A Natural Cornucopia

For a couple of glorious years – before Time Out went free and dropped its book reviews – I wrote the annual review of natural history books. Here’s the first I wrote; each of these books was a privilege to read.

Weeds by Richard Mabey,
Weeds by Richard Mabey,

Weeds. How vagabond plants gatecrashed civilisation and changed the way we think about nature. By Richard Mabey. Published by Profile Books.

The Butterfly Isles. A summer in search of our Emperors and Admirals. By Patrick Barkham. Published by Granta.

The Running Sky. A birdwatching life. By Tim Dee. Published by Vintage.

The Invention of Clouds. How an amateur meterologist forged the language of the skies. By Richard Hamblyn. Published by Picador.

Weeds ask us where the boundary between nature and culture lies. Richard Mabey’s book is an exploration, celebration and investigation of that mysterious hinterland, where the wild things enter into our carefully laid plans and then refuse to leave, despite billions of pounds spent on herbicides and thousands of years spent on hoeing.

Weeds evolved originally to colonise disturbed ground and they are now perfectly positioned to take advantage of the vigorous shaking we’re giving the world’s ecosystems. Take Danish scurvygrass for example. Up until the 1980s, it was limited to the drier coasts of Britain, but since then it has been on the march down the central reservations of motorways and trunk roads. The reason? Salt. Winter gritting on the country’s main roads has brought salty, coastal conditions inland. And where the gritters go, the plant follows.

Every weed has its own story, and many were once much loved plants that fell from favour as fashions, be it agricultural or horticultural, shifted. Even the humblest dandelion becomes, in Mabey’s book, a thing of wonder, living in plain sight, embedded on our lawns.

But if the very definition of a weed involves hardiness, a butterfly would seem to embody the opposite: a delicate, ephemeral beauty. Patrick Barkham was ensnared by their lure as an eight-year-old boy and, as an adult, set out to find all 59 resident species of British butterfly. Turns out, they’re not so weedy after all. They live across almost all habitats in Britain, either rushing from caterpillar to pupa to butterfly in a heady rush of life, or laying low over winter to emerge, exactly like a butterfly, in spring.

During the year, Barkham loses his girlfriend, a part of his sanity and any claims to a low-carbon lifestyle as he hurtles up and down motorways in search of the next butterfly. I won’t say if he succeeds in his quest, but he does succeed in entangling the reader in the net of the Aurelian’s consuming passion – and he taught me a new word. Don’t you think Aurelian is an altogether more appropriate name for a lepidopterist?

There’s no such fancy name for birdwatchers; twitcher sounds as much an insult as a description. But Tim Dee’s extraordinarily passionate book about a life spent watching birds is an immersion in song, and wind, and feather. Like the other books, it describes a world that intersects our own without ever becoming part of it (except, perhaps, for chickens). It flows south with the autumn migration, following our house martins as they disappear without trace into the steaming jungles of the Congo. It returns, to rest in the unheard subsong of summer, when birds dream, and dreaming, sing.

The backdrop for Dee’s book is, of course, the sky. Up until the nineteenth century, clouds were the essence of formlessness, and no more possible to name than the air was to grasp. Richard Hamblyn tells the story of the man who named the clouds. Luke Howard was a Quaker. In the early nineteenth century, Dissenters were among those excluded from university education, so they formed an early, direct contact version of the internet, circulating news, information and ideas (but no porn). These were self-confident times, and though Howard was naturally shy, he found a forum in the vigorous lectures and societies of the time. In 1802, he gave the lecture that named the cirrus and the stratus, the cumulus and the nimbus, and coined the vocabulary that named the unnameable.


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