2

‘Goshawk Summer: A New Forest Season Like No Other’ by James Aldred ****

The quite excellent naturalist Helen Macdonald, whose two books to date rank amongst my favourite nature books, calls James Aldred’s Goshawk Summer: A New Forest Season Like No Other ‘magical and transporting’. If I wasn’t already fascinated in Aldred’s subject – the goshawk – Macdonald’s quote alone would have drawn me to pick this up.

Aldred is the author of one previous book, entitled The Man Who Climbs Trees, and has worked as a wildlife cameraman and documentary filmmaker since 1997. He has worked with the likes of the legendary David Attenborough, and has won awards for his work. As one would expect, for a filmmaker skilled particularly in filming from heights using aerial equipment, Aldred has worked all over the world. In early 2020, he was located in East Africa following a family of cheetahs.

Then, Covid spread, and lockdown happened in Britain. Aldred was granted a special dispensation to film, and spent much of the first period of lockdown in the south of England’s New Forest, following a pair of goshawks as they hatched three chicks. Aldred was often the only one in the woods; this, he says, gave him ‘a once in a lifetime opportunity to keep filming’. He stationed himself in a treetop hide between April and June, filming the goshawks: ‘From up here the wood became a three-dimensional landscape of dense foliage and distant glimpses. The understorey below was an open colonnade of vertical trunks, but level with the nest the branches closed in and I saw corridors of approach that remained invisible from the ground. A labyrinth of shifting parallax. For a predatory bird able to curl, tuck and swerve through the smallest of gaps, that discreet canopy would be paradise.’

Goshawks are unpredictable birds; it can be incredibly difficult to locate them, as they do not like to be seen. Aldred comments: ‘Some are skittish; others brazen. Some like low and stay put; others slope off the nest and melt away the moment anyone steps foot in their wood.’ They more often than not nest in the same place, returning year after year; they can use the same physical nest for up to a decade.

Alongside his documentary filming, Aldred decided to keep a written record – a field diary – about his experiences. He spent an extended stretch of time in a place so devoid of people, but filled to the brim with different species, some of them rare. He writes, early on, ‘Amidst the fragility and the fear, there was silver moonlight, tumbling fox cubs, calling curlew and, of course, the searing goshawks.’ This record became Goshawk Summer. Goshawks are, of course, the focus – both of the book and of his documentary – but he also writes about other species which he comes across: foxes, curlews, pipits, and pine martens, to name but four.

The New Forest is a place which Aldred knows intimately. He speaks, very early on, of his deep affection for the region: ‘To this day, part of my heart remains in the forest, dwelling in the quiet rides and woods of my childhood. Even the smell of the place stirs deep currents of longing within me.’ Later, he discusses that although he knows stretches of the woods as well as he can, and has such good memories of cooking stews with his friends, and sleeping outside as a teenager, there are other parts of the New Forest which he knows not at all.

I was struck throughout by the power and visceral beauty of Aldred’s prose. He writes almost like a poet, placing such emphasis on using precise and beautiful vocabulary. Goshawk Summer begins in the following, quite breathtaking way: ‘A loud call shatters the peace. Not the blunt mewing of a buzzard, but the piercing cry of something infinitely more predatory: a wild goshawk. It echoes through the woods around me. Strident, commanding, forceful. A regal sound for a regal bird.’ He continues: ‘The goshawk. Steel grey, the colour of chainmail. Sharp as a sword. A medieval bird for a medieval forest. A timeless scene.’ Throughout, Aldred is highly adapted to, and aware of, his surroundings – whatever they may be.

There is something so meditative about nature memoirs written during, or since, lockdown. Goshawk Summer is no different; in fact, I would go as far to say that it is the most thoughtful one which I have read to date. Along with showing joy at the way in which nature flourished in the New Forest during the first lockdown – ‘Nature’s been given the space to unfurl her wings and they are shimmering’ – Aldred laments about the behaviour of many people when the first restrictions were lifted, destroying fragile habitats, and leaving the national park strewn with litter. The pandemic is never far away from his commentary, but he finds solace in the natural world, and having a focus during what was an incredibly strange and difficult time.

I highly appreciated the opportunity which Goshawk Summer gave me; to read a book from a perspective which I haven’t been immersed within to this extent before. I love watching documentaries about wildlife cameramen, and I am in awe at the sheer amount of time and patience which it takes to film just one or two scenes. Often, though, these are relative snippets which have been tacked onto a longer documentary. Being able to read Aldred’s expansive work, and his musings about his own filming, is a privilege. I found it fascinating to learn about the many preparations which he has to make before he even begins to film, such as locating a suitable filming site, whilst having a constant awareness of others close by in case something goes wrong. It is a much more intricate process than one expects.

Goshawk Summer is such a valuable addition to the canon of nature writing. Aldred has an excellent attention to detail, and I can only hope that he brings out another book very soon. This expansive and honest memoir, from a markedly different perspective, is sure to be of interest to so many readers, and I cannot recommend it enough.

6

The Book Trail: Nature and Non-Fiction Edition

I am beginning this latest Book Trail with one of my favourite works of non-fiction from recent years – Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. As ever, I have used the Goodreads’ ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool in order to come up with this list. As ever, please let me know which of these books you have read, and which whet your appetite!

1. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
‘Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator. When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer—Helen had been captivated by hawks since childhood—she’d never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk. But in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White’s chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her” tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity and changed her life. Heart-wrenching and humorous, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast, with a parallel examination of a legendary writer’s eccentric falconry. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.’

2. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane
‘Robert Macfarlane travels Britain’s ancient paths and discovers the secrets of our beautiful, underappreciated landscape. Following the tracks, holloways, drove-roads and sea paths that form part of a vast ancient network of routes criss-crossing the British Isles and beyond, Robert Macfarlane discovers a lost world – a landscape of the feet and the mind, of pilgrimage and ritual, of stories and ghosts; above all of the places and journeys which inspire and inhabit our imaginations.’

3. Notes from Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin
‘When Roger Deakin died in August 2006, his death was considered by many to be a great loss to literature. “Notes From Walnut Tree Farm” collects together the jottings, musings and observations with which he filled a series of notebooks for the last six years of his life. In this beautiful illustrated collection, descriptions of walks on Mellis Common and thoughts on the importance of nature sit side by side with memories of the past and musings about literature, while perfectly rendered observations of the tiny, missable visual details of everyday life are skilfully woven with a gentle, wise philosophy. Organized into twelve months of impressions, the notes reveal a passionate but gentle character and his extraordinary, restless curiosity. Capturing Deakin’s unique turn of phrase and inspired use of language, and infused throughout with the magically meditative tranquility of Walnut Tree Farm, this is a charming introduction to one of the most important of modern nature writers, or the perfect follow-up to “Wildwood” and “Waterlog”.’

4. The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck
‘In 1940 Steinbeck sailed in a sardine boat with his great friend the marine biologist, Ed Ricketts, to collect marine invertebrates from the beaches of the Gulf of California. The expedition was described by the two men in Sea of Cortez, published in 1941. The day-to-day story of the trip is told here in the Log, which combines science, philosophy and high-spirited adventure.’

5. Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings by Valerie Trouet
‘Children around the world know that to tell how old a tree is, you count its rings. Few people, however, know that research into tree rings has also made amazing contributions to our understanding of Earth’s climate history and its influences on human civilization over the past 2,000 years. In her captivating new book, Tree Story, Valerie Trouet reveals how the seemingly simple and relatively familiar concept of counting tree rings has inspired far-reaching scientific breakthroughs that illuminate the complex interactions between nature and people. Trouet, a leading tree-ring scientist, takes us out into the field, from remote African villages to radioactive Russian forests, offering readers an insider’s look at tree-ring research, a discipline formally known as dendrochronology. Tracing her own professional journey while exploring dendrochronology’s history and applications, Trouet describes the basics of how tell-tale tree cores are collected and dated with ring-by-ring precision, explaining the unexpected and momentous insights we’ve gained from the resulting samples. Blending popular science, travelogue, and cultural history, Tree Story highlights exciting findings of tree-ring research, including the fate of lost pirate treasure, successful strategies for surviving California wildfire, the secret to Genghis Khan’s victories, the connection between Egyptian pharaohs and volcanoes, and even the role of olives in the fall of Rome. These fascinating tales are deftly woven together to show us how dendrochronology sheds light on global climate dynamics and uncovers the clear links between humans and our leafy neighbors. Trouet delights us with her dedication to the tangible appeal of studying trees, a discipline that has taken her to austere and beautiful landscapes around the globe and has enabled scientists to solve long-pondered mysteries of Earth and its human inhabitants.’

6. Things the Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Everett
‘How does one young man survive the deaths of his entire family and manage to make something worthwhile of his life? In Things The Grandchildren Should Know Mark Oliver Everett tells the story of what it’s like to grow up the insecure son of a genius in a wacky Virginia Ice Storm-like family. Left to run wild with his sister, his father off in some parallel universe of his own invention, Everett’s upbringing was ‘ridiculous, sometimes tragic and always unsteady’. But somehow he manages to not only survive his crazy upbringing and ensuing tragedies; he makes something of his life, striking out on a journey to find himself by channelling his experiences into his, eventually, critically acclaimed music with the Eels. But it’s not an easy path. Told with surprising candour, Things The Grandchildren Should Know is an inspiring and remarkable story, full of hope, humour and wry wisdom.’

7. Close Encounters with Humankind by Sang-Hee Lee
‘What can fossilized teeth tell us about our ancient ancestors’ life expectancy? Did farming play a problematic role in the history of human evolution? And what do we have in common with Neanderthals? In this captivating bestseller, Close Encounters with Humankind, paleoanthropologist Sang-Hee Lee explores our greatest evolutionary questions from new and unexpected angles. Through a series of entertaining, bite-sized chapters that combine anthropological insight with cutting-edge science, we gain fresh perspectives into our first hominin ancestors and ways to challenge perceptions about the traditional progression of evolution. With Lee as our guide, we discover that we indeed have always been a species of continuous change.’

8. The Ghost Orchard by Helen Humphreys
‘For readers of H is for Hawk and The Frozen ThamesThe Ghost Orchard is award-winning author Helen Humphreys’ fascinating journey into the secret history of an iconic food. Delving deep into the storied past of the apple in North America, Humphreys explores the intricate link between agriculture, settlement, and human relationships. With her signature insight and exquisite prose, she brings light to such varied topics as how the apple first came across the Atlantic Ocean with a relatively unknown Quaker woman long before the more famed “Johnny Appleseed”; how bountiful Indigenous orchards were targeted to be taken over or eradicated by white settlers and their armies; how the once-17,000 varietals of apple cultivated were catalogued by watercolour artists from the United States’ Department of Pomology;  how apples wove into the life and poetry of Robert Frost; and how Humphreys’ own curiosity was piqued by the Winter Pear Pearmain, believed to be the world’s best tasting apple, which she found growing beside an abandoned cottage not far from her home. In telling this hidden history, Humphreys writes movingly about the experience of her research, something she undertook as one of her closest friends was dying. The result is a book that is both personal and universal, combining engaging storytelling, historical detail, and deep emotional insight.’

3

‘The Eternal Season: Ghosts of Summers Past, Present and Future’ by Stephen Rutt ****

The Eternal Season: Ghosts of Summers Past, Present and Future is naturalist Stephen Rutt’s third book. His newest effort is set against the background of the pandemic, which has so affected us all since the beginning of 2020. As with many of us, it stopped Rutt’s plans in their tracks, preventing him from travelling across Britain’s woods and forests, and following warblers, the intended initial focus of this book. A Suffolk-born resident of the Scottish market town of Dumfries, Rutt spent the first few months of the pandemic living with his partner’s family, during an ‘enforced stay’ in rural Bedfordshire.

Like many of us, Rutt turned to the constancy of nature during the first summer of the pandemic – and he found anything but. Wherever he was physically during this year, he spent his time noting ‘the abundance teeming in our hedgerows, marshlands and woodlands’. In his close communication with the nature around him, though, he began to notice ‘disturbances to the traditional rhythms of the natural world: the wrong birds singing at the wrong time, disruption to habitats and breeding, [and] the myriad ways climate change is causing a derangement of the seasons.’ What came out of lockdown for Rutt was The Eternal Season, in which he both celebrates the summer season, and observes the ‘delicate series of disorientations that we may not always notice.’

In his introduction, Rutt writes: ‘Birds have always been the focus of my passion for nature and they always will be. But the summer does not belong to them alone; there is a full spectrum of life to consider that can seem largely absent from the winter months: the butterflies and dragonflies that add colour to the days; the moths that haunt the warm nights and the swooping bats that pick them off; the unforgettable arachnids and amphibians that lurk in ignored corners.’ He goes on, commenting: ‘Our summer wildlife is the filter through which we can see what’s really happening in our seasons’, as it tends to have a far-reaching knock-on effect. As Rutt sets out, ‘A bird you look at is no longer just a bird but one of an intertwined series of forces, capable of being expressed as statistics, that explain the terribly restless, indecent state of the world.’

One of the real strengths of The Eternal Season regards the way in which Rutt writes of his surroundings. On his ‘allowed daily exercise’, as he walks in a Bedfordshire wood, he recounts: ‘A muntjac disappeared through a brief blizzard of blossom, driven from the blackthorn by the breeze. Cowslips and primroses and their hybrid, the false oxlips, spangled the edge of the track with stars of lemon and butter. Leafwards, I slipped into a green hypnosis.’

As a ‘locked-down naturalist’ trying to make the best of things, he turns to the Internet, exploring by way of Google and Ordnance Survey maps. He writes at length about the challenges climate change has already wrought in Britain, and muses about what it may mean for our native and visiting species in the future. He makes one continually aware of ways in which things are changing, and how something which alters somewhere else in the world can have such a serious knock-on effect in Britain. Everything is connected, and the ruin of one thing could bring about the ruin of all. Throughout, Rutt quotes the results of surveys, as well as a wealth of other naturalists, and even novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Each chapter here focuses on a single species, from the little owl to the natterjack toad. He notices the species around him changing, along with their abundance. Throughout, there are stark warnings, and mixed feelings. On the walks which he takes around the Bedfordshire countryside, he comments: ‘It was the first cuckoo I had seen in two years. The first yellow wagtail in three, corn bunting in four… And this feeling is incredibly complicated for me. I’m excited, as birds always make me; I’m delighted to be seeing these species when I had begun to wonder if I would ever see them again. But here is the kicker: it’s one pair of yellow wagtails, one individual cuckoo, a few pairs of corn bunting… The species might be here but their numbers are low, the birds being spread even thinner. And it feels as if I’m writing my own archive of loss, walking through a living museum before it’s sealed off behind the glass case of history, a display of the future dead and gone.’

Rutt’s prose is intelligent and accessible, and it is clear to see that he is a rising star in the world of nature writing. The Eternal Season is a book for every single person who has sought out the nature around them in the last, strange year; who has mused upon the species which they have seen in their local parks; and who are more aware than ever of which species exist, and which thrive, around them. Rutt is acutely aware of what we may stand to lose, and what may have been lost already. A feeling of hope, however, suffuses the whole – and what more do we need after the last year, but hope?

4

‘At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond’ *****

I visited Hampstead Heath for the first time on a blustery wet day in September. Here, I spent a few peaceful moments watching two women with glorious jewel-toned swimming hats gliding along in the Ladies’ Pond. It was cheering that they were undeterred by the weather, particularly as I battled to keep my umbrella up…

At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond collects together fourteen essays, each of which was written especially for this book. I already love the work of some of the contributors – Esther Freud, Margaret Drabble, Jessica J. Lee – but there were a handful whose writing I had not read before. I love thematic collections such as this; they bring together so many different views on one particular topic or location – in this case, a designated pond for women to swim in, in a patch of quiet in the heart of London.

In At the Pond, we are given the perspectives of fourteen different writers, all of whom have swum there. Some of these women are regulars; others have been just once or twice. The book combines ‘personal reminiscence with reflections on the history of the place over the years and through the changing seasons.’

The Pond was established in the late-seventeenth century as a freshwater reservoir, fed by the subterranean River Fleet. It was opened to the public for bathing in 1925, and joins around thirty freshwater ponds dotted across Hampstead Heath, only three of which can be swum in. One of these is solely for men, but there is also a ‘mixed Pond’ which women are able to visit.

‘On a hot day,’ says the book’s blurb, ‘thousands of swimmers from eight to eighty-plus can be found waiting to take a dip before sunbathing in the adjoining meadow. As summer turns to autumn and then winter, the Pond is still visited by a large number of hardy regulars in high-vis hats, many of whom have been swimming here for decades.’

Each of the authors mentions the nature of the place, and the connection which swimming in the pond brings with its surroundings. The pond teems with ‘abundant wildlife – from dragonflies, moorhens and kingfishers above the water’s surface, to swan mussels, roach and carp beneath’. Some of the contributors also touch upon its history, and its rich literary heritage. Rich descriptions pepper each of these essays.

In her essay entitled ‘Cold Shocks and Mud Beards’, Esther Freud writes: ‘No men, children, radios, dogs – the sign on the gate warned, and as I walked down the path beside the sloping meadow, and stood on the wooden deck above the mud brown pond, I had the unusual sense that I was exquisitely lucky to be female.’ She goes on to comment: ‘There is so much space here. So much peace. And above the birdsong the only sound is the hum of chat and laughter and the occasional scream of someone new braving the cold.’

Lou Stoppard writes that ‘the water is silky. It’s thicker than other water. It sticks to the skin, laps your body and holds you, suspended. You cut through it, as if stirring cream.’ Jessica J. Lee – whose memoir on swimming, Turning, is a book which I very much enjoyed – comments: ‘Wet already, I slipped into the black and swam a small lap, my breath catching on the sharp edges of the cold.’ Lee worked on a doctoral dissertation about the Heath, ‘exploring ideas of beauty and history with the Pond’s winter swimmers.’ I can only hope that this is published, and soon!

Nina Mingya Powles’ essay is made up of a series of vignettes, beginning with the swimming she looked forward to as a child, whilst in Malaysia. She notes: ‘I am many bodies of water, strange and shifting’. Margaret Drabble writes about the heritage of the Ladies’ Pond: ‘The lifeguards tell me that the ponds are more valued now than ever, as London entertainments grow ever more expensive, and our need for some contact with the natural world more imperative. They are well protected by those who love them. It is a small miracle that they have survived so well for so long.’

One of my favourite elements of this collection was the way in which it spans every season; indeed, it is split into four sections, which denote each season. Swimming is something which I always love reading about – and doing, although I must admit that I am more of a fair weather woman – and to be able to view the same place in so many different weathers was wonderful. I shivered slightly when a couple of the authors wrote about the lifeguards having to break the surface ice during the winter, and the way in which around 150 hardy women still decide to swim regularly during the season.

At the Pond is a real delight. Almost every one of these essays is overwhelming positive, and each offers recollections of joy and warmth. The authors are united in the sense of community fostered at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, and in the deep sense of peace and wellbeing which they have found within its waters.

The essay collection is beautiful and evocative, and has such a charm about it. At the Pond is rather a moving tribute to a haven which can be found in one of the busiest cities in the world. The collection is lovely to dip in and out of – much like the Pond itself, I imagine.

4

Books for Springtime

I have always been a seasonal reader to an extent – particularly, it must be said, when it comes to Christmas-themed books – but I feel that my reading choices have been aligned more with the seasons in the last tumultuous year. Connecting my reading with the natural world around me has given me a sense of calm whilst the world has reached such a point of crisis, and picking up a seasonally themed book has become rather a soothing task. With this in mind, I wanted to collect together eight books which I feel will be perfect picks for spring, and which I hope you will want to include in your own reading journeys.

These books are best enjoyed with hot cross buns, birdsong, and long walks in the countryside

1. The Nature of Spring by Jim Crumley

‘Spring marks the genesis of nature’s year. As Earth’s northern hemisphere tilts ever more towards the life-giving sun, the icy, dark days of winter gradually yield to the new season’s intensifying light and warmth. Nature responds… For our flora and fauna, for the very land itself, this is the time of rebirth and rejuvenation – although, as Jim Crumley attests, spring in the Northlands is no Wordsworthian idyll. Climate chaos and its attendant unpredictable weather brings high drama to the lives of the animals he observes – the badgers, seals and foxes, the seabirds and the raptors. But there is also a wild, elemental beauty to the highlands and islands, a sense of nature in animation during this, the most transformative of seasons. Jim chronicles it all: the wonder, the tumult, the spectacle of spring.’

2. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

‘When orphaned Mary Lennox comes to live at her uncle’s great house on the Yorkshire Moors, she finds it full of secrets. The mansion has nearly one hundred rooms, and her uncle keeps himself locked up. And at night, she hears the sound of crying down one of the long corridors. The gardens surrounding the large property are Mary’s only escape. Then, Mary discovers a secret garden, surrounded by walls and locked with a missing key. One day, with the help of two unexpected companions, she discovers a way in. Is everything in the garden dead, or can Mary bring it back to life?’

3. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

‘A discreet advertisement in ‘The Times’, addressed to ‘Those who Apppreciate Wisteria and Sunshine…’ is the impetus for a revelatory month for four very different women. High above the bay on the Italian Riviera stands San Salvatore, a mediaeval castle. Beckoned to this haven are Mrs. Wilkins, Mrs Arbuthnot, Mrs Fisher and Lady Caroline Dester, each quietly craving a respite. Lulled by the Mediterranean spirit, they gradually shed their skins and discover a harmony each of them has longed for but never known. First published in 1922 and reminscient of ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’, this delightful novel is imbued with the descriptive power and light-hearted irreverence for which Elizabeth von Arnin is renowned.’

4. Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively

‘Penelope Lively has always been a keen gardener. This book is partly a memoir of her own life in gardens: the large garden at home in Cairo where she spent most of her childhood, her grandmother’s garden in a sloping Somerset field, then two successive Oxfordshire gardens of her own, and the smaller urban garden in the North London home she lives in today. It is also a wise, engaging and far-ranging exploration of gardens in literature, from Paradise Lost to Alice in Wonderland, and of writers and their gardens, from Virginia Woolf to Philip Larkin.’

5. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

‘”Now, my dears,” said old Mrs Rabbit one morning, “you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden.” But what does Peter Rabbit do? Beatrix Potter’s delightful ‘Tale of Peter Rabbit’ tells the story.’

6. Spring: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons by Melissa Harrison

‘It is a time of awakening. In our ­fields, hedgerows and woodlands, our beaches, cities and parks, an almost imperceptible shift soon becomes a riot of sound and colour: winter ends, and life surges forth once more. Whether in town or country, we all share in this natural rhythm, in the joy and anticipation of the changing year. In prose and poetry both old and new, Spring mirrors the unfolding of the season, inviting us to see what’s around us with new eyes. Featuring original writing by Rob Cowen, Miriam Darlington and Stephen Moss, classic extracts from the work of George Orwell, Clare Leighton and H. E. Bates, and fresh new voices from across the UK, this is an original and inspiring collection of nature writing that brings the British springtime to life in all its vivid glory.’

7. The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

‘From the Booker Prize-winning author of ‘Offshore’, ‘The Blue Flower’ and ‘Innocence’ comes this Booker Prize-shortlisted tale of a troubled Moscow printworks. Frank Reid had been born and brought up in Moscow. His father had emigrated there in the 1870s and started a print-works which, by 1913, had shrunk from what it was when Frank inherited it. In that same year, to add to his troubles, Frank’s wife Nellie caught the train back home to England, without explanation. How is a reasonable man like Frank to cope? How should he keep his house running? Should he consult the Anglican chaplain’s wife? Should he listen to the Tolstoyan advice of his chief book-keeper? How do people live together, and what happens when, sometimes, they don’t?’

8. Spring Morning by Frances Darwin Cornford (my own review)

‘I love discovering new poets, and came across this title at the back of Charlotte Mew’s Saturday Market. Published in 1918, this is a relatively short collection, made up of just 17 poems. It is complete with charming woodcuts. Whilst I found a couple of these poems quite odd, Cornford’s nature writing throughout is lovely.

I have chosen to copy out the entirety of ‘Autumn Morning at Cambridge’, which made me feel rather homesick for my home city:

I ran out in the morning, when the air was clean and new,
And all the grass was glittering, and grey with autumn dew.
I ran out to the apple tree and pulled an apple down,
And all the bells were ringing in the old grey town.

Down in the town, off the bridges and the grass
They are sweeping up the leaves to let the people pass,
Sweeping up the old leaves, golden-reds and browns,
While the men go to lectures with the wind in their gowns.’

Please stay tuned for subsequent summer, autumn, and winter recommendation posts, which will be published at the beginning of each new season. Also, let me know if you have any seasonal reads to recommend!

4

‘Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names’ by Stephen Moss ****

Stephen Moss is fast becoming one of my absolute favourite nature writers.  When I spotted an online copy of Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names on my library app, therefore, I borrowed it immediately.  I had only read a couple of his titles before this one, but find his largely bird-focused books fascinating and beautifully written.

The naming of species has always interested me, and as far as I am aware, I have only read books in the past which touch upon the process.  In Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, Moss has been far more thorough.  His narrative is split into several separate sections, which range from ‘History and Science’ to ‘Tomorrow Never Knows: The Future of Bird Names’. 35997821._sx318_

Moss makes his standpoint clear from the outset.  He writes: ‘I believe that by giving linguistic labels to the multifarious wonders of life around us – by watching, seeing, focusing on and separating one organism from another, closely related species – we are then better able to understand and appreciate the natural world in all its glorious variety and confusion.’  He then sets out the parameters of the history which he will take us as readers through in the remainder of the book; we span the period from the Anglo Saxon invaders, who began to give names to birds, to a glimpse into the possible future of naming practices.

Moss goes on to write about the people who lived before the Anglo Saxons, who called some of the bird species by names which we still use today.  Moss speculates that goose is ‘possibly the oldest of all the names we still use today, and may go all the way back to the language spoken on the steppes of eastern Europe and western Asia more than five thousand years ago.’  From this point onward, Moss delves deeply into the evolution of language, and how bird names have changed slightly over the centuries.  He looks at the onomatopoeic origins of some bird names – jackdaw, for instance.

Many bird names do not, comments Moss, ‘make perfect sense’.  This is primarily because ‘… they were coined by a whole range of different people, over many thousands of years, from the prehistoric era to the present day.’  The process of naming birds is a collective effort, if you will.  Throughout Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, Moss discusses the origins of the English language, before moving into the specificity of bird naming.  He discusses advances within the binomial system introduced by Swedish botanist Linnaeus, and later DNA-based changes in the classifications of birds.

In the introduction to this volume, Moss writes that the origin of some bird names ‘can seem obvious, but may not be quite as straightforward as first appears’.  He goes on to say that ‘broadly speaking, it is reasonable to assume that most common and familiar birds were named a long time ago, by ordinary people – hence the term “folk” names – while scarce and unfamiliar birds were named much more recently, by professional ornithologists.’  These ‘professionals’ began to name birds during the seventeenth century; these were largely based on the locality of the birds, and their distinguishing features – the black-tailed godwit, and the pink-footed goose, for instance.  During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there emerged a new category of bird names – those named after people.  We thus have the likes of Montagu’s harrier and Leach’s storm petrel as well as, of course, Mrs Moreau’s warbler.

As in Moss’ specific bird species biographies, he quotes other authors and experts throughout.  Their observations blend seamlessly with his own.  He also weaves in his own experiences of birdwatching with the more factual details.  One cannot help but get the sense that Mrs Moreau’s Warbler has been meticulously researched by someone so passionate about his subjects; indeed, the extensive notes at the end of the volume alone are proof of this.

Moss’ books are wonderful, both for those just getting into nature writing, and others who are well versed in all it has to offer.  Mrs Moreau’s Warbler is comprehensive in what it covers, and Moss’ writing is a joy to read.  This book is a beautiful piece of escapism, and it immediately absorbs one in its patient, peaceful prose.

Unlike his bird biographies, there is far more scientific information included here, so a little more concentration is required at times; however, this is well worth it.  Mrs Moreau’s Warbler is thorough and highly instructive, whilst still being accessible to the general reader.  I shall end this review with one of the resounding beliefs of the author: ‘To me, the diversity of bird names is not an inconvenience but a wonder.’

10

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?

3

‘The Twelve Birds of Christmas’ by Stephen Moss *****

I adored Stephen Moss’ The Wren: A Biography, which I read quite recently, and was keen to get my hands on a copy of The Twelve Birds of Christmas.  The idea behind it is rather charming; Moss tells ‘the enthralling story of twelve iconic British birds’ by ‘playing on one of our best-known carols’.  Like The Wren, this proved to be another firm favourite of mine, and it was the perfect tome to kick off my Christmas reading with.

In The Twelve Birds of Christmas, Moss has given an avian interpretation to the famous Christmas carol, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, which first appeared in its written form around 1780.  He personally describes it as ‘endlessly parodied, highly memorable and occasionally infuriating’.  Together with his own commentary, ‘he weaves history, culture, bird behaviour and folklore into a compelling narrative for each species’, and traces their fortunes over the centuries since the carol first appeared.

To anyone who knows the carol already, birds feature heavily, but Moss asked himself whether the entire carol could really be about our avian friends.  He muses: ‘… I look beneath the surface of this familiar carol, and reveal what I believe is an alternative meaning to the verses.  For in my view, every single one of the carol’s dozen lines could plausibly be about a particular species of bird.’
9781529110104

The birds which Moss focuses on here are both rare and common in the United Kingdom.  In turn, he writes about grey partridges, turtle doves, domestic chickens, blackbirds, yellowhammers, geese, mute swans, nightjars, cranes, black grouse, sandpipers, and woodpeckers.  In each separate chapter, he weaves in observations made throughout history about his chosen birds.  These largely come from naturalists who have influenced Moss’ own career.  He links each species rather cleverly to the original carol; the crane, for instance, has been selected to represent ‘nine ladies dancing’ because of its entrancing mating dance.

Focus has been placed upon the effects of individuals determined to reverse the decline of bird species, many of which have a current status which looks rather bleak.  Of the turtle dove, for instance, Moss writes: ‘Once so common that observers didn’t even bother to send in records of the species, by the turn of the millennium it had disappeared as a breeding bird from the county’ of Somerset, where Moss’ home is located.  Some of the birds featured in The Twelve Birds of Christmas have thankfully fared better; the blackbird, for example, is the fourth most numerous bird in Britain, and is ‘present in 96 per cent of all the 3,862 10 kilometre squares in Britain and Ireland, in both summer and winter.’

Throughout, Moss touches upon so many different elements of bird life: the domestication of birds by humans; the migratory patterns of different species; folklore; and the effects of climate change and the destruction of habitats on bird numbers.  The chapters are relatively short, but the book itself is undoubtedly thorough.

The Twelve Birds of Christmas is a darling book, even lovelier than it sounds.  Gloriously illustrated throughout, and impeccably researched, Moss gives such attention to detail.  His enthusiasm for nature shines through on every single page.  His prose is rich and captivating, and it is so easy to read.

The structure which Moss has fitted his twelve birds around works wonderfully, and he certainly makes an engaging argument.  The Twelve Birds of Christmas is a really great, and slightly alternative, book to pick up for Christmas, from a man who is fast becoming one of my favourite nature writers.

2

‘Fifty Words for Snow’ by Nancy Campbell ****

Nancy Campbell has been a writer on my radar for such a long time now, but I had yet to pick up one of her books – until, that is, a gorgeous hardback edition of her newest effort, Fifty Words for Snow, landed on my doorstep. It really appealed to the cold weather enthusiast in me, and it felt like a wonderful choice to incorporate into my autumnal reading, particularly as the days are getting steadily colder.

The idea for Fifty Words for Snow was born from Campbell’s research on ice. She was a Writer in Residence in Greenland during the winter of 2010, at the most northerly museum in the world, and her surroundings sparked this interest within her. Much of her work since – a decade spent on the ‘changing language and landscape of the Arctic’ – has revolved around cold weather, and what it means to us.

At this point in her life, Campbell tells us in her introduction, ‘… I was seeking to escape the distractions of a capital city. I needed white noise… There is much poignant art and literature about polar purity and silence, but the longer I spent among the snow [in Greenland], the more I suspected such tropes are born of luxury and distance. It is a view that overwrites the peopled landscape, ignores the tracks of sleds and snowmobiles that cross it, the busy burrows and root systems beneath it. As time passed and I looked more closely, I realised snow does not always appear white. As I listened more carefully, I realised that snow was not silent.’

As its title indicates, Fifty Words for Snow gives fifty international words for snow, many of them denoting very specific kinds. Campbell ‘digs deep into the meanings and etymologies, the histories and the futures of fifty words for snow from across the world, using them as clues to the many ways in which we are all connected to one another and to our planet.’ She writes about the shifting landscapes, as snow patterns change across the world: ‘Just as the ecosystem is changing, so are the languages that describe it and the way they are understood.’ Of her project, and her sustained interest within it, Campbell explains: ‘The process of tracing a single theme across many languages new to me seemed a powerful way to overcome the borders that were going up around the world.’

In her introduction, Campbell notes that ‘every language and culture has its own word for the magical, mesmerising flakes that fall from the sky.’ The words which the author has drawn together here come from a wealth of different languages and cultures: they range from Latvian and Scots, to Thai and Kashmiri; from Maōri and Mongolian, to Newfoundland English and Faroese. Some of the languages which Campbell has chosen to use are endangered, sometimes used by just a single community.

Each word which Campbell writes about – all of them randomly rather than geographically ordered, which I found an interesting touch – forms a short yet precise chapter. Some of these chapters, indeed, are only a paragraph or two long; others are far more detailed. Each begins with the chosen word and the language which it comes from, and then gives its specific translation, some of which are wonderfully precise. The Icelandic hundslappadrífa, for instance, means ‘snowflakes big as a dog’s paw’. In Finnish, tykky means ‘thick snow and frost that accumulates on tree branches and other structures.’ The Japanese word yuki-onna denotes a snow-woman, whose ‘skin is cold; her hair is silver; she dresses in white.’

Around the world, snow ‘may be welcomed, feared, played with or prized.’ Campbell is constantly aware of the reliance which different cultures have upon the snow. The Sámi language, for instance, ‘reflects the herders’ intimate relationship with their environment. The rich terminology for snow and ice includes words to describe the way snow falls, where it lies, its depth, density and temperature.’

Throughout, Campbell touches upon so many subjects. She writes about shepherds in the Scottish Borders, Greenlandic microbreweries, snowboarding, environmentally friendly fake snow made specifically for use on film sets, polar exploration, the building of igloos, avalanche prevention, and even the inspiration of snowy climates on the flags of several countries.

Fifty Words for Snow is both thoughtful and thorough. Campbell’s prose is lyrical, and holds such beauty about it. This work of non-fiction is clearly a labour of love, and it is a perfect choice to dip in and out of or, indeed, to read all in one go. Campbell’s book is far-reaching; she has tapped into so many languages and cultures, and gives fascinating details throughout. It will certainly make a lovely gift for the festive season, and there is something wonderfully comforting about it, too.

1

‘The Secret Life of Cows’ by Rosamund Young ***

9780571336777I had heard a lot about Rosamund Young’s The Secret Life of Cows, first published in 2003 and recently reissued, and was keen to get my hands on a copy.  I love nature writing, but have never read anything cow-specific before, and am always ready to learn new things.  Lydia Davis calls this slim book, which runs to less than 140 pages, ‘absorbing, moving, and compulsively readable’, and Philip Callow believes that it is ‘a little masterpiece of animal sentience.’  Other reviews have been rather more mixed, but when I spotted the lovely navy hardback edition in Fopp, I picked myself up a copy.

The blurb states that cows ‘are as varied as people.  They can be highly intelligent or slow to understand, vain, considerate, proud, shy or inventive.’  The book is described as ‘an affectionate record of a hitherto secret world’.  Young elaborates upon this in her introduction, where she writes: ‘If you know animals as individuals you notice how often older brothers are kind to younger ones, how sisters seek or avoid each other’s company, and which families always get together at night to sleep and which never do so.’

The Faber reissue comes with a very short foreword written by Alan Bennett.  He comments: ‘It’s a delightful book, though insofar as it reveals that cows (and indeed sheep and even hens) have far more awareness and know-how than they have ever been given credit for, it could also be thought deeply depressing, as it means entirely revising one’s view of the world.’  He goes on to add: ‘It’s a book that alters the way one sees things and passing a field of cows nowadays I find myself wondering about their friendships and their outlook, notions that before reading Young’s book I would have thought comical, even daft.’

Author Rosamund Young runs Kite’s Nest Farm, on the edge of the Cotswolds, with her brother and partner.  She has lived on the farm since her childhood, and has been observing the animals ever since.  Her ethos is admirable; they let the cows decide when they wish to finish weaning, allow them to live in mixed generational groups to give the younger members the opportunity to learn from their elders, and give the animals constant access to food and water.  Young writes: ‘We decided that the animals themselves are by far the most qualified individuals to make decisions about their own welfare and it is the decisions they make, as well as many other occurrences both humdrum and extraordinary, that I have observed, learned from and written down here.’  Young then goes on to elaborate further, explaining that she and her colleagues ‘have tried on this farm to create an environment that allows all of the animals the freedom to communicate with or dissociate themselves from us as they choose.’ Throughout, she makes highly thoughtful points; for instance: ‘Just because we are not clever enough to notice the differences between individual spiders or butterflies, yellowhammers or cows is not a reason for presuming that there are none.’

The Secret Life of Cows is a mixture of musings about ethical farming, things which the owners of Kite’s Nest have implemented to better the welfare of their animals, and anecdotes about particular animals.  Some of these are amusing, and others quite sweet.  For instance, we meet Meg, a calf who learns to climb some very steep steps so that she can spend the night in the granary, ‘away from mud and draughts and bullying’.  Meg then teaches two of her fellow calves how to climb the stairs too.  There is Alice, who is fond of hide and seek.  Young writes: ‘She would do her best to hide behind a walnut tree but of course she was too big and as soon as she realised I had seen her she would gallop off again and hide behind the next one, and so on until we reached the cow pen.’

The book opens, rather charmingly I thought, with a cow family tree.  This by no means covers every cow whom Young writes about, but it does give an idea of the number of generations who live on the farm.  Some lovely details have been included here; for instance, Bonnet is ‘passionate about apples’, Blue Devil is ‘remarkably bossy’, and the Duke of York drinks water like a cat.  There is a brief section at the end of the book which includes twenty facts which Young feels one should know about cows, hens, pigs, and sheep respectively.

The structure of the book is split into small sections, sometimes only a paragraph or two long, rather than into distinct chapters.  Young writes in her introduction that she believes such a structure gives a more interlinking feel to the anecdotes she presents, but I felt as though it became a little jumbled in places.   She will mention a particular cow, and then go on to talk about another one from another line, before coming back to the original cow pages later.  I would have preferred more of an organised structure, and feel as though this would have suited the book better, as well as making it easier to follow.  As it stands, The Secret Life of Cows feels a little bitty, and it is unfortunate rather too brief.

I read the entirety of The Secret Life of Cows in one go, but I feel, upon reflection, that it would be a better choice to dip in and out of it.  Young’s writing is gentle and undemanding, but some of the anecdotes do feel a touch repetitive in places.  I did like the sense of anthropomorphism which Young lent to her cows, and I do feel as though I learnt quite a few things about the intelligence and empathy of cows – for example, the grieving process which they go through when a member of their herd dies or is taken away, and the way in which poorly cows only want to eat willow bark for its aspirin properties.  They are incredibly intelligent, independent animals, who know how to ask for help when they need it, and can display such a range of emotions.07