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?
Spring Reads, Part I: Violets and Rain
We had both rain and spring sunshine on a recent overnight trip to Bridport, Dorset – a return visit after enjoying it so much in 2019. Several elements were repeated: Dorset Nectar cider farm, dinner at Dorshi, and a bookshop and charity shop crawl of the main streets. While we didn’t revisit Thomas Hardy sites, I spent plenty of time at Max Gate by reading Elizabeth Lowry’s The Chosen. Beach walks plus one in the New Forest on the way back were splendid. This was my haul from Bridport Old Books. Stocking up on novellas and poetry, plus a novel by a Canadian author I’ve enjoyed work from before.
Now for a quick look at two tangentially spring-related books I’ve read recently: a short novel about two women’s wartime experiences of motherhood and an elegiac and allusive poetry collection.
Violets by Alex Hyde (2022)
I was intrigued by the sound of this debut novel, which juxtaposes the lives of two young British women named Violet at the close of the Second World War. One miscarries twins and, told she’ll not be able to bear children, has to rethink her whole future; another sails from Wales to Italy on ATS war service, hiding the fact that she’s pregnant by a departed foreign soldier. Hyde’s spare style – no speech marks; short paragraphs or solitary lines separated by spaces – alternates between their stories in brief numbered chapters, bringing them together in a perhaps predictable way that also forms a reimagining of her father’s life story. The narration at times addresses this future character in poems that I think are supposed to be fond and prophetic but I instead found strangely blunt and even taunting (as in the excerpt below). There’s inadequate time to get to know, or care about, either Violet.
Can you feel it, Pram Boy?
Can you march in time?
A change, a hardening,
the jarring of the solid ground as she treads,
gets her pockets picked.
And your Mama, Pram Boy,
yeasty in her private parts.
Granta sent a free copy. Violets came out in paperback in February.
Rain by Don Paterson (Faber, 2009)
I’d previously read Paterson’s 40 Sonnets, in 2015. This collection is in memoriam of the late poet Michael Donaghy, the subject of the late multi-part “Phantom.” There are a couple of poems in Scots and a sequence of seven nature-infused ones designated as being “after” poets from Li Po to Robert Desnos. Several appear to express concern for a son. There’s a haiku-like rhythm to the short stanzas of “Renku: My Last Thirty-Five Deaths.” I didn’t understand why “Unfold i.m. Akira Yoshizawa” was a blank page until I looked him up and learned that he was a famous origamist. The title poem closes the collection:
I love all films that start with rain:
rain, braiding a windowpane
or darkening a hung-out dress
or streaming down her upturned face;
one big thundering downpour
right through the empty script and score
before the act, before the blame,
before the lens pulls through the frame
to where the woman sits alone
beside a silent telephone
I liked individual passages or images but didn’t find much of a connecting theme behind Paterson’s disparate interests. (University library)
Another favourite passage:
So I collect the dull things of the day
in which I see some possibility
I look at them and look at them until
one thing makes a mirror in my eyes
then I paint it with the tear to make it bright.
This is why I sit up through the night.
(from “Why Do You Stay Up So Late?”)
And a DNF:
Corpse Beneath the Crocus by N.N. Nelson – I loved the title and the cover, and a widow’s bereavement memoir in poems seemed right up my street. I wish I’d realized Atmosphere is a vanity press, which would explain why these are among the worst poems I’ve read: cliché-riddled and full of obvious sentiments and metaphors as she explores specific moments but mostly overall emotions. Three excerpts:
All things die
In the flowering cycle
Of growth and life
Like sand in an hourglass
Feelings are changeful
Like the tide
Ebbing and flowing
“Love Letter,” a prose piece, held the most promise, which suggests Nelson would have been better off attempting memoir. I slogged (hate-read, really) my way through to the halfway point but could bear it no longer. (NetGalley)
I have a few more spring-themed books on the go: Hoping for a better set next time!
Any spring reads on your plate?
Spring Reading, Part II: May, Moving and Swifts
Eight days after our move, there are still piles of boxes, but the furniture is in place and there are clear walkways, so we’ll call that progress. We got a lot of help on moving day from neighbours, one of whom built a tower of book boxes in the corner of the dining room! I had fun dismantling it last week and assigning each box to a particular bookcase. Arranging the contents on shelves will be for once we’re back from Spain.
What with moving and DIY, I haven’t had a lot of time for reading lately, so didn’t finish any more of the spring books I’d intended to include – except for one children’s book from the library. I’ll give a little rundown of some of what has been on my coffee table stack.
Busy Spring: Nature Wakes Up by Sean Taylor and Alex Morss; illus. Cinyee Chiu (2021)
This was a cute read about two little girls helping their father in the garden and discovering the natural wonders of the season, like tadpoles in a pond, birds building nests, and insects and worms in the compost heap. A section at the end gives more information about the science of spring – unfortunately, it mislabels one bird and includes North American species without labelling them as such, whereas the rest of the book was clearly set in the UK. The strategy reminded me of that in Wild Child by Dara McAnulty. This year is the first time a children’s book Wainwright Prize will be awarded, so we’ll see this kind of book being recognized more.
Encore is my last unread journal of May Sarton’s. It begins in May 1991, when she’s 79 and in recovery from major illness. She’s still plagued by pain and fatigue, but her garden and visits from friends are a solace. Although she has to lie down to garden, “to put my hands in the earth to dig is life giving … it is almost as if the earth were nourishing me at the moment.” As usual, there are lovely reflections on the freedoms as well as the losses of ageing. This book, like the previous, was dictated, so there is a bit of repetition. I’ve been amused to see how pretentious she found A.S. Byatt’s Possession! An entry or two at a sitting helped calm my mind during the stress of moving week.
“In a funny way what drives me is the spring, the fleeting spring. Because of the enormous wind and rain we have had, a lot of the daffodils have blown down, though not as many as I feared. But the truth is that their peak is past. We shall have them for another week and then they will be gone. It seems quite unbearable but that is what spring is—the letting go. The waiting and waiting and waiting, and then the letting go.”
I started a reread of Snow in May by Kseniya Melnik and am partway through the second story. It’s a linked short story collection set in Magadan in northeast Russia – known for Stalin’s forced-labour camps. In “Love, Italian Style, or in Line for Bananas,” it’s 1975 and Tanya is on a shopping spree in Moscow. At a time of deprivation, she buys even things she doesn’t need or that aren’t quite right. Propositioned by an Italian football player on the plane ride over, she fantasizes about the exotic and romantic, juxtaposed against her everyday life.
“The pollen swirled around her like snow. There was a time when the distinctions between right and wrong seemed indisputable, and doing right felt good. When all the decisions had been premade and in her best interest. Back when she didn’t need so much to be happy.”
I saw it on shelf at the library and knew now was the perfect time to read My Life in Houses by Margaret Forster, a memoir via the places she’s lived, starting with the house where she was born in 1938, on a council estate in Carlisle. There’s something appealing to me about tracing a life story through homes – Paul Auster did the same in part of Winter Journal. I’d be tempted to undertake a similar exercise myself someday.
The swifts come screeching down our new street and we saw one investigating a crevice in our back roof for a nest! In Fledgling by Hannah Bourne-Taylor, she is lonely in rural Ghana, where she and her husband had moved for his work, and takes in a young swift displaced from its nest. I’m only in the early pages, but can tell that her care for the bird will be a way of exploring her own feeling of displacement and the desire to belong. “Although I was unaware of it at the time, the English countryside and the birds had turned into my anchor of home.”
The Beginning of Spring with Penelope Fitzgerald & Karl Ove Knausgaard
(From To Star the Dark by Doireann Ní Ghríofa)
Reading with the seasons is one way I mark time. This is the first of two, or maybe three, batches of spring reading for me this year. The daffodils have already gone over; bluebells and peonies are coming out; and all the trees, including the two wee apple trees we’ve planted at our new house, are sprouting hopeful buds.
The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (1988)
My fourth from Fitzgerald. One of her later novels, this was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Its pre-war Moscow setting seemed to take on extra significance as I read it during the early weeks of the Russian occupation of Ukraine. Its title is both literal, referring to the March days in 1913 when “there was the smell of green grass and leaves, inconceivable for the last five months” and the expatriate Reid family can go to their dacha once again, and metaphorical. For what seems to printer Frank Reid – whose wife Nellie has taken a train back to England and left him to raise their three children alone – like an ending may actually presage new possibilities when his accountant, Selwyn, hires a new nanny for the children.
I have previously found Fitzgerald’s work slight, subtle to the point of sailing over my consciousness without leaving a ripple. While her characters and scenes still underwhelm – I always want to go deeper – I liked this better than the others I’ve read (The Bookshop, Offshore, and The Blue Flower), perhaps simply because it’s not a novella so is that little bit more expansive. And though she’s not an author you’d turn to for plot, more does actually happen here, including a gunshot. Frank is a genial Everyman, fond of Russia yet exasperated with its bureaucracy and corruption – this “magnificent and ramshackle country.” He knows how things work and isn’t above giving a bribe when it’s expedient for his business:
He took an envelope out of his drawer, and, conscious of taking only a mild risk, since the whole unwieldy administration of All the Russias, which kept working, even if only just, depended on the passing of countless numbers of such envelopes, he slid it across the top of the desk. The inspector opened it without embarrassment, counted out the three hundred roubles it contained and transferred them to a leather container, half way between a wallet and a purse, which he kept for ‘innocent income’.
I particularly liked Uncle Charlie’s visit, the glimpses of Orthodox Easter rituals, and a strangely mystical moment of communion with some birch trees. A part of me did wonder if the setting was neither here nor there, if a few plastered-on descriptions of Moscow were truly enough to constitute convincing historical fiction. That’s a question for those more familiar with Russia and its literature to answer, but I enjoyed the seasonal awakening. (Secondhand, charity shop in Bath)
Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard (2016; 2018)
[Translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey; illustrated by Anna Bjerger]
Knausgaard is a repeat presence in my seasonal posts: I’ve also reviewed Autumn, Winter and Summer. I read his quartet out of order, finishing with the one that was published third. The project was conceived as a way to welcome his fourth child, Anna, into the world. Whereas the other books prioritize didactic essays on seasonal experiences, this is closer in format to Knausgaard’s granular autofiction: the throughline is a journey through an average day with his baby girl, from when she wakes him before 6 a.m. to a Walpurgis night celebration (“the evening when spring is welcomed in with song in Sweden”). They see the other kids off to school, then make a disastrous visit to a mental hospital – he forgets his bank card and ID, the baby’s bottle, everything, and has to beg cash from his bank to buy petrol to get home.
Looming over the circadian narrative is his wife’s mental health crisis the summer before (his ex-wife Linda Boström Knausgård, a writer in her own right, has bipolar disorder), while she was pregnant with Anna, and the repercussions it has had for their family. Other elements echo those of the previous books: the formation of memories, to what extent his personality is fixed, whether he’s fated to turn into his father, minor health concerns, and so on. Although this volume is less aphoristic than the previous books, there are still moments when he muses on life and gives general advice:
Self-deception is perhaps the most human thing of all. … And perhaps the following is nothing but self-deception: the easy life is nothing to aspire to, the easy choice is never the worthiest solution, only the difficult life is a life worth living. I don’t know. But I think that’s how it is. What would seem to contradict this, is that I wish you and your siblings simple, easy, long and happy lives. … The advantage of having siblings is that it is a lifelong attachment, and that nothing can break it.
All in all, this was the highlight of the series for me. Each of the four is illustrated by a different contemporary artist. Bjerger is less abstract than some of the others, which I count as a plus. (New bargain/remainder copy, Minster Gate Bookshop, York)
A favourite random moment: A creeper coming through the tile roof of his office pushes a book off the shelf. It’s American Psycho. “I still found it incredible. And a little frightening, the blind force of growth”.
Speaking of meaningful, or perhaps ironic, timing: He records a conversation with his neighbour, who was mansplaining about Russian aggression and the place of Ukraine: “Kiev was the first great city in what became the Russian empire. … The Ukraine and Russia are like twins. … They belong together. At least the Russians see it that way. … The very idea of Russia is imperialistic.”
Any spring reads on your plate?
March Reading Plans
It’s beginning to look a lot like spring, with daffodils a-blooming, so I have amassed a set of appropriate reads and aim to report on them in two installments between April and May. I was already partway through Davidson’s novel, I’m getting stuck into the Fitzgerald and Knausgaard, and I hope to start the Woolf soon. I also have a review copy of Ghosts of Spring by Luis Carrasco.
Much as I tried with #FinishItFebruary, I still have some set-aside titles I couldn’t get through before the end of last month. It’s a good thing that (as I’ll never forget Damian Barr commenting) books are patient. I’ll reintroduce these to my stacks in the weeks to come, but NO MORE BOOKS can join them. I’m going to be strict with myself: keep going with a book or DNF it; no more limbo.
One of my informal goals for the rest of the year is to have a buddy read on the go with my husband at all times. I’d noticed that I happened to have duplicate copies of a couple of books, and then started to look out for extra copies at the free mall bookshop and Little Free Library in 2019–21, so I’ve ended up with 11 books in total: three nature classics, four travel books, three novels to reread, and one to read for the first time. Nature/travel is where our taste most often overlaps, but John Irving is our mutual favourite author and English Passengers is a novel we both loved. We’ll work out a schedule for 1–2 per month. He reads faster than I do (but has much less time to read overall), so we’ll agree on a time frame and chat either as we go or when we’ve both finished a book. Let me know if you fancy joining in with any of these.
Of course, it’s also Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy of 746 Books, and I’ve earmarked these fiction options for the next few weeks. So far I’ve started Maggie O’Farrell’s debut novel. Plus I just got Wendy Erskine’s story collection Dance Move out from the library, and I have Colm Tóibín’s forthcoming poetry collection on my e-reader.
I’m currently reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, a collection of autobiographical essays by Irish women writers that originated on the radio. I also got a jump-start in late February by reading these two short books by writers from Ireland:
Wild Child: A Journey through Nature by Dara McAnulty; illus. Barry Falls (2021)
I’d expected this to be just a picture book. Instead, it’s a guided tour through four landscapes – the garden, the woods, the uplands, and a river – and it combines Robert Macfarlane-esque poetry (the rhyming and alliteration are reminiscent of The Lost Words books) with facts and crafts/activities. It starts small, with the birds a child in the UK might be able to see out their window, and then ventures further afield. There is a teaching focus, with information on species’ classification, life cycles and migrations. I also learned to recognize hazel catkins and flowers, and then identified them on our walk later the same day! But the main aim, I think, is simply to encourage wonder and inspire children to get outside and explore the nature around them. I liked the illustrations, but wish the birds hadn’t been given slightly googly eyes. (Public library)
To Star the Dark by Doireann Ní Ghríofa (2021)
Like many, I discovered Ní Ghríofa through A Ghost in the Throat, a genre-bending work of feminist autofiction. I treated myself to a copy of this, her sixth poetry collection, as part of a Waterstones haul with my Christmas book token. One poem actually mentions Eibhlín Dubh, subject of A Ghost in the Throat, and the work as a whole has some of the same attributes, blending biographical portraits and historical reflection with autobiographical material.
“Two Daydreams” connects a teenager in a history exam with the generations leading back to the Famine. “An Experiment to Engineer an Inheritance of Fear” wonders if there is an inherited Irish trauma: “Give her terror in a meadow. / Bind her fear to a black potato. … / When exposed to the ancestral scent, great-grandchildren will show signs of distress.” A newborn’s stay in the NICU occasions “Seven Postcards from a Hospital” (originally addressed to Sara Baume, Ní Ghríofa reveals in the Notes). Marine biologist Maude Delap is the subject of one multi-part poem.
Sensual imagery abounds, and there are several incantatory spells, including the spring one below. My favourite poem was “Craquelure,” likening cracks in a fellow bus passenger’s phone screen to the weathering old paintings develop. (New purchase)
Reading from the Wainwright Prize Longlists
The Wainwright Prize is one that I’ve ended up following closely almost by accident, simply because I tend to read most of the nature books released in the UK in any given year. A few months back I cheekily wrote to the prize director, proffering myself as a judge and appending a list of eligible titles I hoped were in consideration. Although they already had a full judging roster for 2021, I got a very kind reply thanking me for my recommendations and promising to bear me in mind for the future. Fifteen of my 25 suggestions made it onto the lists below.
This is the second year that there have been two awards, one for writing on UK nature and the other on global conservation themes. Tomorrow (August 4th) at 4 p.m., the longlists will be narrowed down to shortlists. I happened to have read and reviewed 12 of the nominees already, and I have a few others in progress.
UK nature writing longlist:
The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell: Hoping to reclaim an ancestral connection, Ansell visited the New Forest some 30 times between January 2019 and January 2020, observing the unfolding seasons and the many uncommon and endemic species its miles house. He weaves together his personal story, the shocking history of forced Gypsy relocation into forest compounds starting in the 1920s, and the unfairness of land ownership in Britain. The New Forest is a model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access. (On my Best of 2021 so far list.)
The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster: A Renaissance man as well versed in law and theology as he is in natural history, Foster is obsessed with swifts and ashamed of his own species: for looking down at their feet when they could be watching the skies; for the “pathological tidiness” that leaves birds and other creatures no place to live. He delivers heaps of information on the birds but refuses to stick to a just-the-facts approach. The book quotes frequently from poetry and the prose is full of sharp turns of phrase and whimsy. (Also on my Best of 2021 so far list.)
Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour: As an aimless twentysomething, Gilmour tried to rekindle a relationship with his unreliable poet father at the same time that he and his wife were pondering starting a family of their own. Meanwhile, he was raising Benzene, a magpie that fell out of the nest and ended up in his care. The experience taught him responsibility and compassionate care for another creature. Gilmour makes elegant use of connections and metaphors. He’s so good at scenes, dialogue and emotion – a natural writer.
Seed to Dust by Marc Hamer: Hamer paints a loving picture of his final year at the 12-acre British garden he tended for decades. In few-page essays, the book journeys through a gardener’s year. This is creative nonfiction rather than straightforward memoir. The prose is adorned with lovely metaphors. In places, the language edges towards purple and the content becomes repetitive – a danger of the diary format. However, the focus on emotions and self-perception – rare for a male nature writer – is refreshing. (Reviewed for Foreword.)
The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison: A collection of five and a half years’ worth of Harrison’s monthly Nature Notebook columns for The Times. Initially based in South London, Harrison moved to the Suffolk countryside in late 2017. In the grand tradition of Gilbert White, she records when she sees her firsts of a year. I appreciate how hands-on and practical Harrison is. She never misses an opportunity to tell readers about ways they can create habitat for wildlife and get involved in citizen science projects. (Reviewed for Shiny New Books.)
Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt: During the UK’s first lockdown, with planes grounded and cars stationary, many remarked on the quiet. All the better to hear birds going about their usual spring activities. For Lovatt, it was the excuse he needed to return to his childhood birdwatching hobby. In between accounts of his spring walks, he tells lively stories of common birds’ anatomy, diet, lifecycle, migration routes, and vocalizations. Lovatt’s writing is introspective and poetic, delighting in metaphors for sounds.
Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald: Though written for various periodicals and ranging in topic from mushroom-hunting to deer–vehicle collisions and in scope from deeply researched travel pieces to one-page reminiscences, these essays form a coherent whole. Equally reliant on argument and epiphany, the book has more to say about human–animal interactions in one of its essays than some whole volumes manage. Her final lines are always breath-taking. I’d rather read her writing on any subject than almost any other author’s. (My top nonfiction release of 2020.)
Skylarks with Rosie by Stephen Moss: Devoting a chapter each to the first 13 weeks of the initial UK lockdown, Moss traces the season’s development in Somerset alongside his family’s experiences and what was emerging on the national news. He welcomed migrating birds and marked his first sightings of butterflies and other insects. Nature came to him, too. For once, he felt that he had truly appreciated the spring, noting its every milestone and “rediscovering the joys of wildlife-watching close to home.”
Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh: I received a proof copy from Canongate and twice tried the first few pages, but couldn’t wade through the excessive lyricism (and downright incorrect information – weaving a mystical description of a Winter Moth’s flight, she keeps referring to the creature as “she,” whereas when I showed the passage to my entomologist husband he told me that the females of that species are flightless). I’m told it develops into an eloquent memoir of growing up during the Troubles. Perhaps reminiscent of The Outrun?
Into the Tangled Bank by Lev Parikian: A delightfully Bryson-esque tour that 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. (When I reviewed this in July 2020, I correctly predicted it would make the longlist!)
English Pastoral by James Rebanks: This struck me for its bravery, good sense and humility. The topics of the degradation of land and the dangers of intensive farming are of the utmost importance. Daring to undermine his earlier work and his online persona, the author questions the mythos of modern farming, contrasting its practices with the more sustainable and wildlife-friendly ones his grandfather espoused. Old-fashioned can still be best if it means preserving soil health, river quality and the curlew population.
I Belong Here by Anita Sethi: I recently skimmed this from the library. Two things are certain: 1) BIPOC writers should appear more frequently on prize lists, so it’s wonderful that Sethi is here; 2) this book was poorly put together. It’s part memoir of an incident of racial abuse, part political manifesto, and part quite nice travelogue. The parts don’t make a whole. The contents are repetitive and generic (definitions, overstretched metaphors). Sethi had a couple of strong articles here, not a whole book. I blame her editors for not eliciting better.
The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn: I only skimmed this, too. I got the feeling her publisher was desperate to capitalize on the popularity of her first book and said “give us whatever you have,” cramming drafts of several different projects (a memoir that went deeper into the past, a ‘what happened next’ sequel to The Salt Path, and an Iceland travelogue) into one book and rushing it through to publication. Winn’s writing is still strong, though; she captures dialogue and scenes naturally, and you believe in how much the connection to the land matters to her.
Global conservation longlist:
Like last year, I’ve read much less from this longlist since I gravitate more towards nature writing and memoirs than to hard or popular science. So I have read, am reading or plan to read about half of this list, as opposed to pretty much all of the other one.
Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn: This was on my Most Anticipated list for 2021 and I treated myself to a copy while we were up in Northumberland. I’m nearly a third of the way through this fascinating, well-written tour of places where nature has spontaneously regenerated due to human neglect: depleted mining areas in Scotland, former conflict zones, Soviet collective farms turned feral, sites of nuclear disaster, and so on. I’m about to start the chapter on Chernobyl, which I expect to echo Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse.
What If We Stopped Pretending? by Jonathan Franzen: The message of this controversial 2019 New Yorker essay is simple: climate breakdown is here, so stop denying it and talking of “saving the planet”; it’s too late. Global warming is locked in; the will is not there to curb growth, overhaul economies, and ask people to relinquish developed world lifestyles. Instead, start preparing for the fallout (refugees) and saving what can be saved (particular habitats and species). Franzen is realistic about human nature and practical about what to do next.
Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake: Sheldrake’s enthusiasm is infectious as he researches fungal life in the tropical forests of Panama, accompanies truffle hunters in Italy, and takes part in a clinical study on the effects of LSD (derived from a fungus). More than a travel memoir, though, this is a work of proper science – over 100 pages are taken up by notes, bibliography and index. This is a perspective-altering text that reveals our unconscious species bias. I’ve recommended it widely, even to those who tend not to read nonfiction.
Ice Rivers by Jemma Wadham: I have this out from the library and am two-thirds through. Wadham, a leading glaciologist, introduces readers to the science of glaciers: where they are, what lives on and under them, how they move and change, and the grave threats they face (and, therefore, so do we). The science, even dumbed down, is a little hard to follow, but I love experiencing extreme landscapes like Greenland and Antarctica with her. She neatly inserts tiny mentions of her personal life, such as her mother’s death, a miscarriage and a benign brain cyst.
The rest of the longlist is:
- A Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough – I’ve never read a book by Attenborough (and tend to worry this sort of book would be ghostwritten), but wouldn’t be averse to doing so.
- Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs – All about whales. Kate raved about it. I have this on hold at the library.
- Net Zero: How We Stop Causing Climate Change by Dieter Helm
- Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert – I have read her before and would again.
- Riders on the Storm by Alistair McIntosh – My husband has read several of his books and rates them highly.
- The New Climate War by Michael E. Mann
- The Reindeer Chronicles by Judith D. Schwartz – I’ve been keen to read this one.
- A World on the Wing by Scott Weidensaul – My husband is reading this from the library.
My predictions/wishes for the shortlists:
It’s high time that a woman won again. And why not for both, eh? (Amy Liptrot is still the only female winner in the Prize’s seven-year history, for The Outrun in 2016.)
UK nature writing:
- The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell
- The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster
- Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour
- Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald*
- English Pastoral by James Rebanks
- I Belong Here by Anita Sethi
- The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn
Writing on global conservation:
- Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn*
- Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs
- Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert
- Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake
- Ice Rivers by Jemma Wadham
- A World on the Wing by Scott Weidensaul
*Overall winners, if I had my way.
Have you read anything from the Wainwright Prize longlists?
Do any of these books interest you?
Spring Reading 2021: Birdsong, Cherry Blossom & More
It’s been a gorgeously sunny spring here – how about where you are? Although there have still been some frosty nights troubling the gardeners among us, it’s been warm in the daytime and the flowers and blossom are coming on apace.
Recently I’ve read a couple of books reflecting on the spring of 2020, specifically the opportunities it offered to reconnect with local nature at a time when we were isolated and couldn’t travel.
I’ve also been feeling nostalgic for Washington, D.C. and the Maryland suburbs, where I grew up. It’s been two years since my last trip back, but I’m holding out hope that I can make it over in June for a family wedding.
Rounding out my selection of “Spring” titles is an offbeat Japanese novella.
Looking back to the coronavirus spring:
On Thursday evening I watched “The Act of Nature Watching,” a special Earth Day Zoom talk for West Berkshire Libraries by local nature writer Nicola Chester, whose memoir is coming out in the autumn. The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries, she lamented. We are hardwired to watch and love nature, she noted, yet have never been more alienated from it. Reading from her columns and anthology contributions (as well as the Lovatt, below) and giving tips on recognizing birdsong and mammal signs, she spoke of nature-watching as a form of mindfulness – an approach that chimed with the first three books I feature here.
Birdsong in a Time of Silence: An Awakening by Steven Lovatt (2021)
During the UK’s first lockdown, with planes grounded and cars stationary, many remarked on the quiet. All the better to hear birds going about their usual spring activities. For Lovatt, from Birmingham and now based in South Wales, it was the excuse he needed to return to his childhood birdwatching hobby. In between accounts of his spring walks, he tells lively stories of common birds’ anatomy, diet, lifecycle, migration routes, and vocalizations. (He even gives step-by-step instructions for sounding like a magpie.) Birdsong takes him back to childhood, but feels deeper than that: a cultural memory that enters into our poetry and will be lost forever if we allow our declining bird species to continue on the same trajectory.
Mentions of current events are sparse and subtle, so the spring feels timeless, as it should. I worried there might be too much overlap with A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth, but there’s room for both on your shelf. Lovatt’s writing is introspective and poetic, delighting in metaphors for sounds: “The song of a turtle dove is like the aural equivalent of a heat-haze, the gentlest corrugation of air, always just on the edge of your hearing.”
Skylarks with Rosie: A Somerset Spring by Stephen Moss (2021)
Lovatt must have been a pupil of Moss’s on the Bath Spa University MA degree in Travel and Nature Writing. The prolific Moss’s latest also reflects on the spring of 2020, but in a more overt diary format. Devoting one chapter to each of the 13 weeks of the first lockdown, he traces the season’s development alongside his family’s experiences and the national news. With four of his children at home, along with one of their partners and a convalescing friend, it’s a pleasingly full house. There are daily cycles or walks around “the loop,” a three-mile circuit from their front door, often with Rosie the Labrador; there are also jaunts to corners of the nearby Avalon Marshes. Nature also comes to him, with songbirds in the garden hedges and various birds of prey flying over during their 11:00 coffee breaks.
His speaking engagements and trips cancelled, Moss turns to online events instead. Twitter serves as a place for sharing outrage over UK politics and world events like George Floyd’s murder, but also as a welcoming community for sharing nature sightings. As the lockdown come to a close, he realizes that this time has had unexpected benefits: “Having to press the pause button … has made me rethink my life, in a good way.” He feels that, for once, he has truly appreciated the spring, “rediscovering the joys of wildlife-watching close to home”. This made for perfect reading in Somerset last week.
Also recommended: The Consolation of Nature by Marren, McCarthy and Mynott
Remembering springs back home:
Spring in Washington by Louis J. Halle (1947)
“The discovery of spring each year, after the winter’s hibernation, is like a rediscovery of the universe … knowledge of spring gives me the freedom of the world.”
For Halle, who worked in the State Department, nature was an antidote to hours spent shuffling papers behind a desk. In this spring of 1945, there was plenty of wildfowl to see in central D.C. itself, but he also took long early morning bike rides along the Potomac or the C&O Canal, or in Rock Creek Park. From first migrant in February to last in June, he traces the spring mostly through the birds that he sees. More so than the specific observations of familiar places, though, I valued the philosophical outlook that makes Halle a forerunner of writers like Barry Lopez and Peter Matthiessen. He notes that those caught up in the rat race adapt the world to their comfort and convenience, prizing technology and manmade tidiness over natural wonders. By contrast, he feels he sees more clearly – literally as well as metaphorically – when he takes the long view of a landscape.
I marked so many passages of beautiful description. Halle had mastered the art of noticing. But he also sounds a premonitory note, one that was ahead of its time in the 1940s and needs heeding now more than ever: “When I see men able to pass by such a shining and miraculous thing as this Cape May warbler, the very distillate of life, and then marvel at the internal-combustion engine, I think we had all better make ourselves ready for another Flood.”
This was a lucky find at Hay Cinema Bookshop back in September. For me it was the ideal combination of thoughtful prose and vicarious travel, though I imagine it might not mean as much to those without a local connection. The black-and-white in-text illustrations by Francis L. Jaques are a particularly nice addition.
Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been? I’ve been to Washington, and guess what I’ve seen… by Russell Punter and Dan Taylor (2019)
More cherry blossoms over tourist landmarks! This is part of a children’s series inspired by the 1805 English rhyme about London; other volumes visit New York City, Paris, and Rome. In rhyming couplets, he takes us from the White House to the Lincoln Memorial via all the other key sights of the Mall and further afield: museums and monuments, the Library of Congress, the National Cathedral, Arlington Cemetery, even somewhere I’ve never been – Theodore Roosevelt Island. Realism and whimsy (a kid-sized cat) together; lots of diversity in the crowd scenes. What’s not to like? (Titled Kitty cat, kitty cat… in the USA.)
And, as a bonus, some fiction in translation:
Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki (2014; 2017)
[Translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton]
Like a Murakami protagonist, Taro is a divorced man in his thirties, mildly interested in the sometimes peculiar goings-on in his vicinity. Rumor has it that his Tokyo apartment complex will be torn down soon, but for now the PR manager is happy enough here. “Avoiding bother was Taro’s governing principle.” But bother comes to find him in the form of a neighbor, Nishi, who is obsessed with a nearby house that was the backdrop for the art book Spring Garden, a collection of photographs of a married couple’s life. Her enthusiasm gradually draws Taro into the depicted existence of the TV commercial director and actress who lived there 25 years ago, as well as the young family who live there now. This Akutagawa Prize winner failed to hold my interest – like The Guest Cat, it’s oddly preoccupied with architectural detail, a Japanese fascination that doesn’t translate so well.
Have you been reading anything particularly appropriate for spring this year?
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?
A Bouquet of Spring Reading
In March through May I often try to read a few gardening-themed books and/or ones with “spring” in the title. Here are some of the ones that I have on the go as occasional reading:
Flowers and gardens
The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl: Her mother’s final illness led Hampl to reflect on her upbringing in St. Paul, Minnesota as the daughter of an Irish Catholic library clerk and a Czech florist. I love how she writes about small-town life and helping out in her father’s flower shop:
“These apparently ordinary people in our ordinary town, living faultlessly ordinary lives … why do I persist in thinking—knowing—they weren’t ordinary at all? … Nostalgia is really a kind of loyalty”
“it was my father’s domain, but it was also marvelously other, this place heavy with the drowsy scent of velvet-petaled roses and Provençal freesias in the middle of winter, the damp-earth spring fragrance of just-watered azaleas and cyclamen”
Led by the Nose: A Garden of Smells by Jenny Joseph: Joseph’s name might not sound familiar, but she was the author of the famous poem “Warning: When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple” and died early last year. This is a pleasant set of short pieces about what you might see and sense in your garden month by month. “Gardeners do indeed look before and after, at the same time living, as no one else, in the now of the nose,” she maintains. I’m particularly fascinated by the sense of smell and how a writer can describe odors, so I was delighted to find this in a charity shop in Edinburgh last year and have been reading it a few pages at a time as a bedside book. I especially like the wood engravings by Yvonne Skargon that head each chapter.
Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden by Eleanor Perényi: A somewhat dense collection of few-page essays, arranged in alphabetical order, on particular plants, tools and techniques. I tried reading it straight through last year and only made it as far as “Beans.” My new strategy is to keep it on my bedside shelves and dip into whichever pieces catch my attention. I don’t have particularly green fingers, so it’s not a surprise that my eye recently alighted on the essay “Failure,” which opens, “Sooner or later every gardener must face the fact that certain things are going to die on him. It is a temptation to be anthropomorphic about plants, to suspect that they do it to annoy.”
With One Lousy Free Packet of Seed by Lynne Truss (DNF at page 131 out of 210): A faltering gardening magazine is about to be closed down, but Osborne only finds out when he’s already down in Devon doing the research for his regular “Me and My Shed” column with a TV actress. Hijinks were promised as the rest of the put-out staff descend on Honiton, but by nearly the two-thirds point it all still felt like preamble, laying out the characters and their backstories, connections and motivations. My favorite minor character was Makepeace, a pugnacious book reviewer: “he used his great capacities as a professional know-all as a perfectly acceptable substitute for either insight or style.”
The Seasons, a Faber & Faber / BBC Radio 4 poetry anthology: From Chaucer and other Old English poets to Seamus Heaney (“Death of a Naturalist”) and Philip Larkin (“The Trees”), the spring section offers a good mixture of recent and traditional, familiar and new. A favorite passage was “May come up with fiddle-bows, / May come up with blossom, / May come up the same again, / The same again but different” (from “Nuts in May” by Louis MacNeice). Once we’re back from America I’ll pick up with the summer selections.
In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill: Early one spring, Ruth Bryce’s husband, Ben, dies in a forestry accident. They had only been married a year and here she is, aged twenty-one and a widow. Ben’s little brother, 14-year-old Jo, is a faithful visitor, but after the funeral many simply leave Ruth alone. I’m 100 pages in and still waiting for there to be a plot as such; so far it’s a lovely, quiet meditation on grief and solitude amid the rhythms of country life. Ben’s death is described as a “stone cast into still water,” and here at nearly the halfway point we’re seeing how some of the ripples spread out beyond his immediate family. I’m enjoying the writing more than in the three other Hill books I’ve read.
Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott: (The title doesn’t actually have anything to do with the season; it’s a quotation from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 98: “From you have I been absent in the spring.”) From 1944, this is the third of six novels Agatha Christie published under the alias Mary Westmacott. Joan Scudamore, traveling back to London from Baghdad after a visit to her adult daughter, encounters bad weather and misses her train, which leaves her stranded in the desert for days that feel more like weeks. We’re led back through scenes from Joan’s earlier life and realize that she’s utterly clueless about what those closest to her want and think. Rather like Olive Kitteridge, Joan is difficult in ways she doesn’t fully acknowledge. Like a desert mirage, the truth of who she’s been and what she’s done is hazy, and her realization feels a little drawn out and obvious. Once she gets back to London, will she act on what she’s discovered about herself and reform her life, or just slip back into her old habits? This is a short and immersive book, and a cautionary tale to boot. It examines the interplay between duty and happiness, and the temptation of living vicariously through one’s children.