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.’
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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

‘The Wren: A Biography’ by Stephen Moss *****

I adore nature writing, and was therefore keen to pick up something by prolific author Stephen Moss, who writes almost exclusively about birds.  The blurb of the beautifully produced The Wren: A Biography says that this is a ‘captivating biography of Britain’s most common bird which lives – often unseen – right on our doorstep.’

With at least eight million breeding pairs in Britain, it seems curious that the majority of people – myself included – believe they have never seen one.  In his introduction, Moss alludes to the reasoning behind this: ‘Perhaps that’s because wrens are so tiny, weighing less than half an ounce; or that they’re constantly on the move, behaving more like a mouse than a bird.’
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The Wren is a year-in-the-life biography.  Moss moves through each month, noting, as the book’s subtitle suggests, ‘The Secret Life of Britain’s Most Common Bird’.  It begins on a ‘bright, cold winter’s day’, when Moss leans out of his kitchen window ‘soon after sunrise’.  Here, he observes a wren, describing it thus: ‘… quiet and unassuming, lurking deep in the shadows beneath the shrubbery, like a shy actor waiting in the wings, while others take centre stage.’  He then goes on to comment that he has seen wrens all over the United Kingdom, ‘from the heart of London to the remotest offshore island.’

The book features gorgeous illustrations throughout, and contains such charming details of wrens in popular culture and literature, from William Shakespeare to William Blake.  Moss writes of the different names bestowed upon the birds throughout history, from the Jenny wren to the tomtit.  He also explores the ‘fascinating folklore surrounding this species.’

In each chapter, Moss references others who have written extensively about the wren.  Revered ornithologist Max Nicholson, for instance, described the wren as ‘a bird of crevices and crannies, of woodpiles and fallen trees, of hedge-bottoms and banks, walls and boulders…  Wrens therefore can cut across, or rather scramble under, the imaginary boundaries which we are accustomed to draw between different types of country.’

Throughout The Wren, Moss writes at length of many aspects of the existence of the wren.  He looks at the historical migration of the wren, which has meant that different variations of the bird can be found around the world.  He talks of their song, their mating rituals, the distribution of the birds, their preferred habitats, the effects of climate change upon them, the nest building process, and the fledging of the chicks, amongst other fascinating details.

The Wren is the most darling nature book, and one of the most engaging about a single species which I have read to date.  It is informative and immersive from its very beginning, and the structure, which follows a single calendar year, works wonderfully.  Moss’ prose is beautifully descriptive, and he speaks authoritatively throughout.

The Wren is sure to appeal to anyone interested in the natural world, and I thoroughly enjoyed Moss’ take on the tiny birds.  I am so excited to read more of his books, and feel that he could easily become one of my very favourite nature writers.