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‘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?

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‘Wintering: A Season with Geese’ by Stephen Rutt

I adore books about the natural world, and find them both calming and peaceful to read – something which is very important, given the current state of the world. Stephen Rutt is a young naturalist who has published two non-fiction books; Wintering: A Season with Geese is his second.

Wintering was selected as one of the Times‘ Books of the Year 2019, and has been very highly praised. Jon Dunn in BBC Wildlife magazine writes: ‘Rutt’s dreamy prose is as cool and elegant as the season he charts’, and the Times calls it a ‘poignant testament to how we can find peace in the rhythms of the natural world.’ Waterstones calls it an ‘understated gem’.

In the autumn, Rutt swapped his life in Essex for a house near the Solway Firth in Dumfries, ‘a little town tucked away in the corner of Scotland, barely beyond the English border’. As he and his partner were settling in their new home, and their new country, thousands of pink-footed geese were also arriving from the Arctic Circle, to winter in Scotland. Their arrival is heralded each year as ‘one of the most evocative and powerful harbingers of the season.’

In his new surroundings, Rutt cannot help but notice geese; they seem to be everywhere around him. Although he had little curiosity regarding them before – he notes in his introduction that, in mid-September during his move, ‘I am not interested in geese yet’ – he embarks on an ‘extraordinary odyssey’, in which he ‘traces the lives and habits of the most common species of goose in the British Isles and explores the place they have in our culture and our history.’

In Wintering, Rutt has created what the book’s blurb hails ‘a vivid tour of the landscapes they inhabit and a celebration of the short days, varied weathers and long nights of the season.’ The author finds himself ‘celebrating the beauty of winter, when we share our home with these large, startling and garrulous birds.’

Wintering has been split into six different chapters, each of which corresponds to one of the most common species of geese in the United Kingdom. To be specific, these are the Pink-footed, Barnacle, Greylag, Brent, White-fronted, and Bean. In the book’s introduction, he notes that at the turn of winter: ‘Five wild species will head to Britain for the winter: a relative land of plenty, and gentler weather, respite from a north that is, still, ice-bloated and snowbound for the winter.’

Rutt had been a birder for a long time – ‘almost half my life,’ he says – but geese only became a fascination once he moved to Scotland: ‘Their habit of always just being there, their familiarity, bred apathy,’ he admits. His winter of geese begins on the 23rd of September, with a ‘simple arrow of birds as distant as the hills, heading south through the sunset.’ It is filled, then, with ‘wild half-count, half-estimates at the numbers passing overhead, between the fields north of the town and the Solway Firth to the south.’

Throughout Wintering, Rutt charts his journey into winter, and into his fascination with the geese: ‘I am falling more deeply for geese on a daily basis. Although I am told the winter won’t always be like this – they are wild geese after all, predictably unpredictable – the regular skeins flying over are captivating me. Sinking deep inside me… In a new place they are making me feel, tentatively, at home.’

From its very first page, where Rutt writes: ‘Autumn begins as a season for movement, and ends with everything changed’, one cannot help but be charmed by his pitch-perfect prose. He has such an awareness of the seasons, and of the birds which populate them. Early on, he writes: ‘Birds penetrate my year: time passes constantly but birds are the grammar of its passing, they give a rough working order to the months. I have my totems: the first singing chiffchaff at the beginning of spring and the first screeching swift at its end. The silencing of song at the end of summer; the disappearance of the swifts and the arrival of autumn.’

Rutt’s descriptions provide scenes so vivid that they are almost tangible to the reader: ‘Suddenly – geese, pushed over by the weather, heading to the Solway. A chaos of pink-footed geese, stretching across the horizon. There are thousands, the skeins straggling, struggling without a set order, flying in all directions. Lead geese swapping with others. Individuals peeling off and joining other groups, geese like a kaleidoscope of panic. Their honking sounds urgent. Wings labouring, growing damp in the rain, energy sapped by the wind.’ Later is this: ‘A hare basks in the middle of a field, in front of a dense barnacle goose flock, their monochrome plumage burning bright in the sun. The silver flanks dazzle, the white and black bars on their backs are like sharp light and thick shadow.’

Throughout, Rutt has sprinkled some really interesting facts about geese alongside his own observations. He writes, for instance, that the Bean goose is now so rare in the county of Dumfries and Galloway that ‘if you see one you have to write a description of it for a panel of four men to adjudicate on whether you are correct.’ He also writes about the fluctuation of population sizes, which are largely due to indiscriminate hunting, and the subsequent banning of this practice.

Throughout Wintering, Rutt discusses many elements which surround geese and their place in the world – their history, different migratory patterns, the uses for their meat and feathers, the domestication of various species, and geese in art and literature. He also touches upon conservation in many of the chapters which make up the book.

It was a wonderful thing, to revisit Scotland alongside Rutt. Although he lives in and describes a part of Scotland which I have never been to, having lived in Glasgow for three years, I recognised the often stark beauty of the landscapes which he writes about: ‘It is a bleak, dreich day: October by calendar, deep into winter by spirit. I can only faintly see the first line of hills. The trees reduced to pale grey shadows, their shapes indistinct in the weather.’

Wintering is a real delight, particularly to snuggle down with on a cool autumn or winter evening. It is clear that Rutt has such an interest in his chosen subjects; indeed, he writes: ‘My love of geese might be recent, but it connects me with a human fascination extending back for millennia.’