First written for Time Out in late 2011…
As sure as the nights lengthening, leaves turning and temperatures falling, every Autumn brings in its train a bumper crop of nature books. In a spirit of literary natural history, let us investigate this little-known publishing ecosystem.
Symbiosis is as important to writers as it is to lichens. So we witness the phenomenon of Stephen Moss introducing David Lindo’s book, and David Lindo appearing in Stephen Moss’s TV programmes. This piebald pair produce work that usefully illuminates each other, with Lindo writing passionately about a life spent watching birds in cities and Moss, having retreated from London to Somerset five years ago, concentrating on the animal, plant and, particularly, bird life of the village of Mark on the Somerset Levels. While neither books are classics of their genres – The Urban Birder is autobiography and natural history combined, Wild Hares and Hummingbirds aspires to be a modern Natural History of Selborne – they each convey their writers’ jizz (lest you wonder, this perennially dirty sounding word is the bird watchers’ term for the combination of qualities that make a bird what it is). Lindo, being the son of Jamaican immigrants, is the more unusual, and his message – to view buildings like birds do, as cliffs and mountains, and always to look up – resonates with the city dweller. Since Lindo brings nature back to where it seems most absent – the city – it is appropriate that the book is almost as much about growing up in the 1970s as it is about birds, and the tale of two young birdwatchers being pursued by airgun-shooting Essex toughs from Rainham marshes is almost worth the purchase price alone.
Moss’s work is full of nuggets of information, as concentrated as an owl pellet, such as a goldcrest – Britain’s smallest bird – weighing the same as a 20p coin, and the deadly consequences to field voles of marking their territories in wee. For urine reflects ultra-violet light and kestrels, the hovering predators of motorway verges, can see in ultra violet. While there’s much like this to enjoy in the book, the writing isn’t quite of the same standard as Gilbert White and Robert McFarlane, whatever the publisher’s blurb may say.
Bees In The City and The Natural Navigator belong to a different genus of natural-history books: the guide. Both are practical, well produced and do pretty much what they say on the cover, although potential apiarists and explorers should beware before buying hives or crossing the Orinoco without further research: neither topic can be constrained within the covers of a book. To be fair, none of the authors make such a claim, and bees in particular need all the help they can get. Honey bee colonies have been dying off over the last five years, probably due to a combination of environmental stress and infestations of the all too appropriately named Varroa destructor mite, but in response there has been a huge increase in beekeeping, particularly in urban areas. Benjamin and McCallum begin their book by profiling some of these new, young and, I should think, Time Outy apiarists, before moving on to a manual of practical beekeeping. Gooley sets navigation in its pre-GPS, even pre-compass, contexts and so seeks to open the senses of anyone outdoors to the cues our ancestors, and the birds and beasts of today, use to get around.
If the first four books belong to different genera, Fire Season comes from a different family altogether: American wilderness writing. Starting with Thoreau’s Walden, through Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey, Americans were faced with an entirely different experience of land and nature than the miniaturists of England: the Big Country. While English writers studied the ordinary and showed it to be extraordinary, it doesn’t take much effort to convince the reader that spending five months of the year watching for fires from a lookout tower in a semi-desert wilderness of sage bush, ponderosa pines and mountains is worth reading about. Although not quite the classic it hopes to be – Connors is either too present or not present enough in his narrative for it to match its antecedents – Fire Season does succeed in making this alien landscape and even more alien way of life come alive.
Edward Stourton’s book belongs in a different phylum altogether: essays. To be honest, I didn’t want to like a book that reproduced the fortnightly Telegraph columns of a BBC magnate regaling us with tales of men and beasts met when walking his Springer spaniel, but Diary of a Dog-Walker is an unexpected delight, combining gossipy politics and shaggy dog stories adroitly. Who could resist the tale of the boy who tricked his mother into calling their puppy Achilles so that he might hear her calling, ‘Achilles, heel!’ across the park?
The 2011 harvest of nature books shows the genre of nature writing, if not the natural world that inspires it, to be in rude health, and the common method of these books – to look harder at the world around us however ordinary it may seem – is certainly worth following.
Bees In The City: The Urban Beekeepers’ Handbook by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum.
The Natural Navigator Pocket Guide by Tristan Gooley.
The Urban Birder by David Lindo.
Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: The Natural History Of An English Village by Stephen Moss.
Diary Of A Dog-Walker: Time Spent Following A Lead by Edward Stourton.
Fire Season: Field Notes From A Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors.