The Western Mail review: magical as a moth's wing

Importance of learning the language of bees

Poet Rae Howells offers up plenty of nectar in a collection about bees, motherhood, loss and climate change

FARMING lavender on the edge of Gower, Rae Howells has become keenly aware of the fragility of our natural world - and the lessons that nature can teach us.

Her new book, The Language of Bees - her first full length poetry collection - is threaded with dead and dying bees, and with other types of loss: pregnancy loss, the loss of memory that comes with dementia, and the devastation of our planet. But it's also a beautiful collection, fragrant with the magic of nature.

Rae, who besides running her lavender business, Gower Lavender, is also a journalist, came to poetry relatively late - around the same time she became a mother.

"It's tricky to separate the two things," she says. "Obviously in poetry you write about what you are experiencing, your emotions and reflections. Motherhood reflects an enormous and very sudden transition in a woman's life. Pregnancy and birth can push you to your limits physically, and then the emotional rollercoaster of having a newborn, less sleep, the needs of another person coming before your own - these are huge adjustments.

"Finding time or a creative outlet for yourself can be a lifesaver and I definitely found that poetry helped me through those early years. Now document my daughters growing up into young women themselves, and of course I worry about their future and what their lives will be like. All of this is great fodder for writing."

The demands and pleasures of motherhood- her deep love for her family, the pressures of juggling work and home, the joy of watching her children grow - run through the collection.

"There's a poem towards the end of the collection, Bread and Butter, where I try to show what it's like after a full day of work with a head full of worries, cooking dinner for my fussy daughter while she has a lovely time with her dad," she says. "I wrote it as if I had a head full of insects -"fizzing with earwigs, 'full of wings with my bones tired/ as you laugh with your father in another room'. I'd say that sums it up quite well!"

The poems are also coloured by the experience of miscarriage, with is conveyed with heartrending imagery - in The Mermaid, for example, a lost child is a mermaid who escapes back into the sea, leaving her mother forever searching for her. The theme of pregnancy loss overlaps with the theme of dying bees, linking personal loss with the earth's loss-which, by extension, is ours.

"We have gone through two miscarriages," she says. "They were harrowing, demonstrating how fragile life can be, how quickly everything can change and your assumptions be proved wrong. I found writing immensely healing to help me cope with the loss and try to make sense of it. I also found solace in nature and wildlife, and so I suppose it's natural the two things became linked together in my poetry.

"Working among wild bees I have grown to love them, so when you read about climate change and colony collapse - it becomes a kind of personal grief. Once you understand the devastation of habitats and food sources they endure, and the challenges they face to simply get through each season, you can't help but feel their fragility. Of course our human fate is tied to theirs - we need pollinators to create our food. Their loss is our loss."

Her home backs onto woodland and is close to the beach, and she grows lavender for Gower Lavender nearby - meaning that encounters with bees are common.

"You can't help but become familiar with bees and all the other amazing pollinators that rely on it as a food source because they are constantly buzzing around your head while you work," she says. "I started Gower Lavender because I was tired of feeling helpless reading about climate change and wanted to do something practical."

While she was writing The Language of Bees she found a native wild bee - a common carder bumblebee - dying on her driveway, a and this became the motif that runs through the collection.

"My daughters and I tried to help her by feeding her sugar water and warming her up. We got very invested in her survival and she became an emblem for lots of the things I was writing about. Bees face enormous challenges, in particular from losing habitat and forage, but also from pesticides and diseases, so additional pressures like a parasite or a particularly wet summer can push a whole colony over the edge. Their existence is fragile. But also bees are fascinating. Their life cycles and survival strategies are astounding, and as a writer you can't help but love the rich metaphor they offer for writing about many other things.”

While the book is on one level a collection of eco poems, and on another a book about loss and motherhood, it also has a strongly Welsh flavour - as in the lyrical and hypnotic verses of The Sacred Well Speaks to Mererid, an enchanting retelling of the legend of the drowned Welsh land of Cantre'r Gwaelod that has stark parallels with the current state of our planet with its rising sea levels.

"You can't help but be shaped by the landscape, language and history of where you're from and I'm proudly Welsh," she says. "Our old stories have a lot to teach us. Of course Cantre'r Gwaelod is one of those myths that has particular resonance now because sea levels are rising, but I also found that the story had evolved over the centuries and been repurposed as a moral tale for the prohibition era, to warn people about the evils of drinking.

"I preferred the older version, with its water goddess and Mererid, a young woman who is tied to her task of pouring water from the well each day, and her doomed dreams of travelling the world. The moral is that young women should stay in their designated roles. I tried to convey a slightly different angle here, a mother and daughter story, which warns the daughter against leaving her mother. Perhaps it's another miscarriage poem in disguise."

Howells' writing is assured and muscular, yet also as diaphanous and magical as a moth's wing, fusing the enchantment of nature with the stark realities of living in our troubled world. She reminds us of the cycles of life and death we are all tied to, and that we ignore nature at our peril. As a writer she draws on multiple influences covering themes ranging from motherhood to nature.

"Alice Oswald's 's collection Falling Awake has been a huge influence on me," she says. "She writes about nature as if it has a mind, a consciousness, awake and alert, and her images and phrases are always original and surprising. I also love Liz Berry's poetry. Her pamphlet, The Republic of Motherhood, is a brilliant reflection of what it's like to become a mum and those first exhausting months. Pascale Petit also uses nature to write about her own childhood and her mother's mental illness and I loved her collection Mama Amazonica for the way it takes jungle imagery and transplants it into the hospital ward. Sean Borodale's Bee Journal is a poetry collection about him becoming a beekeeper and his poems are lyrical and sensual and full of amazing bee images."

The Language of Bees is deeply haunting - a book you'll want to return to for multiple explorations, and which will give more every time. Not only is Howells' passion for her family and for nature apparent - but also her passion for words.

"I love writing, I always have," she says. "Playing with words and language is joyful. I like to enter another world when I write. To bring the reader on a journey with me so they can feel the emotions or experience the moment I'm trying to convey. It's like a constant quest - it's deeply satisfying when you find the exact words you need.

"There are plenty of fascinating facts about bees and other pollinators in the book, so I hope readers learn something new about our magical Welsh wildlife and the stunning natural world that we're so lucky to have around us. What I have learned is that bees work together for the good of the colony, not for themselves as individuals. With climate change already happening we'll need each other more than ever. I hope we can all learn something from the bees."

The Language of Bees is out now, published by Parthian.