Forget Me Not: An Interview with Sophie Pavelle
Like many of her generation, Sophie Pavelle is determined to demand action on climate change. In her book Forget Me Not, Sophie describes the trips she took to see 10 rare native species first-hand: species that could disappear entirely by 2050 and be forgotten by the end of the century if their habitats continue to decline at their current rate.
Sophie challenges herself to travel the low-carbon way, travelling the length of Britain on foot, by bicycle, in an electric car, by kayak, on cargo ferries and in lots of trains. From Bodmin to the Orkney Islands, Sophie encounters wildlife and habitats on the front line of climate change in Britain.
We catch up with Sophie who is joining us as guest speaker on Tour in her home city, Exeter, to chat about everything from social media to ugly vegetables, eco-anxiety and joy.
Q: What inspired you to write Forget Me Not?
A: Writing a book was never part of my plan! I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I had always enjoyed the challenge and escapism of writing. When the opportunity came along, I realised I had been a curious, yet frustrated reader of natural history/travel books, finding them to be largely male-dominated, incredibly factual, and always succeeding in the mission. As someone with a fierce love of the outdoors and nature, but with zero training in species identification or birdwatching, I wrote this book in a bid to create something galvanising, entertaining, yet shocking in its truth, and speak to audiences who may not have picked up a ‘nature book’ before. I felt an urgency to reach readers in their 20s and 30s, who are often overlooked as a target audience, despite being politically and environmentally engaged, and keen to act. Together with them, I hoped to reignite a love of the British Isles and a desire to protect it.
Q: Your book is both thought provoking and amusing. Why is it important to bring joy into a book about climate change? How do you remain hopeful?
A: Not many people expect to see a book with the words ‘climate-change’ on the cover to be anything but a rather gloomy read. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether we actively seek gloomy environmental news in some negative confirmation bias, to validate very real feelings of climate anxiety. But, I’ve learned that joy in the darkest of times is a superpower. Adding light in the midst of difficult truth can disarm a reader, and remind them of a different, more hopeful perspective. By choosing optimism and connecting with scientists who are actively finding solutions, I find hope more easily, and the moments of eco-anxiety are more short-lived and ultimately mobilising.
Q: What was your favourite destination you visited on your journey?
A: North Ronaldsay, the northernmost island in the Orkney archipelago! It was a solo unsupported trip with the best August weather you can imagine, wildlife everywhere and the friendliest people you could imagine. I still think about it most days.
Q: What would be your top tip for people wanting to make a difference in their local area and environment?
A: Don’t overthink it. Action for nature is a spectrum and personal, and it’s vital that it includes activities that suit your time, routine and budget. Making space for pollinators via planting wildflowers in pots, window boxes, or even old hiking boots, is a fantastic start and you can’t really go wrong. Also, don’t forget the power we have as consumers. Where possible, support local growers and supermarkets offering seasonal, ‘ugly’ vegetables, ideally plastic-free. Try experimenting with more vegetarian meals each week - you can’t go wrong with some spicy roasted veg + a punchy dressing!
Q: You document a lot of your travel and research on social media. Do you find that social media is a useful tool to encourage people to engage with climate related issues?
A: Social media is fantastic for connecting with an enormous and dynamic demographic. I find Instagram especially celebrates creativity and individuality, and so it’s been invaluable for me to connect with different people, organisations and communities and be inspired by their work and meet like-minded people. It’s also the perfect opportunity to meet people who disrupt your perspective, and introduce fresh angles on topics, so it’s great to keep you on your toes! I find that it has to be kept at arm’s length though, and have learnt the hard way the importance of a balanced relationship with social media. I rarely engage with it during the evenings anymore, and never when I’m writing, or else I can’t hear my own thoughts!
Q: Your book has had a fantastic reception; Forget Me Not has been nominated for the People’s Book Prize, Waterstones Book of the Year and has been cited as the Guardian’s ‘Book Of The Day’. What does ‘success’ mean to you?
A: Seeing a book about British climate change written by a woman in her twenties listed among celebrated authors and mixing between different genres, is really exciting. It’s also amazing to hear that people have both laughed and cried whilst reading it, and to know the stories within are reaching audiences new to the natural history/travel genre. I secretly hoped Forget Me Not would break down some stuffy walls and bring the humanity back into these vital conversations, and it’s a surreal experience to see that happening.
Q: You find hope and motivation in connecting with fellow crusaders and there are dozens in the book – scientists, conservationists, activists, rewilders. Who was the most influential and inspiring person you met?
A: An impossible question! One of the best surprises whilst writing was being introduced to students and people at the start of an academic career, who are already authorities on the species in question and represent a fired-up generation of scientists. Evie Furness for example had just finished a Masters, and was working in research for Project Seagrass helping to activate restoration of this astonishing habitat. We had a lot in common, were of a similar age and I really identified with the twists and turns in her studies which finally led her to work in conservation.
Q: You strived to travel to each location via a variety of low-carbon means. What was that experience like? Was there a particular mode of transport you preferred?
A: Low-carbon was a real challenge, not least during the pandemic! It became a bit of a live experiment to see how well equipped the British Isles is to support mass low-carbon travel. Having always enjoyed expeditions, I relished the physical challenge of hot, hard (and soggy!) miles on the bike, or on the coast path, and the opportunity to explore stunning locations around Britain. I had to have my brain switched on at all times though, absorbing the sights, smells, and sounds to help build the chapter back at the desk - which became exhausting at times. I confess my love affair for my gravel bike several times throughout the story, and so without hesitation I’d choose the bike every time! Nothing felt so freeing.
Q: Spoiler alert - you didn’t find every species you go out in search for in Forget Me Not. Did this change your perspective of the journey?
A: Failure was essential to the mission. Not only did it remind me that nature is utterly doing its own thing and we cannot control the agenda, but it was also a reality-check in reiterating how rare some of these species really are. I think failure also (inadvertently) made the adventures more relatable and accessible to readers - although I didn’t find some of the species, that didn’t lessen the enjoyment or impact of the journey. I was in it for the thrill of the chase, nothing more.
Q: What would be your top tip to getting started on a new adventure?
A: Don’t underestimate public transport, a small budget, and the power of choosing somewhere/something that ever so slightly scares you.
Q: Can you tell us one word that sums up your relationship with the outdoors?
You can hear Sophie Pavelle on Tour in Exeter at The Corn Exchange on 9th June. To grab your tickets, head to the Kendal Mountain Tour website.
Watch the full interview on the Kendal Mountain Player.
Cover Photo Credit: Jack Johns