The Stranger in the Woods – MIchael Finkel.
The Stranger in the Wood was the book on the top of the pile of my lockdown library. A fitting read for our current times.
A young man, Christopher Knight, inexplicably leaves his family, parks the car at the side of the road and disappears into the Maine woods to live alone for 27 years. That is until he is captured breaking into the kitchen of a children’s camp by a zealous ex Marine and local park warden and the game is up.
In this expertly researched book, Finkel examines Knight’s early life, his loner tendencies and his motivations for leaving. He visits Knight’s camp and interviews local residents, from whom Knight stole.
I guess we all have idealised notions of what a hermit should be and, romantically want them to be a rebel with a cause, whether it is disenchantment with modern life, a desire to go back to nature or a spiritual calling. In this Knight disappoints.
He is a hermit unable to shake his addiction to late 20th century American culture. Despite being an able hunter and fisherman, Knight chose to live close to civilization and steal food from the summer cabins dotted around the nearby lake.
His diet consists primarily of junk food. The kind of American food likely to give you scurvy. He has a thing for Mac N cheese, Mountain Dew and marshmallows. He steals trashy novels, he steals radios, he even steals a portable tele and, when discovered, his camp contained a dump with 20 odd years of plastic litter slowly degrading into the forest. It is hard to find any of this laudable.
What did strike me as admirable though was his complete lack of desire to ‘tell his story.’ How deeply refreshing in this day and age. He didn’t want to share his insights, he just wanted to be left alone.
Unfortunately for Knight, Finkel’s fascination with the story just won’t let up and, after an exchange of letters, he, uninvited, flies across the country and visits Knight in jail and follows this up by invading his families home. This persistence feels intrusive but it pays off and he manages to win Knights confidence and prise his story out of him.
In some ways, where the book works best, for me, is not in this personal tale but in placing it in context of historical account of hermits and explorations of the psychological make up of the people who would choose this life.
Christopher Knight is clearly a man who doesn’t fit in society, who finds interaction with other people an exhausting performance and feels he can only truly be himself when alone.
After two weeks of lockdown with the world suddenly online and the blinking eye of my laptop invading my living room I know how he feels.
Shut in the towns unable to escape, the thought of vanishing into the nearest woods is suddenly even more compelling.
The story of someone who truly went into retreat and found solace in being alone felt strangely refreshing. But before I disappear I think I will pack something more nutritious than Mac N Cheese
The Signalman – Charles Dickens
A perfect Ghost story for a dark winter’s night, The Signalman perfectly conjures up the atmosphere of Higham Station on the Hoo Peninsula, the gateway to the marshes.
Even today the little station has a feeling of being lost in a different age, with it’s ornate metal footbridge, friendly staff and addition of a quirky book swap and art gallery. It is still an outpost and a place where I have collected many a confused Londoner to take them for a walk across the North Kent Marshes.
Dickens would have known the station well as he travelled between his London residence and Gad’s Hill Place, his country retreat, where he wrote many of his later books in the Swiss chalet in the garden.
For Dickens the railways were both a huge convenience and a source of fear, hardly surprising, after he survived a fatal train crash at Staplehurst where he was one of the first on the scene to help the wounded and dying passengers. It is little wonder that this story is full of the dangers of train travel.
The story starts with the narrator calling down into the steep cutting to the Signalman below, who diligently carries out his duties from a little wooden hut beside a long dark tunnel leading beneath the cliff face.
Dickens takes us into his world and we shelter with them in the hut from the mists of the damp railway siding and watch as the signalman checks his dials and charts and waves flags to signal to the passing trains.
The signalman is on edge and we soon learn that he is haunted by a ghost at the tunnel entrance who has twice prophesised disaster on the railway and has now come again.
Dickens, as always, does a marvellous job of creating atmosphere and painting a picture of the world of the signalman in rich detail and we are treated to some lovely florid Victorian imagery of young women dying in railway carriages for no apparent reason. At times the formality of language, which is a feature of the times, makes things a little clunky and, I was left a bit confused by the twist in the tale but Dickens paints such a fantastic picture that I won’t ever visit Higham Station again without looking for the ghost standing under the red light by the tunnel.
Life at Walnut Tree Farm – Rufus Deakin and Titus Rowlandson.
Islander, A Journey Around Our Archipelago – Patrick Barkham
Patrick Barkham sets out on a journey to some of the small islands of Britain, drawn by the story of the, near forgotten writer, Compton Mackenzie, who owned and lived on a series of small islands from the 1890’s.
Each island conjures up a different story which Barkham tackles with sensitivity. From island as tax haven, to island as religious retreat, to island as hedonist party zone he travels with a light touch and captures something true about each destination.
On the Island of Eigg, where I spent several weeks working last year, he navigates the choppy waters between the idealists who go there drawn by its environmental credentials and the determined drinkers who congregate at the pier and snub drink driving regulations. He understands instinctively, as maybe I didn’t, that small island life requires people to rub along together and forgive a multitude of personality quirks.
The book raises interesting questions as to the benefits island communities bring to the mainlanders who often heavily subsidise them and suggests that islands provide a pointer to the future as they champion sustainability, community and local heritage which provides a healthy counter balance to fast paced cities with their excessive consumption and social isolation.
Less successful, I felt, was the rendering of the story of Compton Mackenzie. Barkham chooses to visit islands which Mackenzie had no relationship with and ultimately doesn’t illuminate the artists draw to island life. The book I felt would have stood up just as well without this thread.
For me, the strength of this book is its excellent travel writing about little known places and its insight into the lives of the quirky British characters who choose to live in remote places. I loved the tale of the sisters guarding the Tomb of the Eagles on South Ronaldsay and the nun in waders living a hermits life on Bardsey. I immediately added both these to my wish list of places to visit.
Barkham sketches the people of these islands magnificently but touches something deeper when he comes to rest on a strip of saltmarsh off the Essex coast. Here he recounts how the island lingers after he has left, etching into his skin like a tree ring to tell a story of one moment in his life.
Inglorious, Conflict in the Uplands – Mark Avery
I am conflicted and sometimes, I feel, hypocritical when it comes to shooting.
As a wildlife lover I cannot conceive of every wishing to kill a living creature for fun and yet all year I talk to farmers about ‘predator control,’ two sanitised words which equate to killing foxes.
Foxes are beautiful creatures but there is no getting away from the fact that they cause major problems to beleaguered ground nesting birds such as lapwing and, unless you can afford to erect a big fence around your land, shooting foxes is the only way that waders can currently survive on the small pieces of habitat suitable for their needs.
After reading Mark Avery’s book I am also convinced that there is also no getting away from the fact that hen harriers cause major problems for red grouse .The difference is that, unlike foxes, hen harriers are protected and threatened with extinction as a breeding species in England due to the activities of game keepers on grouse moors. While red grouse are living at such densities on shooting estates that they are developing such gruesome sounding illnesses as bulgy eye!
Mark Avery feels that hen harriers and grouse shooting cannot survive together and numerous scientific reports support this. One has to go and in his book Inglorious, Conflict in the Uplands, Mark persuasively argues for the banning of driven grouse shooting.
Far from being full of dry facts and tub thumping rhetoric this book is very readable due to Mark’s conversational style and, while the man seems well able to hold his own in debate, he actually comes across as reasonable and balanced. This is not a vendetta against land owners or a call to end all sport shooting in this country rather a laying out of the argument against once form of shooting.
Like many other people in this country I thought about sport shooting as a rather quaint, antiquated activity practiced by toffs that probably doesn’t do that much harm to the countryside as a whole and provides a source of free range meat possibly preferable to the lives and deaths of factory farmed animals. However after reading Inglorious I feel much better informed and much less likely to eat grouse.
Grouse shooting relies on big ‘bags’ of grouse to be killed by wealthy punters. Many of whom nowadays are as likely to be city bankers with more money than sense than country squires. In order to create this mass population of grouse the shooting estates burn off tracts of moorland in order to encourage the growth of young heather, which the grouse eat. The burning of moorland destroys blanket bogs, a rare habitat, which the UK is especially blessed with, having 13% of the world’s total. The burning also destroys peatland which in England alone sends the same amount of carbon into the air annually as 140,000 cars! It also contributes to downstream flooding which has devastated livelihoods in places like Hebden Bridge. If all of that wasn’t bad enough we are paying for this environmental damage twice over as the grouse moors receive government money to manage the land for wildlife.
It is farcical and could only be supported by a government whose ministers often went to the same schools and probably are involved in the same funny handshake societies as the grouse moor owners.
The evidence also stacks up that gamekeepers are killing hen harriers. The shootings industry would have you believe that illegal persecution is down to the activities of just a ‘few bad apples.’ But the industry seems to have done little to remove those bad apples as hen harrier numbers are still pitifully low.
Mark Avery suggests that there should be around 2000 more pairs of hen harrier in the UK than there currently is. This year only 9 nests in England fledged chicks. The government feels this is a remarkable success.
Given the option I would rather have hen harriers than grouse shooters in my country and if the two can’t live with each other then I am quite happy to live with the latter’s extinction.
Mark doesn’t want you to just read his book and walk away he wants you to take up arms for his cause and the book ends with a variety of suggestions for action you could take to help. Good for him. It is hard to close the book and do nothing. For my part I donated to an anti wildlife crime campaign, made a note in my diary to attend a Hen Harrier Day event (11-12th August) and set off to the coast to witness one of these beautiful birds while I still can.
The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd.
When I was 22 I went to the Cairngorms in the company of a fell runner. Thank the Lord I was only 22, as he took me up the mountain at a fair lick and declared I looked much healthier when I arrived puffing and red faced on the summit. Now I want to go again thanks to reading The Living Mountain.
Nan Shepherd knew these mountains with an intimacy normally reserved for indigenous tribesmen. She describes every element of the mountain with exquisite attention to detail, the taste of the air, the feel of heather under bare feet, the forming of ice in a mountain stream.
Do not think though that this makes the book dry and fact ridden, anything but. Her love affair with the mountain and it’s people comes through in every line. There is such delicacy of prose here that you stop and re read a line for the shear beauty of it. I find it hard to imagine a man writing this book. That is not to say that men cannot be great nature writers, just that I feel they would see the mountain differently, walk it differently, as a summit to climb, as a thing to be conquered. They maybe would not take the time to see and feel as she did about each flower and change of light.
The more I read this book the more I began to think that, if Nan Shepherd were alive today, I would be encouraging her to take other women out into the mountains. There is something hugely liberating about reading about a women who walks alone in the wilderness and doesn’t once feel afraid. If this was somehow easier to do in the 1940’s when she wrote this book, than it is now then we have gone backwards as a society.
As a women who also walks alone in the countryside and doesn’t feel afraid then maybe it is for me to take up that mantel and lead other women into the hills and say, ‘look, this is for you too.’
The historical nature of this book is also part of the fascination. Shepherd writes of a world of downed fighter planes in lonely gullies, of old women living in bothies, of the felling of the Caledonian forest. This book more than any I have possibly ever read transports you into it’s landscape. You can read this on a packed underground train and miss your stop as you walk the summits and skinny dip in the lochs and sit by a peat fire in a lonely mountain hut.
I would rate The Living Mountain alongside The Peregrine as the best that nature writing can be. This is a book to keep and savour again and again and underline the passages and visit them when you are down and the world has gone dark and you are in bed alone and need to be up among the mountains with Nan. .
Thorne Moors – Catherine Caufield with photos by Fay Godwin
This little book published by The Sumach Press captures the sad story of Thorne Moors, a peat bog classified as a SSSI which supports 4000 species of plants and animals and is one of our rarest habitats in this country.
For many years man’s impact was minimal. Digging peat by hand created a variety of mini habitats which actually increased the diversity of the moors but then, through a series of, possibly illegal, manoeuvres by wealthy individuals, the moors stopped being common property and became owned by one company, which since 1963 was Fisons, a company which made Levington compost.
In the years prior to selling the moor to another horticulture company Fisons destroyed much of the areas wildlife value by draining, surface milling and putting roads through the moorland and all so people could grow larger tomatoes in its peat rich compost. This book tells a familiar tale of big business raping the countryside but also a great story of how one eccentric amateur expert William Bunting fought to have the wildlife value of the moor recognised and the area protected.
I’m not sure they make William Buntings any more. Born in 1916 this was the original eco warrior. He set up his own group of direct action protestors, Buntings Beavers, who set out each weekend to damn the drains that Fisons were cutting. Bunting also stalked the moors with an old revolver tearing down barriers placed across footpaths. He was by all accounts crotchety and didn’t suffer fools. I hope I have half his courage to fight for what is right.
William Bunting taught himself Latin and Middle English in order to fight Fisons through the courts. He managed to get footpaths re-instated and forced the company to allow some of his dams to remain in place. Fisons were forced to give a passing nod to conservation interests after bad publicity and eventually gave 8000 acres of peatland to Natural England. Thorne Moors is the story of how one man with enough determination can make a difference.
Revolution – Russell Brand
Russell Brand? Never gave him much thought until recently. He was just some quite funny bloke with a massive ego and a lot of women. Then I heard he was actually a troubled soul who wanted to start a revolution and build Utopia and he began to sound like my kind of man.
I watched his documentary, The Emperors New Clothes and came away fired up, wanting to do something but not knowing quite where to direct this energy. I feel the same way after reading his book Revolution.
Revolution sets forth a case as to why our present economic and governmental system is exploiting ordinary people to make profit for a few wealthy men and women. It sets out what the alternative could be and it makes these arguments accessible. So far, so good.
True, Russell Brand is not the most coherent of writers. He goes off on rambling asides which sometimes seem to lead nowhere. The sort of stories which probably work much better in Stand Up than in print. However, he does make ideas which could be dry and hard work, readable. He uses his fame and notoriety in well intentioned ways and I won’t knock him for that.
I don’t agree with all of Russ’s ideas but by half way through I’m thinking, ‘Great, Fantastic, we’re going to start a socially and ecologically sound collective. Where do I sign? Where do I start? What’s step one?’ Problem is, Russell Brand’s book never tells me.
The man himself would know doubt say that, if he sets himself up as a leader to follow then it is against the principle of a collective, but as he never gives us any ideas of where the ordinary person in the street should begin then I’m left feeling demoralised. Feeling that I am being done over by all these rich people and am powerless to stop it.
Another chapter or two giving some grass roots ideas and organisations to get the ball rolling would have been really useful. A few tips on how to stop paying your taxes and avoid jail would also have been helpful. Revolutions need talk, personally I think they probably also need leaders but what they need most of all is action.
Fingers in the Sparkle Jar – Chris Packham
Chris Packham’s memoir is a book about a lonely, troubled, isolated child who is at his happiest when he is out in the fields and woods discovering wildlife. A boy who is the freaky kid in school, probably a worry to his parents but who has far more potential than anyone else around him.
If you were this kid, read this book. If you are the parents of a child who you suspect may just be this kid, read this book. If you expect a media friendly anecdote about a happy boy who came to be a television presenter, maybe stay clear.
Fingers in the Sparkle Jar is an unbelievably, bloody, brave book which it is hard to believe anyone with a public profile would have written. I suspect that if this had not been written by a ‘celebrity’ it wouldn’t have been published which says far more about the lack of bravery in publishing houses than it does about Chris’s ability to write as the book is very well written with beautiful descriptions of nature and brilliant observation of Britain in the 1970’s with all it’s hot, dusty and disconnected edge.
The book jumps around between times and perspectives but keeps it cohesion and the odd structure feels appropriate for the subject, sometimes you are in Chris’s head, sometimes you are observing him from someone else’s viewpoint. I think if you are deeply internalised then this is how you view the world.
This book resonated with me on so many levels. I frankly was that child or one very like it. It took me right back to being an isolated and bullied girl in a rough comprehensive and finding solace in nature books. It bought home the absolute necessity of being completely honest in your writing because only then can you reach out to others who feel the same way and give them something of real value.
This is a valuable book. It is a brave and important book. It makes me want to stand up and applaud this man and then possibly follow him around for the rest of his life and say ‘thank you.’
Deer Island – Neil Ansell
Just finished reading Deer Island and loved its simplicity and sadness. I have a habit of meeting and gravitating towards people such as those Neil describes. People who have lived in squats, who have lived rough, who have given up on planning life as life has a habit of scattering plans to dust.
Neil tells a story I understand; drifting between helping the homeless and being homeless, of falling into chaos and finding years of your life swept in a whirlpool vaster than the Gulf of Corrywreckan he visits. I liked the way he chose to tell this story, not as some Eastenders melodrama, wailing, ‘me and my poor life.’ but, instead with an undercurrent of responsibility for his own choices.
This is not nature writing but an account of a tumultuous life which drove him to seek, if only for a brief time, solitude on a remote Scottish island, to maybe close a chapter and find some resolution within himself to the sadness of seeing people he had come to care about die of poverty, squalor and addiction.
This is not nature writing but at times the exquisite simplicity of it made me want to cry. Neil’s account of finding two otter cub skeletons in a cave was told with a sparseness that made it truly moving.
You are left wondering what happened to this man after he left his island. The books final line says he has never been good at keeping hold of things, which makes you feel he is still searching for his answer.
Neil Ansell says, ‘security is an illusion. Everything you have can be snatched away in an instant.’ Lord, I know this to be true but, despite its truth, I found myself hoping that he finds some security.
H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald
We’ve all done it. Dismissed a book based on the hype without ever opening the front cover. I was all poised to read this and be a bit sneery but, within the first few pages I changed my mind.
There was something real and honest in Helen Macdonald I hadn’t expected to find. Despite the reviews I don’t think this book is a work of dark genius. It’s not The Peregrine. I did not find it a hard, difficult, painful read but a simple account of grief and the desire to withdraw from the world.
Maybe it says something about me that I found so much in this book I could relate to. That the author’s desire to hide out with a hawk, lose herself in the wild, bury herself in non human instincts was something I could sympathise with.
I like the unapologetic way she deals with many of the issues this book covers. She doesn’t get bogged down in the ethics of killing animals it is just something she does. She takes responsibility for ending an animal’s life and she eats what she kills. Maybe at times you do feel uneasy about her lack of comment on the contrast between her own sustainable hunting and the pheasant shoots whose rearing pens her hawk plunders but ultimately the ethics of hunting is not what this book sets out to explore.
I also appreciated the lack of melodrama when talking about her grief and depression and her realisation that she can’t continue to hide out in the wilderness but needs people in her life.
If you are one of the people who have become sick of hearing about this book and actively avoided it then think again. Ignore the hype and enjoy the book for what it is. A simple and well written book from a women, who you sense, never sought the limelight.
John Betjeman’s Collected Poems
I have fallen in love with John Betjeman. It is my usual crush, an unobtainable man (in this case long dead!) with whom I feel a kinship.
In his collected poems, first published in 1958, Betjeman is nostalgic for a vanishing Britain and so am I. I am told that nostalgia is wrong, that we must all embrace sustainable progress into a modern Britain I want no part of.
Instead I am drawn to Betjeman’s world of tennis played on the lawns of country houses and hills lined with elm trees. A less peopled country of winding roads with fewer cars and more detail.
I seek Betjeman’s world on long cycles through wintry lanes, in quiet woods and parish churches. I close my eyes to much of modern Britain and instead seek a country that offers food for the soul, that enriches not erodes.
But in Betjeman I do not find a poet of the past, despite being dead for over twenty years, many of his collected poems come across as surprisingly relevant. He depicts a countryside trashed by pylons and ugly developments and ugly values. A world of nature and depth consumed by plastic and triviality. Betjeman’s poems seem more than relevant in an era where all the little weedy paradises where children once played and learned to love nature are consumed by a tide of cheaply thrown up housing estates which will lock children into their box rooms to stare at computer screens and learn to shop.
Betjeman’s poems have an air of sadness, of knowing the fight against the destruction of all you love in your country is fruitless, it will be destroyed by politicians and planners and developers. As our wild places are gobbled up by housing at an alarming rate then Betjeman is a reminder of what beauty we threw away.
Memorious Earth is a beautifully presented slice of Cumbria, a Cumbria both under our feet but often overlooked and a Cumbria lost and remembered only in name.
Reading this book was like stepping into a cool bath on a hot day, like stepping off of an over packed tube train and walking through a clean, airy museum of beauty and thought. Throughout the pages ordinary bits of the countryside are bottled and presented as things of importance, as museum exhibits, ordinary life, which could be lost just as the raven and the lapwing and the wolf has been lost from the landscape.
This book mixes scientific facts with folklore and poetry. It felt like a justification for my own relationship with the countryside. So often, those working in conservation can look at things in isolation and be terribly level headed. If, when out doing my survey work, I come across a really amazing plant filled river, I know I am meant to be sensible and scientific and start working out the names of everything and their relative importance, when what I really think is “wow, that’s how the past looked,” and this is often followed by a desire to engage, to slip into the river and discover it with fingers and toes, to taste it, to entwine myself in it. Am I odd? undoubtedly. Afterwards I will pull myself out and discover the names of things. The names can be a wonder in themselves but they can also be dry. Science can increase knowledge but reduce wonder. Science can both expand and diminish.
Autumn Richardson and Richard Skelton in Memorious Earth take the science but also create wonder. Tree rings created from ancient languages felt like reaching in and touching the trees memory of all the people who have stood next to it and spoken its name. A photograph of a bone. A wolf bone? (please don’t tell me if i’m wrong) seemed like a holy relic, a reminder that the English wolf was once real and walked the earth.
There is something in this work that makes it tangible, that makes it reach out and place a finger on you. It unsettles you, it affects you. It is the heavy weight of absence. This becomes particularly clear in the last section, The Medicine Earth, when you sense the tred of ‘the harmful one that throughout the land roams.” you feel the unseen presence that flickers just out of sight and you feel the overwhelming sadness and hopelessness behind the words ‘this shall be whole again.’ a mantra, as if by saying it enough times, it might make it true.
The book is a beauty, a puzzle, a riddle to slip into.
Silt Road, The Story of a Lost River – Charles Rangeley- Wilson
I read this book in superfast time, drawn on by its underlying melancholy. A sadness of the author both for the buried and brutalised river whose history he charts and a personal sadness, hinted at but, with admirable constraint, never quite revealed.
As someone who has worked on many river restoration projects and known the teeth grinding frustration of coming up against official inertia, short sightedness and profit margins, as if these were something I personally was supposed to care about, then I fully understood Rangeley-Wilson’s anger at the tiny, self interested decisions made by councillors with hands in developers pockets. Decisions which then go on to suck the life out of a town and its inhabitants for a long time to come.
The story of the River Wye in High Wycombe, that this book uncovers, could be the story of so many of our rivers. Essential to the towns that grew up around them, bound up in our history, once beautiful and then lost under concrete. It could well have been the story of my own local river, The Beam which flows into Romford in Essex. Once an essential part of the towns brewery industry, it too now is buried under concrete with plans for its resurrection shelved in favour of a car park and shopping centre. It is a sign of the times, where we once worshipped river Gods, now our Gods are shopping and cars.
Silt Road is not an uplifting read but the universality of its subject allows us all to recognise, thinks about and understand the rivers which flow in and around our towns better. Towards the end of this book you begin to will the author on, hoping for a happy ending, wanting Charles Rangeley-Wilson to save his river, unearth it from its tomb and give it back to the town but it is not to be.
The book does end, however, with a little glimmer of hope. As the author sits in a café and watches the people of the town drawn to the one water feature they have left. Reaching out in order to touch and connect with this element and, in doing so, maybe connect with an inner part of themselves which, like the river, is buried deep underground.
Meadowland follows the yearly cycle of a field in a corner of John Lewis-Stempel’s farm in Herefordshire. This, on the surface of things, would not seem a wide enough subject about which to write a whole book but from the first line we are transported down into the meadow with the author to watch the ice moon rising, feel the frost biting at our finger tips and watch the badger dragging his lame back legs across the field. The prose in Meadowland takes you down amongst the grasses and allows you to witness the lives of a host of creatures that live around this quiet corner of the English countryside.
Time and again in this book you wish to applaud John Lewis-Stempel’s patience and field skills. The hours he spends simply sitting and observing and recording those intimate moments of nature which can only be witnessed by long hours in the field. It is the detail that sings off the page here; a fox catching craneflies along with a flycatcher, a shrew rolling a slug into an appetiser, voles running from the brushcutter blade.
There are some subjects touched which are likely to rouse the blood of many wildlife lovers and at times the authors shows a slightly schizophrenic attitude towards his hay meadow. He finds the foxes beautiful but would happily shoot them. He gently covers up a nest of field voles which he exposes during his hay cutting but downs a pigeon just as it performs a last swoop towards the safety of cover. He delights in seeing the badgers but is relieved that his borderline TB cattle are free to go out and wander amongst them. Still, John Lewis-Stempel is at least not hiding his views on such issues. He holds his hands up to being somewhat confused about where his loyalties lie. He admits that he has both hunted foxes from horse back and been a hunt saboteur.
This is nature writing which will stand the test of time. A book dip into to enjoy the turning of the year. It is a beautiful observation of wildlife in an unspoilt corner of the country and made me want to go out and spend more time simply sitting and watching and enjoying the everyday delights to be found on our doorsteps.
Cheryl Strayed sets out to walk the Pacific Coast Trail after falling of the rails, following the death of her mother. The long walk out as a metaphor for the long walk in is a well covered theme and one I know well, but these books can be so hit and miss. They can be melodramatic or shoe gazing in the extreme or, alternately, the author can go all coy on us and use lots of lovely metaphors about the countryside without telling us one single true and honest thing about themselves.
Wild manages to admirably avoid either of these extremes. It is that thing we all love, a great bit of armchair travel. Not many of us really wish to put out body through the physical hardships that Cheryl endured, watch our toenails blacken and become detached, drink dubious water sauces and live on dehydrated food. Not many women are brave enough to take off alone into the wilderness with scarcely a penny to their name but we don’t have to, Chery did and we can, from the cosiness of our homes, walk with her.
This book is a good story, well told. It isn’t poetic nature writing or profound insight but I found it a refreshing change because of this. Unlike so many British writers who laden their books with endless clever words that only a small percentage of the population understand, or quote and re-quote the same collection of ‘acceptable’ writers, or sit in their ‘aren’t we all so marvellous club,’ slapping each other on the back and thanking each other profusely in the ‘acknowledgement’ section, then Cheryl just gets on with the business of telling her story without fanfare. She is a normal, flawed, working class women who has had some major hiccups in her life and found a way to deal with them.
If only British publishers would publish more people like this and stop churning out the same old stories from writers who sometimes appear to have nothing to offer other than the fact they are the ‘right sort.’
The Old Ways – Robert Macfarlane
The jury is still out on Mr Macfarlane. Despite being lauded as one of the best nature writers of his generation, then I find it hard to fall in love with his style of writing.
I feel I should rate him, after, all Roger Deakin thought so highly of him he made him his literary executor and I applaud the way in which he has raised the profile of my much maligned home county of Essex, praising the desolate beauty of its coastline and the iconic Englishness of it’s seaside resorts, but, unlike Roger Deakin, Macfarlane’s writing just seems to lack the human touch or possibly a sense of humour, it is all so very, very clever and earnest.
Walking the Old Ways with him, while reading his book, felt, at times, a hard slog. Wading through a treacle of endless metaphor’s, scrabbling through geological terms. The fact that the book needs a 9 page glossary to help you understand it, says it all. It seems that, at times, Robert Macfarlane looses his way. Is he an academic or a literary writer? and , if he is a such a great writer, why does it feel as if he is trying so very hard to impress us with his knowledge? At times it just seems as if he is trying too hard, when he loosens up towards the end of the book he gets so much better.
I loved his stories of seeing a panther on the road at night after a long days walking in the snow or his experiences of ghostly presences at Chanctonbury Ring. He retold these events with admirably little fanfare and a dryness of style which made them believable and left you wanting more. Where this book really seemed to excel was when Macfarlane forgot himself and told the stories of others, particularly his account of the war experiences of Edward Thomas, then I became lost in the story and the writing, no longer fighting through cleverness but immersed in the landscape and the life of another.
The Old Ways has been praised to the hilt by many and was a surprise top ten bestseller. If you are at all interested in nature writing then it is a book to read just make sure you are prepared for some heavy walking.
After London – Richard Jefferies
Written in 1885, After London tells the story of a pastoral world which has evolved after a disaster has swept away the technology, cities and memories of the 19th century. The people that have survived this disaster have separated into distinct casts from the primitive bushmen, the gypsies and outcasts, to serfs and nobles who exercise supreme power and are rule with merciless violence.
The story follows the journey of Felix, a nobleman’s son who has fallen on hard times and sets out to better himself and win the hand of his beloved Aurora. This is a simple tale of adventure, quest and discovery. The basic telling was actually refreshing, devoid of the convoluted language and clever philosophy that seems necessary for writing to be considered ‘good’ in the modern world.
the book ends with Felix heading out once more into the unknown and the reader is left with the hope that Jefferies wrote a sequel.
Sadly, it seems, he never did. After a childhood on a Wiltshire Farm not unlike the estate depicted in After London, Jefferies ran off to France with his cousin and tried to walk to Russia, when this proved unsuccessful they boarded a boat to America but were sent home when it was discovered they had no money for food.
Jefferies took to wandering the countryside with hair down to his shirt collar, dishevelled clothes and a gun over his shoulder, an appearance which made him an object of some concern in Swindon. He spent many solitary hours laying beside stone circles seeking a deep connection with nature.
After a stint as a newspaper reporter, Jefferies began submitting articles about nature and rural life to magazines. He published several books during his lifetime but a long battle with tuberculosis meant his productivity was never great and he was obliged to ask for the assistance of the Royal Literary Fund to sustain him and his family. He finally lost his battle with TB in 1887.
After London is an immensely enjoyable read and an ambitious attempt to imagine a post apocalyptic society. A book well worth tracking down through your local library or second hand book shop.
Walden – Henry Thoreau
‘I borrowed an axe and went to the woods,’ wrote Henry David Thoreau and so begins his two year experiment in living simply. Thoreau felt that man wasted his life by working to pay off a large mortgage and acquire material goods so he could keep up with his neighbours, where as, if he only lived simply, worked with his hands to grow and catch his own food and gave up the pursuit of stuff he did not need, then he could devote his time to the things he really wanted to, which in Thoreau’s case was the study of nature and writing.
Here was a man years ahead of his time, both as an environmentalist and anti-consumerist, living by ideals which are all the more relevant today. At times, the writing of Walden is overly dense by modern standards and is more of an educational lecture than entertainment but there are moments of true beauty and insight in his writing and his delight in the natural world and love of Walden Pond races off the page.
Thoreau died an untimely death at 44, having gone out in a rain storm to count tree rings, but, by all accounts, he was at peace with the world when he died presumably because he had succeeded in his quest to live deliberately and did not find, when he came to die, find that he had not lived.
In Waterlog Roger Deakin sets out to swim his way across Britain taking us on a summer’s journey through leafy backwaters, plunge pools in the hills, across the mouth of estuaries and through a series of outdoor swimming pools. On the way he argues with officious river ‘owners’ and challenges the Environment Agencies insistence that our rivers are nowadays dangerous, polluted waterways likely to drag you into there depths or poison you with all manner of chemicals and mysterious sounding diseases.
Roger is seemingly oblivious to social conventions which, in Britain at least, dictate that, nowadays, stripping down to your trunks or beyond and going for a swim in the local river is simply not on. He reminds us that it was not that many years ago when most people learnt to swim outdoors. With every stroke you want to cheer this man on. He liberates us from the chlorine filled crowded halls of our local swimming baths, he invites us to reclaim our rivers, lakes and forbidden waters, he encourages us to ignore what others might think of us.
This has been the perfect read for a winter in which rivers have been rarely out of the news. Usually because they have burst their bank,s like a convict escaping from jail. Waterlog reminds us that our rivers are also a national treasure which should be kept as wild as possible and not trained into concrete sewers.
Reading this beautifully written book I wanted to head out and take back my local river by plummeting into it, but it is winter and the river’s are flooded and spreading across the land. Instead I am going to head to my local baths and learn to swim with the same elegance and economy as Roger so I will be able to sample their delights come summer.
Roger Deakin died before he ever had a chance to publish another book (although two further books were posthumously published) but Waterlog is a beautiful testimony to a fine writer and I like to think that, as the final line of the book tells us, at the moment of death he simply ‘turned and swam on into the quiet waves.’
A man and his son walk through a post-apocalyptic world of ash strewn countryside and abandoned cities populated by desperate gangs of cannibals. They survive on a cart of scavenged food, love for each other and hope, without evidence, that things could be better down south.
Throughout the book their are references to ‘carrying the fire’ and this symbolises faith in God to heal the ravaged land, in the future represented by the boy, in the need to keep your humanity and goodness when all around you is darkness and desperate survival.
The Road is a bleak, desperate and, at times, gruesome read but don’t let this put you off. It is not a depressing book, there are moments of joy for the pair and it is a reminder of how happiness can be found in the smallest things and that love and strength of character are things of value even when there is nothing else to give.
A brilliantly crafted and bravely written book, The Road is a worthy winner of the Pulitzer Prize
The Peregrine by J A Baker
The Peregrine is an anomaly and in today’s profit driven world you can’t imagine a publisher taking a risk on a book in which one anti-social man obsessively follows and documents the everyday life of a bird through a bleak winter. It’s not exactly ‘high concept.’ Thank God though that someone did take the risk as The Peregrine is undoubtedly a masterpiece of nature writing full of vivid descriptions and rich detail which will stay with you long after you have finished.
From the opening pages, The Peregrine describes a landscape known only too well to anyone who dwells by a river estuary. Even though the book is set in Essex(England) the world of mud and water and reflected light will be familiar to many, while the author’s devotional hours of bird watching open the door to reveal the fight for survival that is going on among the birds that inhabit our landscapes.
Unlike many modern nature writers whose books sometimes seem to be more about the writer than the wildlife, the author is conspicuous by his absence. There is no mention of Baker’s outside the birds and this invisibility draws you in. Who exactly was this man who stood for hours everyday in all weathers watching peregrines? Didn’t he have a job? A family? A life? One of the few known facts about Baker is that he was diagnosed with a serious illness just before taking up his mission to pursue peregrines.
The Peregrine is a book which will give readers a new appreciation of the beauty of the estuary landscape and the creatures that live there.
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
In Cold Comfort Farm, the indomitable Flora Poste, finding herself an orphan, decides to offer herself as a guest to her distant relatives at Cold Comfort Farm in the hope that they will feed and house her. In deepest Sussex she finds a family of superstitious, rural misfits, ruled by the mysterious Aunt Ada Doom, all of whom delight in their own gloomy passions and are ruled by the flowering of the ‘sukebind’ weed. Undaunted, Flora sets out to sweep all such nonsense away before her and rid the family of their overly dramatic notions and appalling sense of style by applying her own brand of level-headed, ‘modern’ common sense.
Flora Poste is an exquisite heroine, a strong, sensible, woman; independent, stylish and able to reveal a softer, feminine side without loosing any of her own character. The book is light, funny, clever and knowing, being a parody of the many doom laden stories of rural life by authors such as D H Lawrence, the Bronte sisters and Thomas Hardy. The unexpected twist at the ending is a delight and ensures that the final character set on ‘the right path’ by Flora is indeed herself.