Ask the book buyer...about the best books to embrace the great outdoors
There is so much good nature writing these days it’s hard to keep track of the best of the new. With the dawning of spring (hopefully) now is the time to embrace the natural world. Here are three books that are set to be bestsellers and three older titles worthy of being called a modern classic, says Jarrold book buyer Chris Rushby.
As George Harrison said, it’s been a long cold lonely winter. Spring is coming now, though. Really, it must be. Birds are singing. In the lane where we live, at last even the thickest of the snow drifts have melted. All along the lane wild garlic is shooting up, almost visibly, lime-green and vibrant. The natural world is calling us to be out there.
Where nature and literature meet in a bookshop – call it Natural History, Nature Writing, or whatever – is a fruitful place, packed with fine writing to make us look differently at the natural world and perhaps act differently too. This seems an appropriate time of year to recommend a handful of books, old and new, to help you think about and savour the natural world.
Wilding: The Return Of Nature To An English Farm
Published 3rd May 2018
George Monbiot’s fascinating polemic Feral, published in 2013, introduced many of us to the controversial concept of ‘rewilding’: allowing nature to reassert itself and restore damaged landscapes to something like their former, pristine states. Isabella Tree and her husband made a leap of faith in deciding to step back and let nature take over their traditional Sussex farming estate. The introduction of free-roaming cattle, ponies, pigs and deer has helped transform the landscape and allowed extraordinary increases in wildlife numbers and diversity in just a few years, with rare species like nightingales and turtle doves finding sanctuary here. This experiment has its detractors, but I’d say there’s an important, life-affirming message in this book about the capacity of nature to come back from the brink, if we’re willing to give it the space to do so.
The Wood: The Life And Times Of Cockshutt Wood
John Lewis-Stempel is that rare thing, a prolific author who seems to be able to write both fast and intelligently on wide a variety of subjects. Meadowland, The Running Hare, The Secret Life Of The Owl and numerous other titles have been best-sellers. The Wood is his latest and records in diary-form a year in the life of a Herefordshire wood he managed in a deliberately old-fashioned way: coppicing the trees, letting cattle and pigs roam freely. The author comes to know the landscape and its wildlife intimately – finding sanctuary in it himself, in something of the way the wild creatures do.
Orchid Summer: In Search Of The Wildest Flowers Of The British Isles
One spring, my laziness in failing to mow the back lawn turned out to be a blessing: dozens of bee orchids bearing their gorgeous, garish flowers were for once allowed to grow up uncut, to the point we knew we couldn’t do other than leave them and the lawn in peace for many weeks until the show was over. That experience predisposed me to want to follow Jon Dunn’s account of his journey round Britain in search of these strange, diverse and beautiful flowers. The book is part travelogue, part history, part celebration of these often elusive plants. The author is a genuine enthusiast for his subject as well as being deeply knowledgable. I defy you not to want to follow in his footsteps.
And here are three older titles, each in its way worthy of being called a modern classic:
Harrap’s Wild Flowers: A Field Guide To The Wild Flowers Of Britain And Ireland
If you want to confirm whether those strange plants in your unkempt lawn are actually bee orchids this is the book to consult. In fact, it’s the perfect pocket guide (admittedly your pocket will need to be quite big) for those wanting to identify the wild flowers they encounter on country walks around the UK over the coming months. To my untutored eye this is the only guide of its kind you’ll need: clear photography, no-nonsense, jargon-free descriptions, details of differences between species likely to be confused, accurate distribution maps. And, as it happens, Simon Harrap is a Norfolk-based author.
Richard Mabey, Tim Dee, Simon Barnes, Helen Macdonald and Patrick Barkham are just a few of the fine nature writers calling this region home. One of my favourite titles in this genre is Crow Country by Mark Cocker, another Norfolk author. ‘Crow’ is a bit of a misnomer, the book being mostly about the rooks and jackdaws of the Yare Valley, the author’s home patch. Mark Cocker has a brilliant eye for detail and a compelling prose style. Having read the book you will undoubtedly find you look at these fascinating birds quite differently.
The Living Mountain
First published in 1977, this is one of the absolute classics of British nature writing, about the author’s journeys in the harshly beautiful landscape of the Cairngorm mountains. The manuscript of the book, composed during World War II, was left untouched for over thirty years before finally reaching publication. Nan Shepherd’s style is compelling and although the term ‘prose poetry’ can strike terror in the heart, this book is prose poetry in the best sense: a crafted thing of joy and beauty.
Chris Rushby is the book buyer for Jarrold. Discover more of his top choices in the book department, lower ground.