The foundation for Miriam’s success as an internationally renowned poet and author who is in tune with nature was formed in Lewes when she was just a child, growing up on the edge of the town.
“We used to walk out into the countryside all the time, straight onto the Downs,” she recalls.
“My father was a biologist and he would show us all the nature nearby and point out what was happening at each time of the year. He would tell us about all the creepy crawlies we saw and we would go back home with jam jars full of beetles.
“In those days, the 1970s, there was not so much awareness about diseases, climate change and endangered species. My father often brought home locusts or other creatures he was studying, so my love of nature definitely came from my parents who brought my attention to the countryside and creatures around us.
“I remember before the bypass was built, we used to play down in the stream – in fact I went along the bypass before cars were allowed on.”
Miriam also has many happy memories of her schooldays at Lewes Priory and her fascination with nature was further fuelled by reading classic stories such as Tarka the Otter and Ring of Bright Water.
After leaving school she lived and worked in France for two years before studying modern languages at Sussex University. She went on to study for an MA in children’s literature at the Roehampton Institute, later training to teach in a secondary school.
Miriam and her husband moved to the Isles of Scilly and taught there for five years, revelling in the nature they explored there.
“Both I and my husband taught on the Isles, with just 13 or 14 children in each class, so it was a dream job, though I did feel a bit isolated,” she says. “In many ways it was idyllic, beachcoming and birdwatching, and a wonderful place to bring children to.
During Miriam’s 12-year career teaching French and English in schools, she devoted much of her spare time to writing and her natural flair for combining words with a well-researched knowledge of the natural world came to the fore in both her poetry and prose. Written from the heart, her creative writing was an inspirational way of sharing her love of nature with others, and she became a full-time writer in 2007.
Her poetry collection Windfall was published to acclaim in 2008 and Footprints in the Sand, her ecological tale for children about rivers, demonstrated again her passion and way of interpreting the wonders of the natural world.
After the Scillies, Devon was the next destination for Miriam and her family and in 2009 she wrote her much-loved first book, Otter Country, in conjunction with a PhD at Exeter University. Since 2013 she has been a lecturer in English and Creative Writing at the University of Plymouth.
Her most ambitious book to date, Owls Sense, was published last year and is an absolute joy to read. Very much a labour of love, it follows her quest to encounter in the wild all 13 species of Europe’s native owls, reflecting on the human relationship with these greatly-loved birds.li
“Although I was tempted to return to Lewes, I wanted to be in Devon because I knew I could get close to the wonderful wildlife here,” she says. “I carried on with my nature writing as I knew it was my vocation and I also wanted to write a book about the wild otter. That meant touring all over Britain and finding out how it had made such a miraculous comeback. The return of the otter is such a success story that I feel it is an emblem of what we can do to help wildlife.”
Then came Miriam’s love affair with owls.
“When I was writing Otter Country, because otters are mostly nocturnal, I often encountered owls at dawn and dusk,” she recalls. “One day when I was staking out an otter spot, a migrating short-eared owl came and landed next to me. He looked at me with those beautiful eyes and we stared at each other for quite a while. I wondered ‘what is this?’ I’d never seen one before.
“Short-eared owls come to Britain over the North sea from the Arctic tundra and have never seen people before or learnt to be nervous of them. We gazed at each other in mutual incomprehension and that connection gave me the inspiration to write my next book, about these beautiful creatures.
“Owls are elusive, mysterious birds and I wanted to bring their story back to people – most owl species are in decline due to human activity so this was a good time to tell people how fragile and endangered they are, even the tawny owl which is the most common to species in Britain.
“I wanted to write about what it’s like to get close to them in the wild, to really see them, not just to hear them hooting in the distance as many of us do. My driving force is making connections, to go for the heart, for the soul and then make connections of another kind with people through my books, so that they can regain their connection with nature. Animals are so important to us and I’m ferociously curious about finding out more about them, that’s what makes us human. My father told me to always keep on asking questions.
“Owls have been important to us for centuries, with all kinds of stories and superstitions about them through the ages. Then of course there was Beatrix Potter, Winnie the Pooh, Harry Potter. I felt that owls had been cutified a bit, with many people thinking of them as companion animals and keeping them as pets all over the world. I wanted to tell the story of the real owl.
“At first I thought of just finding all the species in Britain but I’ve had a French penfriend since I was 14 and we’ve kept in touch, so she started sending me information about some species I didn’t even know existed so my aim spread to actually seeing and getting close to every one of the European species.”
Miriam’s quest took her all over Europe and she was lucky that lots of voluntary organisations took her to see their country’s owls
“I heard about some Serbian ‘owlaholics’ who were going to look at the incredible winter roosts of long-eared owls who gather in groups of 800 at a time. I joined them and found myself looking into a tree full of very bright tangerine-coloured eyes – there were 40 owls looking down at us with an astonishing expression on their faces.
“In some countries there are many small farms which are very eco-friendly, and I went to Finland, Switzerland and Spain as well as France and at one stage thought I might find all the species. But there were some that escaped me. I heard of sightings of snowy owls, an Arctic species, but each time I tried to see them I was just too late and they had moved on.
“I’ve only seen the Great Grey owl in captivity but I’m going to Norway soon with a guide and hope I might be taken to see them in the wild.”
Though Miriam has travelled widely and Devon is now home to her and her family, she still feels a strong connection to Lewes.
“My brother lives in Brighton and I have a lot of school friends who still live in Lewes, so I take the opportunity to go back when I can,” she says. “And even though I love Devon, Lewes still feel likes home.” •