Not a Book Review #2: Meadowland and My Favourite Nature Books

meadowlandI’m sure you’ll all be glad to know that I’ve had rather a pleasant few weeks, what with jollying off to treehouses in the Cotswolds and gadding about Mallory’s birthplace in Cheshire.

It was made even more pleasant by my chosen reading material – Meadowland by John Lewis Stempel. I was originally going to write another one of my rather ill-conceived non-reviews, but I drew rather a blank after my opening gambit of ‘it were reet bloody good’ (yes, in case you hadn’t noticed by now I have occasional Northern Tendencies, which makes my current state of captivity in the overbearing greyness of Stockwell even more unpalatable).

Informative without being facile or opaque, and gently lyrical and emotive rather than histrionic, it put me in mind of another book. Perhaps my favourite as it happens. And regrettably this is where the blog once more descends into another of my periodical bouts of listing things (in other words, I’m short on ideas again this week). That’s right; it’s time for my Top Nature Books:

Edward O. Wilson – The Diversity of Life

Despite his recent slightly childish spats with Dawkins (and he’s become such an objectionable character these days, it’s hard to blame him), I still can’t help but think of Wilson as some kind of benevolent, Grand Knight of Biodiversity. I recall once seeing him pop-up on a wildlife documentary with David Attenborough and immediately shouting ‘House!’ as if I’d just completed some personal game of Conservation Bingo. It was a peculiar knee-jerk reaction for which I received some very strange looks…I digress. The Diversity of Life is one of the first ‘straight’ ecology books I remember reading and I genuinely think it changed the way I see the world.

Aldo Leopold – A Sand County Almanac

Meadowland, with its light sprinkling of prose, detours on phenology and ecology and its obvious love of the land, evoked memories of the first time I read Sand County. I quite simply do not think I have read anything so wonderful. I loaned my copy out years ago and never saw again (always an indication of quality!) I’ve since bought another. It starts with the same premise as Thoreau’s Walden, (man takes himself to a cabin in the woods to ‘live deliberately, to front only the essential facts’) but Leopold is an eminently better naturalist and writer. Infinitely more readable than Thoreau’s impenetrable stocktaking. I have never made it past about page 50 of Walden but still re-read Sand County regularly.

Philip Hoare – The Sea Inside

I never really had much of an interest in Marine Ecology until I read The Sea Inside. The sea still remains a terrifying place in my mind (vast, deep, unknown and full of sharks), but The Sea Inside awakened an interest in the communities that depend on it and the creatures that inhabit it. So much so that I even went as far as taking a course in marine biology last year. Although I still don’t go in the sea. Are you mad? There’s all sort of weird stuff in there.

George Monbiot – Feral

Had to bring up Monbiot, didn’t I? Though I still have my reservations about some aspects of the whole rewilding ethos, Feral is jam-packed with ideas and knowledge and gives a damn good argument for some pretty drastic changes to the way we look at land management and conservation. Most of all it made me want to get the hell out of Stockwell!

…and there. I have managed, for once, to rein myself in, giving an appropriately idiosyncratic ‘Top 4’, rather than go on at length as, in truth, I would rather like to do so. These are merely 4 that are at the forefront of my mind at this moment (and also in a rather prominent position on my bookshelf and coffee table. The two are likely not unrelated). But once again, I strive for, and still overshoot, brevity. I have, to my eternal shame, still never finished any Rackham, Deakins or Mabey (though I’ve got copies around here somewhere) and this list is, of course, distressingly subjective. So feel free to put a plug in for your favourite piece of nature writing and I may one day get around to adding it to my pile.

Some Sage Advice for #Volunteersweek

Hey, it’s volunteer week (sorry, #volunteersweek), and as you know (actually you probably don’t), I do love to piggyback a blog post all over someone else’s PR.

Like most of us in the environmental sector, I have attained my lofty position on the back of some hard (and some not so hard) graft as a volunteer. Post-graduation, I found that my qualifications were not the magical key that would have potential employers in the sector knocking down my door (ok, I suspect I’ve mixed metaphors here. If I have the key, why are they knocking my door down…? Never mind). All that academic brilliance was of no consequence next to the huge, gaping void in my ‘experience’ column.

4 - Gunnersbury Triangle

Badger branded

I asked around about this – ‘welcome to the environmental sector’ they said. And so I found myself bumbling about at the London Wildlife Trust as part of the (now sadly defunct) graduate trainee scheme at their Camley Street reserve (a space I now occasionally visit if only to point out to bemused members of the public that ‘I built that’).

I was very fortunate to have some excellent, patient, knowledgeable and perhaps overly trusting staff through my year of volunteering at LWT. When I first started volunteering, I was very much on the ‘careerist’ side of the volunteer dichotomy. I had a slightly mercenary view about what I was willing to do. Now any volunteering I do is primarily for the satisfaction. I have become a ‘hobbyist’ volunteer in my dotage. As volunteering develops, the environmental sector will see an increase in the former class of volunteer. As such the volunteering experience really does depend a great deal on the outlook of the staff that manage this ‘resource’. For starters, as soon as they use the phrase ‘resource’ to describe volunteers, you can probably be sure you’ve found a wrong ‘un – Volunteers are not a commodity to be calculated only in terms of their hours for match funding.


The Black Badger – A note to the London Wildlife Trust: The huge great dents down its side were not of my doing.

As a volunteer I was given the opportunity to expand my skills and ability, to take on responsibilities and new projects, to develop my own ideas. Most importantly, I was taken to the pub frequently. I can’t state how important this last point is for volunteer cohesion, retention and happiness. The way I was treated as a volunteer is something I have tried to continue in my own career, firstly when I became a member of staff at LWT and in every role since.

But the volunteering world is not all sunshine and rainbows, particularly if you’re using it to get a toehold in the sector. Be wary. There will inevitably come a time where your skills and experience are at such a level that you might find yourself doing, or being asked to do, things for which someone might reasonably expect to be paid. Don’t be kidded into thinking that as a volunteer, you should just be grateful for the opportunity and get on with it. Perhaps you should, but don’t ever believe that you aren’t in a strong bargaining position. My advice is to always ask what you are getting out of it and what you could get out of it.

There’s a bit of advice me mam always gave me about being nice to people on the way up – and I can’t stress this enough to all you volunteer managers out there. I’m forever coming across former volunteer I managed; one even recently interviewed me. This does further illustrate the importance of volunteering in such a small pond as the environmental scene in London. I really can’t understate this. People forever use the word ‘networking’ as a benefit to volunteering, but it is the friends I have made – friends who just happen to now work in different environmental organisations all around the country – that have been one of the biggest advantages, both on a personal and professional level, to my time volunteering.