26 Meet a Member: Kaye Brennan

This month, I sat down with Kaye Brennan – the driving force behind 26Trees, 26Wild, 26Habitats, 26Pledges, and 26Plants – to talk about her time with 26, and her latest endeavour: working alongside the National Trust, RSPB, WWF, Just Stop Oil, and many more, to create the largest ever gathering of nature lovers in London in June: Restore Nature Now.

Tell us a bit about yourself – where are you from and what do you do?

I’m from East Anglia, Suffolk born and bred but have lived in the East Midlands since 1999. I worked for a spell during university for Ladbrokes (which made me vehemently anti-horse and dog racing) before managing retail shops for Age UK after graduation. I’ve spent the last 25 years as an environmental campaigner both in my spare time and as a paid job, predominantly for Woodland Trust (where I first met the wonderful 26!) and since 2019 I’ve been leading the national campaigning team for The Wildlife Trusts.

Where did your love of words come from?

I was a voracious reader as a child, most often discovered at parties and family events hidden away somewhere with a book! I read everything, anything I could from my small fenland village library; moving from Enid Blyton to Judy Blume, Stephen King, and Jilly Cooper, catching Mary Wesley, Roddy Doyle, Doris Lessing, and Bret Easton Ellis in between – but nowadays I find I have a pile of books I have started to read but don’t give myself the time to finish. I’ve begun to realise as I get older that the art of writing calms me: it feels ‘right’ for me to be writing, regardless of what it is.

What made you join 26? And how long have you been a member?

Having worked closely with 26 over the last five years on a few projects through my job, I was presented with honorary membership of 26 – it was unexpected and a real privilege! 

Have you been involved in any 26 projects?

26Trees, 26Wild, 26Habitats, 26Pledges and 26Plants – leading for partners Woodland Trusts and then The Wildlife Trusts on these wonderful projects. I was encouraged to write ‘as myself’ for 26Orphans in 2022 which led to an audio exhibition at London’s Foundling Museum. 

What’s your ideal scenario for writing? (A coffee shop? Quiet retreat? With or without music? What do you do to get yourself in the right frame of mind?)

Writing for work, I’ll usually have half an ear on music like some drum and bass or Tori Amos, an old friend who will always keep me going. When writing for myself or for a project I ‘hear’ snippets of rhymes and lines all around me, so tend to keep a notebook or make notes on my phone, to dig into later with a brew.

Could you tell us about a piece of writing you’re particularly proud of?

It was a real pleasure to write for 26 Orphans (26 Orphans – Bloomsbury Festival) for the Bloomsbury Festival last year. I didn’t know it but it turns out I quite like being given some direction, and I enjoyed writing to the parameters of a set amount of words and having to include a specific word (breathe) – it was a pleasurable challenge!

In the end I submitted a sestude about the Marvel hero, Jessica Jones (26 Orphans: Jessica Jones – Bloomsbury Festival) but I also wrote about Cary Grant, an actor I loved watching as a child, but who was himself a made-up character. The project turned me onto poet laureate, Lemn Sissay, an orphan himself who inspired the project through his exhibit of fictional characters who were orphaned or fostered in childhood.

And while I didn’t write for them all, I am incredibly proud to have been involved in the Woodland Trusts’ 26Trees, and the 26Wild, 26Habitats, 26Pledges, and 26Plants projects we’ve done with The Wildlife Trusts. I feel strongly about the power of art and words to help people communicate, and learn, about our natural world and am always keen to find new ways to use the arts to influence change.

Where do you get your inspiration?

When as a teenager I read Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, I was startled by the way his words painted such a drawn-out, almost microscopic picture of a life-changing moment. Sebastian Faulks in Birdsong taught me how some things – even war – can be both beautiful and horrific. I was encouraged to write short stories and poetry at school and doing an American Studies degree at university exposed me to more poetry, embracing Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath; I got lost in their pain. Other people’s words will ignite a spark or offer a space for me to create something more. Something about the challenge of haiku (which I first learned about thanks to Stephen King’s IT) appeals to me and I’m often playing with haiku and short poems of my own, just because.

Nature is obviously an inspirer, but writing about my given plant (the maidenhair spleenwort Maidenhair Spleenwort by Kaye Brennan – Bloomsbury Festival) for 26Plants made me look more closely at a pretty little fern which I had always admired but completely taken for granted. Nothing in nature is without purpose, and it was fun to work out through writing “why ferns?” (the answer: “why not”!)

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m writing a lot of content and guidance for the Restore Nature Now march – the largest ever gathering of nature lovers in the UK that will take place in London this summer. The Wildlife Trusts are organising this major event joining our friends and partners to speak up for nature on the streets outside Parliament.

With a General Election booked in for July, and political action seriously lacking, it’s critical that all political parties recognise their role in bringing nature back into everyone’s lives. Wildlife Trusts will be there, Saturday 22 June 2024, loud and proud alongside the friends you might expect – National Trust, RSPB, WWF, Greenpeace – as well as those you might not, like Just Stop Oil, Animal Rising and Extinction Rebellion. We may all choose different approaches to get the message across, but we are all united in our common goals: a wilder, brighter, future.

It’s no secret that wildlife across the UK is in trouble and the 26 projects I’ve been involved in have allowed writers different ways to learn about this truth and express it for themselves, as well as be inspired by nature and all she has to offer us. Sir David Attenborough, my first and best teacher and master of simple but effective words, once said “Nature can recover, if we give it a chance” – polling shows the vast majority of the public are already doing more than the recycling to help, it’s decision-makers like MPs and Ministers who need to play their part now.

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