Hello…I’m here again…dropping in to talk about books and nature, my two favourite things.
I often go through reading phases – a memoir binge here, a YA-fantasy roll there – and my recent inclination has been towards books related to nature and animals. Since moving to England I’ve become a certified rambler; someone who takes walks through green spaces and the countryside for no reason other than to walk and enjoy the scenery. I’m not walking a dog (sadly), I’m not going anywhere, I’m not looking for anything. It’s literally just walking. Be it in one of my favourite London green spaces, like Hampstead Heath or Epping Forest, or a day trip to a countryside walking trail like the Chilterns or the Coast, hanging out in nature has become one of my favourite English pasttimes.
Second only to reading of course. So it makes sense that lately I’ve been reading a lot about nature.
It started with a trip to Daunt Books in Hampstead before a late summer picnic on the Heath. I normally have a long to-read list that I try to stick to in book shops, but every so often an unknown title just jumps out at you. Fredrik Sjoberg’s ‘The Art of Flight‘ was one of them. I wouldn’t even call this delightful tome strictly a nature book – it’s undefinable really, a tangential mash-up of memories and stories ranging from the author obsessively researching the life of a US National Parks artist and a forgotten Swedish entomologist, to his thoughts on hoverflies and earthworms. Sjoberg is self-deprecating yet thoughtful, with hints of a Scandinavian Bill Bryson about him. And this book reminded me how lovely it is to read someone writing passionately about the eccentricities of nature.
Then there was Jane Goodall. I’d recently learnt about the wonderful Masterclass programme, a series of online courses taught by industry legends, e.g. Film Making with Martin Scorcese and Writing with Judy Blume. When it was announced that Dr Jane Goodall herself would be teaching a Masterclass on Conservation, I signed up straight away. To fill my time before the class started in September, I bought Jane’s ‘Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey‘ memoir on audiobook to listen to. I love audio memoirs narrated by the writers themselves, and this one didn’t disappoint. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I connected with Jane’s story as if it were spiritual scripture. Not only is her journey incredible (she had minimal academic or scientific training before being sent to lead the first ever study into chimpanzee behaviour), but her attitude and philosophies on life are so inspiring. A staunch nature and animal lover, Jane is a passionate, kind and determined woman who’s also gentle and balanced – she gives critics time, she strives to understand, she’s forgiving. Her musings are the perfect blend of science and spirituality. Jane Goodall is my new idol.
After I finished, I needed to find something even slightly comparable to replace Jane’s soothing voice speaking to me as I walked my morning commute from Hampstead to Paddington. Listening to an audiobook about nature was so appropriate for that walk, which takes me through gorgeous Primrose Hill and along leafy Regent’s Canal (sorry tube commuters). I’d heard rave reviews about Helen Macdonald’s ‘H is for Hawk‘ for a while, but to be honest, I didn’t quite get them. Surely a book about falconcry was a bit…niche? I decided to give it a go anyway, buoyed by the fact that Helen herself narrates the audiobook.
I was wrong. ‘H is for Hawk’ is so much more than a book about falconry. In essence, it follows three interwoven narratives – Helen’s journey through grief following the death of her father; her attempt to train a goshawk named Mabel; and her fascination with British writer T.H. White’s book on the subject, The Goshawk. The latter element seems a bit jarring, especially the parts where you jump back to the 1950s into White’s life as a writer, academic and man struggling with his identity. But somehow – I don’t quite know why – it works. This book is fascinating. The sections in which Helen finally comes to terms with her grief were most hard-hitting to me, having lost my own father. And ultimately, she rejects her desire to become wild like the goshawks. She grows to appreciate that community and civilisation are a thing of beauty too, and that nature shouldn’t be the ideal. This was also a good lesson for me to learn. Thank you, Helen.
Now, I’ve got two books on the go. One is a physical copy of ‘The Long Long Life of Trees‘, which I picked up (from Daunt Books again) after reading a recommendation in my favourite Facebook group ‘The Ancient and Sacred Trees of Sacred Britain’ (honestly, I don’t know how I have a boyfriend). Each chapter of this book is an absolute delight, delving into the folklore, history and science of Britain’s favourite trees, like the yew, the cherry, the holly, the oak, the cypress…you get it. It also inspired me to download this wonderful app from the Wildlife Trust that will help me identify the trees I come across in my walks.
And my new audiobook listen is ‘Autumn‘ by Ali Smith. Despite the title and cover, this isn’t really a book about nature, but it’s still an appropriate companion to my morning walks, as the orange-gold leaves fall around me and my time in England draws slowly to a close. It’s been called the first post-Brexit novel, and certainly has some sadly relatable scenes. Others are a bit of a mess for me to wrap my morning-fogged brain around at 8am, but still, something about it just ‘works’. And I’m looking forward to ‘Winter‘.
There’s just something so comforting in retreating to the natural world, given the tangle of times we live in these days. Ancient trees have seen many-a political parties rise and fall, rolling hills have bore the footprints of cultures from all over, and animals like chimpanzees show us the dark and light parts of humanity in a more basic form. Thanks to Helen Macdonald, I’ll be careful not to idolise the idea of becoming truly wild too much, but I will continue to enjoy a tale or two that bring me closer to Mother Earth.
Any titles I should add to my ‘to-read’ pile? Let me know!