Spring Reads, Part II: Swifts, a Cuckoo, and a British Road Trip
Despite ongoing worries about biodiversity loss after last year’s drought, I had the most idyllic late spring evening yesterday. On the way home from an evening with Alice Winn hosted by Hungerford Bookshop (more on which anon), I sat at the station awaiting my train. It was 8:30 p.m. and still fully light, warm enough to be comfortable in a jacket, and a cuckoo serenaded me as I watched swifts wheeling by overhead.
For my second instalment of spring-themed reading (see Part I here), I have books about those very birds, one a nonfiction study of a species that is a welcome sign of late spring and summer in Europe, and a novel that takes up the metaphors associated with another notable species; plus a narrative of a circuitous route driven through a British spring.
Swifts and Us by Sarah Gibson (2020)
We first noticed the swifts had returned to Newbury on 29 April. Best of all, we think ‘our’ birds that nested in the space between the roof and rear gutter last year (see footage here) are back. We’ve also installed one swift and two house martin boxes along the wall from the corner, just in case. Swifts are truly amazing for the distances they travel and the almost fully aerial life they lead. They only touch down to breed and otherwise do everything else – eat, sleep, mate – on the wing. I skimmed this book over the course of two springs and learned that the screaming parties you may, if you are lucky, see tearing down your street are likely to be made up of one- or two-year-old birds. Those tending to nestlings will be quieter. (They’ll be ruthless about displacing house sparrows who try to steal their space, so we hope the questing sparrows we saw at the gutter a few weeks before didn’t get as far as nest-building.)
Beaks agape, swifts catch thousands of insects a day and keep them in a bolus in their throat to regurgitate for chicks. The sharp decline in insect numbers is a major concern, as well as the intensification of agriculture, climate change, and new houses or renovations that block up holes birds traditionally nest in. There are multiple species of swift – in southern Spain one can see five types – and in general they are considered to be of least conservation concern, but these matters are all relative in these days of climate crisis. Evolved to nest in cliffs and trees, they now live alongside humans except in rare places like Abernethy Forest near Inverness in Scotland, where they still nest in trees, in holes abandoned by woodpeckers.
Gibson surveys swifts’ distribution and evolution, key figures in how we came to understand them (Gilbert White et al.), and early landmark studies (e.g. David Lack’s in Oxford). She also takes us through a typical summer swift schedule, and interviews some people who rehabilitate and advocate for swifts. Other chapters see her travelling to Italy, Switzerland and Ireland, the furthest west that swifts breed. If you find a grounded swift, she learns from bitter experience, keep it in a box with air holes and give it water on a cotton bud, but don’t feed or throw it up in the air. To release, take it to an open space and hold it on your hand above your head. If it’s ready to fly, it will. The current push to help swifts is requiring that nest blocks or boxes be incorporated in every new home design. (I signed this petition.)
This is a great source of basic information, though some of the background may be more detailed than the average reader needs. If you’re only going to read one book about swifts, I would be more likely to recommend Charles Foster’s The Screaming Sky, a literary monograph, but do follow up with this one. And soon we’ll also have Mark Cocker’s book about swifts, One Midsummer’s Day, which I hope to get hold of. (Public library)
“It is their otherness that makes them so fascinating. They touch our lives briefly and then vanish; this is part of their magic.”
“The brevity of their summer stays enhances their hold on our hearts. The season is short, their bold, wild chases over the roofs and high-pitched screams a fleeting experience: they are a metaphor for life itself. We need to act now to ensure these birds will scythe across our skies forever; to keep them in our streets, to keep them in abundance and common. All of us can do something within the compass of our lives to help tilt the balance back in their favour. If the will to do it is there, it can be done.”
Cuckoo by Wendy Perriam (1991)
(We started hearing cuckoos locally last week!) My second by Perriam, after The Stillness The Dancing, and I’ve amassed quite a pile for afterwards. Frances Parry Jones, in her early thirties, is desperate for a baby but her husband, Charles, doesn’t seem fussed. He goes along with fertility treatment but remains aloof like the posh snob Perriam depicts him to be – the opening line is “Typical of Charles to decant his sperm sample into a Fortnum and Mason’s jar.” Their comfortable home in Richmond is cut off from the messy reality of life, as represented by Frances’s friend Viv and her brood.
Frances soon learns why Charles is unenthusiastic about having children: he already has one, a sullen teenager named Magda who lived with her mother in Hungary but has just arrived in London, “a greedy little cuckoo, commandeering the nest.” Though tempted to accept Magda as a replacement child, Frances just can’t manage it. However, they do find common ground through their japes with Ned, a free spirit Frances meets during her brief time as a taxi driver, and Frances starts to imagine how her life could be different. The portraits and sex scenes alike were a little grotesque here. I had to skim a lot to get through it. Here’s hoping for a better experience with the next one. (Secondhand copy passed on by Liz – thank you!)
Springtime in Britain by Edwin Way Teale (1970)
I discovered Teale a few years ago through the exceptional Autumn Across America, the first volume of a quartet illuminating the nature of the four seasons in the USA; he won a Pulitzer for the final book. Here he applied the same pattern across the pond, taking an 11,000-mile road trip around Britain with his wife Nellie. It’s a delight to see the country through his eyes, particularly places I know well (Devon, the New Forest, Wiltshire/Berkshire) or have visited recently (Northumberland). They find the early spring alarmingly cold and wet, but before long are rewarded with swathes of daffodils and bluebells. Several stake-outs finally result in hearing a nightingale. For the most part, the bird life is completely new to them, but he remarks on what North American species the European birds remind him of. “We felt we would travel to Britain just to hear the song thrush and the blackbird,” he maintains.
Nellie develops pneumonia and has to convalesce in Kent, but otherwise personal matters hardly come into the narrative. Teale is well versed in English nature writing and often references classics by the likes of John Clare and Gilbert White that inspired destinations. (They spend an excessive number of days on their pilgrimage to White’s Selborne.) He also reports on perceived threats of the time, such as small animals getting stuck in littered milk bottles. While it was, inevitably, a little distressing to think of the abundance and diversity he was still experiencing in the late 1960s that has since been lost to development, I mostly found this a pleasant meander. Some things never change: the magic of prehistoric sites; the grossness of some cities (“we forgot the misadventure of Slough”). (Secondhand)
What signs of late spring are you seeing?
Recommended July Releases: Donoghue, Maizes, Miller, Parikian, Trethewey
My five new releases for July include historical pandemic fiction, a fun contemporary story about a father-and-daughter burglar team, a new poetry collection from Carcanet Press, a lighthearted nature/travel book, and a poetic bereavement memoir about a violent death.
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
Donoghue’s last two novels, The Wonder and Akin, were big hits with me. Less than a year after the contemporary-set Akin, she’s back to a historical setting – and an uncannily pertinent pandemic theme – with her latest. In 1918, Julia Power is a nurse on a Dublin maternity ward. It’s Halloween and she is about to turn 30, making her a spinster for her day; she lives with her mute, shell-shocked veteran brother, Tim, and his pet magpie.
Because she’s already had “the grip” (influenza), she is considered immune and is one of a few staff members dealing with the flu-ridden expectant mothers in quarantine in her overcrowded hospital. Each patient serves as a type, and Donoghue whirls through all the possible complications of historical childbirth: stillbirth, obstructed labor, catheterization, forceps, blood loss, transfusion, maternal death, and so on.
It’s not for the squeamish, and despite my usual love of medical reads, I felt it was something of a box-ticking exercise, with too much telling about medical procedures and recent Irish history. Because of the limited time frame – just three days – the book is far too rushed. We simply don’t have enough time to get to know Julia through and through, despite her first-person narration; the final 20 pages, in particular, are so far-fetched and melodramatic it’s hard to believe in a romance you’d miss if you blinked. And the omission of speech marks just doesn’t work – it’s downright confusing with so many dialogue-driven scenes.
Donoghue must have been writing this well before Covid-19, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the publication was hurried forward to take advantage of the story’s newfound relevance. It shows: what I read in May and June felt like an unpolished draft, with threads prematurely tied up to meet a deadline. This was an extremely promising project that, for me, was let down by the execution, but it’s still a gripping read that I wouldn’t steer you away from if you find the synopsis appealing. (Some more spoiler-y thoughts here.)
Prescient words about pandemics:
“All over the globe … some flu patients are dropping like flies while others recover, and we can’t solve the puzzle, nor do a blasted thing about it. … There’s no rhyme or reason to who’s struck down.”
“Doctor Lynn went on, As for the authorities, I believe the epidemic will have run its course before they’ve agreed to any but the most feeble action. Recommending onions and eucalyptus oil! Like sending beetles to stop a steamroller.”
Why the title?
Flu comes from the phrase “influenza delle stelle” – medieval Italians thought that illness was fated by the stars. There’s also one baby born a “stargazer” (facing up) and some literal looking up at the stars in the book.
My thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes
This is Maizes’ debut novel, after her 2019 short story collection We Love Anderson Cooper. Louise “La La” Fine and her father, Zev, share an unusual profession: While outwardly they are a veterinary student and a locksmith, respectively, for many years they broke into homes and sold the stolen goods. Despite close shaves, they’ve always gotten away with it – until now. When Zev is arrested, La La decides to return to her criminal ways just long enough to raise the money to post bail for him. But she doesn’t reckon on a few complications, like her father getting fed up with house arrest, her fiancé finding out about her side hustle, and her animal empathy becoming so strong that when she goes into a house she not only pilfers valuables but also cares for the needs of ailing pets inside.
Flashbacks to La La’s growing-up years, especially her hurt over her mother leaving, take this deeper than your average humorous crime caper. The way the plot branches means that for quite a while Zev and La La are separated, and I grew a bit weary of extended time in Zev’s company, but this was a great summer read – especially for animal lovers – that never lost my attention. The magic realism of the human‒pet connection is believable and mild enough not to turn off readers who avoid fantasy. Think The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley meets Hollow Kingdom.
My thanks to the author and Celadon Books for the free e-copy for review.
The Long Beds by Kate Miller
Here and there; now and then: the poems in Miller’s second collection enlarge such dichotomies by showcasing the interplay of the familiar and the foreign. A scientist struggles to transcribe birdsong, and a poppy opens in slow motion. “Flag” evokes the electric blue air and water of a Greek island, while “The Quarters” is set in the middle of the night in a French village. A few commissions, including “Waterloo Sunrise,” stick close to home in London or other southern England locales.
Various poems, including the multi-part “Album Without Photographs,” are about ancestor Muriel Miller’s experiences in India and Britain in the 1910s-20s. “Keepers of the States of Sleep and Wakefulness, fragment from A Masque,” patterned after “The Second Masque” by Ben Jonson, is an up-to-the-minute one written in April that names eight nurses from the night staff at King’s College Hospital (and the short YouTube film based on it is dedicated to all NHS nurses).
My two favorites were “Outside the Mind Shop,” in which urban foxes tear into bags of donations outside a charity shop one night while the speaker lies awake, and “Knapsack of Parting Gifts” a lovely elegy to a lost loved one. I spotted a lot of alliteration and assonance in the former, especially. Thematically, the collection is a bit scattered, but there are a lot of individual high points.
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
Into the Tangled Bank: In Which Our Author Ventures Outdoors to Consider the British in Nature by Lev Parikian
In the same way that kids sometimes write their address by going from the specific to the cosmic (street, city, country, continent, hemisphere, planet, galaxy), this book, a delightfully Bryson-esque tour, moves ever outwards, starting with the author’s own home and garden and proceeding to take in his South London patch and his journeys around the British Isles before closing with the wonders of the night sky. By slowing down to appreciate what is all around us, he proposes, we might enthuse others to engage with nature.
With the zeal of a recent convert, he guides readers through momentous sightings and everyday moments of connection. As they were his gateway, many of these memories involve birds: looking for the year’s first swifts, trying to sketch a heron and realizing he’s never looked at one properly before, avoiding angry terns on the Farne Islands, ringing a storm petrel on Skokholm, and seeing white-tailed eagles on the Isle of Skye. He brings unique places to life, and pays tribute to British naturalists who paved the way for today’s nature-lovers by visiting the homes of Charles Darwin, Gilbert White, Peter Scott, and more.
I was on the blog tour for Parikian’s previous book, Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear?, in 2018. While the books are alike in levity (pun intended!), being full of self-deprecation and witty asides along with the astute observations, I think I enjoyed this one that little bit more for its all-encompassing approach to the experience of nature. I fully expect to see it on next year’s Wainwright Prize longlist (speaking of the Wainwright Prize, in yesterday’s post I correctly predicted four on the UK nature shortlist and two on the global conservation list!).
Readalikes (that happen to be from the same publisher): Under the Stars by Matt Gaw and The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt
My thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the free copy for review.
Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey
Trethewey grew up in 1960s Mississippi with a Black mother and a white Canadian father, at a time when interracial marriage remained illegal in parts of the South. After her parents’ divorce, she and her mother, Gwen, moved to Georgia to start a new life, but her stepfather Joel was physically and psychologically abusive. Gwen’s murder opens and closes the book. Trethewey only returned to that Atlanta apartment on Memorial Drive after 30 years had passed. The blend of the objective (official testimonies and transcripts) and the subjective (interpreting photographs, and rendering dream sequences in poetic language) makes this a striking memoir, as delicate as it is painful. I recommend it highly to readers of Elizabeth Alexander and Dani Shapiro. (Full review forthcoming at Shiny New Books.)
My thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.
I’m reading two more July releases, Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett (Corsair, 2 July; for Shiny New Books review), about a family taxidermy business in Florida, and The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams (William Heinemann, 2 July), about an unusual dictionary being compiled in the Victorian period and digitized in the present day.
What July releases can you recommend?
Spring Reading 2020, Part II
According to the Sámi reindeer herders, there are actually eight seasons; we’d now be in “Spring-summer” (gidágiesse), which runs from May to June.
In recent weeks I’ve read some more books that engage with the spring and/or its metaphors of planting and resurrection. (The first installment was here.) Two fiction and two nonfiction selections this time.
The White Garden: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Stephanie Barron (2009)
Barron is best known for her Jane Austen Mysteries series. Here she takes up the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West and crafts a conspiracy theory / alternative history in which Virginia did not commit suicide upon her disappearance in March 1941 but hid with Vita at Sissinghurst, her Kent home with the famous gardens. Investigating this in the autumn of 2008 are Jo Bellamy, an American garden designer who has been tasked with recreating Sackville-West’s famous White Garden at her wealthy client’s upstate New York estate, and Peter Llewelyn, a Sotheby’s employee who helps Jo authenticate a journal she finds hidden in a gardener’s shed at Sissinghurst.
Jo has a secret connection: her grandfather, Jock, who recently committed suicide, was a gardener here at the time of Woolf’s visit, and she believes the notebook may shed light on Virginia’s true fate and what led Jock to kill himself. Romantic complications ensue. This is fun escapism for Americans after an armchair trip to England (including Oxford and Cambridge for research), but so obviously written by an outsider. I had to correct what felt like dozens of errors (e.g. the indoor smoking ban came into effect in July 2007, so the hotel dining room wouldn’t have been filled with cigarette smoke; “pulling a few” is not slang for having a few drinks – rather, “pulling” has the connotation of making a romantic conquest).
I’ve visited Sissinghurst and Knole and had enough of an interest in the historical figures involved to keep me going through a slightly silly, frothy novel.
Greenery: Journeys in Springtime by Tim Dee (2020)
From the Cape of Good Hope to the Arctic Circle, Dee tracks the spring as it travels north. From first glimpse to last gasp, moving between his homes in two hemispheres, he makes the season last nearly half the year. His harbingers are chiefly migrating birds – starting with swallows. Here’s how he states his aim:
Knowing those annually recurring gifts of nature, and registering them alongside our own one-way journey through life, why not try to travel with the season and be in springtime for as long as possible, why not try to start where the season starts, and then to keep up with it, in step, walking a moving green room, travelling under the sun, like swallows out of Africa?
Starting in February in the Sahara Desert, he sees an abundance of the songbirds and raptors he’s used to finding in Europe, as well as more exotic species endemic to Africa. Any fear that this will turn out to be some plodding ‘I went here and saw this, then there and saw that’ nature/travel narrative dissipates instantly; although the book has a strong geographical and chronological through line, it flits between times and places as effortlessly as any bird, with the poetic quality of Dee’s observations lifting mundane moments into sharp focus. For instance, at their Ethiopian hotel, a wedding photography mecca, “a waiting wedding dress collapsed on a black cane chair, like an ostrich suicide.” A nightjar startled in the New Forest is “a bandaged balsa-wood model: a great moth’s head with the wings of a dark dragonfly.”
Dee’s wanderings take him from Scandinavia to central Europe and back. Wherever he happens to be, he is fully present, alive to a place and to all its echoes in memory and literature. He recalls a lonely year spent in Budapest studying Hungarian poetry in the 1980s, and how the sight and sound of birds like black woodpeckers and eagle owls revived him. Visits to migration hotspots like Gibraltar and Heligoland alternate with everyday jaunts in Ireland or the Bristol and Cambridgeshire environs he knows best.
Each vignette is headed with a place name and latitude, but many are undated, recalling springs from decades past or from the work of admired writers. Some of his walking companions and mentioned friends are celebrated nature or travel writers in their own right (like Julia Blackburn, Mark Cocker, Patrick McGuinness and Adam Nicolson; there’s also his cousin, fiction writer Tessa Hadley), while Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Seamus Heaney, D. H. Lawrence and Gilbert White are some of the book’s presiding spirits.
Greenery is steeped in allusions and profound thinking about deep time and what it means to be alive in an era when nature’s rhythms are becoming distorted. It is so gorgeously literary, so far from nature and travel writing as usual, that it should attract readers who wouldn’t normally dip into those genres. While Dee’s writing reminds me somewhat of Barry Lopez’s, closer comparisons could be made with Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk and Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard: quest narratives that nestle their nature writing within a substrate of memoir and philosophy. The last few pages, in which Dee, now in his late fifties, loses a close friend (Greg Poole, who painted the book’s cover) and receives a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease but also learns he is to become a father again, are achingly beautiful.
I find I’ve written more about this book than I intended to in a reviews roundup, but it’s so extraordinary it deserves this much and more. It’s not just one of the few best nonfiction books of the year, but a fresh, masterful model of how to write about nature.
In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill (1975)
This is my favorite of the six books I’ve now read by Hill. Early one spring, Ruth Bryce’s husband, Ben, dies in a forestry accident. They had been only married a year and now here she is, aged 20 and a widow. Ben’s little brother, 14-year-old Jo, is a faithful visitor, but after the funeral many simply leave Ruth alone. Ben’s death is a “stone cast into still water,” whose ripples spread out beyond his immediate family.
There is little plot as such, yet this is a lovely, quiet meditation on grief and solitude amid the rhythms of country life. Ruth vacillates between suicidal despair and epiphanies of exaltation at how all of life is connected. Religious imagery coinciding with Easter describes a cycle of death and renewal. Very late on in the book, as winter comes round again, she has the chance to be of help to another local family that has suffered a loss, and to a member of Ben’s remaining family.
It took me two whole springs to read this. For those who think of Hill as a writer of crime novels (the Simon Serrailler series) and compact thrillers (The Woman in Black et al.), this may seem very low on action in comparison, but there is something hypnotic about the oddly punctuated prose and the ebb and flow of emotions.
Plant Dreaming Deep by May Sarton (1968)
This serves as a prelude to the eight journals for which Sarton would become famous. It’s a low-key memoir about setting up home in the tiny town of Nelson, New Hampshire, making a garden and meeting the salt-of-the-earth locals who provided her support system and are immortalized in fictional form in the novel she published two years later, Kinds of Love. At the time of publication, she’d been in Nelson for 10 years; she would live there for 15 years in all, and (after seeing out her days in a rented house by the coast in Maine) be buried there.
Sarton was nearing 50 by the time she bought this, her first home, and for her it represented many things: a retreat from the world; a place for silence and solitude; and somewhere she could bring together the many aspects of herself, even if just by displaying her parents’ furniture, long in storage, and the souvenirs from her travels – “all the threads I hold in my hands have at last been woven together into a whole—the threads of the English and Belgian families from which I spring … the threads of my own wanderings”.
Nelson feels like a place outside of time. It holds annual Town Meetings, as it has for nearly two centuries. Her man-of-all-work, Perley Cole, still cuts the meadow with a scythe. After years of drought, she has to have water-drillers come and find her a new source. An ancient maple tree has to be cut down, reminding her of other deaths close to home. Through it all, her beloved garden is a reminder that new life floods back every year and the routines of hard work will be rewarded.
Some favorite lines:
“Experience is the fuel; I would live my life burning it up as I go along, so that at the end nothing is left unused, so that every piece of it has been consumed in the work.”
“gardening is one of the late joys, for youth is too impatient, too self-absorbed, and usually not rooted deeply enough to create a garden. Gardening is one of the rewards of middle age, when one is ready for an impersonal passion, a passion that demands patience, acute awareness of a world outside oneself, and the power to keep on growing through all the times of drought, through the cold snows, toward those moments of pure joy when all failures are forgotten and the plum tree flowers.”
Note: I discovered I’ve always misunderstood this title, thinking it whimsically imagined a plant having dreams; instead, “plant” is an imperative verb, as in Sarton’s adaptation of Joachim du Bellay: “Happy the man who can long roaming reap, / Like old Ulysses when he shaped his course / Homeward at last toward the native source, / Seasoned and stretched to plant his dreaming deep.” It’s about a place where one can root one’s work and intentions.
Have you been reading anything springlike this year?
Spring Reading 2020, Part I
What a beautiful spring we’ve been having here. And, as usual, I’ve been reading with the seasons: some nature books about birdsong, flowers, etc., as well as a few books with “Spring” in the title. I have several more on the go that I’ll write up next month.
A Cold Spring by Elizabeth Bishop (1955)
The second of Bishop’s four published collections, this mostly dwells on contrasts between city (e.g. “View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress,” “Varick Street” and “Letter to N.Y.”) and coastal locations (e.g. “The Bight,” “At the Fishhouses” and “Cape Breton”). The three most memorable poems for me were the title one, which opens the book; “The Prodigal,” a retelling of the Prodigal Son parable; and “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore” (“From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning, please come flying,” with those last three words recurring at the end of each successive stanza; also note the sandpipers – one of her most famous poems was “Sandpiper,” from 1965’s Questions of Travel). I find that I love particular lines or images from Bishop’s poetry but not her overall style.
A cold spring:
the violet was flawed on the lawn.
For two weeks or more the trees hesitated;
the little leaves waited
(from “A Cold Spring”)
Spring: A Folio Anthology, edited by Sue Bradbury (2017)
As a seasonal anthology, this falls short by comparison to the Wildlife Trust’s Spring. There are too many letters or journal entries that only happen to be set in March to May and don’t in any way evoke the season. The selection of poems and passages is fairly predictable, and closing with an ominous extract from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (see below) makes for rather a downbeat conclusion. Highlights: the preface by Paul Evans, Parson Woodforde’s pigs getting drunk on the dregs of some beer (1778), Elizabeth David rhapsodizing about a wild asparagus risotto she had in Italy, and Angus Buchanan coming upon an idyllic setting in Wildlife in Canada. The gorgeous cover, the slightly ornate font that liaises s or c with t, and the three two-page green-dominated illustrations somewhat make up for the lackluster contents.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)
When I saw Lucy Jones speak at an event in Hungerford in support of her new book, Losing Eden, early last month, I was intrigued to hear her say that her work was consciously patterned on Silent Spring – right down to the same number of chapters. This prompted me to finally pick up the copy of Carson’s classic that I got free during a cull at the library where I used to work and have a skim through.
Both books are forthright explications of the environmental problems we face, backed up by volumes of irrefutable evidence, and suggest some potential solutions. Both open, though, with a dystopian scene: Carson’s first chapter imagines an American town where things die because nature stops working as it should. Her main target was insecticides that were known to kill birds and had presumed negative effects on human health through the food chain and environmental exposure. Although the details may feel dated, the literary style and the general cautions against submitting nature to a “chemical barrage” remain potent.
A Country Year: Living the Questions by Sue Hubbell (1986)
A seasonal diary that runs from one spring to the next, this is a peaceful book about living alone yet finding community with wildlife and fellow country folk. I took nine months over reading it, keeping it as a bedside book.
At her farm in southern Missouri’s Ozark Mountains, Hubbell had a small beekeeping and honey production business, “a shaky, marginal sort of affair that never quite leaves me free of money worries but which allows me to live in these hills that I love.” After her 30-year marriage ended, she found herself alone in “the afternoon of my life,” facing “the work of building a new kind of order, a structure on which a fifty-year-old woman can live”. In few-page essays she reflects on the weather, her interactions with wildlife (from bats and black rat snakes to a fawn caught in a fence), and country events like a hog roast.
I love introspective books like this one that balance solitude with nature and company and that showcase older women’s wisdom (Joan Anderson, May Sarton and Barbara J. Scot also write/wrote in this vein). Hubbell, who died at age 83 in late 2018, wrote broader scientific narratives about evolution and genetic engineering, as well as detailed books about bees and other insects. I’ll look out for more of her work.
A Sweet, Wild Note: What We Hear when the Birds Sing by Richard Smyth (2017)
Despite being a birdwatcher since childhood, Smyth had always been ambivalent about birdsong. He certainly wasn’t one of those whizzes who can identify any bird by its call; in fact, he needed convincing that bird vocalizations are inherently beautiful. So he set off to answer a few questions: Why do birds sing? How can we recognize them by their songs? And how have these songs played into the human‒bird relationship throughout history? Ranging from bird anatomy to poetry, his historical survey is lighthearted reading that was perfect for the early days of spring. There are also chapters on captive birds, the use of birdsong in classical music, and the contribution birds make to the British soundscape. A final section, more subdued and premonitory in the vein of Silent Spring, imagines a world without birdsong and “the diminution that we all suffer. … Our lives become less rich.” (The title phrase is how Gilbert White described the blackcap’s song, Smyth’s favorite.)
when everything around you seems to be moving at a gallop, a bird’s song reminds you that some things stay the same … that you really can go home again.
in many ways the whole point of birdsong is that it’s beyond our grasp. It’s fleeting, evanescent; you might as well try to take a fistful of morning mist. But that hasn’t stopped us trying.
Have you been reading anything particularly appropriate for spring this year?
20 Books of Summer, #14–15: Mary Lawson and Stephen Moss
Approaching the home straight with these two: another novel that happens to have an animal in the title, and a pleasant work of modern nature writing set in an English village. My rating for both:
Crow Lake by Mary Lawson (2002)
I’ve meant to read more by Lawson ever since I reviewed her latest book, Road Ends, for Nudge in May 2015. All three of her novels draw on the same fictional setting: Struan, Ontario. Lawson grew up in a similar Canadian farming community before moving to England in the late 1960s. After an invitation arrives for her nephew’s birthday party, narrator Kate Morrison looks 20 years into the past to remember the climactic events of the year that she was seven. When she and her siblings were suddenly orphaned, her teenage brothers, Luke and Matt, had to cobble together local employment that allowed them to look after their little sisters at home. With the help of relatives and neighbors, they kept their family of four together. All along, though, their lives were becoming increasingly entwined with those of the Pyes, a troubled local farming family.
Matt inspired Kate’s love of pond life – she’s now an assistant professor of invertebrate ecology – but never got to go to college himself. Theirs was a family that prized schooling above all else (legend has it that Great-Grandmother installed a book rest on her spinning wheel so she could read while her hands were busy*) and eschewed emotion. “It was the Eleventh Commandment,” Kate recalls: “Thou Shalt Not Emote.”
This is a slow burner for sure, but it’s a winning picture of a family that stuck together despite the odds, as well as an appeal to recognize that emotional intelligence is just as important as book learning. The novel reminded me a lot of Surfacing by Margaret Atwood and The Girls by Lori Lansens, and I’d also recommend it to readers of Elizabeth Hay and Jane Urquhart.
*Delightfully, this detail was autobiographical for Lawson.
Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: The Natural History of an English Village by Stephen Moss (2011)
England doesn’t have any hummingbirds, but it does have hummingbird hawkmoths, which explains the title. In the tradition of Gilbert White, Moss writes a month-by-month tribute to what he regularly sees on his home turf of Mark, Somerset. As I did with Mark Cocker’s Claxton, I picked up the book partway – at the month in which I started reading it – and when I reached the end, returned to the beginning and read up to my starting point. Controversial, I know, but that July to June timeline worked fine: it gave me familiar glimpses of what’s going on with English nature now, followed by an accelerated preview of what I have to look forward to in the coming months.
Moss is primarily a birder, so he focuses on bird life, but also notes what’s happening with weather, trees, fungi, and so on. In the central and probably best chapter, on June, he maximizes wildlife-watching opportunities: going eel fishing, running a moth trap, listening for bats, and looking out for unfamiliar plants. My minor annoyances with the book were the too-frequent references to “the parish,” which makes the book’s concerns seem parochial rather than microcosmic, and the common use of semicolons where commas and dashes would be preferable. But if you’re fond of modern nature writing, and have some familiarity with (or at least interest in) the English countryside, I highly recommend this as a peaceful, observant read. Plus, Harry Brockway’s black-and-white engravings heading each chapter are exquisite.
“Being in one place is also the best way to understand the passing of the seasons: not the great shifts between winter and spring, summer and autumn, which we all notice; but the tiny, subtle changes that occur almost imperceptibly, from week to week, and day to day, throughout the year.”
“For me, one of the greatest pleasures of living in the English countryside is the way we ourselves become part of the natural cycle of the seasons.”
An Anthology for the Coming Winter
“the short dark days of winter
dear to me
as a bully to his mother.”
~from “Skulking,” a poem from Helen Dunmore’s The Malarkey
After more than ten years here, I still struggle with English winters. It’s not that they’re colder than what I grew up experiencing on America’s east coast. In terms of temperatures, snowfall and ice buildup, there’s no real comparison. I keenly remember the winter of 2004, when the wind-chill was about 10° F and all the fountains in Washington, D.C. froze solid.
But English winters have particularly disheartening qualities: they’re overwhelmingly dark, bone-seepingly wet, and seemingly endless. I’ll never forget when, in my first-ever winter in England (during my study abroad year in 2003), I looked out a University of Reading library window around 3:00 in the afternoon and realized the sun was setting behind the trees.
All these years later, I still find that dim mid-afternoon light depressing, and the damp cold nearly intolerable. In our study abroad information packet we were warned that British interiors are kept 10 degrees cooler than American ones. But because we’re both thrifty and environmentally conscious, our house is significantly colder. Most of the time I’ll wear four to seven layers and huddle under blankets rather than turn on the heat – why warm a whole house for one person and one cat? I’m not entirely joking when I say to my husband that I wish I could hibernate from roughly November to April. Just wake me up for Christmas.
Ahhhhhh, Christmas, which the English do wonderfully – much better than Americans, in my opinion. Carol services, dense dried fruit desserts, booze in and with everything, a gentler tinge to the commercialism, plus maybe some nostalgic Dickensian tint I’m giving it all in my mind. I’ve had some wonderful Christmases here over the past 12 years.
So I’m ambivalent about winter, and was interested to see how the authors collected in Melissa Harrison’s final seasonal anthology would explore its inherent contradictions. I especially appreciated the views of outsiders. Jini Reddy, a Quebec native, calls British winters “a long, grey sigh or a drawn-out ache.” In two of my favorite pieces, Christina McLeish and Nakul Krishna – from Australia and India, respectively – compare the warm, sunny winters they experienced in their homelands with their early experiences in Britain. McLeish remembers finding a disembodied badger paw on a frosty day during one of her first winters in England, while Krishna tells of a time he spent dogsitting in Oxford when all the students were on break. His decorous, timeless prose reminded me of J.R. Ackerley’s.
The series is in support of the Wildlife Trusts, and a key message of this volume in particular is that nature is always there to be experienced – even in what feels like a dead time of year. Kate Blincoe observes an urban starling murmuration in an essay that nicely blends the lofty and the earthy; Nicola Chester takes a wintry beach walk and documents what she finds in the strandline, such as goose barnacles; Joseph Addison celebrates the pleasures of a winter garden; Patrick Barkham examines the ways butterfly life* continues through the winter, usually as eggs; and Richard Adams (author of Watership Down) insists, “Wild flowers are like pubs. There are generally one or two open somewhere, if only you look hard enough.”
As in the other volumes, Harrison has chosen a lovely mixture of older and contemporary pieces. Occasional passages from Gilbert White and Thomas Furly Forster on the timing of natural phenomena help create a sense of chronological progression, from November through to February. The contemporary nature writing scene is represented by previously published material from Robert Macfarlane and Kathleen Jamie. Classic literature is here in the opening of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and the Great Frost passage from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. There are also excerpts from Coleridge’s diary and freed slave Olaudah Equiano’s account of seeing snow for the first time. In general, this volume is better at including diverse voices, like the final piece from Anita Sethi on her family’s unlikely garden in Manchester.
Christmas doesn’t really appear here; it’s a book about the natural year rather than the cultural year. But another event does, very powerfully: In another of my top few pieces, Jon Dunn (who authored my favorite piece in Autumn) tells how the overpowering darkness of a Shetland winter is broken by the defiant Up Helly Aa festival, in which the residents dress up as Vikings and ceremonially burn a longboat. Life goes on, no matter how bleak everything seems. That’s an important thing to keep in mind after all the troubling events of 2016.
*My husband’s piece, positioned between John Fowles’s and Richard Jeffries’s, is also about the surprising insect life that can be discovered in the winter.
My review of Summer.
My review of Autumn.
[I came late to the series so will be reading, but not reviewing, Spring next year.]
More beautiful lines to treasure:
- “Claws of grey rain break to rake through a gold half-light and the squall moves like a huge aerial jellyfish, obscuring then revealing this wreckers’ coast of muted blue headlands. Swirling white snowflakes move against a grey mass, turning Lundy Island into a Turner painting.” (Nicola Chester)
- “I am the garnet shock / of rosehip on frost / the robin’s titian flare.” (Julian Beach)
- “the tower blocks are advent calendars, / every curtain pulled to reveal a snow-blurred face.” (Liz Berry)
- “A whole year of concerns, worries and squabbles sloughed off in a bone-chilling baptism of copper water.” (Matt Gaw)
- “Two hundred jackdaws drape the skeleton of the winter beech like jet beads around the neck of a Victorian mourner.” (Jane Adams)
With thanks to Jennie Condell at Elliott & Thompson for the free copy for review.
Autumn Is Here, in Poetry and Prose
“The trees are undressing, and fling in many places –
On the gray road, the roof, the window-sill –
Their radiant robes and ribbons and yellow laces”
~from “Last Week in October,” Thomas Hardy (1928)
I recently learned that there are two different official start dates for autumn. The meteorological beginning of the season was on September 1st, while the astronomical opening is not until the 22nd. For the purposes of this review I’ll incline towards the former. I’ve been watching leaves fall since early last month, after all, but now – after a weekend spent taking a chilly boat ride down the canal, stocking the freezer with blackberries and elderberries, and setting hops to dry in the shed – it truly feels like autumn is here in southern England. Luckily, I had just the right book in hand to read over the last couple of weeks as I’ve been settling into our new place, Autumn: An anthology for the changing seasons.
This is the third of four seasonal volumes issued this year by the UK’s Wildlife Trusts, in partnership with London-based publisher Elliott & Thompson and edited by Melissa Harrison (see also my review of Summer). The format of all the books is roughly the same: pieces range from one to a few pages and run the gamut from recurring phenological records (Gilbert White and Thomas Furly Forster) and extracts from classic literature (poems by Shelley, Tennyson and Yeats) to recent nature writers (an excerpt from Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk; new work from Amy Liptrot and John Lewis-Stempel). Perhaps half the content has been contributed by talented amateurs, about 10 of them repeats from the first volumes.
This collection was slightly less memorable for me than Summer. A few pieces seem like school assignments, overly reliant on clichés of blackberry picking and crunching leaves underfoot. The best ones don’t attempt too much; they zero in on one species or experience and give a complete, self-contained story rather than general musings. A few stand-outs in this respect are Jo Cartnell chancing upon bank voles, Julian Jones on his obsession with eels, Laurence Arnold telling of his reptile surveying at London Wetland Center, and Lucy McRobert having a magic moment with dolphins off the Scilly Isles. I also enjoyed Kate Blincoe’s account of foraging for giant puffball mushrooms and Janet Willoner on pressing apples into juice – I’m looking forward to watching this at our town’s Apple Day in October.
I think all the contemporary writers would agree that you don’t have to live or go somewhere ‘special’ to commune with nature; there are marvels everywhere, even on your own tiny patch, if you will just go out and find them. For instance, South London seems an unlikely place for wildlife encounters, yet Will Harper-Penrose meets up with one of the country’s most strikingly exotic species (an introduced one), the ring-necked parakeet. Jane Adams comes across a persistent gang of wood mice in her very own attic, while Daphne Pleace spots red deer stags from the safety of her motorhome when on vacation in northwest Scotland.
Remarkably, the book’s disparate pieces together manage to convey a loose chronological progression, from the final days of lingering summer to the gradual onset of winter. Here’s Annie Worsley’s lovely portrayal of autumn’s approach: “In the woodlands the first trees to betray summer are silver birches: splashes of yellow dapple their fine, shimmering greenery. Here and there, long wavering larch tresses begin to change from deep green to orange and ochre.” At the other end of the autumnal continuum, David Gwilym Anthony’s somber climate change poem, “Warming,” provides a perfect close to the anthology: “These days I’ll take what Nature sends / to hoard for dour December: / a glow of warmth as autumn ends.”
A few more favorite lines:
- “Dusk, when the edges of all things blur. A time of mauve and moonlight, of shapeshiftings and stirrings, of magic.” (Alexi Francis)
- “Go down the village street on a late September afternoon and the warm burnt smell of jam-making oozes out of open cottage doors.” (Clare Leighton, 1933)
- “There are miniature Serengetis like this under most logs, if you take the time to look.” (Ryan Clark)
- “Ah, the full autumn Bisto bouquet comes powering to the nose: mouldering leaves, decaying mushrooms, rusting earth.” (John Lewis-Stempel)
My favorite essay of all, though, is by Jon Dunn: playful yet ultimately elegiac, it’s about returning to his croft on a remote Shetland island to find that an otter has been picking off his chickens.
Like Summer, this gives a good sense of autumn as a whole, including its metaphorical associations. As Harrison puts it in her introduction, autumn “makes tangible a suite of emotions – wistfulness, nostalgia, a comfortable kind of melancholy – that are, at other times of the year, just out of reach.” It’s been my favorite season since childhood, probably because it combines the start of the school year, my birthday, and American holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving. Whatever your own experience of autumn – whether it’s a much loved season or not; even if you call it “fall” instead – I can highly recommend this anthology’s chorus of voices old and new. There’s no better way for a book lover to usher in the season.
With thanks to Jennie Condell at Elliott & Thompson for the free copy for review.
An Anthology of Summer Reading
In partnership with the UK’s Wildlife Trusts, London-based publisher Elliott & Thompson is celebrating the seasons with a series of anthologies edited by novelist and nature writer Melissa Harrison. My husband had a short piece published in the first volume (Spring), so I was eager to get my hands on a copy of Summer.
The format in all the books is roughly the same: they’re composed of short pieces that range from one to a few pages and run the gamut from recurring phenological records (Gilbert White and Thomas Furly Forster) and extracts from classic literature (Adam Bede and Far from the Madding Crowd) to recent nature books (Mark Cocker’s Claxton and Paul Evans’s Field Notes from the Edge). In addition, there are new contributions from established writers or talented amateurs, one as young as twelve – heartening proof that young people are still enthused about nature.
With the exception of the poems, none of these entries have titles, and the attribution and date of composition are not given until the very end. The idea behind this pseudo-anonymity, I think, is that if – as I sometimes was – you are patient enough to not skip ahead to discover who wrote it when, you will judge all of the pieces by the same standards. You approach each without expectations, and in many cases may be stumped as to whether the writing is historical or modern. I found W.H. Hudson’s and Mary Webb’s extracts particularly readable, for instance; you wouldn’t guess they’re from the early decades of the twentieth century.
There are 70-some pieces here on a wide variety of subjects, but a few of the ones that struck me were on badger-watching (Caroline Greville, who is writing a memoir on the topic), looking for orchids (environmental journalist Michael McCarthy), moth trapping, and night-time wildlife like glow-worms and bats. I especially appreciated Alexandra Pearce’s essay on the brief life of mayflies and Nicola Chester’s on searching for owls. Of the previously published pieces, Paul Evans’s on ant swarms is a stand-out. My two favorites, though, are from celebrated nature columnist Simon Barnes, who writes about paddling a canoe in Norfolk with his son in search of adventure, and Esther Woolfson, who, as she does in her book Field Notes from a Hidden City, illuminates the unnoticed wildlife of Aberdeen.
Again and again this message comes through: take the time to look closely and you will find great wonders. “Perhaps as adults our lives are so filled with bills, chores, jobs and other things that we often forget to stop and look at the world around us,” Jan Freedman, curator of natural history at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, astutely notes. Whether it’s lichens or weevils, all you generally have to pay to experience nature’s delights is attention. I loved Alexi Francis’s description of a hare: “Haunches down, nose cross-stitched, it closes its eyes to the sun in a moment of blissful slumber.” Having that moment of communion with nature and then choosing just the right words to capture it is what this book is all about.
Taken together, these pieces truly give the feeling of an English summer. The older writing is remarkably undated, which contributes to a sense of continuity across the centuries. However, the book also evokes more universal notions of summer: those drowsy, leisurely days we gild with nostalgia. As Harrison puts it in her introduction, the longing for summer is really a wish to return to childhood: “Those elysian summers, polished to dazzling brightness by the flow of years, can never be recaptured; but we have this summer, however imperfect we as adults might deem it, and we can go out and seek it at every opportunity we find.”
As the relatively frequent typos – three in the Barnes piece alone, for example – suggest, the series has been somewhat hastily put together. Nonetheless, these are really rather lovely books. Summer is a perfect bedside companion to dip into as the days warm up. Impossible not to covet the whole four-season set.
With thanks to Marianne Thorndahl at Elliott & Thompson for the free copy for review.