivotal event in Irish ornithology to be chronicled: Ireland’s colonization by the Great Spotted Woodpecker. I felt someone needed to do it, or those events that I and others witnessed would be lost, like frost disappearing at the first warm breath of the sun. I also wrote it because I enjoyed telling the story, and to my delight, people enjoyed hearing about and reading the story. I started to write my second book, The Spirit of the River, primarily because many readers asked me to do so. In a strange sense, I almost felt obliged to honour my readers’ request. After all, they had bought the book and followed me on my journey as eager and welcome companions.

I had some unpublished material left over from the first book, which I felt should see the light of day. I realised I didn’t have to start a second book with a blank page, I just had to continue where I left off … or so I thought. This is a challenging responsibility. Readers have asked you to address them, yet the writer has to decide what he wants to tell them – what message he wants to impart into their hearts. For me, that is a frightening task. What to write about was easy, basically birds, butterflies and bees – in other words, nature. Why? Because that’s what I do, I watch birds, I look closely at flowers and I sit up trees watching badgers. A friend once asked why I did this and I found I was unable to explain, the words wouldn’t come out, my mind couldn’t formulate a response. I remember saying to him that I’d have to write it down to explain … his response? Why don’t I.

So, the subject matter for my books was never in doubt. However, I’m not a scientist and have no scientific training, so my observations on natural history alone were not enough for a book, they needed something more: not a message, but a purpose. As an avid reader I realised that many books on nature were changing. The naturalists and authors whose writings inspired me as a child were all connected to their subject’s lives through directly interacting with the world around them. People like Phil Drabble, Gerald Durrell and “BB”. Nowadays, animals’ lives are being almost solely recorded and conveyed through remote cameras and computers. If there was one thing that I would like to do, it was to show the next generation of young naturalists the value of watching nature directly.

Many writers write in a linear method, starting with the first page and continuing in sequence until the end. Their story will have been precisely pre-planned and well thought out before starting – this is not the case for me. I employ the ‘puddle method’. With this, I write about several key events which I know will feature somewhere in the book and which are self-contained, so in theory can be placed anywhere within a story. Some events are so memorable for me; the locations, the animals, the scents of the world around me. The very feeling of being alive and part of something is overwhelming. Writing about the ‘easy’ events gets me into the writing zone and often, like branches on a tree spreading out, new thoughts and directions emerge ‘on the fly’.

I always felt in my first book, as a new author, that I lacked the confidence to express my personal feelings in detail. Although I could explain my thoughts more clearly in writing, once committed, they were there for eternity. This is where my second book faced its greatest challenge. Not long after starting The Spirit of the River, personal events developed which conflicted with the parts already written. The book would now either have to be rewritten or taken down a different road. I had to make a choice. In reality there were now two stories. One was solely about nature, the other was about nature, a personal crisis and a Dalmatian called Lucy. I knew both stories and I knew I could write about one as easily as I could the other, I just had to decide.

Since an author has a certain duty of responsibility to their readers, because they are the people who are buying the book, I spoke to a broad spectrum of people on the two books’ subject matter. Taking my mentors’ advice, I made my choice and moved forward. With the decision made, the story fell into place. Personal events occur in a chronological order which makes them easy to write about using the puddle method, the nature observations then acting as the webbing that weaves between them, tying them together into the complete story.

I hope that my account of the natural world around us will appeal to young naturalists, because I believe that the future of our planet lies in their hands. Sadly, many environmental issues are seen as being divided by a generation gap. Through my writing, I wanted to find a way to close this gap. Nature is for everyone. To highlight this, I decided to have the foreword to my book written by a young person who has truly inspired me: Global Environmentalist, Activist & Speaker and Youth Ambassador, Lilly Platt. Lilly is thirteen and started campaigning for our environment when she was nine. Her writing balances the book beautifully – I feel I have opened the door on a hidden world, and Lilly shows us what we have to do to save the world.

(c) Declan Murphy

About The Spirit of the River:

‘As I study the birds, animals and plants around me, I cannot help but see the patterns all living things seem driven to create.’

Declan Murphy’s first encounter with a kingfisher as a young boy was unforgettable. Returning to the rivers years later, he embarks on a quest to study this most brightly-coloured bird during its nesting season, a seemingly straightforward challenge. But the river is slow to reveal the habits and secrets of its residents. Dippers, goosanders, grey wagtails and great spotted woodpeckers all yield their hidden habits to the author’s patient pursuit; yet the kingfisher continues to elude him.

In this work of rare calibre in the mould of the great contemporary nature writers Robert Macfarlane, Helen Macdonald and Tim Robinson, the author’s retreat into the natural world is not simply for the sake of knowledge: nature is his remedy for managing the world around him. Since childhood, nature has provided balance, solace and direction.

As the search for the kingfisher reaches its culmination, these two spheres, the author’s and the others’, suddenly and unexpectedly collide, forcing him to confront how he sees the world and leading to a resolution where balance is restored through the power and intervention of nature. Writing with hallucinatory clarity and singular powers of observation, he brings the beauty and mystery of the animal kingdom to light. His quest becomes the reader’s in the unfolding drama of his search for harmony and knowledge, from mythography to an acute awareness of people’s fragility.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Declan Murphy has ‘birded’ across Ireland, Australia, North America, Asia and Africa. He has worked with BirdWatch Ireland, the country’s largest conservation charity, and has been published extensively in The Irish Wildlife Trust, The Native Woodland Trust, BirdWatch Ireland and The Sherkin Comment.

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