The Mara Crossing (Chatto & Windus, January 2012)


Why do animal species migrate – and why do we? Padel’s poems address one of the defining movements of our era. Starting with the first living cell to appear on earth and the earliest spread of plants and microbes across the globe, she turns to the seasonal migrations of birds and beasts.

There are sharply drawn portraits of animals, storm petrels, jellyfish, humpback whale and lemurs as well as human beings who studied them (often, like the painter-cum-birdwatcher John James Audubon, immigrants themselves) and the epic migration of wildebeest and zebra from Kenya to Tanzania, culminating in the crossing of the crocodile-infested Mara River.

But civilization too is the story of migration. From early hominids out of Africa and the founding of Rome by refugees from Troy, to diasporas of the modern world, attempts to colonize the moon or today’s mass migrations, detention centres and asylum-seeking, The Mara Crossing explores the ways in which we are all ‘from somewhere else’.

Padel’s poems, interwoven with illuminating prose passages, investigate what we learn from animals, how our migrations resemble theirs, and how both animal and human journeys are now affected by the ways in which we have changed, and are changing, our shared planet.

Ruth Padel’s new collection offers a unique perspective on migration and immigration.

Read this Interview on it with Ruth in The National

Listen to Ruth reading the final poem ‘Time to Fly’, mixing reasons why birds, people and animals migrate:

A prodigy, a book of wonders… sheerly brilliant. Wonder connects with pity and terror, lodged in the searing penultimate section of voices in transit… coercing ‘Compassion – and beyond that, empathy’.” Independent

“This sweeping and unconventional book about migration calls for compassion: her poems and essays are a lyrical tribute to the instincts and whims, trials and beauties that catalyse movement.” Economist

“A thoughtful, often quite magical mix of prose and poetry… Just as fascinating as Padel’s central theme is the insight that she gives us into poetry” Independent on Sunday

Magnificent poems…A triumph of artistic ingenuity… – Bifurcation – between poetry and prose, human and animal, privilege and under-privilege, and, crucially, art and science – is at the heart of the collection and powers its explorations of journeying. This is a book of raw interfaces and unnerving encounters, not comfortable oppositions of black and white.’ Guardian

“An immensely moving, beautifully written book that cannot be praised enough: an exploration of the beauty, pain, suffering and imaginative potency of migration. A book that grips you and forces you to turn the page in much the same way as any compulsive novel – and an opportunity to witness, to overhear (and have one’s own mind fired up by) a witty, wonderful intellect plumbing the phenomenon of migration and its intellectual, ethical, historical, political and aesthetic implications.” Poetry London

A quite beautiful combination of poetry and prose, exotic birds transversing oceans, powerful mammals crossing wildernesses, humans journeying the globe in search of a better life. Binding it together is the notion of migration”. The National

“Poetry and prose form a double helix in an engrossing meditation. All kinds of organism, from amoebas and zebras to men and women, follow the dance of love-making and leave-taking.” Telegraph

An extraordinary mixture of poetry and prose… from the Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt to migrant workers in Mumbai.” Saga Magazine

“A richly ambitious book. The juxtapositions show a wealth of imaginative thinking. Read it and think what a returning swallow means to human history.” BBC Wildlife

“Haitian-born Audubon throws the mist net of migration over birds and humans; Lowenstein, another migrant, discovers that living organisms contain magnetite in their bodies and use Earth’s magnetic field to guide their movements. This book will reward re-readings…” Amazon reader htttp://

Ruth says
“The Mara in the title is a river in Kenya and zebra and wildebeest must cross it at the end of their three-month migration. It’s not that wide, you can splash through in a few minutes. But it’s full of the biggest and hungriest crocodiles in Africa. I went there, watched many crossings, and describe them in the book. This migration and this crossing are among the most harrowing wonders of nature. But the crossing also became for me an image for the struggle in all our crossings, over sea or desert, through cultural barriers and immigration counters – and the ones we all have to make in all our lives.”

The theme is migration – from cells to souls, trees to birds, animals to people. The climax is migration and immigration today, but this is set in a full biological and historical context, from the Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt to geese flying over Mount Everest.


LISTEN to discussion arising from it at, join in the Facebook conversation, and follow the comments on Twitter@BBCTheForum.

This one focusses on the Greek diaspora and the problem of an island home you have to keep leaving to survive

The Two Flames

Let’s say you found each other like repeating flames
in an antique mirror, trailing the memory
of two Greek ports in foreign lands
where you were born, and two islands
you fled back to when the devil began to dance
in mad Evropi and you learned the island song
of eternal ritornelle: one hotgold summer
when you find yourself, then rage to get away,
darkwinter alcohol, high winds to cut you off,
a closed-in grey horizon and a harbour
where all your debts and fantasies are known.
While beyond the mountain one small bay
waits on: never not dreamed of, life-long
loved and left. The soul’s a wanderer and fugitive,
driven by decrees and laws of gods.

We’re all from somewhere else.” The poet and writer Ruth Padel is talking about one of the most important lines in her new book, The Mara Crossing. It’s a quite beautiful combination of poetry and prose, taking in exotic birds transversing oceans, powerful mammals crossing wildernesses and humans journeying the globe in search of a better life. Binding it together is the notion of migration.

All human life, all countries began with migration from Africa,” she says. “Migration can be incredibly hard. It can be also really fruitful. The world is full of people bringing up families in another place. It’s like the swallows who go to Africa but come back to Europe. You start to think, where do these people actually belong?
Padel is not alone in pondering such questions. The issue of migration is proving fertile ground for contemporary writers, artists and thinkers. In London, Tate Britain’s latest exhibition is called Migrations, gathering together everyone from Van Dyck to Mondrian in an attempt to understand how British art has been shaped by the movements of people and ideas. Padel has been to see it, and says it opens up fresh new ways of looking at art as a continual “flowing in” from somewhere else.

The theme of immigration is becoming more and more political, so everyone is thinking about it in new ways,” she says. “And when they do, they realise that everyone’s identity is bound up with and founded on migration in some way. So, for example, in the Tate exhibition they want to make the point that in Britain we are all from somewhere else, that British identity has always been an evolving thing and still is.”
Happily, The Mara Crossing doesn’t limit itself to the British Isles. In one of its most striking sections, Padel describes a visit to Kenya which, for her, sums up the “unstoppable pull of migration”. She looks on as wildebeest, zebra and gazelles stare at the Mara River, the end of their journey. On the other side lies their goal: fresh grass. But first they have to negotiate a river teeming with crocodiles. “A slash of brown lightning, a split-second open jaw and their boy was gone.”
It’s where Padel’s seven-year journey to understand migration began. “These poor creatures walking for three months so they can cross a river of crocodiles,” she remembers now. “It became for me an image, a metaphor for how difficult the crossing to another place is.”
And in the course of those seven years she came across migrant workers from Nepal constructing roads in Bhutan, Indian families in Bahrain who worked for a while in the kingdom and then returned home..Or Greeks who lived in Australia for most of the year but went back to their homeland for the summer months. All very familiar scenarios, of course, for people who live and work in the Emirates.
“Of course. And I would like this book to encourage people to reflect on who they are and where they’re from. As you get older, where you grew up becomes more important, and you return to it in your mind as a way of explaining things – because your childhood makes you, really.”
For Padel, who is from England but has lived in Greece and Ireland, France and India, writing The Mara Crossing enabled her to answer these questions of belonging.
“Migration can mean different things. We all experience it when our children grow up and leave home, for example. But I really want people to empathise with others who have to move – as I imagine every writer who tries to explore this subject does. This world of migration can be very, very hard – and in the end we all need a boundary to draw around us and look at the world from, to feel safe in. We all need a home – whatever that means.”

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