The Book Trail: Nature

I am beginning this edition of The Book Trail with an excellent book on the naming of birds, by Stephen Moss, of which I have a review coming on Monday.  As ever, I have compiled this list with the help of the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads.

35997821._sx318_1. Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names by Stephen Moss
‘The words we use to name birds are some of the most lyrical and evocative in the English language. They also tell incredible stories: of epic expeditions, fierce battles between rival ornithologists, momentous historical events and touching romantic gestures. Through fascinating encounters with birds, and the rich cast of characters who came up with their names, inMrs Moreau’s Warbler Stephen Moss takes us on a remarkable journey through time. From when humans and birds first shared the earth to our fraught present-day coexistence, Moss shows how these names reveal as much about ourselves and our relationship with the natural world as about the creatures they describe.’

2. Tamed: Ten Species That Changed Our World by Alice Roberts 33952842._sy475_
For hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors depended on wild plants and animals for survival. They were hunter-gatherers, consummate foraging experts, but taking the world as they found it. Then a revolution occurred – our ancestors’ interaction with other species changed. They began to tame them. The human population boomed; civilization began.  In her new book, Tamed, Alice Roberts uncovers the amazing deep history of ten familiar species with incredible wild pasts: dogs, apples and wheat; cattle; potatoes and chickens; rice, maize, and horses – and, finally, humans. Alice Roberts not only reveals how becoming part of our world changed these animals and plants, but shows how they became our allies, essential to the survival and success of our own species – and to our future.  Enlightening, wide-ranging and endlessly fascinating, Tamed is an epic story, encompassing hundreds of thousands of years of history and archaeology alongside cutting-edge genetics and anthropology. Yet it is also a deeply personal journey that will change how we see ourselves and the species on which we have left our mark.’

39667681._sy475_3. The Glorious Life of the Oak by John Lewis-Stempel
‘The oak is our most beloved and most common tree. It has roots that stretch back to all the old European cultures but Britain has more ancient oaks than all the other European countries put together. More than half the ancient oaks in the world are in Britain.  Many of our ancestors – the Angles, the Saxons, the Norse – came to the British Isles in longships made of oak. For centuries the oak touched every part of a Briton’s life – from cradle to coffin It was oak that made the ‘wooden walls’ of Nelson’s navy, and the navy that allowed Britain to rule the world. Even in the digital Apple age, the real oak has resonance – the word speaks of fortitude, antiquity, pastoralism.  The Glorious Life of the Oak explores our long relationship with this iconic tree; it considers the life-cycle of the oak, the flora and fauna that depend on the oak, the oak as medicine, food and drink, where Britain’s mightiest oaks can be found, and it tells of oak stories from folklore, myth and legend.

4. The Peregrine by J.A. Baker 1071726
From autumn to spring, J.A. Baker set out to track the daily comings and goings of a pair of peregrine falcons across the flat fen lands of eastern England. He followed the birds obsessively, observing them in the air and on the ground, in pursuit of their prey, making a kill, eating, and at rest, activities he describes with an extraordinary fusion of precision and poetry. And as he continued his mysterious private quest, his sense of human self slowly dissolved, to be replaced with the alien and implacable consciousness of a hawk.  It is this extraordinary metamorphosis, magical and terrifying, that these beautifully written pages record.

1344371._sy475_5. Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin
‘In Deakin’s glorious meditation on wood, the “fifth element”as it exists in nature, in our culture, and in our souls the reader accompanies Deakin through the woods of Britain, Europe, Kazakhstan, and Australia in search of what lies behind man’s profound and enduring connection with trees.  Deakin lives in forest shacks, goes “coppicing” in Suffolk, swims beneath the walnut trees of the Haut-Languedoc, and hunts bushplums with Aboriginal women in the outback. Along the way, he ferrets out the mysteries of woods, detailing the life stories of the timber beams composing his Elizabethan house and searching for the origin of the apple.  As the world’s forests are whittled away, Deakin’s sparkling prose evokes woodlands anarchic with life, rendering each tree as an individual, living being. At once a traveler’s tale and a splendid work of natural history, Wildwood reveals, amid the world’s marvelous diversity, that which is universal in human experience.’

6. Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination by Robert Macfarlane 839157
‘Macfarlane is both a mountaineer and a scholar. Consequently we get more than just a chronicle of climbs. He interweaves accounts of his own adventurous ascents with those of pioneers such as George Mallory, and in with an erudite discussion of how mountains became such a preoccupation for the modern western imagination.  The book is organised around a series of features of mountaineering–glaciers, summits, unknown ranges–and each chapter explores the scientific, artistic and cultural discoveries and fashions that accompanied exploration. The contributions of assorted geologists, romantic poets, landscape artists, entrepreneurs, gallant amateurs and military cartographers are described with perceptive clarity. The book climaxes with an account of Mallory’s fateful ascent on Everest in 1924, one of the most famous instances of an obsessive pursuit. Macfarlane is well-placed to describe it since it is one he shares.’

8213557. The Pine Barrens by John McPhee
Most people think of New Jersey as a suburban-industrial corridor that runs between New York and Philadelphia. Yet in the low center of the state is a near wilderness, larger than most national parks, which has been known since the seventeenth century as the Pine Barrens.  The term refers to the predominant trees in the vast forests that cover the area and to the quality of the soils below, which are too sandy and acid to be good for farming. On all sides, however, developments of one kind or another have gradually moved in, so that now the central and integral forest is reduced to about a thousand square miles. Although New Jersey has the heaviest population density of any state, huge segments of the Pine Barrens remain uninhabited. The few people who dwell in the region, the “Pineys,” are little known and often misunderstood. Here McPhee uses his uncanny skills as a journalist to explore the history of the region and describe the people “and their distinctive folklore” who call it home.

8. The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell 11797368
In this wholly original book, biologist David Haskell uses a one-square-meter patch of old-growth Tennessee forest as a window onto the entire natural world. Visiting it almost daily for one year to trace nature’s path through the seasons, he brings the forest and its inhabitants to vivid life.  Each of this book’s short chapters begins with a simple observation: a salamander scuttling across the leaf litter; the first blossom of spring wildflowers. From these, Haskell spins a brilliant web of biology and ecology, explaining the science that binds together the tiniest microbes and the largest mammals and describing the ecosystems that have cycled for thousands—sometimes millions—of years. Each visit to the forest presents a nature story in miniature as Haskell elegantly teases out the intricate relationships that order the creatures and plants that call it home.  Written with remarkable grace and empathy, The Forest Unseen is a grand tour of nature in all its profundity. Haskell is a perfect guide into the world that exists beneath our feet and beyond our backyards.

Which of these have you read?  Which are your favourite books about the natural world?

10 thoughts on “The Book Trail: Nature

  1. I love books about the natural world. I have Wildwood on my shelf. I have read Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel, which was great. Wilding by Isabella Tree was one of my favourite books I read last year. Also, Buzz by Thor Hanson (about bees) was really good and Otters’ Tale. Anyway, there are a few on here I don’t know, so I will check those out 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment, Lola! ‘Meadowland’ is high on my TBR, and I love the sound of ‘Buzz’ and ‘Otters’ Tale’. I’m really disappointed that I enjoy Isabella Tree’s book very much; I was certain that I would before I began it.

  2. Macfarlane is excellent, as is John Lewis-Stemple. I have not read Deakin but he has long been on my list, really must get around to his books.

  3. I have read the Roger Deakin “Wildwood” and agree it is excellent. I read much about the natural world, but perhaps most of the ones would be regarded as too technical to fit in the category you are discussing here. One that does I think fit your theme, though it may be very hard to obtain in the original hardback, is “Riviera Nature Notes” by G.E.C. Casey (1903) which is dedicated to the creator of that amazing garden La Mortola, Sir Thomas Hanbury. It is available from “The Internet Archive”. Very much of its time and sadly much of the Riviera nature that he describes has vanished or is much degraded, but I commend it to you nonetheless.

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