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‘Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach’ by Jean Sprackland ****

One of my favourite places to be is on the beach, and I have been lucky enough to visit them all over the world; from Australia’s Bondi Beach on a very breezy December day, to hidden turquoise coves in Croatia and Montenegro, and the sand-swept, dune-filled coasts of Northern France and Belgium. Unfortunately, at present, I live in a landlocked English county and, like so many others across the world, was long separated from the beach by numerous lockdowns and travel bans.

One piece of solace which I found during this time was in Jean Sprackland’s first nature book, Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, which won the Portico Prize in 2012. Here, Sprackland has penned ‘a series of meditations prompted by walking on the wild estuarial beaches of Ainsdale Sands between Blackpool and Liverpool’, which she recorded over a single calendar year. She explores, primarily, ‘what is lost and buried and then discovered… about flotsam and jetsam, about mutability and transformation – about sea-change.’

Strands has been split into corresponding seasons, which is one of my favourite structures in which to present a nature book. I love to see how one place can differ so much from one season to the next; even from one month to the next. This is one of the main elements of focus for Sprackland; she is aware of every small change, and of what to expect as one month passes into the next. For her, this ‘stretch of coast has an entirely different spirit. It’s all about change, shift, ambiguity. It reinvents itself. It has a talent for concealment and revelation. Things turn up here; things go missing.’

In her preface, Sprackland immediately sets out that she has been walking along this particular beach for twenty years. For her, writing Strands is a bittersweet experience, as she is about to leave her home for London, and a new marriage. She knows that this is the last time in which she will be able to travel to Ainsdale Sands so often, and wished to record this process. She writes that over those two decades ‘… our relationship has grown complex and intimate. It has become, as places can, an inner as well as an outer landscape, one I carry around in my head and explore in my imagination even when I’m far from here.’ She goes on to say: ‘The version I carry in my head is endlessly flexible, but of course the external place does not obey me at all. It remains stubbornly unknowable.’

Sprackland is also a poet, and she writes her prose using careful, memorable, and even sometimes sharp, vocabulary choices. She sees her beach with a poet’s eyes. It is, for her, ‘a place of big skies and lonely distances, a shifting palette of greys and blues; a wild, edge-of-the-world place.’ She goes on to say that ‘This characteristic of the beach – its capacity to surprise and mystify – is what brings me back here, day after day, month after month.’

Alongside the usual items which plague coasts all over the world – primarily plastic and litter – there are some surprises in store for Sprackland. In the first chapter, which occurs in spring, for example, she comes across ‘three wrecked ships lying on the surface’ of the sand. These, she has never seen before. She realises that she must have ‘cycled over them, oblivious’ when they had previously been buried under the sand. These boats, she finds out after conversing with a friend, that these ships show themselves for a few weeks at a time before being reburied, sometimes for years at a time. She later says: ‘I’ve often noticed a kind of “rule of recurrence”: I find something unusual – something I’ve never seen here before – and almost immediately I find another the same, and then another. And certain kinds of objects come and go; they’re numerous when I visit one week, and have vanished by the next.’

Sprackland goes on to find so many different things during her wanderings – mermaid’s purses, which hold the eggs of sharks, skates, and rays; samphire; ‘a bicycle saddle, a knitting needle, a large bleached knuckle bone, a light bulb’; a swarm of ladybirds; even a ‘blister pack of Prozac’, and a message in a bottle. She describes the way in which the ‘detritus of our lives is washed, softened and given back to us cleansed of its dirt and shame. That’s the work of the sea. It comes in faithfully, on schedule, like an old-time religion, and washes away our sins.’ She also nods to the myriad places in which these items she finds start their journey, ‘from so many different sources and directions: from the hands of walkers and picnickers; from the air; from underneath the sand; and of course from the sea. In an age where science has unlocked so many of Earth’s secrets, and almost the entire planet has been mapped and imaged, our oceans and shores remain relatively unexplored. Each new discovery presents questions and mysteries.’

Alongside the physical landscape of her particular beach, Sprackland has written about the crushing changes which climate change is already bringing to the species which are found just off the coast. She also wishes to raise an awareness of just how much one single person can see them changing. She urges: ‘Those of us with beaches to walk on should be learning the language of the things we find there. We should be reading the signs.’ She writes with a great deal of insight, stating: ‘If in the course of opening our eyes to environmental realities we have lost some of our simple pleasures and amazements, we have replaced them with passionate collective attachments to a few powerful symbols of what is previous and threatened: the polar bear, the tiger, the wildflower meadow, and so on. Our losses are not so often focused on the mucous, the smelly and the commonplace.’

I thoroughly enjoyed Sprackland’s second nature book, These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards; indeed, I think about it often. Here, too, there is so much to consider, and to appreciate. Sprackland’s prose is often quite profound; she makes one stop and think throughout, with sentences such as the following: ‘It’s dizzying, the realisation that we spend our lives moving precariously on the outer skin of the planet, and that same skin contains all the stuff of history.’ She is a considerate and quite meditative author. Her prose is beautiful and attentive; there is a haunting appeal to it. As with These Silent Mansions, Strands is highly detailed, and so well researched; there is also such a visceral sense of place within it.

I love the way in which Sprackland blends her own observations with scientific facts, and the way in which she includes quotes from other writers, particularly poets. Strands is relatively introspective, and deals with such a comparatively small stretch of coastline, but Sprackland manages to discuss so much within its pages. It is an unusual nature book in its focus, and one which I would highly recommend.

If you are interested, you can read my review of Sprackland’s These Silent Mansions here.

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‘Dark Skies: A Journey Into the Wild Night’ by Tiffany Francis ***

I very much enjoyed Sigri Sandberg’s An Ode to Darkness (review here) when I read it back in 2020, and have been on the lookout for similar books since. When I spotted Tiffany Francis’ Dark Skies: A Journey Into the Wild Night, I was suitably intrigued, and reserved a copy from my local library. In this, her second book, Francis ‘explores the nocturnal landscapes of Britain and Europe and investigates how our experiences of the night-time world have permeated human history, art and folklore.’

Dark Skies has been marketed as Francis’ account of travelling around ‘different nightscapes’, from witnessing 24-hour daylight in the Gulf of Finland, to the Northern Lights in the Arctic Circle amidst three months of constant darkness. Francis aims to delve into the history of ‘ancient rituals and seasonal festivals that for thousands of years humans have linked with the light and dark halves of our year.’ At the outset, she writes about the reasoning behind her exploration, and also poses quite poignant questions: ‘Everything we do depends on the sun rising every day, but half of our lives are spent in darkness. How much energy continues to burst from the landscape after the sun goes down? And by giving in to sleep when the world grows dark, how much of life are we missing out on?’

Throughout history, our lives have been shaped, to quite an extent, by darkness. Our ancestors often relied upon constellations to guide them, and tended to rise with the sun, and go to bed as soon as it became dark. They underwent a quite natural process called ‘second sleep’, in which they would wake for an hour or two around midnight, work on projects or simply relax, and go to sleep again afterwards. This has largely stopped in the modern world, partly due to our more structured days, and also because of the steep levels of artificial light which surround us at all times. It is becoming increasingly difficult, in the 2020s, to find somewhere which is completely dark.

Francis begins her journey in late September, just after her relationship with the often-mentioned “Dave” has ended. She writes: ‘… the thought of lingering on in Hampshire was enough to send me instead to Norfolk, to temporary distraction from the loneliness that had started to creep into my body.’ She travels relatively far from her home, largely throughout the United Kingdom, but also within some other European countries.

Francis undoubtedly captures some really nice moments throughout. In Tromsø, in Norway’s Arctic Circle, she sees the Northern Lights, and describes them thus: ‘A single ribbon of light had appeared from nowhere in the sky above the lake… It was barely visible at first, a flickering serpent waking from sleep… As the light inched across the sky in wandering, waving movements, a sliver of blue and green seemingly without purpose or direction… And so the ribbon widened, it seemed to harvest colours from all over the world, reflecting the cerulean waters of the Caribbean sea, the lime greens of sphagnum moss, the electric blue of a cobalt crust fungus, the pearlescent aperture inside a seashell. In that moment, the entire universe seemed to be captured, drifting through the sky before me in a glass thread.’

I enjoyed some of Francis’ writing, particularly with regard to her descriptions of the nature around her. Some of her sentences though do feel a bit overdone, and too romanticised, at times. I found some of the comparisons which she makes a little strange, I must admit; for instance, she describes herself as akin to ‘a wasp on a yoga ball’. This is something which I have never heard before, and I really have no idea what it is supposed to mean, as even in the context it wasn’t particularly clear. There are also touches of melodrama here, which I did not appreciate; she writes, for example, that a forest she was walking through ‘was so creepy I half-imagined we might be strangled by some devil-possessed ivy vines and dragged into the trees, a midnight feast for a gang of carnivorous plants lurching in the dark…’. Considering that Dark Skies is supposed to be a piece of nature writing, this felt highly unnecessary.

There are some glaringly obvious mistakes which have been included here too. The author claims, wrongly, that Mount Snowdon in Wales, at 1,085 metres above sea level, is the highest point in the British Isles. In actuality, Ben Nevis in Scotland is almost 300 metres taller, standing at 1,345 metres. I have no idea how such errors would have got past an editor. A lot of the book, indeed, could have done with some clearer editing, and this would, I am sure, have made it far more readable, and a bit less frustrating in places.

There is a slightly disjointed feel to the narrative throughout. Francis tends to begin a paragraph with one theme, and then moves to writing either about something completely different, or more often than not about herself and Dave, before circling back to something mentioned pages and pages beforehand. A lot of tangents are taken, and it sometimes makes this rather a jumbled, and largely unfocused, read. She also poses a lot of questions in her narrative, but never makes a single attempt to provide answers, or even to muse at length about what she has asked.

Dark Skies has received very mixed reviews since its 2019 publication. Many readers – and I do agree with them – have said that the book has been poorly marketed. Rather than an exploration of the night, and of darkness, Dark Skies focuses far more upon the memoir side of things than anything else. There is actually comparatively little about the ‘dark skies’ of the book’s title, particularly when one considers how much is written about her on-again, off-again relationship with the aforementioned Dave. I wish that many of the personal details here had been left out. Francis appears almost worryingly eager to share every single detail about herself, and about her relationship, to a reading public consisting largely of strangers. Oddly, for a twenty-first century woman who describes herself as a naturalist, I also did not feel as though she is always entirely respectful of the landscapes around her; she says, for instance, that it is ‘weirdly fun to pull off’ lichen from tree trunks – something which I would never personally dream of doing.

Dark Skies is not at all what I was expecting, and it does feel as though its marketing is quite misleading. It meanders here and there, and has very little structure to it on the whole. I also do not feel as though Francis really met her own brief here. She does do some things in the dark, like visiting an outdoor spa in Germany’s Black Forest, but her exploration of such occurrences, and of the darkness itself, does not go anywhere near far enough. Even when Francis writes of being in the dark, she is thinking of other things; there is no complete focus given to the darkness.

I had difficulty rating this title. It is largely for her lovely and quite informative chapters on Scandinavia – which were well written and executed, and actually set out to explore the darkness on some level – that I have rated this book as a 3-star read; without them, I could not have given it more than 2 stars. Dark Skies really did not match my expectations of what a book about night skies and darkness should include, and I found myself so disinterested in the very long portions written about her relationship, which served to overshadow the rest of the narrative. So much could have been explored and achieved here; it feels like a missed opportunity in a lot of ways.

Whilst I do not feel as though Dark Skies at all meets what it promises, Francis seems like a lovely person, with a great deal of talent. She and I have a lot of hobbies in common, from history and archaeology to Moomins and knitting, and I found myself relating to quite a lot of what she wrote. I would be so interested to read her other work in future, as I feel she has a lot to offer as both an author and an environmentalist.

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‘On Trails: An Exploration’ by Robert Moor ****

Robert Moor has won several awards for his non-fiction writing, and his first full-length publication was On Trails: An Exploration (2016). He is lauded on the book’s blurb as ‘a brilliant new literary voice’, who has paved the way for ‘a groundbreaking exploration’ of the humble trail.

Moor hiked the Appalachian trail, which stretches between Maine and Georgia on America’s East Coast, in 2009. He writes that his memories of this enormous journey ‘consist chiefly of wet stone and black earth. The vistas from many of the mountaintops were blotted out. Shrouded in mist, rain hood up, eyes down cast, mile after mile, month after month. I had little else to do but study the trail beneath my nose with Talmudic intensity.’ On this trip, he started to consider the multitude of paths which exist beneath our feet in every corner of the world. Much of the time, these trails – whether natural or manmade – are taken somewhat for granted. Over the course of the following seven years, Moor took the decision to travel extensively, exploring trails of all kinds. Throughout On Trails, he blends his own travels with science, philosophy, historical facts, and nature writing.

For Moor, the simple trail poses a lot of questions, some of them quite abstract and difficult to answer. These include, ‘how does order emerge from chaos?’ and, ‘ultimately, how does each of us pick a path through life?’ These philosophical musings are touched upon from time to time, but his focus is largely placed upon the physical trail.

Trails are grounding; they keep us focused, as well as promoting a sense of well-trodden safety, and almost a sense of community, in that others have walked along a path before you, and will continue to do so afterwards. In his prologue, Moor acknowledges quite how pivotal trails are: ‘Piece by piece, I began to cobble together a panoramic view of how pathways act as an essential guiding force on this planet: on every scale of life, from microscopic cells to herds of elephants, creatures can be found relying on trails to reduce an overwhelming array of options to a single expeditious route. Without trails, we would be lost.’ He goes on to write that ‘Paths, in their very structure… blear the divide between wilderness and civilization, leaders and followers, self and other, old and new, natural and artificial.’

At the very end of his prologue, Moor notes: ‘Throughout the history of life on Earth, we have created pathways to guide our journeys, transmit messages, refine complexity, and preserve wisdom. At the same time, trails have shaped our bodies, sculpted our landscapes, and transformed our cultures. In the maze of the modern world, the wisdom of trails is as essential as ever… To deftly navigate this world, we will need to understand how we make trails, and how trails make us.’

Moor goes on to recount his exploration of trails, from visiting fossil trails – the oldest known paths in the world – in Newfoundland, Canada, to touring a safari park in the United States with a PhD student studying migratory patterns of herd animals. He also spends time working – not always successfully – as a sheep herder for a traditional Navajo family. Throughout this more personal narrative, he writes at length about the creation of the Appalachian Trail, and of several designated national parks throughout the United States. He includes a lot of detail from a scientific standpoint, and makes everything so accessible and readable.

The author has considered a great deal when putting together this quite fascinating book. He writes intelligently about crowd theory, the creation of cities which have grown organically with no external planning, and the reading of animal trails across the world. He also considers the Internet, and the pathways which have been created within it.

Like many people, I am sure, I had not considered trails in a great deal of detail before picking up Moor’s book, and had more often than not taken them for granted. Now, though, I am far more aware of where I am walking, and thinking more deeply about when the paths which I choose to take every day were laid. On Trails is informative, thoughtful, and aware. I greatly appreciated the enormous amount of research which has gone into the tome, and very much enjoyed the blending of so many different elements in its telling. On Trails has proven to be far more wide-reaching than I initially expected, and it feels like the author has taken a truly fresh approach in its telling.

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‘Surfacing’ by Kathleen Jamie ****

Kathleen Jamie is an author I can always rely on if I want to read something contemplative about nature. Jamie, who is based in Scotland, is both a poet and essayist, and I have thoroughly enjoyed her collections in the past. Surfacing is her newest effort, published in 2019. Diana Athill summed it up wonderfully when she commented: ‘It is not often that the prose of a poet is as powerful as her verse, but Jamie’s is.’

As I expected, having read several of her collections to date, Surfacing is heavily involved with the natural world. In these twelve individual essays, some of which have recurring themes, Jamie discusses archaeology, notions of discovery, climate change, her parents and their influence, and wildlife, amongst others. Each essay is interspersed with photographs and illustrations, many of which I believe Jamie took herself.

The essays in Surfacing move between Scotland, Alaska, and Jamie’s memory. It is a visceral collection, arranged non-chronologically. Here, Jamie has visited ‘archaeological sites and mines her own memories… to explore what surfaces and what reconnects us to our past.’ The majority of the essays here were written at pivotal points in Jamie’s life, from when she was caught up in brutal protests in China in the late 1980s, and banned from leaving the country, to stages at which her father passes away, and her children grow up and leave home. This collection promises to examine ‘a profound sense of time passing and an antidote to all that is instant, ephemeral, unrooted.’

Some of the essays in Surfacing are very brief, and I was left wanting more. This is not a criticism of what Jamie has written; rather, it is a testament to her prose, and the way in which I wanted to read more from her perspective. It is in the longer pieces in which Jamie’s work sings. I particularly enjoyed reading the essays about archaeological digs; so many of the details within them were fascinating to me as a reader.

My favourite piece was ‘In Quinhagak’, a small settlement in Alaska which has been dated to at least AD 1000. Jamie travels to assist on an archaeological dig, in a secluded town of around 700 people, where the maps ‘show no roads, just green scribbly waterways and melt-pools.’ I always admire the way in which the author captures scenery and details. As Jamie is taken to the town on a very small plane, she observes: ‘… immediately we were soaring over miles of emerald green and moss green, yellowish patches with coppery tints… At seven hundred feet we were low enough to see a line of moose tracks traversing a mudbank. Two white dabs were tundra swans.’ In an essay entitled ‘The Eagle’, she writes: ‘It’s summer, a long July gloaming. The road I’m taking cuts through a rough glen. There are no houses on this stretch, only the thin road and a lochan of peat-coloured water. The hill on the left is a steep strew of bare rock and heather rising to a ridge which runs north for about a mile and a half; the hill on the right is lower. The whole glen, now I’ve stopped, has become a place of entrancing isolation.’

Jamie is sensitive to cultural differences, and to what it means for very specific elements of history to be returned to the living generations. At the dig in Alaska, in which the plan is to excavate a village which was abandoned around five hundred years previously, she comments: ‘The objects are out of the earth, back in the hands of people who call them into memory and know them, weigh them, test them, name them. Truly, they have come home.’

It is fair to say that Jamie’s prose is sometimes simplistic and rather matter-of-fact. This is something which I find surprising, given that she is a poet too. However, her prose style undoubtedly works well within these essays; it allows her to blend different genres of writing, from (auto)biography and history to travel and nature writing. She looks into neolithic history, as well as the histories bound up between her own family. I very much enjoyed the variations within these essays, which made Surfacing so easy to read from cover to cover. Of course, it would also be a great choice to dip and out of, and to savour.

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Two Nature Memoirs: ‘The Dun Cow Rib’ and ‘The Grassling’

The Dun Cow Rib by John Lister-Kaye ***

John Lister-Kaye was a new-to-me author when I picked up The Dun Cow Rib, a memoir of his English childhood, which was spent ‘scrambling through hedges… keeping pigeons in the loft and tracking foxes around the edge of the garden.’ In his foreword, Lister-Kaye writes about his present life in the Scottish Highlands, in which a self-built hut has become ‘a treasured centre of separateness, a place to muse, an escape.’ He embarked upon the writing of this book in the hope that he could discover what first gave him such an enduring interest in the natural world.

His 1950s childhood sounds rather lonely, although he insists it was not. During the holidays, he would go and stay with his grandparents in the Manor House in rural Warwickshire, his father’s country pile ‘to which we always gravitated as surely as bees return to their hive, however far afield the capricious winds of fortune had wafted us.’ Here, he remembers spending a lot of time by himself in the garden, with its ‘rampant, inexhaustible verdure’. This was a privileged existence; the house had many rooms to explore, and a full retinue of servants.

The prose is very descriptive, and rather lyrical, but it does verge upon sickly at times. The structure, however, is where the book is let down. The narrative jumps around a lot from one idea to another, or from one time period to the next, and then back again. The motifs and images tend to become rather repetitive too. I would have definitely enjoyed this memoir more had it focused more upon his childhood – and perhaps less upon the many boarding school japes – and had it a chronological narrative. The Dun Cow Rib is also not exclusively a memoir of childhood, which I feel is a little misleading; Lister-Kaye writes about the lives of his parents, and moving to the Highlands to work with Gavin Maxwell, for instance. There are also whole chapters to be found here which fail to mention the natural world at all.

I did not know what to expect from Lister-Kaye’s writing, but I was hoping that I might enjoy it more than I did. On the whole, this was pleasant enough, but it is not overly relatable, given the privilege of his upbringing. In the past, I have been blown away by a lot of the nature writers I have discovered, but I cannot say the same for this fellow. Perhaps this is not the best of his books to begin with, but I do not feel overly compelled to reach for any others.

The Grassling: A Geographical Memoir by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett ****

I had heard nothing about Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s nature memoir, The Grassling: A Geographical Memoir, before stumbling across it on an Instagram post. I was intrigued enough by its blurb to request a copy from the library, and I am so pleased that I took the chance. Burnett, who has previously published poetry collections, was ‘spurred on’ to write The Grassling by the declining health of her father. Her intention here is to permeate ‘layers of memory, language and natural history to tell a powerful story of how the land shapes us and speaks to us.’

The book is entirely set around the countryside in Devon, which Burnett grew up within. She writes at length about the changing seasons, and , whilst also weaving in bigger questions about her identity and belonging. As a half-Kenyan woman, she finds herself Othered at times, not at home in the place which she spent so much of her young life. She writes, early on, ‘I turn back to the earth. The magnetism of the land, not just where I was birthed, but where my father was; his father and his; pulls me to it, as if by knowing it, I should know them.’

From the outset, it is clear that The Grassling has been written by a poet. Burnett’s grasp of vocabulary is rich, and has such a striking beauty to it. Her writing is visceral, and incredibly visual; it heightens all of the senses. The opening paragraph begins: ‘On the shortest day, the light never ends. Conifers buffer deep gusts of air, animals cry. The sky stings of a metal or an ore, iron wool rolled flat from moon to field. No stars. Clouds ripple the darkening grey. It must be darker because colours are, but the feeling is still of light. The body and the air.’

I recognise that The Grassling will not appeal to everyone, but I found it beautiful and reflective. Burnett is candid throughout, constantly reasserting what she is seeking out. She is admirably in touch with her surroundings, and I found a real reverence toward the landscape within the piece. I loved her approach, in which she blends together a series of different narrative techniques. The Grassling is an unusual and original book in many ways, and whilst it is not entirely straightforward at points, it is well worth seeking out. Burnett is capable of making us see the things around us with fresh eyes, and that is a real gift.

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‘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.

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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!