Did you know that every eel that swims in a British canal or river was born thousands of miles away in the Sargasso Sea?
The creatures undertake one of the most incredible trans-Atlantic journeys before settling in the murky, silt-ridden waterways of the British Isles. Years later, when biology dictates, they had back to the Sargasso to spawn.
This is just one of many memorable details to be gleamed from an astounding memoir by the British broadcaster and writer Alys Fowler.
Fowler grew up in Hampshire. An outdoors-based childhood led to a deep love of nature. She writes mainly about gardening and horticulture.
She married in her early 20s, and she and her husband settled in Birmingham. It was here, in her mid-30s, that she decided to set out to explore the British city’s famed canal network. Much of the network dates back to the days of the Industrial Revolution.
She duly bought herself a small, inflatable rowing boat and set off with the idea of writing a first person account of the fauna and flora she came across.
As such, Hidden Nature is a gentle, beautifully written love letter to the canal banks and wildlife of what many consider an urban deadspot. As Fowler discovers, nature thrives in places we may least expect it.
‘Something shifted inside me’
What starts as a straightforward book about canals is diverted by an unexpected and powerful undercurrent.
Alys runs again into an acquaintance, Charlotte, and something shifts within her. Paddling the canals largely alone, and with time to ponder her feelings, she realizes what it is that has shifted; her sexuality.
At the age of 37, Alys realizes that she is a lesbian. Much of the remainder of the book explores this realization, and the fallout when she tells her husband.
To complicate matters further, not only is Alys his wife but also his primary carer. He has cystic fibrosis.
Her torment at the pain her coming out prompts is compounded by the guilt she feels in not being there for her husband as care-giver.
Coming out narratives usually follow a similar path: you realize you’re different some time around puberty. You come out to friends, and then family, and feel a huge sense of relief.
Alys’ story is a reminder that it doesn’t always work that way.
‘It plagued me over and over again,’ she says in the book on coming out later in life. ‘Had I been lying to myself all that time? Did I not know myself? Was I ignorant or scared or just plain stupid?’
Talking to Alys on the phone, I raise the subject of internalized homophobia but she firmly resists any suggestion that internalized self-loathing kept her in the closet.
‘It simply was that something shifted inside me.’
‘Sexuality can change’
Some people will struggle to understand how she could not have known she was gay. Did she think she was bisexual?
‘That’s an interesting one,’ she says, considering her words carefully. ‘I suppose technically I’m a bisexual, because I was with a man and now I’m with a woman, but I identify as a lesbian.
‘I feel like I would eat my hats, boots and sofa before going back to being with men. If I had a choice to go back to men, I really wouldn’t make that choice. For me, that makes me identify as a lesbian.’
After much soul searching, for Alys, it simply was a case of ‘something changed’. For some, the idea of sexuality changing may seem threatening.
‘But that’s exactly what happened. My sexuality changed,’ she says. ‘Sexuality can change. As I say, I think I’d eat my sofa before going back to men, but my experience of sexuality is that it can be a lot more fluid than I thought it would.’
She is keen to stress that she is talking only of her own experience, and although her sexuality shifted, it’s not something that can be altered simply through will power or choice.
‘The natural world will teach you that sexuality shifts all the time.
‘Mine didn’t change because I wanted it to change. Mine was like, “Oh, something is changing inside me.” When I was really honest about it, what I could admit was that it was my sexuality.
Hidden Natures describes several months when Alys and her husband, who she refers only to by the initial H, continued to live together after her coming out, as they begin the process of splitting their home and planning their separate, future lives.
She describes many moments when she is overcome by emotion: driven to tears as she struggles to cope with the consequences of the wheels she has set in motion.
Coming out is not accompanied by any feelings of celebration, but at first sadness, followed by a slow navigation toward calmer waters. From confusion to contentment.
‘The only thing you can do is be honest with yourself’
What advice might she offer to those who find themselves in a similar position? Perhaps people who put off coming out as they’re fearful of the fall-out?
‘I’m wary to give advice to anybody, because their experience will be different to mine. All I can talk about is my own experience. For me, it’s about being honest to yourself.
‘That honesty extends to the people around you: your partner, your friends, your family, you cannot lie to people.
‘It is a deeply unsettling place to be somewhere that you’re feeling like you cannot be honest to yourself and the people around you.
‘For me, the really important thing was going to counseling. It meant that there was a wonderful safe space to explore how I felt, and work out what mattered to me in a kind of private, quiet space.
‘I knew I would destroy my marriage and upset and deeply hurt my ex-husband by coming out. But I also learned that the only thing you can do is be honest with yourself.’
Hidden Nature, A Voyage of Discovery by Alys Fowler is out now through Hodder & Stoughton.