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Nina Mingya Powles' book Small Bodies of Water is nature writing at its best – Laura Waddell

The Scotsman logo The Scotsman 18/08/2021 Laura Waddell

If your idea of nature writing is gentlemen having alarmingly grandiose epiphanies about trees – and that stuff does get about – you might find your palate refreshed by the writing of Nina Mingya Powles, who a couple of years ago won the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize, and has been racking up other award nominations since.

a view of a city at night © Nina Mingya Powles book Small Bodies of Water describes multiple places that Powles has called home,...

Her newly published book Small Bodies of Water, a series of short connected essays, is about the multiple places that Powles has called home.

This is a book saturated in water, from the freshwater fish of Borneo, studied by the grandfather whose work Powles tracks down in archives years after he took her on childhood swimming trips – “Underwater, I was like one of Gong Gong’s little silver fish” – to the heavy rainfall and man-made pools in London and Shanghai. “In the concrete city of Shanghai, the over-chlorinated pool became our sanctuary. It sparkled aquamarine against a skyline of dust,” she writes.

When, as a child, I learned what a tsunami was, first from the Indonesian disaster that made worldwide news, and in trying to understand how anything could be so big in scale, poring over my Christmas copy of the Guinness Book of Records, walls of water swept through my nightmares for years afterwards.

Powles describes what it was like to experience the event from Wellington, New Zealand, where school children took part in earthquake drills and felt the tremors, with the threat of “the big one” always looming.

READ MORE: Nan Shepherd’s masterpiece of nature writing is an inspiration – leader comment

The flurry of recent writing about lady’s ponds in London has fatigued it somewhat as a subject; I am much more drawn to pieces demonstrating Powles’ keen eye for flora – such as the kōwhai flower, yellow and bell-shaped, an unofficial symbol of New Zealand spotted unexpectedly, beautifully one day across the globe on a London street.

Weaving in her familiar theme of language, on learning Mandarin, she describes how words gradually become more familiar, reaching “with little effort, without having to pull them up from the depths".

In these moments, Small Bodies of Water is nature writing at its living, breathing best.

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