We’re in self isolation right now and one of the things I’m hoping to do is to spend more time than usual reading. And one of the best things about reading e-books is that you don’t have to go out of the house or meet anyone to get them.
The Overstory by Richard Powers – this was my Mother’s Day present from my son.
An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. An Air Force crewmember in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan.
This is the story of these and five other strangers, each summoned in different ways by the natural world, who are brought together in a last stand to save it from catastrophe.
One summer evening in 2009, twenty-year-old musical prodigy Edwin Rist broke into the Natural History Museum at Tring, home to one of the largest ornithological collections in the world. Once inside, Rist grabbed as many rare bird specimens as he was able to carry before escaping into the darkness.
Kirk Wallace Johnson was waist-deep in a river in New Mexico when his fly-fishing guide first told him about the heist. But what would possess a person to steal dead birds? And had Rist paid for his crime? In search of answers, Johnson embarked upon a worldwide investigation, leading him into the fiercely secretive underground community obsessed with the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying.
Was Edwin Rist a genius or narcissist? Mastermind or pawn?
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – Longlisted for the Women’s Prize 2020. I’d reserved this at the library, but as it’s now closed I decided to buy the e-book!
Danny Conroy grows up in the Dutch House, a lavish mansion. Though his father is distant and his mother is absent, Danny has his beloved sister Maeve: Maeve, with her wall of black hair, her wit, her brilliance. Life is coherent, played out under the watchful eyes of the house’s former owners in the frames of their oil paintings.
Then one day their father brings Andrea home. Though they cannot know it, her arrival to the Dutch House sows the seed of the defining loss of Danny and Maeve’s lives. The siblings are drawn back time and again to the place they can never enter, knocking in vain on the locked door of the past. For behind the mystery of their own exile is that of their mother’s: an absence more powerful than any presence they have known.
Told with Ann Patchett’s inimitable blend of humour, rage and heartbreak, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale and story of a paradise lost; of the powerful bonds of place and time that magnetize and repel us for our whole lives.
‘An exciting, expert, and invaluable group portrait of seminal women writers enriching a genre crucial to our future.’ —Booklist
In Writing Wild, Kathryn Aalto celebrates 25 women, both historical and current, whose influential writing helps deepen our connection to and understanding of the natural world. These inspiring wordsmiths are scholars, spiritual seekers, conservationists, scientists, novelists, and explorers. They defy easy categorization, yet they all share a bold authenticity that makes their work both distinct and universal.
Part travel essay, literary biography, and cultural history, Writing Wild ventures into the landscapes and lives of extraordinary writers and encourages a new generation of women to pick up their pens, head outdoors, and start writing wild.
I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but I do enjoy reading books about nature, so Writing Wild appealed to me. Kathryn Aalto’s reason for writing her book was to highlight what these 25 women writers have written, their historical significance and the barriers, biases and bullying they overcame to write. It covers two hundred years of women’s history through nature writing, including natural history, environmental philosophy, country life, scientific writing, garden arts, memoirs and meditations and does not aim to dismiss men’s contributions. Gisela Goppel’s portraits of each writer head each chapter. Aalto writes an introduction to each writer and includes excerpts of prose, poems and essays with added recommendations for further reading, plus a list of sources and an index.
Predominantly American and British, some of these women writers are familiar to me, such as Dorothy Wordsworth, Vita Sackville West, Nan Shepherd, Rachel Carson, Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard and Helen Macdonald. Others are new to me, but I would like to read several of their works, such as Andrea Wulf’s book The Brother Gardeners in which she explores how England became a nation of gardeners. Wulf, a design historian, writes horticultural and historical history through narrative nonfiction, borrowing techniques from fiction to make nonfiction come alive. Elena Passarello’s Animals Strike Curious Poses essay collection, which Aalto describes as written with laugh-out-loud humour and depth of empathy, also particularly appeals to me.
One of the things I learned reading this book is the name ‘Cli-fi’. I hadn’t come across it before but of course, it is not a new genre. As Aalto points out it goes back at least to Jules Verne’s 1889The Purchase of the North Pole. Contemporaryexamples including Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour. The writer she chooses to illustrate this genre is Saci Lloyd, an acclaimed writer of cli-fi, whose vivid and action packed books include The Carbon Diaries, about the effects of carbon reduction policies. They are gritty eco-thrillers featuring Laura Brown a 16 year old trying to manage life with a carbon deficit card.
Kathryn Aalto is a writer, designer, historian and lecturer. For the past twenty-five years, her focus has been on places where nature and culture intersect: teaching literature of nature and place, designing gardens, and writing about the natural world. Her work explores historic and horticultural themes with a contemporary twist. She is the author of The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood (2015) and Nature and Human Intervention (2011). Her website is kathrynaalto.com.
My thanks to Timber Press for a review copy via NetGalley.
The snow from the beginning of March had nearly all gone, with just a few areas in the back garden still covered in snow, when it started snowing here today. We’ve had snow flurries all day but it’s all gone now.
This is what it was like at the beginning of March in the heaviest snow fall we’ve had since 2009. This view is from the kitchen of the decking where the snow had piled up in front of the patio doors.
The photo below is of the end of the garden next to the field.
And this close up shows how the snow had blown into drifts along the back fence.
The view from the front window – blackbirds, chaffinches and sparrows. At one point there were six blackbirds and lots of little birds – I tried to get a photo of all them together, but they kept flying away.
Below, a close -up of a nuthatch on the fat balls.
We had a couple of rare visitors too – first a woodcock
And then an otter – the first time we have ever seen one in the garden. I watched it come up from the stream, dripping wet early one morning. It made its way to the back door and had a look at Heidi’s cat flap! She was scared stiff.
I meant to post this a couple of weeks ago – it’s that time of year when the garden seems to take over my life and this year there’s been quite a lot going on in our garden.
This is an old ash tree in the field behind our house and we’ve called it a Tree of Multiple Occupancy. It’s hollowed out at the top with several holes lower down and the occupants are mainly jackdaws and wood pigeons. This is not a happy household as none of them get on and the jackdaws regularly patrol the tree trying to scare off any birds that come near.
In the early mornings I’ve seen a barn owl going into the top hole, chased by the jackdaws. I’ve seen the owl a few times now – one evening it came sweeping out of the top hole followed by a group of jackdaws. It flew into our little wood and after just a short time it flew back into the tree. I wish I’d had my camera handy that day, it’s an absolutely beautiful bird!
I also wish I had a camera inside the tree to see the arrangements – is the tree hollow all the way down? Do they all have nests? And is the barn owl nesting there too?
The great tits and bluetits have been busy – the great tits made a nest in an old hollow fence post and produced four young ones. David’s video shows the fledglings leaving the nest early one morning. We also have had bluetits nesting in a great tits’ bird box on the gable end of the house. And now the swallows are here, swooping around the sky – such wonderful aerial displays.
I really wanted to love H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, as well as the 2014 Costa Book of the Year but I found it difficult to read and draining, despite some richly descriptive narrative. It’s really three books in one – one about herself, her childhood and her intense grief at the sudden death of her father, one about training a goshawk and another about T H White and his book, The Goshawk in which he describes his own struggle to train a hawk.
When her father died she bought Mabel, a ten week old goshawk and became obsessed with training her. It is the training that made this book so difficult for me to read. I am not comfortable with keeping wild creatures in captivity and in my naivete I hadn’t realised just what training a hawk entailed. Even though Helen Macdonald tells her friend’s husband that it had not been a battle training Mabel because ‘she’s a freakishly calm hawk‘, it came across to me that it had been a battle of wills, as she kept Mabel indoors in a darkened room, in a hood, on a perch or restrained on a leash for much of the time. It was a physical battle too that evoked rage, violence and frustration.
I found it difficult too because it is so personal as she exposed just how bereft she was, how she suffered the loss of her father and became depressed almost to the state of madness:
It was about this time that a kind of madness drifted in. Looking back, I think I was never truly mad. More mad north-north-west. I could tell a hawk from a handsaw always but sometimes it was striking to me how similar they were. I knew I wasn’t mad mad because I’d seen people in the grip of psychosis before, and that was madness as obvious as the taste of blood in the mouth. The kind of madness I had was different. It was quiet, and very, very dangerous. It was a madness designed to keep me sane. My mind struggled to build across the gap, make a new and inhabitable world. (location 219)
This a book unlike any other that I’ve read, about wildness, grief and mourning, and obsession, which made it heavy reading for me.
Corvus by Esther Woolfson is a remarkable book about the birds she has has had living with her; birds that were found out of the nest that would not have survived if she had not taken them in.
‘Corvus’ is a genus of birds including jackdaws, ravens, crows, magpies and rooks. The specific birds Esther Woolfson has looked after are a rook, called Chicken (short for Madame Chickieboumskaya), a young crow, a cockatiel, a magpie, two small parrots and two canaries. But it all started with doves, which live in an outhouse, converted from a coal store into a dove-house, or as they live in Aberdeen in Scotland, a doo’cot.
Although the book is mainly about the rook, Chicken, Esther Woolfson also writes in detail about natural history, the desirability or otherwise of keeping birds, and a plethora of facts about birds, their physiology, mechanics of flight, bird song and so on. As with all good non-fiction Corvus has an extensive index, which gives a good idea of the scope of the book. Here are just a few entries for example under ‘birds’ the entries include – aggression in, evolution of, navigation, in poetry, speeds of, vision, wildness of, wings’…
It’s part memoir and part nature study and for me it works best when Esther Woolfson is writing about Chicken and the other birds living in her house, how she fed them, cleared up after them, and tried to understand them. Although at times I had that feeling I get when I visit a zoo – these are wild birds kept captivity and I’m not very comfortable with that, I am reassured by Esther Woolfson’s clarification that reintroducing these birds to the wild was unlikely to be successful and indeed they lived longer than they would have done in the wild. Though Chicken and Spike (and the other birds) live domesticated lives they are still wild birds:
I realise that if ‘wild’ was once the word for Chicken, it still is, for nothing in her or about her contains any of the suggestions hinted at by the word ‘tame’. Chicken, Spike, Max, all the birds I have known over the years, live or lived their lives as they did by necessity or otherwise, but were and are not ‘tame’. They are afraid of the things they always were, of which their fellow corvids are, judiciously, sensibly; of some people, of hands and perceived danger, of cats and hawks, of things they do not know and things of which I too am afraid. ‘Not tamed or diminished’. (pages 115-6)
At times, where Esther Woolfson goes into intricate detail, for example in the chapter on ‘Of Flight and Feathers‘ I soon became completely out of my depth, lost in the infinity of specialised wing shapes and the complexities of the structure of feathers. But that is a minor criticism, far out weighed by her acute observations of the birds, her joy in their lives and her grief at their deaths – her description of Spike’s unexpected death and her reaction is so moving:
I wept the night he died. Sitting in bed, filled with the utter loss of his person, I felt diminished, bereft. I talked about him, but not very much, in the main to members of the family, who felt the same, but to few others.
It’s the only way, this compact and measured grief, for those of us who are aware that there has to be proportion in loss and mourning; we laugh at ourselves for our grief, trying to deal with this feeling that is different in quality, incomparable with the loss of a human being.
We felt – we knew – that something immeasurable had gone. (page 209)
Anyone who has lived through the death of a loved animal can recognise that sense of loss.
Corvus is a beautiful book and I have learned so much by reading it. I must also mention the beautiful black and white illustrations by Helen Macdonald – I think this is the Helen Macdonald who was awarded the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction for H is For Hawk.
Esther Woolfsonwas brought up in Glasgow and studied Chinese at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Edinburgh University. Her acclaimed short stories have appeared in many anthologies and have been read on Radio 4. She has won prizes for both her stories and her nature writing and has been the recipient of a Scottish Arts Council Travel Grant and a Writer’s Bursary. Her latest book, Field Notes from a Hidden City (Granta Books), was shortlisted for the 2014 Thwaites Wainwright Prize for Nature and Travel Writing. She lives in Aberdeen. For more information see her website.
For a few days now little white feathers have been appearing on the lawn at the front of the house – and in the back garden too. We were a bit worried that our cat had been catching birds, but mice are her preferred option. We were wrong – it wasn’t down to Heidi.
This year our house has been home to four lots of house martins, with four families in four nests, one at each of the gable ends and a fourth on the front wall of the house built over the cover of an extractor. These birds have been dazzling us with their spectacular aerobatics as they’ve been swooping and sailing above us high in the sky most of the summer, catching the insects that love to bite me. Needless to say I love house martins.
I don’t know how many broods they’ve had but there are still fledglings in the nest at the front. According the RSPB they can have up to three broods and I suspect each of the families have done that this year. They’ve made quite a mess on the walls and window sills with their droppings.
The puzzle of the feathers on the lawn was solved the other day when we saw two sparrows attacking the nest, pulling out feathers and poking around inside the nest – and the fledglings were still inside. I never knew what aggressive little beggars house sparrows are! The RSPB site tells that they often damage house martins’ nests and even attack adults, eggs and young birds. This attack was rebuffed by the house martins and the sparrows flew off – but there are more white feathers around this morning, the war continues.
We’ve seen lots of butterflies in the garden recently and I just managed to get a photo of this beautiful Peacock Butterfly when it landed on the decking the other day. It’s quite a big butterfly, as butterflies go, and is easily recognised by the eye-spots on its wings. It flew away before I could creep around it to get a better shot, but you can still see the eye-spots.
We have a wych elm in the back garden. This year it’s been absolutely full of seeds, many more than usual:
The seeds have been blowing all over the garden, covering the lawn and borders. They grow in clusters:One got caught in a cobweb:
Here it is in close-up:
Wych Elms are hardy trees and have greater resistance to Dutch elm disease than other elms. The name ‘wych’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning pliable and refers to the tree’s twigs. Its wood has many uses, including underground water pipes (in the past), boat building and the seats of chairs – it’s also the traditional wood used for coffins.
I love trees – and they are good for you:
A garden without trees is as hard to envisage as an art gallery with pictures. Trees soften the landscape. They provide shade in the summer and protection during the winter. A screen of trees around the house can provide enough wind-shelter to reduce by a tenth the energy consumption in the home. Their canopy of leaves acts as a highly effective pollution filter, absorbing many of the major atmospheric pollution gases, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen and sulphur dioxide. Research also reveals that we are happier and more relaxed when we are in leafy surroundings … (The Therapeutic Garden by Donald Norfolk page 105)
Roger Deakin was a writer, broadcaster and film-maker with a particular interest in nature and the environment. He completed the manuscript for Wildwood, his second book, just before he died in 2006. As the sub-title explains it’s about Deakin’s journeys through a wide variety of trees and woods in various parts of the world. It’s a memoir, a travelogue and also it’s about the interdependence of human beings and trees, or in his own words:
Wildwood is about the element of wood, as it exists in nature, in our souls and in our lives. (page x)
I think parts of this book are brilliant and fascinating, but my eyes glazed over in other parts as I got lost in all the facts and details that he recounts, which were just too much at times for me. But sometimes his writing is poetical, full of imagery. For example in writing about pencils he concludes:
The fine-grained, slow grown mother of all pencils is incense cedar from the forests of Oregon, where a single tree may grow 140 feet high, with a trunk five feet across, enough cedar wood to make 150,000 pencils. It is the incense cedar that infuses pencils with the nutty aroma I remember as I open my pencil-box. In a scooped out hollow in my Oregon pine work table in front of me lies a smooth, round pebble from the Hebrides. It sits snugly in the wood, like the pencil between finger and thumb, and like the hidden vein of graphite, poised inside the cedar to spin itself into words like gossamer from the spider. (page 30)
I love the image that last simile brings to my mind. I also marked these passages: ‘The pencil whispers across the page and is never dogmatic.‘ And this, ‘Rub your finger long enough on a soft-pencilled phrase and it will evaporate into a pale-grey cloud. In this way, pencil is close to watercolour painting.’ (both from page 29)
He wrote about Walnut Tree Farm, his house in Suffolk. It was a ruin when he bought it and he took enormous delight in renovating and restoring it, including personally shaping and repairing every single timber beam – all 323 of them. His love of trees stemmed from his early years and his school days when in the sixth form he and his school friends camped in the New Forest where their Biology teacher filled them with enthusiasm, setting them to studying and mapping the natural history of a stretch of the woodland, bog and heathland.
He covers a huge area of natural history, not just trees, but also plants, birds, moths, hedges, as well as the uses of wood for living, working and pleasure. He also describes his journeys to numerous places – not just in Britain, but also to the Pyrenees, Bieszczady, Australia, east to Kazakhstan, China, and the walnut forests of Kyrgyzstan. There is so much to take in – I really think this book deserves an index!
I liked the southern English chapters best, as the further afield he went it seemed more of a travel book. It’s a book of several parts and maybe it would have been more of a whole if Deakin had lived to see it through to publication. I think it’s a bit fragmented.
My favourite chapters cover the work of David Nash, a sculptor in wood and the paintings by Mary Newcomb. Deakin visited David Nash’s studio at Blaenau Ffestiniog, where he was particularly drawn to the Cracking Box made of oak:
As if entering the wild life of the wood, or at least taking its side, Nash has put as many difficulties in his way in the making of the box as he can. … The anarchic work thumbs its nose at the basic rules of woodwork, triumphantly so, because it holds together in spite of the wriggling of the wood as it warps and cracks. The more the wood struggles , the tighter the grips of the oak pegs in their augured sockets. (pages 154 -5)
Mary Newcomb was a Suffolk painter, who Deakin described as belonging ‘in the greenwood tradition, peering unnoticed from behind leaves like the Green Man’.. (page 179) (There is also has a chapter on the Green Man.) I hadn’t heard of Mary Newcomb and was intrigued by Deakin’s description of her work in which people seem to be part of the landscape, where proportion is very often skewed as in children’s art or ‘naive’ painting. I just had to look for her paintings and found some on the BBC’s Your Paintings. I’ve shown one here, on the left, where the raindrops are drawn nearly as big as the birds on the tree. (Click on the photos to enlarge.)
I also liked the chapter on walnuts, entitled Among Jaguars, describing how shapes of delicate walnut veneer are cut for the dashboards and door panels of Jaguar cars, and how the rare walnut burr veneer is produced. Walnuts figure quite prominently in Wildwood, with chapters on the walnut forests of Ferghana Valley in Kyrgyzstan.
Throughout the book Deakin referred to other books – one that stands out for me is Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders, one of my favourites of Hardy’s books, full of beautiful descriptions of the landscape and woods.
Overall, then I found this an interesting book, with some outstanding chapters. It’s not a book to read quickly and some parts are written much more fluently than others, but it’s full of fascinating information and meditations on the natural world. One final quotation:
To enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed. It is no accident that in the comedies of Shakespeare, people go into the greenwood to grow, learn and change. It is where you travel to find yourself, often, paradoxically , by getting lost. Merlin sends the future King Arthur as a boy into the greenwood to fend for himself in The Sword in the Stone. There, he falls asleep and dreams himself, like a chameleon, into the lives of the animals and the trees. In As You Like It, the banished Duke Senior goes to live in the Forest of Arden like Robin Hood, and in Midsummer Night’s Dream the magical metamorphosis of the lovers takes place in a wood ‘outside Athens’ that is obviously an English wood, full of the faeries and Robin Goodfellows of our folklore. (page x)