A N Wilson might sneer at the genre of nature writing, saying, “Thanks to Wordsworth, we all have the idea that ‘poets’ ought to be country dwellers, ought to live up lanes and use a bucket for a lavatory.” Nature writing of this sort, he says in an interview with the Telegraph, “appeals to all that is gentlest and best in us, the lovers of unwrecked England” but recently there have been signs of vigour, of writings taking a new form and addressing the changing relationship we have with the world around us. These changes may be as a result of us increasingly living away from our rural beginnings, either literally because we migrate to cities or metaphorically as we focus inwardly upon the domestic- a result of economic hardship. Or it might be because nature itself is shrinking, further influencing how we interact with it: our garden birds are disappearing and we are less likely to productively coexist with a wide variety of creatures or meet them in an everyday sense. Nature has become commodified too, partly in order to protect it; we ‘buy’ experiences and visit nature reserves; we go to ‘see’ nature instead of perceiving our lives as part of it. We seem to lack affinity with and self-assurance of our sense of place. Indeed we may lack that sense of place in itself.
The best nature writing is not rooted in conservatism or nostalgia. It possesses political agenda because the personal is the political, wrought from our everyday lives. Driving change yet retaining the ability to cast an experienced eye back to the past, it respects history but does not fetishise it, locating humans firmly at the heart of the natural order whilst identifying our disruptive influence upon it. We cannot separate ourselves from this, no matter how much we mistakenly try to and a wise person recognises nature as a greater life force which nonetheless can be vanquished by human misadventure and downright maleficience. We would do well to re-acquaint ourselves with the Pagan folklore which reminds us of our temporary status, as guests and housekeepers for future generations.
Step into the shoes of other living creatures: the peregrine and the wood louse; a skein of flies above a slow moving river; the badger, fat in his binary colours. As Winter settles into our bones, what better way to spend an evening in front of the fire than by travelling with some of our most evocative writers as they challenge us to think afresh about our surroundings. Here then is our guide to the best of the new nature writing, some recommendations for older, classic texts that have stood the test of time and authors writing about other countries too.
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
American nature writers have a lot of material and it is hard to be parochial and small minded when you have so much wilderness to choose from and Lopez, is one of the true greats when it comes to capturing it on the page. Lopez doesn’t do cosy, tame and comforting nature. His world is a big one that can dazzle, lose, harm and kill. He wants to shatter your complacency and intrude into your contemplations. Listen to him on the Arctic; “It is precisely because the regimes of light and time in the Arctic are so different that this landscape is able to expose in startling ways the complacency of our thoughts about land in general.” He writes of the confusion being alone in the alone can produce. His hunters muddle the scale of their prey and misunderstand threat, mistaking a marmot for a bear in the light, bright light that should make things clearer and cleaner, but actually does not. His prose is perfectly matched to the natural world he describes, ramming it with information, zooming out over the ice blue yonder then homing in on a tiny detail that interrupts with its difference. He is a human lens. ‘
H is for Hawk’ by Helen MacDonald-
Winner of this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize and deservedly so, this moving and raw testimony to grief and mourning recounts the authors attempts to tame and train Mabel, a wild goshawk after the death of her father and took over seven years to write. A growing fascination with the writer T H White, author of the fantasy ‘The One and Future King’ acts as a tandem narrative. The chair of the panel judge, Claire Tomalin described the book as “an extraordinary book that displayed an originality and a poetic power. None of us on the panel were either naturalists or wildlife enthusiasts but this book just took hold of us.”
‘The Peregrine’ by J A Baker-
Finally getting its dues, The Peregrine is becoming recognised as the masterpiece it is- one of our finest examples of nature prose. Intricate, detailed and finely wrought, the intensity of the detail of this book contrasts greatly with the little we know about its author. All we know is that he was born in 1926, worked as a librarian and lived in Essex then wrote two books about the local wildlife. Baker appeared to perceive contact with wildlife as an antidote to humans, it “let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence”
and the book goes on to recount his experiences following peregrines along a defined part of the Essex coast from Autumn to Spring. He is often compared to Ted Hughes with a similar muscular sensuality and ability to capture the sheer essence of a creature and landscape with just a few words and when the existing lexicon is inadequate, he is more than comfortable with using neologisms: “The north wind brittled icily in the pleached lattice of the hedgerows”.” In doing so it reminds us of our own frequent awe struck lack of words and cocks a snook at those language pedants who cling unimaginately to some ‘official tenet’ that all too often denies us the joy and pleasure of addiing to the lexicon. Baker takes us straight to the place where he goes to observe his beloved peregrines and we stand alongside him, looking at what he looks at, through his eyes.
‘The Fly Trap’ by Fredrik Sjöberg-
In which the author, a hoverfly obsessive spends seven years researching them on a picture perfect Swedish island called Runmarö and then pens a memoir about it after finding 202 species of hoverfly in seven years, 180 in his garden..This is a slim book about an obscure branch of entomology that is utterly captivating and brims over with the personalities of these little creatures. The prose tips a nod at Darwin, Shelley and Bruce Chatwin whilst musing on the problems with environmentalism and the meaning of life. As Sjoberg told the Guardian, ” I realised if I’m going to write this book I have to write it for readers who are not interested in flies. Then you have to tell stories about people. Quite a lot of people say they are interested in nature but all people are interested in people.”
I love how his own pleasure and bright eyed interest translates to the page– he believes that If you want to change the world, you have to build it on some kind of joy. The book has sold more than 30,000 copies in the Scandinavian market and thousands more in translation across mainland Europe and now, ten years after its publication, The Fly Trap has just come out in Britain.
Landscapes and Englishness by David Matless-
A lot of writing about nature has a gentlemanliness about it, a sense that one needs time, formal education and learning to engage in it and be taken seriously- ie find an audience through publication and be aknowledged as an authority. Indeed this isn’t too wide of the mark as these things also require an income sufficient to fund wanderings and the space to filter ones thoughts and observations before committing them to paper. What is great about Matless is the way he highlights the value of rural knowledge acquired through an everyday working engagement with the land and lived experience, as opposed to a studied and detached eye, acquiline and situationally separate. We see how our national identity, the impressions and assumptions we form about our landscapes developed between the forties and late fifties- entities such as the Country Code, the YHA and Scouts all participated in the way nature was classified for our understanding and consumption. In the post war years we were encouraged to ‘go out to see’ the countryside and the new love of and access to, a family motor car eased us into doing so. And in one fell swoop, we started to detach ourselves from the idea that nature existed all around us in our towns and villages and cities; we ceased to see the Buddleja pushing itself through the tumbled rubble of war ruins, the industry of woodlice under an upturned slate long blown off a roof. The countryside became a theme park and nature its exhibits, and in writing this book, Matless underpins the importance of class, politics and economics in shaping the way in which we are influenced to engage with it.
The Little Toller series of nature writings-
The Little Toller
publishing house have been putting out some exquisite redesigns of classic nature writing and monographs including gems from HE Bates
, Adrian Bell,Richard Mabey
, Joseph Conrad
and Gavin Maxwell
. Created in 2008 as an imprint of the Dovecote Press, a family-run publishing company that has specialised in books about rural life and local history since 1974. Little Toller was started with a singular purpose: to revive forgotten and classic books about nature and rural life in the British Isles and it has succeeded beautifully- these books are to be treasured forever and I dream of a bookcase filled with them. Some of my favourites? ‘Through the Woods
’ by HE Bates
with its soft cover illustration of Kentish Bluebell woods explores the woodlands that haunted his imagination and underpinned his writing. Bates reveals the changing character of a single woodland year and how precious they are to the English countryside. In ‘Men and the Fields’
, local author Adrian Bell
travels through East Anglia and lowland Britain, capturing the character of the countryside before modern agriculture altered the landscape and changed forever the way we eat and live. An introduction by his friend, Ronald Blythe
enhances the literary desirability of this edition. Finally, Neil Ansell
looks at what attaches us to a community in ‘Deer Island’
with his dual narrative of life in London and on a tiny isolated island near Jura. What do we mean when we call a place home? Are memories the only things we can ever truly own?
‘Wildwood’ ‘Waterlog’ and ‘Notes from Walnut Tree Farm’ by Roger Deakin-
If you are looking to introduce somebody to good nature writing then I recommend purchasing the entire cannon of Roger Deakin, one of our best loved writers, a lifelong resident of Suffolk and sadly gone all too soon from this life. In his first book ‘Waterlog”, Deakin inspired a generation of swimmers to go ‘wild’ and get out among the rivers, lakes and seas of the United Kingdom, recording his experiences as he swam, combining dissent and observation perfectly in an often lament for our changing landscapes. His perfectly observed descriptions of swimming in the moat that surrounded his Mellis farmhouse and a view of life from a frogs perspective is utterly beguiling. ‘Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees” with its stunning jacket design takes us through a diverse yet connected series of essays; among them musings on driftwood artists and contemplations on the economic value of wood; classic pieces about his travels around great woods of the world and a study of the wooden beams of his home, whilst all the time establishing literary leylines to all the great nature writers and thinkers, from Thoreau to Blythe. Finally, published posthumously as an abridged collection of diary entries over the years in the form of one contiguous story of a year, we have ‘Notes From Walnut Tree Farm’
– full of relentless curiosity, sharp eyed in its observation and absolute poetry to read. I was, and remain, deeply sad that he has gone.
‘Doubling Back’ by Linds Cracknell-
Described by Sara Maitland as “probably the most physically present to the reader. These are real walks, walked by a real (and clever) writer; and the interesting things she tells us about feel real to the action of walking”,
Doubling Back is a fascinating and moving account of walking in the footsteps of others. In 1952 Linda Cracknell’s father embarked on a hike through the Swiss Alps. Fifty years later Linda retraces that fateful journey, following the trail of the man she barely knew. This collection of walking tales takes its theme from that pilgrimage. The walks trace the contours of history, following writers, relations and retreading ways across mountains, valleys and coasts formerly trodden by drovers, saints and adventurers. Each walk is about the reaffirming of memories, beliefs and emotions, and especially of the connection that one can have with the past through particular places. Our favourite chapter? A walk from the tiny Speyside village of Newtonnmore up into the nearby Cairngorms along Minigaig Pass used by drovers to avoid the easier toll paying roads nearby. The other ancient route, Coymns Road, started from the bend near Ruthven Barracks also heading for Blair Atholl. Of these two, the Minigaig was the main route to the south, falling out of favour when a party of soldiers froze to death on the route during a winter storm but remained in use until well after Wades Military Road was built. Our own memories of a teenage skiing trip and a stay in a lodge at Newtonmore: the midges, burns, local Speyside distillery and an ill-fated crush on our ski instructor Denis melded perfectly with Cracknell’s narrative, neither detracting from each other.
‘The Wormingford Trilogy’ / Borderlands / A Year at Bottengoms Farm by Ronald Blythe-
The well-known author of Akenfield, Ronald Blythe lives near where he was born and brought up, on the Suffolk-Essex border and remains the lay reader to the parishes of Wormingford, Mount Bures and Little Horkesley. More than a diary, not just nature writing and containing meditations and opinions on history, faith and the nature of man, these books are a set of beautifully observed evocations. They mark the changes wrought by time and man in the changing English countryside and collate his ‘Church Times’ columns in one place too. Blythe can be deliciously waspish one moment, warm and accepting the next and he is as rooted in place and Suffolk time as the river Stour that is so beloved to him. If you love the poetry of John Clare, then Blythe will suit- he is the president of the John Clare society and references the poet often.
‘My Year with Hares’ by Martin Hayward Smith-
Film maker and photographer, Hayward Smith has worked with the BBC and the Discovery Channel among many others and this lovely tome records, through words and stunning photography, his encounters with the hares that populate his part of the world in the middle of Norfolk. He was given access to thousands of acres of private land across the region -prime UK hare habitat, from Holkham, The Barshams to Burnham Market and the resulting animal behaviours, many of which were new to him, are told over chapters in the form of diary entries, categorised by season. As well as hares, Martin documents through text and photographs other wildlife encountered while out in the field. Complete with a foreword by Ray Mears, the amazing images were acquired through the employment of a camera carrying drone and remote camera placed inside a stuffed hare. Also documenting his experience of raising a young leveret he rescued from the jaws of his dog, this is an exquisite work and can be purchased via his website- martinhaywardsmith.com.
‘Four Fields’ by Tim Dee-
A meditation on land and the way humans live on it and live with it ranging from the Enclosures Act to the genocide visited upon Native Americans across the grasslands of their ancestral home, this book examines, in fine, meditative detail, plots of land from the grasslands of the Masai to the barren, poisoned fields surrounding Chernobyl, finally swinging back to the authors own stomping grounds- a small Cambridgeshire fenland field. The theme of birds runs through his musings- the healthy flocks pf larks that range over his own home contrast sadly with the genetic mutations caused to swallows by radiation as they flew over Chernobyl on that fateful day and afterwards. More than 20 per cent have been affected and of course if they had any sentient understanding, their return to the eerily quiet forests that surround the radiation blanketed city would not have happened. When Dee writes of the ‘jewelled toolkit of the Kingfisher’ this dazzling language contrasts all the more with his sombre grief at the damage wrought upon the creatures of the world.
‘The Barley Bird: Notes on the Suffolk Nightingale’ by Richard Mabey-
Full Circle editions publishes beautifully designed and printed hardback books by writers and artists of the region, alongside new editions of classics, all with stunning artwork by some of the region’s best artists. This text by well-known writer Richard Mabey explores the nightingale’s links with Suffolk’s culture and landscape, tracing the bird’s course through lore, tradition and myth and packing the 80 pages with historical and literary tit bits. This is a book that is as much a pleasure to own and touch as it is to read with illustrations by Derrick Greaves- a bright green cover with elegant drawings of birds and oak leaves representing the woodland over which our local nightingales swoop. “Below me, Arger Fen arches like a whale-back across the southern horizon. Everywhere, dead elm stumps rear in silhouette amongst the scrub. The light is extraordinary – luminous, dusty, giving every pale surface the lustre of mother-of-pearl. Mounds of cow parsley and scythed grass glow in the moonbeams like suspended balls of mist.”
Having heard Nightingales sing at Arger Fen adds to the thrill of encountering such dreamy and magical descriptions of a woodland I first encountered as a child and now know so well. This book makes a perfect little gift to read on a plane or train journey or to take on a long walk.
‘Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay’ by George Ewart Evans-
I was recently re-acquainted with this pioneering and classic work at Stowmarket’s Museum of East Anglian Life which devotes a whole room to this and other local classics of countryside and nature writing. As a result I went straight out and bought myself a new copy. Another book that is as much a pleasure to own, its detailed illustrations are by David Gentleman whose work can also be seen in the rescued Roundhouse, once a part of the Bury St Edmunds cattle market where it served as tea house, which now stands in the meadows at the museum. “If you want to find out about something you ask the people who know; the collier, the countryman, you ask the fellows who cut the hay.
” said Ewart Evans and he was correct, this record of life in Blaxhall, a small Suffolk community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, stands alongside Ronald Blythe’s ‘Akenfield’
as an absolute classic of local oral testimony to a life that disappeared under the might of agricultural mechanisation.
A Blackbirds Year by Miles Richardson
“My new year begins when the blackbird returns to song”
says the author and bounded by its song, we find wilderness in places close to home, exploring how mind and nature inhabit one another. Guided by the philosophy of the Victorian naturalist and philosopher Richard Jefferies, Richardson looks at how our minds and emotions interact with, and are affected by, our surroundings through his writings which are in turn informed by his profession as an applied research psychologist. Packed with vivid imagery and a thoughtful, experimental freedom, this is a book to dip in and out of as you ponder the questions it asks of you.
Birds and People by Mark Cocker
Mark Cocker makes it clear that the low priority we afford to nature and the environment and the manner by which we separate our human culture from the natural world is absolute folly and, in this book, seeks to reunite both. A compendium of ornitholology and anthropology, Cocker weaves in history, culture, mythology, language and lore alongside soci-politics in a detailed study whilst sumptuous photographs taken over ten years by award-winning wildlife photographer David Tipling show us the roles that birds play in our lives across every continent. Birds have haunted, obsessed and inspired humans, feeding and working for us, inspiring great art, offering companionship and an early warning system for danger. There are lyrical examples of how birds habits and traits are interpreted by different cultures- the hummingbird that represents rebirth to Peruvians because of its ability to enter a hibernation like torpid state closely mimicking death, interspersed with other more disturbing stories. Our British love of owls (in part down to Harry Potter) is not shared by other countries who regard them as terrifying omens of death, spitting at owls incarcerated in zoos and killing them, a sharp and necessary counterbalance to any tendency to anthropomorphise. It isn’t only Cockers voice either: the prose soars in and out of anecdotes and stories from more than 650 individuals all over the globe. From academics to hunters, their stories cannot be separated from the birds they live alongside.
Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks
Better known for writing ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat’, Sacks has another passion alongside his well documented one for the human mind- ferns and the fern allies, horsetail and selaginella among them. He is fascinated by their ability to grow and survive the most hostile climates and terrains and their constitution, as the three main lineages of vascular plants, all presumably evolved from a Silurian common ancestor. Oaxaca Journal is the account of his trip with a group of fellow enthusiasts to a part of the world that is well populated with these tenacious little plants. Ferns filled Sack’s childhood too, from the awareness that the coal that warmed his house contained the remains of greatly compressed fossilised ferns, to the seemingly filmy, delicate plants that filled the conservatory. Their apparent delicacy gives no clue to the reality- that ferns prevailed where the dinosaur has not and have outlived all manner of extinctions. We are reminded of the place of ferns in art and literature and of their mystery: their reproductive systems lined along the undersides of foliage, of underground furry rhizomatous runners and the hidden secret heart shaped sex contained deep within the plant. Their invisibility was believed to be conferable, inspiring Falstaff to say “we have receipt of fern-seed. We walk invisible.”
A mere 152 pages long, this is a book for jacket pockets, for short journeys, for dipping into and out of.
Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie
Shifting our attention to make us re examine the landscape of our lives, Jamie telescopes us into the more intimate of perspectives: there’s the encounter between Jamie and a cluster of malignant cells under a miscroscope lens in a hospital path lab; the storm grey wink of a petrels corpse, found on a beach and now in a plastic bodybag on her desk; and then out it pans, taking us up to the heavens and the aurora borealis and back down into the depths of the sea, carved up by the binary sleekness of the killer whales as they range along the cliffs, hunting and travelling. As we travel with her, we find that the more isolated the place, the more effort it is to quieten a mind, “clamorous as a goose”
but her writing slowly drills down and cancels out the superfluous row. She is highly attuned to noise, telling us of the mineral silence of an Arctic landscape and the days immediately following the death of her mother which have “a high glassy feel, as though a note was being sung just too high to hear.”
Jamie felt compelled then, to reconnect the weird intimate and inner world of human nature and when it goes wrong (cancer), with the nature talked about at environmental conferences. “I’ve never thought of that as nature”
says the pathologist and alongside him, we too accompany Jamie on a beautiful and challenging redefining of what we
class as nature in fourteen, near perfect little essays.
Last Stand: America’s Virgin Lands by Barbara Kingsolver
Kingsolver’s nature writing sometimes gets overlooked because of her vast talent for fiction and this appreciation of America’s virgin lands, the remnants of the once vast wilderness that has survived man is one of them. Barbara Kingsolver and award-winning photographer Annie Griffiths Belt roam far and wide over the great untamed tracts of land that have somehow slipped through the net. From wetlands, woodlands, coasts, grasslands, and drylands—and the pioneering, often ornery environmentalists who worked to save them- Kingsolver adds her voice to the chorus calling for better protection and veneration of them. She writes. “Here, in these lost corners, are the reserves of species abundance and strength for a continent that once roared with wild grandeur; they are its swan song. This book is about them.”
Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of New York City by Robert Sullivan
From Jimmy Hoffa to the myriad animals and plants that survive and thrive in close proximity to one of the worlds great concrete jungles, the Meadowlands, these man made and undervalued lowlands across the Hudson River from Manhattan are a revelation. This post glacial meltwater landscape extends nearly forty miles from Staten Island’s southern end to the southern end of New York’s Rockland County and is now a brackish, low lying saltwater breckland. Hoffa’s corpse may or may not be buried here alongside the granite corpse of Penn Station in the city after it was razed to the ground and transported here for interrment in this mingling of the disposable and the natural. Sounds not available on a CD emanate from the commingling of traffic on the New Jersey turnpike and the rustling reeds of Snake Hill, a marshy terrain through which he canoes. We accompany him to Waldens Swamp, a boggy festering morass of cigarette butts, rubbish and collapsed plastic bottles which, nonetheless, provides a home for carp, muskrat and wildfowl. The place is a paradox, reflected by the juxtaposition of an egret on a giant pylon and Victor, the mosquito inspector. Victor’s landing counts and detailed zoological knowledge are both used for the purposes of exterminating a creature which sticks two fingers up at all our attempts to control it. In the epigraph, Hopkins says, ”And for all this, nature is never spent. There lives the dearest freshness deep down thing”
and Sullivan ensures that we do not forget this, that nature exists in spite of man and not because of it. What we do about this is our call.
The Wild Trees by Richard Preston
When Steve Sillett was nineteen years old, he tree climbed (with no safety ropes) one of the worlds tallest trees, becoming one of only a handful of people who have climbed them and know of where they can be found. Thirty storeys above the ground, surrounded by the crowns of the giant redwoods all around him, Preston was privy to a hidden eco system that would change the way he viewed the world. Preston seeks to connect these trees and their suroundings with the people that yearn to climb them, weaving personal testimony into a narrative that guides us through the intricate ecology of the canopy and the forest. He explains how the climbers developed technique and how they cope when one of their own ‘takes a dive into a dirt nap’
aka falls off. We meet the bride who very nearly did after she made an error attaching a descender device. Had she not checked it before the ceremony, her lichen decorated gown, redwood wedding ring and geologist minister willing to conduct the ceremony harnessed, in mid air, would have all been in vain. They sound barking mad? Well before the end of this book, the author himself ‘goes native,’ joining the cast of characters in their oddness and ‘redwoodphilia’- a state that truly presents as an addiction to these huge titans of the forest.
The Snow Geese by William Fiennes
Aged twenty five, Fiennes was convalescing from a serious illness in the middle of his postgraduate studies and, during that half life state as recovery approaches, passed his time by rekindling an interest in ornithology.This was inspired by his fathers own interest and Fiennes favourite book from childhood, Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose. Duly compelled to follow a related species, the lesser snow goose, as it migrates between its wintering areas in southern Texas to breeding grounds near Churchill on the shores of Canada’s Hudson Bay, Fiennes set off in pursuit with an ambition to write a book that would be part travelogue, part nature writing and part meditation upon the nature of home. Journey as metaphor is a long established theme and it suits Fiennes book perfectly, acting as bedrock for his musings on what homesickness is, why do we yearn for home and how does this relate to the long and tortuous migration of these beautiful creatures. Full of intricate and finely observed descriptions of the geese, the land over which they pass and their manner as they settle each night at a fresh overnight site, set centuries ago as their compass point, and a transitory place that is, and yet is not, home.
A Study of Blackbirds by David Snow
This beautiful monograph on the birds he studied in the Botanic Garden in Oxford in the 1950s, remains one of the loveliest pieces of nature writing I possess. Snow may have spent a great part of his life in the study of tropical, fruit eating and nectar feeding birds, taking him all over central and south America, accompanied by his wife, but the humble blackbird is as enthralling a specimen as the most brilliantly hued hermit humming bird in his writerly hands. He tells of blackbirds returning to old nests, of older male birds singing lustily in the evenings as night approaches and how successful first time parenthood increases their chances of retaining their mate for a second brood in the same year. Here is Snow on their courtship behaviour: “The displaying bird has a curiously wild, staring appearance.[…] The whole time, with his beak held open, he usually utters a low ‘strangled’ song, made up of chattering alarm notes, rough warbles and subdued snatches of what sounds like true song.”
Snow then goes on to tell us that during mating, other males will jump at the unfortunate male, barreling at him, aiming to knock him ignomiously off his perch and take his place themselves. The cover of this monograph is a linocut by artist Robert Gilmour whose first commercial use of the technique it was and his line drawings in the text offer a clear interpretation of Snows prose.
Apple Acre by Adrian Bell
As a nation, we British are prone to parochialism and an associated sentimentality about the countryside and in some ways, Apple Acre illustrates this. Despite rationing, black outs and austerity during the Second World War, Adrian and his family lived their lives in the Suffolk farming community where they remained for decades, happily absorbed in the daily tasks of rearing their three children and struggling against those farming eternals, the weather and the land. The rhythms are ones that cannot be modified- the seasons that have dominion over planting, cropping, preserving and storing and the church festivals that mark the arrival of each. There is nostalgia for a life that would soon change and a little pomp and circumstance surrounding the reasons why the war was fought. Yet Bell is a realist and warns us that we risk becoming separated from the land and the origins of our food. He advocates recycling and reusing and of retaining a realistic grasp of what you are capable of managing farm wise. He is no idealist and he espouses many of the values that we are now sadly having to relearn.
Gods of the Morning by John Lister-Kaye
For over three decades, John Lister-Kaye has been cpativated by the spectacular seasonal metamorphosis at Aigas, the world-renowned Highlands field centre overlooking a loch and encircled by the untamed glens of Scotland. Gods of the Morning
takes us through a year, following the turn of the seasons and their unpredictability which he fears may be due to global climate change. Birds are his Gods of the Morning and a particular passion: the book opens with a mournful tribute to the blackcap which crashes into his patio windows and subsequently dies. Reading this, we are immediately reminded that the rhythms of nature include death and subsequent regeneration- the corpse of the little bird is placed under a pyracantha bush to return to the earth. His descriptions are vital: the blackcap with its “cap as dark and glossy as liquorice”; the winter sun “power vanquished, enfeebled by the years reeling”; the wood mice with underbellies ” as white as the Rose of York” and tails flowing “with all the elegance and style of Elizabethan calligraphy.” Lister-Kaye reminds us to seek out that lost connection with the natural world and embrace its rhythms.
The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy
“I could smell it myself, honey sweet but with the faintest hint of a sour edge. Drawing them in, the wondrous visitants” writes McCarthy as he describes his first encounters with the winged jewels as they fed on the buddleja which populated every crack of post war Britain. Arguing that we cannot be fully human if we are separate from nature and the intense joy it can bring, McCarthy proposes this joy as a defence of a natural world which is ever more threatened, and which, he argues, is inadequately served by the two defences put forward hitherto: sustainable development and the recognition of ecosystem services.Drawing on a wealth of memorable experiences from a lifetime of watching and thinking about wildlife and natural landscapes, The Moth Snowstorm not only presents a new way of looking at the world around us, but effortlessly blends with it a remarkable and moving memoir of childhood trauma from which love of the natural world emerged. It is a powerful, timely, and wholly original book which comes at a time when nature has never needed it more.
Common Ground by Rob Cowen
I’ve always been interested in the edges of things, whether that be a person, a landscape or a subject and in Common Ground, Cowen takes us to a scrap of land near Harrogate when he moves to the area from London, itself a rich source of scrubby edges and half crossed- out margins. The gift of a second-hand Ordnance Survey map helped him find his imperfect Valhalla: “strange, scrubby spaces in the shadow of a thousand houses where human and nature intermesh. Blurry collisions of meadow, pylon, wood, river and old railway, of industry and infrastructure”, or, as the Celts say, a ‘thin place’ whose history fans up and out. Thus follows a kind of lyrical portrait, similar to what AA Gill once said, of what might result if a place interviewed itself. It is beguiling and compelling and doesn’t depict the natural world as other and for that reason, I recommend it highly.