I’m catching up with a few nature- and travel-based 2023 releases that were sent to me for review. I’ve grouped them together because these British authors share some of the same interests and concerns. They celebrate beloved places that become ours through the time we spend in them and the attention we grant; they mourn the loss of biodiversity from rockpools and gardens and seabird cliffs. What kind of diminished world they’re raising their children into is a major worry for all three, and for Huband and Vaught the unease is exacerbated by chronic illness. Wild creatures, and the fellow authors who have hymned them, ease the hurt.
Sea Bean: A beachcomber’s search for a magical charm by Sally Huband
After more than a decade in her adopted home of Shetland, Sally Huband is still a newcomer. A tricky path to motherhood and ensuing chronic illness (the autoimmune disease palindromic rheumatism) limited her mobility and career. Beachcombing is at once her way of belonging to a specific place and feeling part of the wider world – what washes up on a Shetland beach might come from as far away as Atlantic Canada or the Caribbean. Sea glass, lobster pot tags, messages in bottles, driftwood … and a whole lot of plastic, of course. Early on, Huband sets her sights on a sea bean – also known as a drift-seed, from the tropics – which in centuries past was a talisman for ensuring safe childbirth. Possession of one was enough to condemn a 17th-century local woman to death for witchcraft, she learned.
Stories of motherhood, the quest to find effective treatment in a patriarchal medical system, volunteer citizen science projects (monitoring numbers of dead seabirds, returning beached cetaceans to the water, dissecting fulmar stomachs to assess their plastic content), and studying Shetland’s history and customs mingle in a fascinating way. Huband travels around the archipelago and further afield, finding a vibrant beachcombing culture on the Dutch island of Texel. As in Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn, one of my all-time favourite nonfiction books, there is delight at the randomness of what the ocean delivers.
I requested this book because Huband’s was my favourite essay in the Antlers of Water anthology. In it, she deplored the fact that women were still not allowed to participate in the Up Helly Aa fire festival in Lerwick. Good news: that is no longer the case, thanks to campaigning by Huband and others. In a late chapter, she also reports that blackface was recently banned from the festivals, and a Black Lives Matter demonstration drew 2000 people. Change does come, but slowly to a traditional island community. And sometimes it is not the right sort of change, as with an enormous wind farm, resisted vigorously by residents, that will primarily enrich a multinational company instead of serving the local people.
In many ways, this is a book about coming to terms with loss, and Huband presents the facts with sombre determination. Passages about the threats to birds and marine life had me near tears. But she writes with such poetic tenderness that the evocative specifics of island life point towards what’s true for all of us making the best of our constraints. I was lucky enough to visit several islands of Shetland in 2006; whether you have or not, this is a radiant memoir I would recommend to readers of Kathleen Jamie, Jean Sprackland and Malachy Tallack.
Some favourite lines:
No island can ever live up to the heightened expectations that we always seem to place on them; life catches up with us, sooner or later.
With each loss, emotional pain accretes for those who have paid attention.
If hope is a hierarchy of wishes then I am happy enough, each time that I beachcomb, to find fragments of the bark of paper birch
I’ve come to think of the ocean as an archive of sorts.
With thanks to Hutchinson Heinemann for the proof copy for review.
The Jay, the Beech and the Limpetshell: Finding Wild Things with My Kids by Richard Smyth
all around us
the stuff of spells. Our parents
let us go to scamper deeper,
leap from stumps lush with moss.
Everything aloof about me
fell into the soil once charged
with younger siblings
and freedoms of a wood.
I give you a damp valley floor,
this feather for your pocket.
~an extract from “Arger Fen,” from Latch by Rebecca Goss
I know Richard Smyth for his writing on birds (I’ve reviewed both A Sweet, Wild Note and An Indifference of Birds) and his somewhat controversial commentary on modern nature writing. This represents a change in direction for him toward more personal reflection, and with its focus on the phenomena of childhood and parenthood it recalls Wild Child by Patrick Barkham and The Nature Seed by Lucy Jones and Kenneth Greenway. But, as I knew to expect from previous works, he has such talent for reeling in the tangential and extrapolating from the concrete to the abstract that this lively read ends up being about everything: what it is to be human on this fading planet.
And this despite the fact that four of five chapter headings suggest pandemic-specific encounters with nature. Lockdown walks with his two children, and the totems they found in different habitats – also including a chaffinch nest and an owl pellet – are indeed jumping-off points, punctuating a wide-ranging account of life with nature. Smyth surveys the gateway experiences, whether books or television shows or a school tree-planting programme or collecting, that get young people interested; and talks about the people who beckon us into greater communion – sometimes authors and celebrities; other times friends and family. He also engages with questions of how to live in awareness of climate crisis. He acknowledges that he should be vegetarian, but isn’t; who does not harbour such everyday hypocrisies?
It’s still, unfortunately, rare for men to write about parenthood (and especially pregnancy loss – I only think of Native by Patrick Laurie and William Henry Searle’s books), so it’s great to see that represented, and it’s a charming idea that we create “downfamily” because the “upfamily” doesn’t last forever. Although there’s nostalgia for his childhood here, and anxiety about his kids’ chances of seeing wildlife in abundance, Smyth doesn’t get mired in the past or in existential dread. He has a humanist belief that people are essentially good and can do positive things like build offshore wind farms, and in the meantime he will take Genevieve and Daniel into the woods to play so they will develop a sense of wonder at all that lives on. Even for someone like me who doesn’t have children, this was a captivating, thought-provoking read: We’re all invested in the future of life on this planet.
With thanks to Icon Press for the free copy for review.
These Envoys of Beauty: A Memoir by Anna Vaught
Anna Vaught is a versatile author: I have a copy of her mental health-themed novel Saving Lucia, longlisted for the inaugural Barbellion Prize, on the shelf; she’s written a spooky set of stories, Famished (see Susan’s review); and I gave some early reader feedback on the opening pages of her forthcoming work of quirky historical fiction, The Zebra and Lord Jones. She’s also publishing a book on writing, and editing a collection of pieces submitted for the first Curae Prize for writers who are also carers. I was drawn to her first nonfiction release by reviews by fellow bloggers – it’s always good when a blog tour achieves its aim!
These dozen short essays are about how nature doesn’t necessarily heal, but is a most valued companion in a life marked by chronic illness and depression. The evocative title and epigraphs are from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Nature” (1836). The pieces loop through Vaught’s past and present, focussing on favourite places in Wiltshire, where she lives, and at the Pembrokeshire coast. It’s the second memoir about complex PTSD that I’ve read this year (see also What My Bones Know). Both at the time and now, when flashbacks of her parents’ verbal and physical abuse haunt her, lying down in a grassy field, exploring a sea cave or sucking on a gorse flower could be a salve. “Nature offered stability and satisfying detail; pattern, form and things that made sense.”
Vaught has a particular love for trees, flowers and moss – even just reciting their Latin names gives her a thrill, and she adds additional information about some species in footnotes. Although her childhood was painful, she retains gratitude for its wide-eyed wonder, and in the exuberance of her prose you can sense a willed childlike perspective (“But back to the list of clouds and writing about clouds!”). I found the frequent self-referential nature of the essays and direct reader address a little precious, but appreciated the thoughts about how nature holds us: “I have always felt a generosity around me, and that I was less lonely outside; at the very least, I could find something to comfort me”. She’s a bookish kindred spirit as well. I’ll be sure to try her work in other genres.
With thanks to Reflex Press for the free copy for review.