Palmerston North writer Miriam Sharland is working on an eco-biography

Miriam Sharland (right) with Wellington writer Elizabeth Knox, who has published 12 novels. Photo / Provided

What does an Englishwoman living in Palmerston North do when Covid-19 grounds her writing plans?

In the case of Miriam Sharland, she acts like a Kiwi and turns to her neighborhood and her region.

Sharland was due to travel to England to do more research on her uncle for her Masters in Creative Writing when the virus forced her to change her plans.

Bob Sharland, his father’s older brother, was a rear gunner in RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War. He was shot down and killed along with his entire crew three weeks after his wedding. Bob was only 21 years old.

As part of her undergraduate degree in creative writing at Massey University, Sharland had to write a family memoir. She began researching Bob’s story, exploring a gap in the family history.

With her flight plan anchored in 2020, she turned to exploring the local environment. Eco-biography is a strong genre in the UK, but is in its infancy stage in Aotearoa. Sharland set out to make a New Zealand version.

An eco-biography is people writing about their own lives in relation to the environment. His eco-biography is a combination of nature journal and memoir exploring the landscape of Manawatū. In doing so, she learned a lot about the landscape, but also about New Zealand nature writing and New Zealand literature.

It is inspired by the British authors of the new nature Robert Macfarlane, Roger Deakin and Richard Mabey.

Sharland received $5,000 from the Earle Creativity and Development Trust to cover production costs for her eco-biography. The book is called Heart Stood Still, Manawatū’s English translation, and is part of her master’s thesis, which she will complete in February.

Last year, Sharland was awarded the Laura Watts Fellowship, a scholarship to attend Write Across New Zealand. The tutor for the five-day workshop was well-known writer Elizabeth Knox. Sharland loved Knox’s novel, The Vintner’s Luck, and was thrilled to have the chance to meet her.

The workshop took place in December in Marahau, near Abel Tasman National Park, and other participants included Rachael King, Catherine Robertson, Chris Stuart, Kerry Sunderland and Claire Mabey.

Everyone was working on projects they had submitted beforehand and had a one-on-one time with Knox to receive feedback. They also did writing workshops to improve various elements of their craft. Sharland relished five days without cell phone coverage in a beautiful location and the opportunity to focus on her writing.

She says receiving the Earle Fellowship and the scholarship proved that she is on the right path and that she should continue. “I read a section [of Heart Stood Still] at the workshop and people really liked it. Just to get that external validation, it was really good.”

She was particularly encouraged by Robertson’s comment that Sharland might think that because the other workshop participants had published a lot of books, they were better than her. Robertson said they were just further along on the trip.

The scholarship was offered to him by Watts. They had met before, but the offer fell out of the blue.

Bob Sharland, Miriam's uncle, 19.  Photo / Provided
Bob Sharland, Miriam’s uncle, 19. Photo / Provided

After completing her master’s degree, Sharland plans to return to project flight. In 2016, she visited Tuttlingen, the German town near which the bomber fell, and attended the unveiling of a memorial to the crew. She has pieces of the plane.

The irony of being grounded and unable to move forward with her flight plan is not lost on Sharland. By focusing on the local, she discovered stories and people she wouldn’t have if she had flown away. She learned about and encountered important trees, birds and natural features.

An example is Karaka Grove on the site of a battle fought against invaders by Rangitāne in 1820, now part of the Science Park opposite Massey. Sharland, who works in Massey’s communications team, has passed the tree stand countless times but was unaware of the meaning.

Another natural feature that caught his eye on the environment is the importance of godwits to our region. She included them in her writings as a metaphor, “how they tell us things about our lives and how to live”.

Originally from Surrey, Sharland has lived in Manawatū for 19 years. She had never learned much about her new home until the first Covid lockdown, a deficit she attributes to rushing to live a normal life. When the pace of life slowed dramatically in the fall of 2020, she discovered layers of history and felt she had begun to connect with Manawatū.

“Noticing all the things I had never seen before because I was too busy was like a silver lining. It was a connection and as a result of that I definitely feel more connected.”

Sharland did an English degree in England but didn’t do creative writing. She loved her first undergraduate creative writing paper at Massey, especially about her uncle’s short life. “It was like entering his world and I found that really fascinating.”

The eco-biography project over the past few years has been a great way to process her thoughts and feelings about not being able to return home, feeling unsettled and worried about her friends and family in England.