The Land Lines team were invited to curate a page of the ‘nature books of the year’ for the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
By Dr Pippa Marland
This year’s protracted wrangling over the terms of Brexit has dominated political and social debate and at times drawn attention away from the parlous state of our nation’s nature and from devastating new global evidence of climate breakdown and species decline. At the same time, people around the world have taken to the streets in unprecedented numbers to call for political action on climate change mitigation and protection of wildlife. In the UK, September saw the publication of The People’s Manifesto for Wildlife, delivered to Downing Street by a ten-thousand strong band of marchers, and October witnessed the first actions of the Extinction Rebellion. There’s a widespread sense that we need new stories to narrate our relationship with the natural world – stories that inspire us to pay attention, to mourn what is gone, to cherish what is left, and to translate our enchantment and grief into political action. We invited ten people to nominate their books of the year (or recent years), and one person to give us a recommendation for 2019; their choices reflect the dual roles of contemporary nature writing in exploring innovative, imaginative ways of understanding the natural world, and encouraging us to take a mighty stand on its behalf. From the ‘amulet against the Anthropocene’ of Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’ The Lost Words, to the ‘unexpected call for revolution’ in Mark Cocker’s Our Place, here are the nature books that have delighted and challenged our panel of readers.
Our Place, by Mark Cocker
In November this year, Sir David Attenborough described environmental issues as a ‘turn-off’ for television viewers, and was righteously clobbered by George Monbiot as a consequence. The tension here, between candid bio-realism and nature-as-escapism, is a problem for anyone who writes about wildlife in this age of the Sixth Extinction. Few front up to the challenge with the boldness, rigour and vision of nature writer Mark Cocker in what might turn out to be his defining work, Our Place. It’s a book underpinned by the premise that we can only understand the present condition of our countryside by examining the past, and that only a clear-eyed view of the present can equip us to confront the future. British nature is in a bad way and getting worse. Through prisms of landscape and history, Cocker – in his usual measured manner – lays out a blueprint for radical reform. An unexpected call for revolution.
Richard Smyth is a writer and critic. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman and the Literary Review, among others, and he writes regularly on wildlife for The Guardian, Bird Watching and BBC Wildlife. His most recent book is A Sweet, Wild Note: What We Hear When The Birds Sing (Elliott & Thompson, 2017).
Curlew Moon, by Mary Colwell
Some people read nature books for lyric descriptions of its beauty from the present day and the past. Some read them for the latest information about a favourite species or intricate ecosystem. Others enjoy books set in nature that are also personal explorations, of the author’s own history and personality, and of the lives of people they meet.
Curlew Moon is all of those, in one beautifully balanced package. There’s why St Beuno blessed the curlew (one rescued his book of sermons from the sea). There’s the latest on curlew lives discovered with newly possible miniature trackers. There’s Mary’s family connection with Ireland, and the massive changes it has undergone in the past couple of decades.
And underlying this is a deep, gently political understanding of the reasons behind the desperate fate of the curlew: “curlews everywhere have to sing for their supper in a world where money rules”. I don’t agree with Mary’s conclusions on driven grouse shooting. The slaughter and environmental damage has to end. But we can agree that all of our landscapes have to welcome curlews and many other wild creatures, which means massive changes in land use.
Natalie Bennett was leader of the Green Party from 2012-2016, and she continues to work full-time on green politics, having just been at the climate talks in Katowice. She was formerly editor of the Guardian Weekly.
The Seabird’s Cry, by Adam Nicolson
I was ten when I first encountered an albatross. It was soaring above a wild ocean on a page in a book, and it was enchantment at first sight. A creature, as magical and as far away in my imagination as a dragon, had entered my world. Fifty years later, fighting off sea sickness in a tiny boat just off the New Zealand coast, I first looked into the eye of an albatross. And that eye was predatory and alien.
The author evokes the grace and beauty of seabirds with descriptive passages which stirred and magnified my own memories of being in their presence. He uses his store of deeply understood literary references and scientific information about the bird’s hidden lives to increase the reader’s sense of wonder. But most powerfully of all he imprints on the mind the difference between the subjective and actual world that we inhabit and that of creatures which can make a home in the sea and the sky.
Ian Tattum is a priest in the Church of England, working in South West London who spends as much time as possible by the sea or in it.
The Overstory, by Richard Powers
Richard Powers’ latest novel, enormous in every way, towers over everything I’ve read this year. The human story extends over a couple of brief centuries, with the main action in the last seven decades. This is time that flickers by for the other main protagonists – the American chestnuts, the Douglas firs, the ginkgoes, maples and mulberries and, above them all, the giant sequoias. There are books within the book, stories swelling within stories like growth rings, and connections so many and so varied that they branch out from the pages – offering some things and asking others. On finishing it, I felt enmeshed. Not trapped, exactly, but networked into a story older than history: culpable, enchanted and wondering, more than ever, who and what I am.
Dr Amy-Jane Beer is a biologist, writer and science editor, discovering after 20 years studying nature as objectively as possible that actually, it is magic. She writes non-fiction books, contributes features for BBC Wildlife magazine, a column for British Wildlife and Country Diaries for The Guardian. She is writing her first novel.
The Lost Words, by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris
Wildlife and words, for me, are intrinsically symbiotic; but when they were forced from our vocabulary by lexicographers, many kids were caught beneath the shadow that brought. The language of nature, slowly disintegrating. The Lost Words, for me, a kid, was a captivating act of rebellion by two brilliant humans, Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane, on our behalf. A work of illumination – visually stunning and joyfully poetic. When a book transcends the page and sparks national kindness, to put this necessary work into the hands of school children – from all backgrounds – it becomes more than itself, it becomes a talisman for change. It feels to me, like an amulet against the Anthropocene. Light in the dark. Words, that were slipping away silently from the mouths of children are now uttered and displayed with pride in schools worldwide. Lost and found. A triumph.
Dara McAnulty is a 14 year-old autistic naturalist, conservationist and writer living in Co Down, N. Ireland. He is writing his debut book, ‘Diary of a Young Naturalist’ which will be published by Little Toller in 2020.
The Overstory, by Richard Powers
I crave good storytelling and I want to fall under a spell, whether I’m reading non-fiction or a novel. I’d have nominated Clover Stroud’s the ‘Wild Other’, but that was published last year, so I’ll go with ‘The Overstory’. I’ve not actually finished it yet, but for the way the book has hooked me, for its inventiveness, for the worlds Richard Powers’ creates, the reflective tone of his writing, and most of all for the delicate way he breathes life and soul into his trees, it’s The One.
Jini Reddy is a journalist and author. Her first book Wild Times: Extraordinary Experiences Connecting with Nature in Britain won the book prize at The British Guild of Travel Writers Awards in 2017 and she is now writing a narrative non-fiction book for Bloomsbury.
Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah – The Song of the Willow Tit, by Steve Ely
I never imagined that such a thing could ever exist: Steve Ely has written a book of poems (a loosely connected sequence in an illustrated pamphlet) about the willow tit. Willow tits are birds that live at the edge of life. Although fully themselves, as of course they are, they barely register as British birds. They were not identified as such until the nineteenth century; they remain difficult to tell apart from a commoner neighbour, the marsh tit; they are never showy birds; they live in scrappy, unloved landscapes; and they are now extinct in many places and at best rare in others. They hardly occur in any sense. I know of no other poems ever written to a bird that might otherwise have been called anon and yet now Steve Ely has produced Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah – The Song of the Willow Tit. His poems are lively and striking and redefine what bird-poetry might be.
Tim Dee has been a birdwatcher for fifty years and a writer about birds, people and places for the last decade. His most recent book is Landfill, about gulls and rubbish. His next book will be about the spring.
A Honeybee Heart has Five Openings, by Helen Jukes
The curious but immediately touching title of this book sets the scene for an equally unusual and moving tale of urban beekeeping. Helen Jukes has researched her subject meticulously, presenting us with a potted history of the ways in which the honey bee has been perceived and enshrined in human culture. Moving from the writings of Virgil and Pliny the Elder to the latest scientific research into the complex communication patterns of the hive, the book is highly informative. At the same time, the narrative’s strand of memoir, which follows Juke’s own journey from her initial interest in bees to becoming a fully-fledged beekeeper, also gives us the opportunity to look carefully into the human heart and to consider the manner in which we might pay renewed attention to the nature that surrounds us.
Pippa Marland is a member of the ‘Land Lines: Modern British Nature Writing’ research team at the University of Leeds. She is currently writing a book about nature writing from islands around the British-Irish archipelago and co-editing a book on walking.
The Word for Woman is Wilderness, by Abi Andrews
Any hope of mitigating the environmental catastrophe depends on overcoming the compartmentalisation of self and society. Both neoliberal capitalism and much ostensibly leftist theory promote a categorical alienation that finds one mundane expression in marketable genres. The Word for Woman is Wilderness illuminates and severs these mind-forged manacles in an oxy-acetylene explosion of wit, intelligence and wincing honesty, exposing the pastured redundancy of ‘nature writing’ as it does so. Tracing a young woman’s quest for self-knowledge, the novel’s thematic range, depth of thought and quiet fury make it indispensable for those who would face an uncertain future whole, with open eyes and open heart.
Steven Lovatt has worked as a commissioning editor for the New Welsh Review (2012-13), and as co-editor of Little Toller Press’ environmental magazine The Clearing (2017-18). Steven’s creative and academic writing has been widely published. He is presently self-employed as a copy-editor for UCL Press, and also teaches English Literature at the University of Bristol.
Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late?, by Mark Cocker
Searing and brilliant, Mark Cocker’s Our Place is an impassioned plea on behalf of the ‘more-than-human’ parts of life at a point of absolute crisis.
Cocker claims that he is ‘constitutionally incapable of polemic’ – but then goes on to write one of the most effective, moving and powerful polemics of our time. He doesn’t mince his words, but neither does he occupy the moral high ground: ‘Every one of us is to blame. And there are no exemptions; not even Sir David Attenborough. Britain’s contemporary capitalist society… is a shared enterprise. It implicates us all.’
Our Place not an easy read, but it is a necessary one. Few people combine lyrical nature writing with sharp-end politics as effectively as Mark Cocker, and he has poured his heart, soul, intelligence, and energy into this book. It is the culmination of an extraordinary life’s work.
Anita Roy is a writer and editor based in Wellington, Somerset. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Dark Mountain and The Clearing among others. She is a literary columnist for The Hindu Business Line in India.
Finally, Rob Cowen tells us about some essential reading for 2019:
Underland, by Robert Macfarlane (forthcoming 2nd May 2019)
Where do we look in an age of darkness? We look below the surface and into the heart: the heart within and without; the place we’ve long consigned what’s dear and what’s feared – Underland. In what is his deepest, darkest and greatest work yet, Robert Macfarlane explores the vast, eerie subterrane beneath the surface of things – the caves, tunnels, chasms and strata – journeying into sea-caves and Bronze Age burial chambers, ice caps and sunken cities, linking deep past and far future in an epic journey through time and place. Joining artists, creators, scientists and geologists, his journeys beneath and beyond carry a lantern into the Underland, revealing its secrets and stories in an incredible three-act narrative that shifts between the beautiful and terrifying to create a breathtaking reflection on ourselves and our world in the epoch of the Anthropocene. Lit throughout by Macfarlane’s unfailing attentiveness, inquisitiveness and unique gaze, Underland is a masterpiece from a master on writing about people and place.
Rob Cowen is an award-winning writer and author of Common Ground, which was shortlisted for the Portico Literary Prize, Richard Jefferies Society Prize and the 2016 Wainwright Prize and voted 3rd in the Land Lines poll to find Britain’s favourite nature book.