I adore books about the natural world, and find them both calming and peaceful to read – something which is very important, given the current state of the world. Stephen Rutt is a young naturalist who has published two non-fiction books; Wintering: A Season with Geese is his second.
Wintering was selected as one of the Times‘ Books of the Year 2019, and has been very highly praised. Jon Dunn in BBC Wildlife magazine writes: ‘Rutt’s dreamy prose is as cool and elegant as the season he charts’, and the Times calls it a ‘poignant testament to how we can find peace in the rhythms of the natural world.’ Waterstones calls it an ‘understated gem’.
In the autumn, Rutt swapped his life in Essex for a house near the Solway Firth in Dumfries, ‘a little town tucked away in the corner of Scotland, barely beyond the English border’. As he and his partner were settling in their new home, and their new country, thousands of pink-footed geese were also arriving from the Arctic Circle, to winter in Scotland. Their arrival is heralded each year as ‘one of the most evocative and powerful harbingers of the season.’
In his new surroundings, Rutt cannot help but notice geese; they seem to be everywhere around him. Although he had little curiosity regarding them before – he notes in his introduction that, in mid-September during his move, ‘I am not interested in geese yet’ – he embarks on an ‘extraordinary odyssey’, in which he ‘traces the lives and habits of the most common species of goose in the British Isles and explores the place they have in our culture and our history.’
In Wintering, Rutt has created what the book’s blurb hails ‘a vivid tour of the landscapes they inhabit and a celebration of the short days, varied weathers and long nights of the season.’ The author finds himself ‘celebrating the beauty of winter, when we share our home with these large, startling and garrulous birds.’
Wintering has been split into six different chapters, each of which corresponds to one of the most common species of geese in the United Kingdom. To be specific, these are the Pink-footed, Barnacle, Greylag, Brent, White-fronted, and Bean. In the book’s introduction, he notes that at the turn of winter: ‘Five wild species will head to Britain for the winter: a relative land of plenty, and gentler weather, respite from a north that is, still, ice-bloated and snowbound for the winter.’
Rutt had been a birder for a long time – ‘almost half my life,’ he says – but geese only became a fascination once he moved to Scotland: ‘Their habit of always just being there, their familiarity, bred apathy,’ he admits. His winter of geese begins on the 23rd of September, with a ‘simple arrow of birds as distant as the hills, heading south through the sunset.’ It is filled, then, with ‘wild half-count, half-estimates at the numbers passing overhead, between the fields north of the town and the Solway Firth to the south.’
Throughout Wintering, Rutt charts his journey into winter, and into his fascination with the geese: ‘I am falling more deeply for geese on a daily basis. Although I am told the winter won’t always be like this – they are wild geese after all, predictably unpredictable – the regular skeins flying over are captivating me. Sinking deep inside me… In a new place they are making me feel, tentatively, at home.’
From its very first page, where Rutt writes: ‘Autumn begins as a season for movement, and ends with everything changed’, one cannot help but be charmed by his pitch-perfect prose. He has such an awareness of the seasons, and of the birds which populate them. Early on, he writes: ‘Birds penetrate my year: time passes constantly but birds are the grammar of its passing, they give a rough working order to the months. I have my totems: the first singing chiffchaff at the beginning of spring and the first screeching swift at its end. The silencing of song at the end of summer; the disappearance of the swifts and the arrival of autumn.’
Rutt’s descriptions provide scenes so vivid that they are almost tangible to the reader: ‘Suddenly – geese, pushed over by the weather, heading to the Solway. A chaos of pink-footed geese, stretching across the horizon. There are thousands, the skeins straggling, struggling without a set order, flying in all directions. Lead geese swapping with others. Individuals peeling off and joining other groups, geese like a kaleidoscope of panic. Their honking sounds urgent. Wings labouring, growing damp in the rain, energy sapped by the wind.’ Later is this: ‘A hare basks in the middle of a field, in front of a dense barnacle goose flock, their monochrome plumage burning bright in the sun. The silver flanks dazzle, the white and black bars on their backs are like sharp light and thick shadow.’
Throughout, Rutt has sprinkled some really interesting facts about geese alongside his own observations. He writes, for instance, that the Bean goose is now so rare in the county of Dumfries and Galloway that ‘if you see one you have to write a description of it for a panel of four men to adjudicate on whether you are correct.’ He also writes about the fluctuation of population sizes, which are largely due to indiscriminate hunting, and the subsequent banning of this practice.
Throughout Wintering, Rutt discusses many elements which surround geese and their place in the world – their history, different migratory patterns, the uses for their meat and feathers, the domestication of various species, and geese in art and literature. He also touches upon conservation in many of the chapters which make up the book.
It was a wonderful thing, to revisit Scotland alongside Rutt. Although he lives in and describes a part of Scotland which I have never been to, having lived in Glasgow for three years, I recognised the often stark beauty of the landscapes which he writes about: ‘It is a bleak, dreich day: October by calendar, deep into winter by spirit. I can only faintly see the first line of hills. The trees reduced to pale grey shadows, their shapes indistinct in the weather.’
Wintering is a real delight, particularly to snuggle down with on a cool autumn or winter evening. It is clear that Rutt has such an interest in his chosen subjects; indeed, he writes: ‘My love of geese might be recent, but it connects me with a human fascination extending back for millennia.’