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.’

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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?

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‘Holloway’ by Robert Macfarlane ****

Holloway – a hollow way, a sunken path.  A route that centuries of foot-fall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll of rain-run have harrowed deep down into bedrock.

Holloway follows a journey, and its repetition.  In 2005, Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin journeyed to the Chideok Valley in the Marshwood Dale of Dorset to ‘explore the holloway’ of its sandstone.  Here, ‘They found their way into a landscape of shadows, spectres & great strangeness.’  Following Deakin’s death, Macfarlane decided to revisit the same holloway, accompanied by artist Stanley Donwood and writer Dan Richards.  The book which ensued is ‘about those journeys & that landscape…’. 9780571310661

Holloways can be found ‘where the stone is soft – malmstone, greensand, sandstone, chalk.’  Their characteristics, and the way in which they came to be, are described in the following manner: ‘Like creases in the land, or the wear on the stone sill of a doorstep or stair, they are the result of repeated human actions.  Their age chastens without crushing.  They relate to other old paths & tracks in the landscape – ways that still connect place to place or person to person.’  Macfarlane traces the history of these distinctive holloways, noting that they have been in existence since the Iron Age.  None, he says, are ‘younger than 300 years old.’  Very few holloways are still in use; most prove to be impracticably narrow given the ways in which we now travel: ‘They exist,’ affirms Macfarlane, ‘but cryptically.  They have thrown up their own defences and disguises: nettles & briars guard their entrances, trees to either side bend over them & lace their topmost branches to form a tunnel…’.

In Holloway, Macfarlane examines the original journey which he took with Deakin, whom he lovingly describes as ‘… worker with wood; writer of books; maker of friends’.  He talks quite touchingly of what the pair chose to take away with them on their journey to Dorset: ‘These were among the things we carried with us: the novel Rogue Male, published by Geoffrey Household in 1939; a map of the area; two tents; a trenching tool; penknives (Roger’s blunt, mine blunter); matches & candles; two hipflasks (one of whisky, one of arak.)’  It is in Household’s novel that the location of the particular holloway the pair sought is revealed.

This is the first time in which I have read one of Macfarlane’s full works, but it will not be the last.  His choice of vocabulary is striking and often original; his descriptions incredibly evocative.  His prose is layered, rich, and unusual.  For instance, he writes: ‘One need not be a mystic to accept that certain old paths are linear only in a simple sense.  Like trees, they have branches & like rivers they have tributaries.  They are rifts within which time might exist as pure surface, prone to recapitulation & rhyme, weird morphologies, uncanny doublings.’  Throughout, Macfarlane’s writing is gentle and lilting.  He offers peaceful meditations on the countryside, as well as the subtle ways in which the landscape has changed, along with our place within it.

This rich prose has such a sumptuousness to it, and the whole has a poetic feel.  Of their initial immersion in the holloway, Macfarlane writes: ‘The bright hot surface world was forgotten.  So close was the latticework of leaves & branches & so high the eastern side of the holloway that light penetrated its depths only in thin lances.  We came occasionally to small clearings, where light fell & grass grew.  In the windless warm air, groups of flies bobbed & weaved, each dancing around a set point like vibrating atoms held in a matrix.’  Macfarlane’s descriptions and rumination both are vivid and atmospheric.

On his second journey, Macfarlane read poetry by Edward Thomas, ‘who was the great twentieth-century poet of the old way…  His poems are thronged with ghosts, doubles & paths that peter out.  He understood himself in topographical terms & he saw that paths run through people as surely as they run through places.’

Holloway is a slim volume, but it evokes a great deal.  Spanning under 40 pages, it is a wonderful book to absorb in a single sitting, and is sure to give one a greater appreciation of the natural phenomenons which surround one.  It is worth noting the wonderful idea which came with the initial printing of Holloway; in its first run, 277 copies were produced, as that is the height in metres above sea level of Pilsdon Pen, where the Iron Age fort in which this book was begun is situated.  Pilsdon Pen is the second highest point in the county of Dorset, and clearly offered much inspiration to Macfarlane and Deakin.

Purchase from The Book Depository

5

A (British) Book Haul

After spending approximately 10 days in the UK, visiting my uncle and his family in Peterborough and taking a flash trip to Edinburgh, I’m back home in scorching hot Greece. Needless to say that I managed to acquire some books during this trip of mine, which I intend to show you today.

Since my uncle’s house is located rather far away from the city centre, I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to browse through Peterborough’s bookshops. I did, however, purchase those three books from lovely Waterstones:

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  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • A Faraway Smell of Lemon by Rachel Joyce

I’ve already read The Vegetarian and We Have Always Lived in the Castle and reviews for those two will be up soon.

Even though I travelled to Edinburgh with very little luggage and promised to myself not to buy more than two books, I left with six new ones in my bag. Oh, well.

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From Blackwell’s I got:

  • The Muse by Jessie Burton
  • The Gifts of Reading by Robert Macfarlane

From Oxfam I got:

  • A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton
  • Negotiating With the Dead by Margaret Atwood
  • The Monsters and the Critics by J.R.R. Tolkien

And last but certainly not least, from Barnardo’s I got:

  • 官僚を国民のために働かせる法 (Kanryou wo Kokumin no Tame ni Hatarakaseru Hou / The Way to Make Bureaucracy Work for the Citizens) by 古賀茂明 (Koga Shigeaki)

I never expected to find a Japanese book in a non-specialized bookshop, so I immediately grabbed it and brought it home with me. It’s a non-fiction book and I have to admit that its subject matter doesn’t particularly interest me, but it will certainly become great practice for my Japanese reading skills.

Upon arriving back home, I found a package waiting for me. It was from Kurodahan Press and it contained those wonderful books sent to me for review:

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  • Blue Bamboo by Dazai Osamu
  • Tokyo Decadence by Ryu Murakami
  • Long Belts and Thin Men by Kojima Nobuo

They are all short story collections and I am more than excited to delve into them as soon as possible.

So, these are all the books I acquired since the beginning of July and they all make me so very happy. Have you read any of these? What books have you acquired so far for this month? 🙂