Becoming a writer in the forest | Q&A with Tiffany Francis-Baker

Tiffany Francis stood in waste high forest greenery
Photo credit: Tony Bartholomew

As the forest residency for our centenary year comes to a close we caught up with Tiffany Francis-Baker to hear about her experience spending time behind the scenes in the nation's forests developing her work.

Rhododendron painting
Credit: Tiffany Francis-Baker

What attracted you to apply to be a writer in the forest?

Forests have always been my favourite wild habitat. I love how you can stand in a forest and feel the cycle of nature flowing around you - the aroma of leaf decay, the tiny shoots of new plants, fungi feeding on infected bark, animals eating up beech nuts, foliage and insects. I was interested to delve more into the nation's woodlands and find out how they are managed for people and wildlife, and I knew it would fuel something new and organic in my writing. 

You had an idea of what you wanted to write. What inspired your vision?

As an English graduate, I've always loved the Romantic poets and their long-form, narrative ballad poetry. Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is one of my favourite poems, weaving an emotional story for the reader and telling the tale of a cursed sailor and his journey to repentance. I was struck by how effective this form is in connecting the reader with the characters in the poem, and I was inspired to do the same with a different story - not about humans, but nature. We are all part of nature but many of us feel we are separate to it, and I believe this is partly why we struggle with mental illness as a society, and why we have destroyed the natural world - the ecosystem on which our own survival depends. I wanted to write a poem that might help readers reconnect with nature in a more compassionate way, just as we connect with the doomed sailor in Coleridge's poem. After all, we will not protect what we don't love.

Charcoal drawing
Credit: Tiffany Francis-Baker

Your piece is written in celebration of 100 years of the Forestry Commission and you spent a number of days out in our forests, with our rangers, foresters, scientists and ecologists. What was the most surprising/ inspiring/ important thing you learned during that time?

I had such a great time in the forests - the staff were so friendly and knowledgeable! The most interesting I thing I learnt during my time was how much the organisation has changed in the last hundred years. What started as something with a fairly simple goal - to grow and sustain a timber supply after the war - has become so much more, and the Commission is now looking after its forests from a number of different angles, including recreational use and wildlife conservation. I liked how they are still continuing to evolve in the face of a changing world, learning from the past and looking forward into an uncertain but important future. 

What has been the highlight of your experience?

I loved seeing one of the beavers in Cropton Forest! We only saw the female for a few seconds but it was fantastic, and I loved visiting a closed off space that was just for wildlife. I also loved the vastness of Kielder Forest - I saw an osprey in the daytime and noctilucent clouds from Kielder Observatory at night. They were like nothing I'd seen before, or heard of! 

Kielder Forest at night
Credit: Tiffany Francis-Baker
Charcoal drawing
Credit: Tiffany Francis-Baker

What’s next for you?

My third book Dark Skies was published this autumn so I'm really enjoying sharing my love of nocturnal wildlife and landscapes. I've just relaunched my online shop with poems, prints and gifts, and I'm working on my fourth and fifth books as we speak. I'm also launching a new wallpaper design service in the spring which I'm really excited about - all inspired by nature and the landscapes that surround us. I'm passionate about creative conservation and inspiring people to care for nature through positive action. 

Trees in Bedgebury National Pinetum and Forest
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