nature

My reading list for 2022 was eclectic

I read more books in 2022 than I had in a few years, which is good. I also read or re-read huge chunks of books as background for my Hexham book festival commission, but they don’t count in my list because it’s only complete books.

A few of the books I read in 2022

I read a lot of ebooks, and some I borrowed from the Library of Mum & Dad, and some I’ve given to charity shops since, so the picture’s a bit sparse but I think you’ll agree it’s wide-ranging. If we add in the fact that I read a couple of Celia Imrie novels, some local history and Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, it becomes even more so. I wrote about Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald (good for dipping a toe into nature topics) and The Way Some People Die by Ross Macdonald (excellent slice of noir, borrowed from my dad) in January but nothing since, leaving it looking like I was only planning to review authors named Macdonald and ran out of steam. I had computer problems that stopped the blog for a few months and then I was too busy getting back into reading after a patchy couple of years to stop and write reviews of anything. I did mention The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola and GM Trevelyan’s Illustrated English Social History in a post about historical echoes. I’ll try and rattle through a few recommendations now.

Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain by Pen Vogler was interesting and I enjoyed it but I was left wanting more (despite it being a hefty book). Rather than chronological, the book is arranged by topic. What you get therefore is effectively an article about a meal or foodstuff, which is loosely related to the other articles in that section, with little room for depth or cross-referencing. I learnt lots of fascinating things, but I think I’ll have to delve into the extensive bibliography to answer all the follow-up questions I was left with.

Farmer’s Glory by AG Street must have been mentioned by Cumbrian farmer-author James Rebanks at some point (in fact he wrote the introduction to the edition I’ve got). The author worked on his father’s farm somewhere in the south of England in the early years of the twentieth century, then went to work on a Canadian farm in 1911. If you’re interested in man’s changing relationship with nature, or the history of farming itself, it’s a sad but enjoyable comparison of two very different farms, and also the pre- and post-war farm in England.

Into the Tangled Bank by Lev Parikian I highly recommend if you’ve dipped a toe with Helen Macdonald and you’re eager for more of the nature stuff. He writes some of the Country Diary for the Guardian, and judging by both the humour and the use of footnotes in this book, is probably a reader of Douglas Adams and/or Terry Pratchett. He has a Bill Bryson-ish air of being interested but not an expert (even though he knows an awful lot about birds) and his enthusiasm is contagious – he’s also worth following on twitter. It is a book about nature, but also about how the average Briton (whoever that may be) experiences nature, so there are urban street/park/garden excursions as well as the grounds of museums, and nature reserves and the like. From memory, there is nowhere he visits that isn’t accessible to the general public, though that does include an isolated holiday destination on an island of birds.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty is extremely long but quite readable and it didn’t take me that long to get through. To be honest I think a massive chunk of it is graphs (which take up a lot of space) and end-notes (which I didn’t read because the BorrowBox app didn’t seem to allow easy return to where you were reading). I found it really interesting but a) I’m pretty left-wing so I’m predisposed to e.g. recommendations of wealth tax, and b) though I’m not really up on economics, I do enjoy reading economic histories full of coal production graphs. For reference, I have never read Das Kapital which sounded incredibly dull. I think if you’re interested in how we got in this mess (2008 financial crisis etc) and how tax and wealth have been handled in a few of the major economies in the last couple of centuries, it’s worth a try. I think it’s designed to be dippable, or at least skippable if you don’t want the detail.

I can’t remember the detail of most novels I read last year, like Hestia by CJ Cherryh or Ayala’s Angel by Anthony Trollope but The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley has stuck with me. It’s a wonderful blend of nineteenth-century adventure story and fantasy novel, set in (from memory) the 1860s and following a chap from Cornwall to Peru in the footsteps of his grandfather. Thinking about it, there’s another connection to my nature-reading here – the core of it is about collecting specimens of exotic trees, but there’s a lot about the properties of trees, and rock, and landscape, and it’s richly described (I can still picture various locations or scenes, months after reading it). I reviewed her novel The Watchmaker of Filigree Street a few years ago and a character from that book also makes a cameo appearance, as it were.

Even more nature-related was The Woodcock by Richard Smyth, which I recommended on Twitter after reading, as follows: If you like novels set in Yorkshire and/or the 1920s and would like to be deeply immersed in a fictional coastal town such that you feel you could become a visitor guide I recommend The Woodcock by @RSmythFreelance. Lots of bird & rockpool action, plus love, philosophy & sadness. Not to mention a theatrical American with a vision of Coney Island adjacent to the North Sea.

When I was really struggling to read anything and I just wanted something to immerse myself in, I turned to the library app on my phone and flicked through any available novels that weren’t crime or thriller. It didn’t leave a lot of choice and I ended up with Not Quite Nice, and Sail Away, both by Celia Imrie. I’m not going to claim they were literary triumphs, and yes they probably wouldn’t have been published if she wasn’t already famous, but the name helped me choose from the list and they made me laugh and they were easy to follow. And they obviously sparked something because they did get me back on a reading track, and I continued with a couple more random library ebooks before I went back to my To Read shelf.

One of them was Bunny by Mona Awad which was about friendship, belonging and loneliness, at its heart. It involved a small group of young women studying creative writing at a prestigious American university, and the cliques and bitchiness and rivalry. But, it also had a weird layer of gothic fairytale (and some gory bits so bear that in mind if you’re squeamish like me). I loved it, and I’d never have read it if I’d read a review or run across it in a bookshop. Sometimes a bit of randomness is just what your reading list needs.

I also read a Guardian article about non-Eurocentric fantasy novels, which added a few books to my To Read list, two of which I read towards the end of 2022. The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard mainly involves fallen angels in an alternative Paris; they live in rival Houses and there are long-running intrigues and complex goings-on, lots of celestial politics behind the scenes. However, one of the characters caught up in the events of the novel is originally from Vietnam and has a whole different framework of magic and religion to draw on, which brings a different perspective. The other one I read was The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin and good grief it’s good. It’s about the end of the world, but beyond that there’s not much to say without spoilers. I loved the conversational narrative voice, the fact that one strand is written in second person, the way the world feels whole and different (like Dune or similar). Just read it if you like epic fantasy, you’ll thank me later.

Books I’m reading now and next

In a break from tradition I’ll end with a look ahead. I suspect 2023 is going to be an equally weird mix. I’m reading The Obelisk Gate (the sequel to The Fifth Season) at the moment, and then there’s book 3 The Stone Sky. However I’m also reading Counting Sheep by Philip Walling, about British sheep breeds and their impact on history, and I was given Jeremy Clarkson’s book about his farm (Diddly Squat) for Christmas. I must say I’m intrigued to know how a man like Clarkson got along with farming, I think James Rebanks said he had at least got a conversation going among people who wouldn’t normally care about agriculture. My dad has pressed Never Had It So Good by Dominic Sandbrook on me – it’s two inches thick in this paperback edition and covers a seven-year period so I think it might take me a bit of a run-up. Northerners by Brian Groom and Black Gold by Jeremy Paxman were my post-Christmas treats. That lot will probably take me till March and that’s without adding any new books into the mix (or the Vaseem Khan novel that’s waiting on my kobo).

Feel free to tell me what you’ve been reading or are looking forward to reading, either in the comments or on Twitter @JYSaville.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Dreaming about Northumberland

Just before Christmas I applied to Hexham book festival for a writing commission for this summer’s festival, and in January I read the acceptance email with a mixture of shock and excitement. This is the first time I’ve had new fiction commissioned, rather than writing something and sending it off to people in the hope they’d like it enough to publish it and maybe, if I was really lucky, also pay me. For a while the thought that this needed to be special, and somehow worthy of the fee, froze my creativity. Until OneMonkey helpfully pointed out that: I’ve written loads of stuff that people have liked before; I had sent writing samples with my application which they must have thought were good; I’ve successfully blended fiction and non-fiction a few times at live events, like at York Festival of Ideas.

The festival is taking place in the context of the Hadrian 1900 celebration of 1900 years since Hadrian’s Wall began to be built, and what I’d promised was this:

To create several connected short prose pieces, a blend of fiction and creative non-fiction aimed at adults but accessible to older children. Highlighting continuity and illustrating change, the fluidity of time slip fiction interspersed with a celebration of the natural world – a dreamlike exploration of Northumberland focused along the Wall.

My first ports of call

If you’ve seen photos of my bookshelves you’ll know I had plenty of resources to get me started, and I immediately pulled a likely pile from the shelves, including the wonderful Northumberland volume of the King’s England series of county guides. I also went to the Internet Archive and found eighteenth and early nineteenth century books on the natural history, history, agriculture and songs of the northern English counties. I read about fish and butterflies, archaeological investigations, battles and ballads, inquisitive antiquarians, and sheep-breeding. You won’t be surprised to know I went down a few rabbit holes that had little to do with the matter in hand, but it all adds to the mix. I ended up with pages of scribbled notes of interesting places and odd facts, and then I had to decide on a structure and a thread. I wrote a list of all the bits of history that I might be interested in touching on, and picked six time-periods that weren’t too cramped together, to meld into five pieces of flash fiction.

Blame my fascination with local and family history, but sometimes I become acutely aware of the crisscrossing paths layered in time, all the people who’ve been at a particular location before me. I liked the idea of somehow all the points in history being there at once, in key places along the Wall, and occasional seepage from one time into another. The thread became a student in a red cagoule who’s walking the Hadrian’s Wall path from west to east, experiencing weird time-slips along the way, although he thinks it’s the isolation making him see things.

Undoubtedly an influence but I didn’t dip back in

So much for the fiction. What about the creative non-fiction? I took my inspiration from the events I’ve done with Alice Courvoisier at the York Festival of Ideas among other places, where we’ve interspersed fiction and non-fiction to tell a patchwork story or explore a theme. Sandwiched between each pair of flash fictions is a flash CNF, on birds, forests, farming, and the Tyne. They connect to the surrounding fiction by image or theme – a circling bird, a darting deer, a discussion on eighteenth century agricultural improvement…

Surprise inspiration in the form of venison pasties

Once I’d started writing, my reading kept feeding in and I changed tack completely here and there. So many things I wanted to include I didn’t have room for, and so many fabulous things I found out that I want to use somewhere in future but were never going to be relevant here (take this as advance notice of future stories and local history articles about Northumberland).

When I applied for the commission, I fully expected to have moved to Hexham by June and to be strolling down the road to the New Writing event to read my piece. Nearly six months on, circumstances have changed so we’re going to be staying in West Yorkshire for a while longer. So apart from being great fun to research and write, Walking the Wall will stand as a reminder of That Time I Was About To Move To Hexham.

If you’re in the vicinity of Hexham on June 11th, you can book a free ticket to the festival event at which I’ll be reading a ten minute extract (roughly a third) of Walking the Wall.

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

I’d seen Helen Macdonald give a reading at one of the festivals that had gone online in 2020 or ’21, from the title essay of this book, and I decided to buy it with my birthday money. Vesper Flights is one of the longer pieces in the book and contains some enchanting imagery related to swifts and their flight. Many of the essays feature birds, as you might expect from someone who is known for a book called H is for Hawk, but there are also fungi, deer, a wild boar and a fair few people.

I started reading it a couple of days before Christmas, thinking it would be just the thing for the six or seven hours’ return train journey to see OneMonkey’s dad. It’s a little less than three-quarters of an inch thick, about 260 pages, but what with my slowed-down reading speed and pauses to look out at the scenery of North Yorkshire and County Durham or ponder what I’d read, I only got halfway through. The other half then took me another three weeks, an essay or short musing slipped in between work and tea or washing up and bed.

The book is one that might be referred to as not really a nature book, in Richard Smyth’s 2017 essay on the limitations of nature writing. All the pieces except one (The Student’s Tale) contain ‘nature’ if you like – observations on a species or habitat, information about a study carried out in the distant past, an account of a trip to a nature reserve – but few of them are solely about the species or habitat in question, though the paperback says ‘nature writing’ on the back cover next to the price. Many of the pieces put me in mind of the kind of article I might read in the weekend edition of a newspaper, not because the topic particularly interested me but because I was idly browsing and the first paragraph caught my attention. Indeed, I believe a lot of them were written for The New York Times Magazine and New Statesman, i.e. for a general readership.

This is a book then for the curious non-specialist. Someone with a passing interest in nature, perhaps, eager to read descriptions of it by someone more deeply immersed – a casual dipper, willing to be drawn in. Or someone like me who shies away from Latin names and technical terms (despite being a trained scientist who has studied Latin) but is keen to learn more about the wondrous things they see while out walking, or watching from an upstairs window while working from home. And Macdonald does talk of wondrous things, and of the need for both science and a dash of magic, of awe.

In my experience if you go out hoping for revelation you will merely get rained upon.

Helen Macdonald, The Numinous Ordinary in Vesper Flights

One of the aspects I enjoyed was the accessibility of most of the experiences in Vesper Flights. Sometimes it feels as though nature writing is all about wealthy chaps communing in the wilderness (see Richard Smyth’s other delightful essay, The State of Nature). Although there is a trip to South America and to the Empire State Building in Vesper Flights, for the most part these are urban and suburban adventures in the UK. Watching peregrine falcons on the other side of a metal fence at a disused power station, or a small flock of migrating birds outside a shopping centre, doesn’t feel like the preserve of a particular strata of society. However, that the author is middle-class and Cambridge educated does come forcibly to the fore in Birds, Tabled which is mainly about caged songbirds kept by ‘the working classes’, and which I found patronising and slightly offensive. It reminded me that authors assume a shared understanding of the world with their readers, and when that isn’t the case the reader can feel excluded at best. It’s also good evidence for why the recent push for working class nature writers isn’t as daft as some people seem to think.

Because this is nature-based writing for a general readership, Macdonald often weaves topics together to make the reader look at the world differently. For instance, migrating birds and migrating people, or the onset of migraines and the onset of climate catastrophe. One theme that recurs is how our cultural context shapes our interpretation of animal behaviour, which was interesting. Current affairs naturally creep in (the dates of each piece for context would have been nice, but I say that about most collections) and you can spot recurring fears and preoccupations like Brexit, the plight of refugees, Donald Trump – if you’re not centre-left some of it will start to irritate you, I imagine. I found The Student’s Tale jarringly out of place: a nicely written piece but I bought this book as ‘nature writing’ and couldn’t understand why an account of an epidemiology student seeking asylum in the UK had been included.

On the whole I enjoyed the book. I learnt some scientific and historical facts, I looked at a few things differently, and on the way I enjoyed some lovely, atmospheric descriptions of animals and places, that were at times quite magical. I haven’t read many books that would be classed as nature writing and purists might dismiss this collection but if it encourages a wider readership to take notice of their surroundings and the effects of their choices as homeowners or consumers then that has to be a good thing.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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Meditation on stone

It may look like a shrivelled mouldy potato now, bluish purple with a few streaks of pink, but on the beach, shiny with seawater, it was stone-washed denim with red veins. I shifted other stones in my search for fossils and it caught my eye, caught my heart. I brought it home by train across the county and forgot about it.

I’d like to say I gaze upon it and ponder the vastness of geological time, the insignificance of man in earth’s history, but it’s a stone among stones. It has no special place like the few treasured fossils in the glass-fronted cabinet, handed down the generations, or the ones under the glass dome of the thimble-stand that we found ourselves. It doesn’t even have the status of the plainer ammonites in the glass vase on the hearth. It is a stone in a small basket of stones, picked for its colour and kept for its holiday memories which have now faded with its hue. I can’t tell you when I found it, or if it was in Whitby or Filey. It is overlooked, another piece of clutter.

Holding it now, it feels like a pumice stone, light and pitted. It fits in my hand like an unyielding stress-ball covered in a light film of dust – who dusts their basket of stones? Who has a basket of stones? It is a small piece of the earth which has tumbled down a cliff, rumbled under water. It is a shrunken asteroid, an inhospitable mining planet from 70s sci-fi. If I tasted it would I taste salt and seaweed and fish and chips? Would I get an electric jolt as though it was a 9V battery? Would I convince myself it was a mouldy potato and spit it out? Would I lap up the discarded body parts of tiny long-dead creatures?

Do you miss the sea? Can you hear its shush-shush in your dreams? Do stones dream? Can you hear me? Where does a stone’s soul go when it splinters and crumbles to dust?

I imagine the stone maintains a dignified silence, and then it hits me: on its timescale I am inaudible, a microsecond’s squeak, and even if it did hear, and understand, and choose to reply, it would take aeons for its thought processes to grind together into something resembling words, and by then I would have splintered and crumbled to dust.

This post began as an exercise in the New Writing North How to Start Writing the Climate workshop in July 2021. If you enjoyed it you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Do you know more than you think about garden birds?

Last summer when lockdown had apparently made everyone in the UK appreciate nature more, I wrote a light essay about the birds in my garden. I wanted to braid past and present together and show that, almost by accident, I now knew far more than I thought about birds. I forget exactly why, but I’d started listing things I’d learnt from nearly a decade of watching our wildlife garden from an upstairs window, and I kept remembering another thing, and another and finally realised the list was longer than I expected. It made me think of the Monty Python sketch about the Spanish Inquisition, where Michael Palin starts listing their weapons, remembering another, and has to settle for a vague statement (‘Our chief weapon is surprise, fear and surprise…Our two weapons are fear and surprise, and…Amongst our weaponry…I’ll come in again’). Hence I called it ‘Among the things I know about birds’.

I couldn’t quite get the form of it right last summer and I put it away for a while then had another go after I’d read the admirably accessible An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth. When I’d finally got it in a state I was happy with, I sent it out to a couple of magazines. It was accepted almost immediately by ThereAfter, and finally appeared online this week. Richard Smyth’s read it and he liked my descriptions, if that’s an incentive.

I saw a woodpigeon on its too-small nest in the yew tree last Spring, looking like a parent with a well-cushioned backside trying to sit on a primary school chair, and I didn’t have to look it up. The beefier, more consistently-coloured cousin of the city centre pigeon, I’ve watched its kind crash onto the bird table, snap flimsy sapling branches and make its clod-hopping way around our garden for years. I could no more mistake it now for the elegant mushroom-coloured collared dove with its black torque than I could mistake a magpie for a jay.

from Among the things I know about birds, by JY Saville
Collared doves in our garden

I partly wrote this essay in wonder at my accidental education, but also as encouragement to other suburban (or even urban, if there’s any greenery nearby) nature enthusiasts who consider themselves clueless about the wildlife around them. You probably know more than you think you do. And if you don’t yet, then you can almost certainly learn gradually and painlessly by watching, with occasional looking things up in books or online. Ultimately, it’s not a race and it’s about enjoyment and appreciation rather than accumulating knowledge. I learnt recently that the sound like a rusty pump handle that I’ve noticed for the last few years is the call of a great tit, but I can’t recognise any other birdsong. Except the cloth-tearing sound of a jay, of course. And the squabbling jackdaws. And the tawny owl that sits on the roof sometimes. Hang on, let me come in again.

If Among the things I know about birds made you look at your surroundings differently, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Learning to write about climate change

I can’t believe I haven’t yet written about How to Start Writing the Climate, a series of four workshops run by Linda France for New Writing North. Prospective participants had to apply with a sample of their writing, and it’s always a boost to be selected in that way, whether it’s for an anthology or an online gathering. As I write this in mid-June we’ve had three of the four workshops, with another short piece to write before the final one in early July.

Since I write in various genres including sci-fi, it would be easy to see climate change as something I could (should?) tackle in a particular way. The books I’ve read that had it at their heart have all been sci-fi (I recommended a few a while back). It’s a common theme, usually used in a dystopian way – societal breakdown due to food or water shortages, damage to infrastructure through storms or floods – and set in the future. The trouble is, we’re living through it right now and it could (should) crop up in every genre except fantasy, because it is the realest of real.

I say that, but it even has a place in fantasy. My semi-rural fantasy novel set in northern England in 2018, the one that got me onto the Penguin WriteNow day in 2017, has a strong ‘green’ theme: pollution, fracking and ecosystem damage, as well as changing weather patterns and political responses to the climate emergency. It’s still SFF though, still a niche readership (if it’s ever published) and all about impending disaster – the North Sea has decided people can’t be trusted with the land so she decides to reclaim it. I felt that climate change, its effects and possible mitigations, people’s fears and plans relating to it, ought to crop up, however subtly, in all genres. Just like environmental considerations ought to crop up to some extent in all policy and planning. Hence my desire to attend these workshops.

Bridlington beach
The North Sea in calm mood in 2015

The trouble is, if it is a topic with strong emotional pull – a topic where there are fears and arguments in the background – it’s hard to know where to start. I also found it was hard for me not to stray into near-future SF, or into some kind of hectoring, doom-laden vein. On top of all that I’m not an expert, just a Guardian-reading citizen who’s looking to live through this. All those mythical target dates (this by 2030, that by 2040, the other by 2050) should be comfortably within my lifetime, I have a stake in this. Maybe not as much as if I had children, but still…

Linda started off by acknowledging these difficulties and trying to help us through them. We had a delve into why we write at all, why we want to write about climate change, and why it’s difficult. The delve included some free-writing sessions, where you write for a set time without stopping (if you get stuck you write e.g. ‘I’m stuck, I can’t think of anything, how annoying’ etc until you break out of the rut). I’ve often found these useful for freeing up the mind, or rather, sneaking ideas past the self-censor, and it helped here too. I gained a tiny insight into what my personal angle might be, the motivation that could see me through. I also did a mind map which I augmented over a few days, and that gave me some bare topics but also phrases I jotted down like ‘no plastic tat’, ‘ok if you’ve got good quality belongings to start with’, ‘it’s expensive to be frugal’.

Then we talked about who the audience might be, and I faltered. There’s a mix of poets and prose writers in the group but we’re not talking documentary style, factual writing. Primarily we’re looking to inform as we entertain, with poetry or fiction or creative non-fiction (true events written in a storytelling narrative style). I can’t imagine that any reader of the sort of literary journal I might aspire to be published in will be unaware of climate change or what they can do to slow down or mitigate it. They might not be prepared to make the changes they recognise as necessary or they might not be able to afford to (I once explained to an earnest middle-class student that normal people aren’t deciding between the recycled brand and the standard big-name brand that costs the same, they’re deciding between the recycled brand and the value brand which costs half the price. He didn’t seem to get it). But fundamentally, I’m not telling them anything they didn’t know and I’m unlikely to change their behaviour. Two things, then: one, I can at least reflect reality better if I weave some thoughts on climate change in; two, I can make it specific and bring it closer to home.

The view from my front door when the moor was on fire 2 years ago

While I think it is true that at some level we must all know what’s going on by now, and what we can do (would like to do, are prepared to do, ought to do) about it, it still sometimes seems far away if you live in a comfortable inland area of a developed country. There’s talk of droughts and sea-level rises and melting glaciers but I live in a pretty rainy part of northern England where people still laugh at southerners and their summer hosepipe bans. We’ve had some devastating moor fires over the last five years but it’s easy to focus on people’s carelessness with cigarettes or barbecues, rather than how much more likely these fires are if the moor gets drier than normal. So maybe Climate Change the big scary topic is familiar, but specific ways it’s affecting northern England and its weather and wildlife will be unusual enough to make someone pause.

My next problem involves starting out on climate change and ending up on biodiversity loss, extinctions and habitat destruction. I worry that, although the two are connected, I’m straying off topic. However, if there’s one thing I learnt from my repeated reading of Douglas Adams (sadly I don’t seem to have learnt how to write good comic fantasy), it’s the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. By which I mean, if I write with the intention of writing about climate change and how I feel about it, then if it ends up being about reduction in butterfly numbers and changes to migratory patterns that aren’t all directly caused by climate change, that’s ok. Feeling a connection to nature, which many people have discovered or deepened during the pandemic, makes us care more about our impact on the planet, and by extension, man-made climate change. Expect more birds and trees to crop up in my non-SF stories. And butterflies, of course.

A butterfly photo I took at Tropical World in Leeds, before I even had this blog

If I’ve given you something to think about, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

Although I’ve been struggling through fiction this year I have been able to read non-fiction at a reasonable pace so I took the opportunity to dip into this book everyone’s been talking about and awarding prizes to. Dara McAnulty is an autistic teenage nature enthusiast and climate change activist from Northern Ireland that I follow on Twitter. The book covers the year he was 14, from Spring to the following first day of Spring. It’s in the form of a diary as you might expect from the title, though not every day has an entry.

Some of his descriptions are amazingly vivid, and I don’t just mean ‘for a kid’. There were passages in the book that were completely immersive, a joy to read – his focus and intensity really draw you into the scene and his enthusiasm is infectious. Because I grew up in the 1980s, the first thing that springs to mind for me when I hear ‘Northern Ireland’ is unfortunately sectarian violence. This short book (150 pages in the ebook I borrowed from the library) has introduced me to a part of the UK countryside I knew nothing about, and portrayed it as a place of wonder. It obviously has its problems, and he mentions the dwindling of bird species and problems with the reintroduction of red kites for instance, but there is a lot of hope and positivity here.

There is, however, also a fair amount of teenage angst. This is a diary first and foremost, and happens to be mostly about nature because of his interests. I have to say that reading about a child being bullied to the point of suicidal thoughts, in the child’s own words, made me feel deeply uncomfortable. That said, there is far more natural wonder than anything else, and his passion and drive are inspiring. If you want to rekindle a sense of childlike awe for the world around you, dip into this book and then spend some time outdoors watching birds in a tree or insects on a wall.

An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth

An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth, in paperback

I don’t often review non-fiction and I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed ‘nature writing’ before, partly because I’m not sure how much of my audience will be interested and partly because I don’t feel qualified, somehow. I wanted to share this book, however, because I feel like it’s the most accessible nature book I’ve read.

An Indifference of Birds proclaims itself ‘Human history – from a bird’s eye view’ and in less than a hundred pages it rattles through a series of good turns and injuries we as a species have (mostly accidentally) done to birds both in general, and for specific types, times and places. In the process it lobbed handfuls of fascinating facts at me (which I then lobbed at OneMonkey), turned my perspective upside down and made me think hard about our place in nature. Which, to be honest, I’ve been thinking about a fair bit anyway.

Lockdown, we’re told, has made everyone in the UK appreciate nature more. Indeed, the BBC6Music breakfast show has a new nature-lovers’ segment, so mainstream has our Attenborough-fuelled appreciation become. No better time, then, to read this book. I will confess that Richard is a friend of a friend, which is what made me aware of the book’s existence but I’m glad I read it and I urge other interested amateurs to read it too.

I mentioned that ‘nature-writing’ can sometimes seem daunting, lots of technical terms for glacial valleys or Latin names for plants, or it’s written by someone who goes into raptures about trees while I’m sat here thinking trees are nice and everything, I love walking among them but is there something wrong with me that I don’t look at a 900-year-old oak and swoon? Richard’s book glows with enthusiasm, here is a man who clearly loves his subject and appears to know what he’s talking about, but he uses Latin names only about twice in the book where he needs to make a point, and if he uses a technical term he gives a simple gloss for the uninitiated. White-tailed eagles, we’re told, are ‘broad-spectrum feeders – they’ll eat any old shit’. This is the level of technicality I can deal with.

I’ve had the pleasure of reading a few of Richard Smyth’s short stories (some of which can be read at his website) and this book is also in a deceptively simple, readable style with occasional flourishes that leave you smiling. He makes the point in chapter 2 that our destruction of habitat isn’t solely down to late-stage capitalism and corporate greed, we’ve been doing this for centuries, and I love the way he says we’re ‘perfectly capable of wreaking handmade artisanal havoc at a community level’. That nudge to step back and think about what exactly the problem is and are our ‘solutions’ sensible recurs through the book.

I happened to have started listening to the audiobook of Wilding by Isabella Tree the week I read An Indifference of Birds and I once went to a talk about rewilding by George Monbiot, so I have a passing Guardian-reader’s interest in the topic. OneMonkey and I have had the odd conversation along the lines of ‘yes but returning to which state of nature – 500 years ago, a thousand?’ but I haven’t seen that problem articulated before. Richard makes the point that it’s tricky to talk about re-introduction of anything, as everything else in the ecosystem (including people and their habits, dwellings, waste) has changed in the meantime, and he raises some interesting moral questions about wiping out non-native species.

In short, if you want to find out some interesting things about birds ancient and modern, admirably contextualised, and be made to view the birds in your garden/town/city differently, and possibly be alerted to to the difficulties of noticing and stopping gradual changes (be it biodiversity loss or climate change), read this book. And if anyone knows of equivalently accessible volumes on other aspects of the natural world, let me know.

You can find out more or buy the book via the publisher.

If I just helped you find your way into nature-writing you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Aftermath of moorland fire

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An afternoon stroll interrupted by dark lunar landscape. Swathes of burnt bracken and heather, an oasis of green and one unscathed tree. Why stop there? What’s so special about this grassy peninsula, tongue of flameless ground licking the slope?

One small step, as walking boots raise puffs of black, disturb the November smell out of place in summer sunshine, reminiscent of the fire-damaged stock in a long-closed second-hand record shop. One giant leap, crunching through dark crust like a bite into royal icing, like slicing into a macabre wedding cake. Do it again, sink into a pile of burnt twigs.

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Bend to sift through ashy debris, looking for ready-to-use charcoal sticks to draw this scene later. Pick them up and they crumble to flakes. Hints of living browns and greens among the grey, as well as cracked and scorched eggshell.

Later, on the ridge, look down and see the tracks left behind.

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