Winner of The UK’s Favourite Nature Book Poll: Chris Packham – Fingers in the Sparkle Jar
The Land Lines team would like to thank all the members of the public who nominated books and the thousands of people who voted for their favourite title. We’re delighted to announce that the winner of the public vote is Chris Packham’s Fingers in the Sparkle Jar. In second place is Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson and in third place is Common Ground by Rob Cowen.
We congratulate Chris wholeheartedly on his well-deserved win. Fingers in the Sparkle Jar is an outstanding book – raw and brave, and written with an astonishing vividness of perception and recall. With this memoir Chris has moved beyond the traditional confines of ‘nature writing’, attracting readers who might not usually be drawn to the genre. It speaks perhaps most directly to the many people who have grown up in urban and suburban settings and have encountered the wildlife and habitats that exist close to home rather than in more distant locations.
One of the contentions of the Land Lines research team is that nature writing is neither simplistic nor consolatory. Fingers in the Sparkle Jar very much bears out this argument. It’s a complex work, which, as well as exploring Chris’ lifelong love of the natural world, also documents moments of extreme anguish and devastating loss. In its acute attention to detail, the book features descriptive passages of almost uncomfortable intensity. The form is also complicated and challenging. The narrative jumps between time frames and perspectives, with some sections written in the first person and some in the third. Through this shifting perspective Chris is able to explore the experiences and memories of his younger self, as well as trying to imagine how others may have seen him at that time. He reveals in the process a disjuncture between his perception and that of the people around him. In this way, though he never makes explicit mention of the condition, Chris’ narrative enacts the difficulties of a boy with Asperger’s syndrome trying to make sense of the society in which he lives. As such, the book offers a rare and valuable insight. At the same time, Chris shows how nature offers the boy solace and escape, providing him with the ‘heaven of a million living things’, and laying the foundations for a life spent studying and championing the natural world.
For Professor Graham Huggan, Land Lines project lead, ‘a good nature book is one that is intellectually interesting but tugs at the heartstrings too; the best nature writing has the capacity to do both of those things’. Fingers in the Sparkle Jar certainly fulfils these criteria. Informative and heart-breaking in equal measure, and graced with a punk sensibility and wry sense of humour, the book is a work of great originality which pushes at the boundaries of the nature writing genre.
Public comments about Fingers in the Sparkle Jar included:
‘It’s the most powerful, honest account I’ve ever read about how nature can shape a person and how interactions with wildlife can stay with someone for ever. It’s beautifully written and the messages and story stayed with me long after I turned the last page.’
‘Fingers in the Sparkle Jar is a truly beautiful, honest account of growing up with Asperger’s and in love with nature, when everyone around you wasn’t. It’s brutal and hard to read at times but ultimately brilliant. And very well written! I couldn’t put it down.’
Henry Williamson – Tarka the Otter
We’re extremely pleased to see that Henry Williamson’s classic animal narrative, Tarka the Otter, has retained its long-standing place in readers’ hearts. This fictional account of a Devon dog-otter’s life, first published in 1927, offers an immersive look at one of the UK’s most iconic mammals. The sheer, raw energy of the book is astonishing and, despite its lack of sentimentality, its emotional power is immense. The narrative includes harrowing sequences of otter hunting, and the story is punctuated with the Tally Ho! of the huntsmen and the baying of the hounds. While the book is, broadly speaking, a novel, it pushes at the constraints of the form, crossing the boundary between fiction and non-fiction, prose and poetry. It’s also a transformative book, enabling readers to step imaginatively into the world of another creature. As Miriam Darlington writes, ‘Anyone who hasn’t sprouted whiskers, webs and a tail by the end of this story needs to read it again’. Nominations from the public iterated, over and over, the sense that this book, often read in childhood and re-visited in adulthood, has changed people’s lives, inspiring great love and concern for the natural world.
Public Comments about Tarka the Otter included:
‘Ever since my dad got his dusty old copy from his childhood out of the loft one Christmas while we were looking for the tree, I have always loved this book, with its rich earthy tale’.
‘I read it as a small boy and it opened my eyes to the beauty and savagery of what we call nature. Beautifully and unsentimentally written, it also had memorable illustrations by Charles Tunnicliffe. It’s the book that fired up my lifelong interest in wildlife and the world around us’.
Rob Cowen – Common Ground
We’d also like to congratulate Rob Cowen on the success of Common Ground in the poll. This is another extraordinary work. Set in the environs of Bilton, a suburb of Harrogate, the book carries out a fascinating and exhaustive excavation of the human and animal histories of the area. While ostensibly adopting a traditional approach to non-fiction prose nature writing, the book also plays with and disrupts the form. In its sensitivity to the hauntings and absences in the landscape, Common Ground has elements of psychogeography and deep topography, and in its imaginative recreations of the lives of others, both human and non-human, it also blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction. Rob commits himself to getting to know everything he can possibly glean about his adopted patch of ground, in the process building a wonderfully detailed account of a place in which nature and culture are utterly entangled. The strands of the book are similarly entangled and at times almost disorienting: his feelings at the approaching birth of his first child; his fascination with the creatures that inhabit his chosen terrain; and his anguish at the ongoing despoliation of the natural world. But the narrative ultimately coalesces around Rob’s mingled feelings of hope and despair, and his quest through the edge-lands for ways to achieve renewal, ‘un-enclosure’ and re-grounding.
Public comments about Common Ground included:
‘It perfectly and poetically describes a very special habitat – one man’s exploration of a wild environment on his very doorstep on the edge of town. My favourite book about my favourite place.’
‘It’s down-to-earth in the most perfect sense. Grounded, rooted, and relates to us all as town-dwellers. But it opens us up to the natural world outside our town and city limits. Revelatory. Inspiring’.