During the past year of intermittent lockdowns I’ve found a lot more time for reading, curling up with a good book on days when the weather’s too extreme for meeting up with neighbours outside! Nature writing is now a vast and diverse genre, so I thought I would share some of the nature books that have inspired, amused and comforted me recently.
Simon Barnes writes with a humorous and light-hearted style and his book ‘Bird Watching with Your Eyes Closed’ is a great place to start for anyone wanting to tune into the birdsongs around us. He recommends beginning at this time of year, recognising the sounds you can hear in winter so that new songs will stand out to your ears as they build up throughout the spring. You’ll also find out why birds sing, and their connections with humanity over time: “Birdsong is not just about natural history. It is also about our history. We got melody from the birds as we got rhythm from the womb. Birds are our music: they teach us to express emotion and beauty in sound. The first instruments ever made were bird-flutes.” A free podcast accompanies the book and can be found here: https://shortbooks.co.uk/book/birdwatching-with-your-eyes-closed
We’re often told that ‘spending time in nature’ is good for us, its importance evidenced by the inclusion of our ‘daily walk’ as an essential reason to be out and about during lockdown…but what does this mean in practice? Perhaps it’s different for each of us. Gaelic place names reveal a lost everyday familiarity with details in the landscape. I’m sure beauty plays a part, although might not be enough when you’ve been scratched, bitten, stung or soaked, or are staring at yet another load of plastic washed up on the beach.
Scientific theories abound: from the health benefits of daylight, fresh air and exercise; to the phytochemicals emitted by plants which can have positive effects on our brain chemistry; the value of wonder and curiosity; or biophilia – even with all our technology, humans are still mammals after all and therefore fellow creatures at home in the natural world. For lockdown reading though, I wanted stories rather than theories, so here are my top recommendations for some personal stories where nature has a role in giving solace.
A severe illness forced William Fiennes to put his career on hold and return to the house where he grew up, once more depending on his parents for support. While convalescing he became fascinated by the garden birds, which inspired a new adventure. His book ‘The Snow Geese’ documents his travels as he follows birds across America, focusing on character studies of the people he meets along the way, and his thoughts on migration, homesickness and what it means to leave and to return.
Amy Liptrot couldn’t wait to leave Orkney for an exciting life in London, but years later as a recovering alcoholic finds herself drawn back north to its windswept clifftops. ‘The Outrun’ is her story of reconciling her need for excitement with the renewed hope she finds amongst wildlife and wide open spaces.
‘The Salt Path’ finds Raynor Winn and her terminally ill husband walking hundreds of miles around the coastline of Devon and Cornwall. Homeless after a failed investment took away their house, smallholding and the dreams they’d worked so hard for, they discover purpose in the daily rhythm of packing up the tent and walking on in the narrow strip between civilisation and the ocean. Its sequel ‘The Wild Silence’ contains one of the best descriptions I’ve read of how connection to the land can sustain us – between vigils at the hospital bed of her dying mother Ray wanders the fields of her childhood landscape, and wonders if their recent endurance journeys could hold the key to her husband’s health. (For those who prefer podcasts, Raynor tells her story here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p090xbkk)
At just 14, Dara McAnulty was the youngest ever winner of the Wainwright Prize and his ‘Diary of a Young Naturalist’ is so beautifully written. Chronicling a year in his life in which he faces bullying, school exams and moving house away from his favourite places, it shows amazing self-awareness as he describes what it’s like to be a young autistic boy with a passion for saving the planet. He must overcome difficulties of social interaction in order to follow his desire for environmental activism, along the way describing in intricate detail the lives of birds of prey, insects, wildflowers and his own family, all of them companions which delight and do not judge.
These are stories I will return to many times, and I hope you draw some inspiration as I have from accompanying authors who’ve written bravely about the sustaining power of connecting to nature even in times of deep distress. People who are honest about how tough life can be but somehow gain the resilience to keep on caring no matter what.
This time I’d like to tell you about some nature writing we have created! Former ranger service volunteers Natalie Weiner and Margaret McLarty have been working hard on writing and illustrating a children’s story called ‘Fisherman Pete and the Pirate Problem’. It’s a fun and informative book to teach children (and their parents) about the lives of puffins on the island of Staffa and how even the smallest visitors can play a big part in protecting both the island and the puffins that nest there! It explains how to behave around the puffin colony and that the presence of humans results in fewer attacks from the skuas which specialise in stealing food caught by other seabirds. Of course the skuas are as much part of the marine habitat, but this story is told from the puffins’ point of view!
Fisherman Pete is a little puffin with a big problem… a pirate problem! Captain Brown Beak and her band of Skuas are on a mission to steal the food Pete caught for his hungry family. Can you help him solve his problem and get home in time for tea?!
Designed by Toben Lewis of Baile Mor Books on Iona, and now available more widely on the NTS online shop, with all profits going towards conservation work on Staffa. https://www.nts.org.uk/shop/catalog/product/view/id/3906/s/fisherman-pete-the-pirate-problem/category/218/
Continuing the nature writing theme, this month I’m looking at the work of author Robert MacFarlane. His book ‘The Wild Places’ is a favourite of mine, in which he sets off on a serious of beautifully described journeys to remote corners of Britain and Ireland in search of wildness. In the end, his intense experiences in some awe-inspiring places teach him to be more attentive to the wild in the everyday, in the country lanes and fragments of woodland around the edges of his home city of Cambridge. Quite an appropriate message for lockdown life where we’ve all learned to find a new appreciation of nearby nature in our immediate surroundings.
Another book ‘Landmarks’ focuses on the vocabulary we use to describe the outdoors, how it varies across countries and regions, and how knowing the words can also help you to notice the details they describe. A recent NatureScot report on ‘Ecosystem Services and Gaelic’ (available online) also picks up on this fascinating theme, looking for evidence in Gaelic place-names, poetry and song of people’s relationship with nature and the many different ways it has provided our food, medicine, fuel, shelter, recreation over time. MacFarlane’s lovely ‘Lost Words’ series in collaboration with artist Jackie Morris also brings vividly to life through poems and pictures lots of simple nature words now removed from children’s dictionaries and I’ve greatly enjoyed making use of this material in my work with local schools.
In ‘The Old Ways’ he suggests two questions we should ask of any landscape: “…what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? And then…what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?” Whether you can’t wait to travel or are enjoying getting to know your local area in depth, I hope you enjoy your own explorations.
These reviews first appeared in ‘Round and About Mull and Iona’ magazine: https://roundandabout.scot/
What are some of your favourite nature writing reads?