A Kestrel Over Bloomsbury

We live in danger of eventually becoming the thing we hate.

There’s nothing like a ludicrously portentous opening sentence to give a rather inconsequential blog post a bit of snap, is there? Hate is rather a strong word for it, after all. But after a decade of bimbling through the streets of London, I have come to be wary of the Emergency Stop Pedestrian. This behaviour seems to be much more prevalent in tourist-heavy areas – or ‘Red Zones’ as I’ve started calling them – snazzy new mobile phones, too, have a lot to answer for. I don’t normally have to be wary of roving ecologists, though.

But today, I finally became that person. Walking through the Brunswick Centre, a sound suddenly brought me up short, causing the unfortunate lady behind me to collide with my rucksack. She said something that sounded an awful lot like ‘flanker’ and I can only assume this was a reference to my broad, manly shoulders. I wasn’t paying any attention though, as right there, above the sound of people spewing out of the Picadilly line, was an incongruous high kee-kee-kee bird call.

kestrel

‘Blaaahdy hell, I think I’m lost’

It’s a weird thing sometimes, being an ecologist. A few flashes of colour in the right pattern, or notes in the correct arrangement can send you questing through the plashy fen or staring moronically up into the sky like some kind of loon. I’m not even particularly good at bird sounds, but a faint yet shrill call in an unexpected context is apparently all it takes for me to cause an obstruction to a public thoroughfare.

I eventually tracked the Kestrel, wind-hovering over the Russell Hotel, and stood to watch it for a few minutes, all the time thinking to myself ‘you’ll not have much luck up there’. It didn’t hang around long but I was surprised no one else followed my gaze.

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The Assyrians: No word on whether Ashurbanipal moonlighted as a dentist

Perhaps people are always staring up at the sky in Russell Square. Perhaps I just look like the type. Maybe I am beginning to take on a decidedly incoherent appearance in my old age. It was enough to break up a little of the Christmas shopping drudgery for me. Between the Kestrel and the Assyrian reliefs in the British Museum, I’ve had quite a day.

* * *

As you may have noticed, it’s not just the Emergency-Stop-pavement-walking I’ve been guilty of today. I’ve also just splurged onto the page a screed of nature writing produced merely for its own sake. A paean that does nothing to inform or provoke discussion. This clearly goes against my own ethos of nature writing. I should probably be horse-whipped.

Well, if one will go about having opinions and writing them all over the internet, one will inevitably get called out for a hypocrite sooner or later. The thing is to brazen it out, I find.

And who cares? I saw a Kestrel over Russell Square today and it was brilliant.

The Purple and the Green – More Nature Writing Guff

You may have heard that these days there is ‘new’ and ‘old’ nature writing, a huge partisan divide exists between the practitioners and followers of the two schools and never the twain shall they reach an accord. Perhaps I exaggerate a touch. Still at least it’s good to see that there is a little discordance in the ‘genre’. Now, apparently, there is ‘new’ and ‘old’ nature writing. For new nature writing read lyrical, verbose and led by ‘personal experiences and emotions’. For ‘old’ nature writing read prosaic, studious and dry. But of course, it’s not that simple, is it?

For starters, I’m going to distance myself from the argument by claiming affiliation to neither sect. I don’t class myself as a writer. What I do here isn’t art. It’s mental diarrhoea through a keyboard. I’ve no agenda, I’ve no book to sell, I frankly couldn’t give a flying one whether you’re reading this or not (sorry), and even less whether you are enjoying it (a good job too, I hear you say). I’m frequently complaining. There’s no subtlety or finesse. I therefore exempt myself, which rather handily gives me free reign to harp on about the failing of both sides without claim of bias.

What I have done though is read. I have devoured nature writing of all kinds for as long as I can remember (although I have bizarrely avoided Macfarlane). So just like every bugger else, I’m entitled to my opinion and I reserve the right to egotistically yell it into the void of the internet through this peculiar little blog. So I think it’s time that I get one thing off my chest for you all. Here it is – hold your breath – I didn’t really like H is for Hawk.

It feels like this whole argument began with H is for Hawk. It has become a behemoth. It has devoured all in its path and woe-betide the reader who does not ‘get it’. But it’s not for me. That’s no bad thing. All sorts of books don’t speak to all sorts of readers, doesn’t make them bad books. To me, Ulysses is gibberish, Harry Potter is for children. I even know people who don’t like Catch 22 (although I reserve the right to dismiss these people as cretins). I don’t think I should be made to feel bad for not really liking H is for Hawk. By saying that I wasn’t overwhelmed by H is for Hawk, I sense it is as though the validity of my opinion itself is being questioned.

To assume that ‘Nature writing’ is a whole, cohesive concept and not amorphous and subjective is a mistake. It is different things to different people, and ultimately the audience are the judge. If people like it, they will read it. It will sell. How can you argue with the numbers? And something like H is for Hawk certainly does have numbers – and awards – on its side.

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An excuse to show-off my library.

My one gripe is that much of the recent output has little point beyond the point of creating output. There is no strive to inform and educate. And you can inform and educate while employing emotive prose and descriptive language. In many ways, this is the best way to do it. Education is a lot easier when the subject is presented in an appealing manner. I want my ‘nature writers’ to do better, not just for the professional audience, but for the layman whose prime interaction with the natural world is the rural idyll-ising of Countryfile or Springwatch.

This is not to say I’ve got my feet planted firmly in the ‘old’ camp. I teeter like a bus perched precariously over an Italian precipice. There’s definitely a hint of elitism to the protestations and dismissals of H is for Hawk and its ilk

I can see why writers get defensive. Is it jealousy? Is it fear? It’s becoming an overcrowded market, particularly as the boundaries of what is and what isn’t ‘nature writing’ blurs. There’s a slightly snarky tone to this dismissal of the ‘new’, and it’s one that anyone who has ever misidentified bird song in the wrong company will know – the notion that ‘this kind of thing’ is only for a certain type of person. There can be nothing more wrong and nothing more detrimental to the cause, but it is something that both ‘sides’ – if these sides even exist – can be guilty of.

The biggest problem that this hullabaloo has created is that now when we discuss ‘nature writing’ we seem to be discussing too much of the ‘writing’ part. To me this detracts from the issues that good nature writing should raise. Be these the mind-bogglingly big issues (a la E O Wilson), or the small species-specific issues.

But hell, in his time even Thoreau was accused of sentimentalising, and if you’ve ever tried to wade through that impenetrable mire I think you would struggle to class it as anything other than very, very old nature writing.

The Nature Writing Debate – A Meta-Analysis

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Here is a picture of a tree what has fallen down…but give me a healthy advance and I’ll write you 100,000 words on its ecological processes and about 500 on its aesthetic beauty, what it says about me as a human being and how it ‘makes my soul feel’

This was originally a much longer, wordier, more lyrical piece. However, I did a quick scope around and there was already a plethora of people speaking on the subject from a much loftier and more exalted position than I in a rather po-faced manner. Occasionally in a style that seemed almost perversely self-defeating. What there was a dearth of was fatuous, flippant fripperies not really addressing the point at all. So I thought what the argument really needed was a contribution from a non-writing barely-creditable scientist (ok, I didn’t think the argument needed that at all, but I felt I should probably come up with some kind of half-arsed justification for sticking my beak in). So here goes, it’s time for me to hold my breath and plunge headfirst into the recent ‘nature writing’ debate.

It’s an apt image; I do feel a little as though I’ve been water-boarded with opinions over the last fortnight. Like the Stephen Poole article a while back, an article by Mark Cocker in the New Statesman this year appears to have opened up divisions in the chummy world of green literature.

In an attempt to make a last grasp at brevity and concision on the subject, I did the only thing I know how to do. Over the weekend I read as many of the ‘thought pieces’ as I could and performed a meta-analysis using the most highly complex and powerful piece of analytical software I had available at the time – though what faculties my tiny little mind still possessed after a whole day out in the sun miscounting butterflies is debatable.

Through this unreliable prism I fed the dilemna ‘What is Nature Writing’ and waited for the resulting spew of stats and poorly formed notions. There were graphs, there were charts, phenological and chronological data on the public perception of the ‘nature writing’ phenomenon…did I mention there were graphs? It was fantastic, glorious to behold, but – I decided – possibly not for everyone. In a second attempt to curtail this rather ludicrous premise, I programmed my unreliable software to condense its findings down into a few, concise soundbites on ‘nature writing’:

  • ‘Nature writing’ must contain at least a 45.6% focus on non-human biological entities.

Thanks brain…A tad over-concise (though where this left dragon-based literature, I am still unsure).

By relaxing the parameters of my software by 5% increments and altering the language flexibility, I was able to increase the outputs and ascertain some fundamental concepts about ‘Nature Writing’:

Results:

  • Writing that does not educate the reader about nature is not ‘nature writing’.
  • It is easier to educate the casual reader about nature if you write engagingly.
  • Alas, as with all other genres, some of what is classed ‘nature writing’ is still tedious, pretentious, pompous, self-important or just plain crap.
  • Pigeonholing and genre definitions have their uses for the bookseller, but informative and engaging writing is priceless to the reader.
  • Arguing class, race, gender etc. in this context is redundant. Or at least it should be. Doing so is merely petty point scoring.
  • ‘Nature writing’ is not a whole, cohesive concept. It is amorphous and highly subjective.
  • In all the analysis of the analyses, and critiques of the critiques, something might just be lost. ‘Nature writing’ and writing about ‘nature writing’ has become about writing about the writing in ‘nature writing’ and not about writing about the nature in ‘nature writing’ – !Unexpected Logic Failure! Please Investigate and the Kill Process (Error Message 0x0EEJK).
  • The only real arbiter of whether something is ‘nature writing’ is the person reading it at that precise moment.
  • Who cares?
  • Stop taking it so seriously. It’s not like you’re doing proper work.

Examples of Source Materials:

Death of the Naturalist: Why is the ‘new nature writing’ so tame? – Mark Cocker

The Limits of Nature Writing – Richard Smyth

Is our love for nature writing bourgeois escapism – Stephen Poole

Tales of the City: Manning the Baricades – Melissa Harisson

Common Ground or Private Park: Whose (nature) writing is it anyway? – Richly Evocative

Limitations of the study:

Capacity and vocabulary of analytical software. Possible sun damage.

Suggestions for future studies:

For ease of comparison and to avoid future conflict, the study recommends the development of a Green to Purple ‘Nature Writing’ scale label for all future publications. Through facile chromatographic identification, individuals can assess their scope of literary preference and use this tool to aid further reading choices…

This child-like effort is the best my limited Paint skills could achieve

This child-like effort is the best my limited Paint skills could achieve

…Like that thing with the mattresses…you could probably justify hiking the prices in some way too…

You may have guessed that I am perhaps not taking the whole debate overly seriously, but then again it’s about time somebody didn’t. On the other hand, I’ve got form in this area, so this may not be the last you hear on this subject…

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.

Not a Proper Book Review – H for Hawk and Hedge Britannia

Book pileStrewn willy-nilly about my flat is a rather scattershot collection of half-read books on everything from Charles Manson to natural history. I finally managed to tick-off two books in the latter category this week so I thought what better time to start the first in what may or may not be a series of very subjective book reviews. The wind this week has rather put paid to bat, bee and butterfly surveys and election fever is consumed all but the smuttiest corners of the internet* so I’ve had a chance to catch up on H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and Hedge Britannia by Hugh Barker.

I began the Award-Winning, Thesaurus-bothering titan that is H is for Hawk with some expectation but perhaps expecting something else (ok, I didn’t exactly read up on its contents beforehand). It has been hugely well received and having finished it, I’m still not entirely sure what I feel about it. There were long stretches of descriptive, showy prose that I skipped over as I often felt these weren’t telling me much. There’s a chance that I just felt stupid and jealous of the obvious talent and literary dexterity on display, and there is also a chance that I’m just an emotionally dead robot.

What to take away from it? Well, the parts about Hawks are great. The rest, and the overly verbose, portentous, pretentious simile-fest style, I am less enamoured with. I’ll admit, I am, on occasion and though I try to deny it, capable of drifting from Green into Purple without bothering to consult any of the intermediary colours, but this is just obscene. For christsake, she even uses the word Palimpsest. Palimpsest!

Maybe my stop/start reading style, ‘reading pile’ method didn’t allow me to pick up the rhythms and themes and stick with them. More than likely I was caught out by the description of H is for Hawk as non-fiction – the tone, structure, lyricism and I would venture even some of the content (come on, no one has dreams quite that crystal-clear and overbearingly symbolic) are deeply indebted to fictitious styles and tropes. I suspect if I had got onboard with that earlier, I would have enjoyed it a great deal more.

There were lines I couldn’t really wrap my head around:

(I had) ‘…assumed it was a fear of female emancipation that had made Goshawks so terribly frightening to later falconers.’

And passages that others clearly enjoyed but were a little too florid for me:

‘The argillaceous shimmer of tinder-fine clay. Drifts of chalk beneath. Yellowhammers chipping in the hedges. Cumulus rubble. The maritime light of this island, set as it is under a sky mirrored and uplit by sea’

 But enough about the style, what about the substance? That is, after all, what I crave. The book clearly has managed to subconsciously inveigle some knowledge of falconry into my brain, particularly some of the rather wonderful words associated with it (yarak being a favourite). I also had a pressing desire to read more TH White.

I clearly have a predilection for the concise and informative over the lyrical and emotive, which is perhaps why I had much more fun with Hedge Britannia. This was an inspired purchase.

Where H is for Hawk strives for the poetic, the noble, the emotive and lyrical, Hedge Britannia aims to inform you about a subject you didn’t know, and could never have imagined, you would be interested in, and all laced with heavy doses of self-deprecation. There are so many random digressions into social history, literature and even at, at one point, anime. There’s also more information on hedging species, techniques and types than you could shake a stick at. Though what you would hope to achieve by doing that, I have no idea.

For both of these books I suspect my enjoyment depended a lot on my own mood and circumstances at the time, and it’s because of that subjectivity I’ve titled this very definitely not a book review. I suspect I’m being a little unfair on H is for Hawk, but then if you read it sat on the 319 overlooking bus-stops strewn with desiccated goat-legs, you might struggle to enjoy the expansive descriptions of glorious landscapes and rolling countryside.

*I’m presuming no one is really reading a niche wildlife blog right now