Thursday 9 May 2024

"Nature, the Environment and Sustainability" Competition: Winning Entries 3

Over five days, we're delighted to be publishing the winning entries from the short story competition, "Nature, the Environment and Sustainability," which ran in 2023-4. The competition, commissioned by the University of Leicester’s Centre for New Writing and Centre for Environmental Health and Sustainability was judged by the celebrated nature writer, Mark Cocker, and showcased at this year’s Literary Leicester free literature festival.

You can see the results here. There were two winners, one specially commended entry, and two runners-up. Each day, we're publishing one of these winning entries. Today, you can read the specially commended story "Before the Grasses," by Alice Newitt.

Alice Newitt is a Physics graduate who currently works for the University of Leicester's careers service. She has a passion for hopeful and imaginative literature.

Before the Grasses

or the musings of an immortal being waiting for the world to end

Before the grasses, there were ferns. They would brush against my legs as I walked across the plains, moss squidgy beneath my toes. When I came across a cliff edge or a great basin waiting to be filled, I would do like one of the living creatures and creep around the edge, as if I wasn’t a friend of Death but instead afraid of her.

The others used to laugh. 

‘What do you even do?’ they would ask me. ‘You aren’t the sun or the moon. You don’t reroute rivers or hang the stars. You don’t create life or take it away - you just wander through these valleys and hills, getting in everybody’s way.’

But they never could understand. I was here long before they were, I was here at the start and I am still here at the end, and so I turned away from them and turned towards the world. 


Like the Earth, I was forged in fire. I watched as the moon was formed from the ring of rocks surrounding the Earth, and at first it was so close that I could reach out and touch it, my arms stretching out for tens of thousands of miles just to feel the touch of another celestial body. The Earth itself was spinning so fast that I would straddle it and shriek in delight for millennia. One time, I stretched right out and touched the sun, just for fun. The plasma dripped off my finger like dew. I spent a thousand years letting meteorites prickle my back, the ground beneath me hardening like plaster, water starting to pool around my feet. I let the moon drag me across the seas on its tides. 

As the Earth’s rotation slowed, I took refuge on an island, lava warming my thighs. A meteorite landed in my hair. I picked it out and licked it. I ran across cooling rocks so quickly that I could scarcely feel them at all, and then I dived into the newly pooling ocean and let the water soak through my pores.

This was all thousands of millions of years ago.


I’d first noticed the emergence of life when I’d taken a gulp out of my favourite sea and noticed that it had a new taste.

‘That will have been the oxygen,’ Life would tell me later once he had finally crawled out of the ocean. ‘It is what allows all of this to be.’ 

That was Life all over – by ‘all of this,’ he meant only the breathing things, not the rocks or the fire or the ocean, as if only life is alive, as if the Earth’s surface had never ripped apart and continents never spread like syrup. I was there when he first climbed out of the primordial soup, all gloopy and gunky and even then, he had thought that he had known everything about everything, telling me what I was and what I wasn’t, as if I’d been waiting for him all this time. 

But I still loved him. Together, we rode tectonic plates until we grew dizzy, and the days were long, so long, sometimes twenty-two hours or more. I would show him things that he would never think to notice and in return he would show me his creations – spongy archaeocyathids, trilobites crawling over my waist, algae caking the seafloor. The sea levels rose and the summers were balmy and I used to stretch my hands out and cry out in delight at it all. 

‘What do you call this?’ I asked him. 

‘The Cambrian explosion,’ he told me. 


Time only goes forward, and as the Earth spun ever more quickly, Life pontificated and life proliferated: great trees soaring upwards; ferns spreading outwards and then the grasses, and the creatures: a hominid standing erect, a dolphin plunging through the waves. 

And then it was a morning late in the Holocene, some four billion years since Life had first come along, and, for some decades, we had been sitting on a hillside watching the settlement in the valley down below us crawl and sprawl. I lifted a hand to allow the hominids to install a cable car tower beside us. I watched Life gaze numbly at the scars in the forest and saw that it would soon be time for him to leave. 

‘Stay a little longer,’ I asked him. 

‘It’s not my choice,’ he said, and I believed him. The humans were barely in their adolescence and the dark side of the globe sparkled like starlight. He would have stayed if he could. There was glacial meltwater rushing down the mountainsides and the air was growing ashy. There was a fire coming, and there was little left for he and I to do. 


For a century and an afternoon, I stayed in the valley. Life drifted between me and the world, but I mostly just lay there, watching the smoke-filled sky, and thought of a time long ago, back before Life left the ocean, back to when the Earth was covered in ice, the whole planet white. I would try and outrun the encroaching night, snow crunching beneath my feet as I chased across the Earth’s surface. I hadn’t known that there was anything to miss. 

The others had laughed. 

‘And so it has been decided, Earth,’ they told me. ‘You shall end in ice.’ 

‘I am not Earth,’ I reminded them.  ‘I am the witness, and I shall watch the Earth, whether it ends in fire or ice or those things in-between. I was here when the Earth was created and I will be here when it ends, and I know that no matter what, I shall always be here. Amongst them.’ 

They listened to me, and then laughed and turned away again, and I knew that it was no good. They never would understand. 


The forest was still burning; I witnessed it as I was lying there in that burning valley. I observed it and I did nothing. I just lay there and felt the heat of the fire and the spray of the water and tried to imagine that I was still skating on Snowball Earth, or else amongst the ferns of the late Devonian, so green and so verdant. 

‘Excuse me, ma’am.’ 

There was a hominid looking down at me. He was one of the ones here to put out the fire - I could tell by the hat and boots. He’d never succeed, and, as I glanced down at his ruined torso, I saw that in fact he had already lost. I looked at his outstretched hand. 

‘She’ll be along soon,’ I told him, meaning Death. ‘She’s just busy someplace else.’ 

‘You can’t stay here,’ he told me. 

‘It won’t burn me. I was forged in fire.’

But he didn’t move, just stayed standing there, with his hand outstretched. How could they not know me, I wondered as I looked up at this one. How could they not know me after all this time?

‘This isn’t the first mass extinction event that I’ve seen.’ I told him. ‘It’s nothing personal - I didn’t save any of the others either, not even the wattieza trees or psaronius ferns. I watched as they died and I did nothing at all.’ 

He continued to stand there.

‘I’d get moving if I were you,’ I said. ‘Maybe if you go quickly, Death won’t find you. Perhaps if you run, you could outrun her, outrun the Earth, but it wouldn’t make much difference. You’ll all be gone soon, making space for whatever comes next.’ Will there be anything next, I wondered, once Life is gone? And then I almost smiled to myself, because that was a Life-like way of thinking – to be unable to imagine a future without itself. But I didn’t smile, I just lay there and gazed up at this hominid’s outstretched hand. It made no difference. I had let all of the others die.

‘I’m not who you are looking for,’ I told him. ‘I cannot save you.’

‘I know,’ he said. ‘I’m here to save you.’ 

I listened to his words, and then watched as he died. Oh, Life. You knew everything and you knew nothing at all. 


I saw out the remainder of Earth’s time alone, a million years at a time, and now finally I sit here, alone on this hillside, waiting for the sun to go out and extinguish a world that I have seen die over and over. 

Nobody likes a witness, that was something that I had discovered early on. No one likes the one who watches, nobody cares for the bystander who sees it all and lets it happen. But as I look at the Earth now, I understand why it needed me. All its inhabitants’ lives were so short. They could scarcely comprehend the rise and fall of their own civilisations, never mind the rise and fall of their species. I have been here to watch the Earth through all its triumphs and disasters. I was put here to see all of it, for what would be the point of it, if there were nobody to observe it? And so I watch it still, waiting for the end, and think of all the lifeforms that have lived and died, of the ice and snow, the leafy Devonian, of the hominids and their creations, of the fires before and after. 

‘You can’t feel sadness,’ Life had told me, the day that I saw the last tree fall.

‘I know,’ I told him, but sometimes I felt as if I did. Sometimes I felt that I could drown the Earth. 

The sky is turning red, and now black, here in this final second in which the Earth exists, before the second in which it will not.

‘What will happen, do you think?’ Life had once asked me. ‘Once all of this is done?’

‘I don’t know what will come after,’ I said. ‘But I know how it will end. You will be one of the first to go: created over millions of years, blown out in an afternoon. The others will leave not long after, until at the end, it will be only me. Maybe, when this planet turns back to fire and dust, so will I. Or maybe I’ll be thrown far away, to some distant place, where I’ll fall to the ground and watch as the stars go out, one by one.’

‘How can you bear it?’ Life had asked, cowering from the bleakness of my vision.

‘Well, who knows?’ I told him, wanting, despite everything, to give him hope. And perhaps, in that moment, I needed hope too. ‘Maybe it won’t happen like that. Maybe the sun will burn forever. Maybe you will never leave. Maybe I am right, when I say that things will never go back to how they once were. But who knows: when all of this is done, when the Earth is gone and the sky is dark, maybe then, we will all go round again.’ 

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