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CAUGHT BY THE RIVER

A Nature Book Reader


A Nature Book Reader

INTRODUCTION by Andrew Male, deputy editor of MOJO magazine

It wasn’t a particularly profound idea but I suppose it was mine. In the middle of 2009 I noticed that alongside a reprint of Gavin Maxwell’s Ring Of Bright Water and Edward Thomas’ imagistic, lyrical and proto-green The South Country, Dovecote Press were reissuing Adrian Bell’s terrific Men And The Fields. Possibly with an eye to blagging a review copy or three, I fired off an overexcited email to the guys at the Caught By The River website in which I raved about Bell’s peripatetic trek across prewar lowland Britain and the book’s “romantic, melancholy eye”. It would, I added “be considered an Arcadian classic even without its beautiful John Nash illustrations...” I then suggested that CBTR should compile a list of other great, lost nature books. “A List!”, I wrote, “Yes, I know, but I do work in the magazine industry.”

So we had a few meetings and it was decided that the best way to find out about these books was to simply ask folks in the CBTR network for their favourites. The request was for three titles with two hundred word entry on number one. Some strayed and wrote more, whilst others found themselves going on fascinating lyrical journeys as their chosen books brought back memories of childhood, past walks, old friends and yet more treasured books. All I was hoping for was a high-quality reading list from CBTR’s unique team of writers and contributors, something to add to my Amazon wishlist, perhaps. But in asking everyone choose a desert island top three I think we’ve ended up with something more; a series of lyrical, passionate essays by an astonishing cross section of writers, broadcasters, artists and enthusiasts. It

goes beyond mere book recommendations and taps into what makes great nature books so moving and profound. Here are forgotten works of children’s fiction tinged with dusty melancholy, dream guidebooks to holiday enlightenment, bleak accounts of hard-scrabble self-sufficiency that inspired 70s sitcoms, richly detailed visits to the homes of grand eccentrics, ghostly tales of men possessed by brute nature, images of chill beauty from treasured books of poetry, and profoundly rare oddities about deeply peculiar humans and animals that you’ll just want to track down for yourself. So from an original tossed-off idea, we now have this marvellous collection. Left with me, the idea would doubtless be little more than another email in need of deletion in order to free up more memory for an

ever-growing itunes folder. Given my job, I suppose I’m conditioned to do this kind of thing; making exciting discoveries and wanting to pass them on. It’s about the redistribution of knowledge, if you want to be fancy and, ever since they set up the website back in 2007, I’ve seen CBTR as kindred spirits, from that equally exciting world of books and nature. Filtered through the egalitarian philosophy, boundless enthusiasm and rock’n’roll camaraderie of CBTR this single idea has been transformed into something special. The Caught By the River Nature Book Reader will now be an ever growing feature of the CBTR website, constantly building into an archive of great writing, on great writing. It may even become a book, or two; from an idea that I doubted would really come to anything, that makes me very happy.


A Nature Book Reader

JOHN ANDREWS John Andrews buys and sells vintage fishing tackle for the soul

The Call of the Wild by Jack London My favourite ‘nature’ book has to be The Call of the Wild by Jack London. I saw the film aged 7 at the Palace cinema in Watford, I went with my dad and my sister and the film affected me deeply. I read the book not long afterwards. As my mate Mark, a plasterer and fishing tackle obsessive from Gloucester said the other day “Humans are shit. Dogs are much better. there’s nothing I like more than a good cuddle with my Chester”. The Call of the Wild tells the story of Buck, a much loved family pet dog who is stolen and placed into a dog sled team in Alaska where he endures and witnesses much savage cruelty. The book, written originally for children, has a simple message – trust nature and be wary of human failings. It has long been

picked apart and criticised by fucked-up liberals but despite its deep unfashionability it remains my personal favourite.

Further Reading Mr Chippy’s Last Expedition 1914-15 by Caroline Alexander

The Fishermen’s Bedside Book by BB


A Nature Book Reader

SANDRA ARMISHAW Sandra Armishaw owns River Reads bookshop in Torrington

A Child Alone by Denys Watkins-Pitchford fish. His work never ceases to be sought-after by a wide audience, eager for his latest publication. Local to Devon is Trevor Beer; who again, is a writer of highly readable nature stories, but my all-time favourite is, without doubt, Denys Watkins-Pitchford, or ‘BB,’ as he is more popularly known. He was the son of a clergyman, and lived through a longlost Edwardian era. My favourite book: A Child Alone charts his development from natureloving child with a keen observation of all creatures, including butterflies, birds and fish, to an artist of evocative scraperboards and oils, and writer of best-selling nature books. Without doubt, Yates and

‘BB’ shared that magical quality of inspired writing which ensures that their work will transcend generations, and take its rightful place in literary history.

Denys Watkyns-Pitchford

Being asked to list my top three favourite nature writers really set me thinking. Not because I don’t have a choice; I do, because my husband and I run a bookshop specialising in angling and nature books and under that umbrella, nestles the angling icon, Chris Yates. He is essentially a writer of fishing books which also embrace elemental forces in nature. His last book, Out of the Blue (Hamish Hamilton, 2008) was a ‘must-read’ for lovers of his work. Chris is one of those rare writers who can stimulate your senses to the point where, when he describes the sun on your back, you can feel its warmth; smell the brine of a restless ocean, and be dazzled by the gleaming scales of a freshly-caught

Further Reading Out of the Blue by Chris Yates

Nature Watch 2 by Trevor Beer


A Nature Book Reader

LAURA BEATTY Laura Beatty is most commonly found is places of dense vegetation and mud

The Shepherd’s Calendar by John Clare When I was a child, nature was called ‘outside’ and it was where everything exciting happened – the river, for a start, harvesting by a full moon, stubble fires, bulls. It was about exploring and swapping knowledge – where the swallow’s nest was – in the gypsy caravan, in the junkyard – where the sticklebacks were, or the bullheads, how to unpack an owl pellet and look at the needle bones inside. We collected pen knives and showed each other the blades and we built fires and collapsing shelters. But it was also a place that was bigger than our knowledge, the place of animal secrets and of magic, of a power that we didn’t question and that had us in its grip. So my first books were books that understood these two things,

the importance of knowledge and practicality, and this apprehension of wildness: My Side of the Mountain by Jean George, about a boy who runs away to the Catskill mountains, tames a hawk and lives in a hollow tree; The Little Grey Men by BB; Bevis, the Story of a Boy by Richard Jeffries. Growing up was to move, without noticing it, away from the fields and streams and the world of the animals into the world of people – to come indoors for good. Most of us don’t belong in nature any more. We just visit it. We put on special clothes and go to see it at week ends or in the holidays, to excercise and to unwind, and then we come back inside again. So my favourite books now reflect that dislocation. The Spell of the Sensuous by David

Abram, is a compelling exploration of what we have lost, in terms of myth and primitive culture. If I can take it I re-read The Peregrine by J.A. Baker, which among many other things is a beautiful love letter to an alien species. But best of all is John Clare’s The Shepherd’s Calendar, a series of long poems that take you month by month through the year. John Clare inhabited his landscape and his writing has the springy, from the mud up, grown quality of the natural world as it really is. It’s teeming with life. It’s full of weather and thick Northamptonshire language and flowers, birds, frogs, hornets. Most of all it reminds me of what it felt like to be seven, live and on the loose, in the world of the woods.

Further Reading The Pereguine by J.A. Baker

The Spell Of The Sensuous by David Abram


A Nature Book Reader

JON BERRY When not fishing or writing, Jon Berry is a school teacher

Wild Animal Books by Père Castor I don’t know when these books were first published – an uneducated guess suggests the ‘forties or early ‘fifties – but I saw my first copy much more recently. They are French children’s books, translated by Rose Fyleman for the British market, and describe the life cycles of various animals. There is the expected anthropomorphism; the Kingfishers are called Martin and Martine, the hare answers to Frou and the squirrel is known to his friends as Mischief – but aside from that the author, known only on the cover as Lida, offers faithful and unsentimental descriptions of the lives and habits of each creature. If Walt Disney did much to damage children’s’ grasp of nature in the postwar world – and I will argue

to my last breath that he did – then these books would have gone some way towards redressing the balance by offering a natural history that was both palatable and accurate. In Pere Castor’s forest, the deer don’t have American accents or Liz Taylor’s eyelashes, and are all the better for it...

Further Reading Queer Fish

by E.G. Boulenger

Observer’s Book of Birds


A Nature Book Reader

SARAH BLUNT Sarah Blunt is Senior Producer of the BBC Natural History Unit

Waterlog by Roger Deakin I found this a hugely difficult task to narrow my choice to just three books, and then almost impossible to choose a favourite. Wind in the Willows has to be on my short list as its one of the earliest books I remember really stirring my imagination, but I think I would have to choose Roger Deakin’s Waterlog as my favourite book. I was fortunate enough to meet and work with Roger before he died and we made several programmes for BBC Radio 4. During one of our meetings he gave me a preview copy of Waterlog which has a wonderful paper cover with a black ink sketch of a frog leaping into the water. The book is a rich, evocative account of Roger’s enthusiasm for swimming in wild places;

in rivers, tarns, lakes and pools throughout Britain. He describes the places he visits, the people he meets, the history of the landscape through which he swims and the wildlife he encounters from his unusual perspective just inches above the water. The book brims over with Roger’s enthusiasm for wild swimming, and for wild places, and even though I never enjoyed swimming, I love this immersive book. Roger’s wonderful descriptive writing excites every sense: you can smell the peat, feel goose-bumps rise on your skin in icy water, hear the wings of the dragonflies as they skim past, feel the brush of hairlike weeds and leathery water-lily leaves as you glide quietly through the water. Waterlog is a wonderful,

joyous book, which allows the reader to get close to nature, to connect with wild places, to look at life from a different perspective, to peer into secret places, and wallow in the sheer joy of wild swimming.

Further Reading Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame

How To Be A Bad Birdwatcher by Simon Barnes


A Nature Book Reader

WILL BURNS Will Burns is a songwriter, singer and poet from Wendover, Buckinghamshire

Trout Fishing In America by Richard Brautigan

Although I think there are books that perhaps better fit the term “nature book”, I don’t think there is a book that has communicated quite so well with my own personal relationship with nature and the outdoors. Brautigan’s breakthrough novel is a wide-eyed, at times nonsensical soup of ideas, occupying a landscape that is both rugged and wild yet at the same time domestic and small and somehow homely. It is not a book of authority; it is not a didactic guide to birdwatching, tying flies, building camps or, in fact, how to do anything at all. Instead it simply observes with a beautiful and hopeful sense of wonder, the environment and lucidly drawn characters that pass through the patchwork of poem-like chapters that

make up the book. From the recurring thread of AllAmerican creek names to the brilliant evocation of life in the San Franciscan underbelly, this is a brilliantly imagined, kaleidoscopic vision of a weird America, an America made up of trout rivers for sale in sections from hardware stores, young parenthood, fishing, drinking and travel. Oh yeah, and mayonnaise.

Further Reading Klondike Tales by Jack London

Man Eaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett


A Nature Book Reader

MATHEW CLAYTON Mathew Clayton commissioned the Caught By The River book

Birds of Ibiza by Sarah Nechamkin When I first went to Ibiza with two friends in the late ’90s, we stayed in a little pension just set back from Salinas beach. Although in the middle of nowhere it had a bar that was open 24 hours a day. We had fun. We didn’t get much sleep. I have been back every summer since but as I have got older my interest in the island’s nightlife has been replaced by an interest in its wildlife. A couple of years ago I discovered this wonderful book. I own a couple of British bird guides but find them incredibly uninspiring with dull photos of hundreds of birds that to my untrained eyes look much the same. Not so with this book. Only 26 birds are included, all beautifully illustrated with the delicate paintings of the Ibizan landscape by Sarah

Nechamkin, a former student of Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland. The words are ably provided by Martin Davies and it is his faultess publishing house The Barbary Press that put the book out. Part guide book, part art book, and offering a unique vision of the natural world – it is the sort of book no major publishing house would ever have the imagination to publish.

Further Reading Waterlog

by Roger Deakin

Our Animal Friends by Alice and Martin Provensen


A Nature Book Reader

EDWYN COLLINS Edwyn Collins is a musician, a songwriter and a wildlife artist

Some British Moths by Norman Riley My interest in all forms of nature, wildlife, geology and rock pools, led me to reference books and books of illustrations rather than to nature writing as such. I didn’t need or want other people’s interpretation of experience; it was my internal world and I wanted knowledge. When I made West Heath House, (an indulgent comedy drama for Channel 4) with Seb, my friend and recording partner, we improvised a scene at a natural harbour in Caithness, where he had gone a bit hippy and was raving about Jonathan Livingston Seagull, whilst I delivered a longwinded lecture about fulmars (which were all around us on the cliffs.) I droned on about the importance of the perfection of the fulmar alula, the edge

feathers, which makes them such expert flyers: “Basically, they’re designed for flight!”. All stuff I read when I was a boy. When I moved my belongings into Grace’s flat in 1984, she laughed her head off at two of my ancient books. ‘Knots and Knotting’ and ‘Some British Moths.’ “Only some? Not the lot then?” she asked, “Obviously. There are thousands of them, everybody knows that,” I replied.

Further Reading Morning Flight: A Book of Wildfowl by Sir Peter Scott

The AA Book of British Birds


A Nature Book Reader

ADRIAN COOPER Adrian Cooper runs Little Toller Books

The Baron In The Trees by Italo Calvino For a life lived in trees there is Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, translated by Archibald Colquhoun. Half-Italian, but without any knowledge of my ancestors, I’ve filled the hole-in-myhead with a borrowed cast: Leopardi, Lampedusa, Moravia, Silone. Of this estranged kin I like most Calvino’s Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, a baron of trees. His story begins in the heat of June, on the Ligurian coast of 1767, when he shoves a plate of snails across the table. An act of resistance, a rebellion, twelve year-old Cosimo then leaves the dining room and climbs a great holm oak outside, turning his back on the earthly obligations he has as eldest son and di Rondò heir. Cosimo becomes a vagabond in the woods. He studies books sent to him from Amsterdam and

Paris. He falls in love, mourns his father’s death, publishes pamphlets entitled The Song of the Blackbird, The Knock of the Woodpecker, and The Dialogue of the Owls. Cosimo never climbs back to earth. He lives out the rest of his life in the ‘high bridges of the world.’ And although he does meet other noblemen like him, living exiled in a colony of plane trees, Cosimo ages with loneliness, finding it more and more difficult to remember why exactly he decided to leave the ground. I wish we were governed by people who live in trees.

Further Reading The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald

Collected Animal Poems by Ted Hughes


A Nature Book Reader

FRANK COTTRELL BOYCE Frank Cottrell Boyce is a screenwriter, novelist and actor

The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin

I was massively influenced by the I-Spy Book of Birds. This was a little spotter’s guide produced by “BIg Chief I-Spy”. It had great little drawings and it awarded points for every species. I grew up in the city centre surrounded by starlings (5 points) and pigeons(no points). That book gave me the impression that there was another world elsewhere, all flutter with kingfishers (30 points) and bee-eaters (35 points). And it made me want to go and discover it. It also gave me the lasting feeling that birds are arranged in a kind of pyramidal hierarchy with rare birds of prey (40points) near the top, then rare Summer visitors – snowy owls, hoopoes (50 points) etc – beyond that and at the

very pinnacle the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The upside of that is that if I do see a Summer visitor now I have the feeling that I’ve seen something more or less straight from Heaven. My other choice would be Snow Geese by William Fiennes, which is just terrific like all his stuff. But above and beyond both, The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin. Darwin was not the official naturalist on the Beagle. He was sent along to keep the depressive Fitzroy cheerful. He did some nature study just to fill the time. He was mostly interested in geology, also hunting and fishing. In an age of career plans and attainment targets it’s good to be reminded that our minds are at their most

creative and alert when we are just playing about and wasting time. There’s a whole chapter here where Darwin is trying to figure out why marine iguanas – which can swim – will not swim unless you make them. He spends an afternoon just lobbing one into the sea. It’s like something from Just William. Behind the theory of evolution is the very simple – but controversial – idea that the Earth was old but that life was young. And in this book life feels very young. Reading it is like reading by daylight in the Garden of Eden.

Further Reading The I-Spy Book of Birds Snow Geese by William Fiennes


A Nature Book Reader

DOMINIC COUZENS Dominic Couzens is a full time writer on natural history

Handbook of Birds of the World by Josep del Hoyo et al I’m almost embarrassed to admit that my no 1 choice is the mighty, multi-volume work Handbook of the Birds of the World. As a writer, I feel that I really ought to have chosen something more artistic and wistful, something other than a relatively straightforward encyclopedia of all the world’s feathered creatures. But if I had chosen anything else, I would have been less than truthful. After all, if I ever was to find myself stranded on a desert island, having a set of these magnificent books would do more than just give me plenty of time to learn all about birds, but would be awe-inspiring and good company too. Before the launch of the first volume of HBW in

1992, nobody ever thought it would be possible for any book to illustrate and describe every species in the world (10,000 or so). But this is what the series has done, and to say that it has been achieved magnificently is almost an understatement. From the stunning colour paintings and photographs to the authoritative but readable texts, it has been a triumph for the admixture of art and science: truth and wonder in one potent mix.

Further Reading The Whispering Land by Gerald Durrell The Web of Adaptation by David Snow


A Nature Book Reader

TIM DEE BBC radio producer for twenty years and a birdwatcher for twice that time

The Redstart by John Buxton An early monograph about my favourite bird, in the New Naturalist series. The book helped the redstart into my number one position. An extraordinary story lies behind it. A birdwatcher, poet and English teacher, Buxton was captured by the Germans in the Second World War and held as a POW in camps in Bavaria. He noticed redstarts coming through the wire to breed and started watching them. He recruited other inmates to help, his guards allowed them paper and pencils to record what they saw, and a single pair of this most delicately exquisite of birds were watched for hundreds of hours. The book is still a key scientific text but it is also written with great poetic beauty. It thinks more about why

we watch birds than a host of other books. Desmond Nethersole Thompson is known for his lengthy studies of Scottish breeding birds, most famously, the greenshank, but he also wrote Highland Birds, a commission from the Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1971. It is a magically written survey of the region’s best birds. Nethersole Thompson’s prose is gorgeous and mixes passionate looking with richly evocative descriptive writing and keen questioning. He knew a lot but he always wanted to know more. For a boy on his first holidays to Sutherland with corncrakes at the back of our holiday cottage and divers on the loch behind, his was

a dream guidebook like no other. The Peregrine by J.A. Baker is probably the most important non scientific bird book written in the second half of the twentieth century. An extraordinary book – apparently all true though possibly a novel – about a man’s obsession with watching wintering peregrines in East Anglia. Writing unique in its intensity and utterly original. If nature writing has survived and come of age in Britain, Baker’s book made it possible.

Further Reading Highland Birds

by Desmond Nethersole Thompson

The Pereguine by J.A. Baker


A Nature Book Reader

BILL DRUMMOND Bill Drummond is the author of 45 and 17

The Natural History Of Selbourne by Gilbert White Up until the age of 14, my interest in the natural world was focused on fishing, collecting birds eggs and generally spending as much time in the countryside as I could because it was more exciting than being in the town. Half-a-dozen Observer’s Books was all the literature I needed. As a 19 year old art student in late 1972 I came across a book called Food For Free. I thought this was great and it sat comfortably alongside my Jack Kerouac’s and Henry Miller’s. A few years later I found a second hand copy of a book called In A Green Shade by the same author Richard Mabey. From then on I bought all his books as they came out.

In 1986 Mabey published a biography of Gilbert White (1720 – 93). From that I fell in love with White’s own masterpiece The Natural History of Selborne. A book I have read numerous times over the years. There are dozens of quotes from this book I could have picked, but today I picked this one: “The grasshopper-lark* began his sibilous note in my fields last Saturday. Nothing can be more amusing than the whisper of this little bird, which seems to be close by though at an hundred yards distance; and, when close at your ear, is scarce any louder than when a great way off. Had I not been a little acquainted with insects, and known that the grasshopper kind is not yet hatched, I

should have hardly believed but that it had been a locusta whispering in the bushes. The country people laugh when you tell them that it is the note of a bird. It is a most artful creature, skulking the thickest part of a bush; and will sing at a yard distance, provided it be concealed. I was obliged to get a person to go on the other side of the hedge where it haunted; and then it would run, creeping like a mouse, before us for a hundred yards together, through the bottom of the thorns; yet it would not come into fair sight: but in the morning early, and when undisturbed, it sings on the top of a twig, gaping and shivering with its wings.”

Further Reading Food For Free by Richard Mabey

* Grasshopper-lark is now what we call the Grasshopper Warbler

In A Green Shade by Richard Mabey


A Nature Book Reader

TOM FORT Mediocre fisherman, ageing cricketer, ham-fisted apprentice pianist

The Fisherman’s Bedside Book by BB No fishing anthology has ever approached BB’s masterpiece. Its glory was to bring together the best of ‘classical’ writing – Negley Farson, H.T.Sheringham, J.W. Hills, Arthur Ransome etc – with the testimony of humbler members of the brotherhood. J.L. “Wormy” Webb’s account of his 12 pound barbel from “a spot opposite the third meadow below the French Horn Hotel at Sonning” is immortal; Albert Buckley’s record carp from Mapperley not far behind. If my house caught fire I would rescue my cricket bat, my Fisherman’s Bedside Book and – naturally – my wife and children before anything else.

Of my other choices, Luard’s little book is a masterpiece of modesty and self-deprecating humour. McGuane’s is the best fishing memoir of the last ten years.

Further Reading Fishing Fortunes and Misfortunes by G.D. Luard The Longest Silence by Thomas McGuane.


A Nature Book Reader

JIMI GOODWIN Jimi Goodwin is a singer in a band and a frustrated hip hop overlord

The Runaways by Victor Canning I refound and rejoiced in these books again after research on the net a few years back. Along with Kes , which I still vividly remember getting for my ninth birthday, alongside a pair of cheap binoculars, this was the first nature fiction that I encountered. The Runaways was the first in Victor Canning’s Smiler trilogy which followed the adventures of teenage runaway Samuel Miles. Other books in the series were The Flight of the Grey Goose and lastly The Painted Tent. This first book sees Smiler wrongly accused and convicted of mugging an old lady in his native Bristol and deals with his escape from reform school. His dream is to make his way to Southampton to meet his dad, a merchant seaman, when his ship comes back to port, to help him clear

his name. That isn’t for nine months so Smiler, only 14, has to survive until then and keep out of the authorities’ reach. He hitches and walks and ends up near Salisbury Plain where he hides in a barn. At the same time as Smiler escapes so does Yarra, a young female cheetah from Longleat Safari Park. It’s a little 1950s “Gosh, thanks Mr!“ in places but some of the writing and his descriptions of wild animals and nature are really moving and whenever I’m down or want to regress and try and reclaim some innocence these books do it for me.

Further Reading Kes by Barry Hines The Observer Book of British Birds


A Nature Book Reader

ANDREW GREIG Andrew Greig is a writer of poetry, novels and non fIction

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd The Living Mountain is truly astounding. Written in the Forties, it conveys and comprehends the sheer physicality of our being, one encountered in the mountains. The Living Mountain is a praise of how we see the world in and through our own bodies. Shepherd emphasizes the sensuous and the sensory. For her transcendence is entirely immanent, and spirituality inextricable from the sensual. over years of wandering in the Cairngorms, she comes to understand and honour both the otherness of the natural world and the completeness of our participation in it. Along with Neil Gunn, she embodies an early and unexpected Scottish Zen, hard-headed, a kind of transcendent materialism. She renders these insights

in anecdote, in moments of experience, and for me summons again the lifegiving presentness we seek and find in physical participation in the greater world. The hereness of here, the nowness of now: the living mountain.

Further Reading Collected Poems by Norman MacCaig

The Shining Mountain by Pete Boardman


A Nature Book Reader

NIGEL HOUSE Co-owner of Rough Trade shops and farmer’s son

Shell Country Alphabet by Geoffrey Grigson

Just recently reissued, this book is ideal to have in your glove compartment on a jaunt out into the countryside. In these times of recession and more with people staying in this country for their holidays it illuminates the countryside that we too often speed through. What I really love about this book is that it is obviously his vision and passion, and so has extra emphasis on his home counties of Wiltshire and Cornwall; it is also occasionally spiky and pithy, which adds to the feelings of actually having him sitting next to you in the car. I didn’t know about W. G. Hoskins’ Making of the English Landscape until I came to London in 1977, for punk rock and geography

at university (in that order), but it was on our reading list and it has become one of my favourite books. I read it again recently having moved to near Steeple Barton which is where Grigson was living when he wrote it, and it is still fascinating, even though he had no love for the 20th century.

Further Reading Making of the English Landscape by W.G. Hoskins

Hamlyn Guide to Minerals, Rocks and Fossils


A Nature Book Reader

LUKE JENNINGS Luke Jennings is the author of Blood Knots

The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton Izaak Walton published The Compleat Angler in 1653, and with instinctive marketing skill, launched it at Mayfly time. A month earlier Oliver Cromwell, dressed entirely in black, had marched into the House of Commons and dissolved the Long Parliament, and Walton’s book is an encoded hymn to happier, more carefree days. In a clear reference to the grim regime of the Puritans he speaks of the children of Israel, who have “banished all mirth and musick from their pensive hearts”, and hung up their “mute harps upon the willowtrees growing by the rivers of Babylon”.  We think we know The Compleat Angler: the chapters on “chavender” or chub, on tench (“the physician of fishes”) and pike. But there are other, weirder treasures.

Carefully identifying his sources, Walton refers us to a people who “once a year turn wolves, partly in shape, and partly in conditions”. And in an early chapter, he quotes the 16th century French poet Du Bartas on the sexual morality of sea-fish. Some are virtuous (“for chaste love” he observes, “the mullet hath no peer”), but others don’t score so highly. Not only does the Sargus or Sea-bream “change wives every day”, but “As if the honey of sea-love delight / Could not suffice his ranging appetite / Goes courting shegoats on the grassy shore / Horning their husbands that had horns before.” Is there a more bizarre image in the whole of nature writing than this? A spiny-backed bream leaping from the sea and slaking its lust on a hapless nanny-goat?


A Nature Book Reader

RICHARD KING Richard King is the editor of Loops, a bi-annual journal

The Fat of the Land by John Seymour When John Seymour sat down to write The Fat of the Land at the end of the 1950s, he would have shrugged off as ridiculous any suggestion that his story of converting a gamekeeper’s cottage in Suffolk would become a textbook for the trip back to nature that thousands would embark on in the next two decades. The Fat of The Land is a rambling and wonderfully stubborn description of a family trying to live off five acres of farmland and little else. Illustrated beautifully by Seymour’s wife Sally, it’s hard not to be seduced by its willing subjugation to the earth. Seymour gleefully admits to a never-ending series of mistakes and bad decisions in establishing a truly rural base for his family. This sense of ad hoc

peasantry was no doubt a pull on anyone considering fleeing the city. But as Seymour reminds us on page after page, getting it together in the country means sixteen hour days of butchery, aching backs, frozen knees saturated in blood and mire – and no money. Instead an almost visionary delight at the world around you: “Our flower garden is a thing still in our imagination...but there are wild flowers, and blossoms on the wild plum trees, and the beautiful woods and marshes, and the cries of the marsh birds coming to us at night as we lie in bed, and the song of the nightingales in the summer time.” Seymour, for all his stress on toil and sweat, is not without romance either:

“My own belief is that – if a man is entitled to nothing else – he is entitled to his share of the land surface of his own country” I would have paid good money to see Seymour argue his case to the Countryside Alliance or whoever they thought they were back then. The Seymours moved to Pembrokeshire where John died in 2004. To think of him up in the Preselis, overlooking Carningli, dotted with houses and settlements, where his books no doubt reside on nearly every shelf, is as enriching, exhilarating, and as singular a pleasure, as listening to The Lark Ascending.

Further Reading Food for Free by Richard Mabey

Notes from Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin


A Nature Book Reader

CERI LEVY Ceri Levy is a documentary film maker.

Tarka The Otter by Henry Williamson I have always had a soft spot for otters and Tarka The Otter as well as Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water made me smile and cry in equal measure as a kid. I never understood how two books about otters could end up with so much otter death! Either of these books could make it into my top three just because after all these years I still remember the magic that otters weaved upon me as I grew up. But if push came to shove then Tarka wins because of one fact. My father, who was a writer, was a member of The Savage Club in St. James’s. It was one of those timeless, gentlemen’s clubs, where the odour of brandy and cigar smoke, mixed with a leathery aroma, was written large upon my young senses.

I imagined it as the place where the wager was set for Phileas Fogg to complete his eighty-day journey. I was about nine or ten and I loved the club as it was full of books, stuffed animals, comfortable Chesterfields and snooker tables upon which I was allowed to play snooker, standing atop a dining chair, with a sawn off cue. I met many names from the day, including Arthur Askey and Arnold Ridley, and once had lunch with Henry Williamson, the author of Tarka, himself. He was a wonderfully charming man, who teasingly refused to sign my autograph book, which my father always insisted I carried with me at all times. Finally we had some sort of play fight over lunch and

he reached for my book and signed it thus: To Ceri, We met, we fought and he won Best wishes, Henry Williamson. Odd fact – Williamson died on August 13th 1977, which by the spookiest of coincidences was the exact same day that the filming of the death of Tarka took place for the movie of the book. I have just bought Tarka and Ring Of Bright Water again and I look forward to reading them both, as I am pretty certain that they will still retain their sparkle.

Further Reading Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

How To Be A Bad Birdwatcher by Simon Barnes


A Nature Book Reader

CHRIS MACFARLANE Caught By The River reader

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold To me, A Sand County Almanac is a truly beautiful and mesmerising book which hooked me about 15 years ago whilst at university. I wondered how such a book could be recommended on a Conservation Biology module reading list. The forward begins: “There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot“. In the first part (A Sand County Almanac), Leopold describes the range of characters which exist on and around his farm in Wisconsin whether they are trees, snows, insects, streams, birds, winds...... His knowledge of natural history and ecology is outstanding. A Sand County Almanac was published in 1949,

shortly after he died in a forest fire. He is remembered today as being one of the first conservationists operating from a bio-centric standpoint. He is highly sceptical of Progress, as the costs to organisms are often high. Later in the book, in an essay called The Land Ethic he lays out these views with great economy. It has this memorable quote: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise”.

Further Reading Countryman’s Cooking by W.M.W. Fowler Woodlands by Oliver Rackham


A Nature Book Reader

ANDREW MALE Andrew Male is the deputy editor of MOJO magazine

The Public Life of the Street Pigeon by Eric Simms I bought The Public Life Of the Street Pigeon in a second-hand book shop in Lyme Regis in 2001, as a bit of a joke. My friend Simon and I had been out walking along the Cobb, singing the praises of the herring gulls that lined the harbour walls and lamenting the fact that these beautiful birds were now being labelled as “pests” by the local council. Finding a copy of Simms’ book, I held it aloft and announced that it was now time to reclaim yet another maligned bird. Little did I know... At a time when letters to his local newspaper were predicting a near future where “pedestrians will be ankle deep in pigeon droppings” Simms

appointed himself as the valiant biographer of this rejected and reviled bird. Opening with an anecdote about a pigeon travelling by tube from Kiburn to Finchley Road in 1965, the book educates us in the grand history of this “confident but vigilant opportunist”, from the rock doves of Israel some 310,000 years ago, to “the sacred pigeons of Aphrodite” on Mount Eryx in Sicily. Explaining how the domesticated bird was brought to Britain by the Romans (and why the dovecote became a hated symbol of feudal nobility in the middle ages) The Public Life Of the Street Pigeon is half


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anthropological study and half 70s popular biography, contrasting the grand past of this one-time symbol of purity and life force (Pepys’ diary notes that pigeons were placed at the feet of the ailing Queen Henrietta Maria in 1633) with the daily habits of these scabby city hoodlums who spend “a high proportion of their daylight hours... loafing , sleeping, sun-bathing and preening.” Simms, who always took two carrier pigeons with him when flying Bomber Command Lancasters during World War Two, was of course most famous for his Countryside broadcasts for the BBC and the four books he wrote for Collins’ New Naturalist series: Woodland Birds (1971), British Thrushes (1978), British Warblers (1985) and British Larks, Pipits and Wagtails (1992). But this,

along with his “natural History of Dollis Hill”, 1975’s Bird of Town and Suburb, is the book I most return to. London has always been a city at ease with intolerance, often directed towards its feral outcasts and its funnylooking aliens. This is a book that sticks up for them. Kenneth who took his own life in 1973 with an overdose of barbiturates, did not perhaps have the happiest of lives, and while In The Country is undoubtedly a joyous book, it is one tinged with sadness and righteous anger. First published in 1972, this account of a year in “Hardy country” from January to Christmas, chronicles both the changing of the seasons and the coming of a more industrial form of intensive farming. “In the short term,” he writes, “man seems to have it taped, to have gained

dominance over the planet: in the longer term, I think we may be the losers...” Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household is on the surface it’s a classic ‘Boy’s Own’ thriller, the tale an English aristo who sets himself the ultimate 1939 sporting challenge of tracking down and killing Adolf Hitler. However, when hunter becomes hunted our hero is forced to go to ground in a sunken lane or holloway in West Dorset. One of the best pieces of sustained writing about man in wild nature, Rogue Male went on to inspire a journey in Roger Deakin’s Wildwood and is also eulogised in Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places.

Further Reading In The Country by Kenneth Allsop

Rogue Male

by Geoffrey Household


A Nature Book Reader

STEPHEN MOSS Stephen Moss is a television producer specialising in British wildlife

The Shell Bird Book by James Fisher Choosing my favourite nature book – the one I would take to the proverbial desert island – is really tough. How do you compare a great field guide with a single-species monograph, or a personal memoir with the mammoth Handbook of Birds of the World? (If I could cheat, and take all 16 volumes, that would be my top choice)! But when I came to pick my top three it wasn’t all that hard after all. They were all books I read when young, and all were written in the 1950s and ’60s, just before I began birding. At number three, the novel Adventure Lit Their Star, by Kenneth Allsop, is particularly dear to me, as its hero is the little ringed plover, one of my favourite birds. Moreover its setting, on the western outskirts of London, is where I cut my own birding

teeth. If you haven’t come across it, do seek it out: a truly charming read. At number two is Wild America, a ripping account of a whistle-stop tour of North America in the early 1950s, written by Britain and America’s leading birders of their day.And at number one another book by the Attenborough of his time, James Fisher. The Shell Bird Book is my top read because it is so many books - a history, catalogue, celebration, and endlessly fascinating account of Britain’s birds and our obsession with them , all rolled into one – simply wonderful.

Further Reading Wild America by James Fisher and Roger Tory Peterson Adventure Lit Their Star by Kenneth Allsop


A Nature Book Reader

BEN MYERS Man of letters

Walden; or Life In The Woods by Henry David Thoreau

Forget Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn or The Leaves Of Grass, Walden is the single most important book in early American literature. When he took to the woods of Concord, Massachusetts in 1845 armed with little more than an axe and a desire to observe nature at the closest of quarters Henry David Thoreau can’t have imagined the effect this “experiment in simple living” would have on the world. Walden Pond was Thoreau’s muse, and in its surroundings he found a way of life and philosophy that formed a blueprint for living. Walden found Thoreau seeking sanctuary in the simple things – the things we miss when our eyes and ears are trained elsewhere: nature’s soundtrack, the

changing face of his beloved pond and seasonal wildlife. From his self-made cabin in the woods, Thoreau explored anarchism, civil disobedience and transcendentalism via the day-to-day tasks required to existent in harmony with ones surroundings. And in observing that “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude” he inspired generations of hermits, conservationists, hippies and free-thinkers the world over.

Further Reading The Shining Levels by John Wyatt

The Poacher’s Handbook by Ian Niall


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JEREMY MYNOTT Jeremy Mynott is the author of Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience

The Peregrine by J.A. Baker On the ‘Desert Island Discs’ principle I’m picking three very different kinds of books to remind me of some of the different ways I respond to birds. First, John Clare’s poetry, which is the work of a man who finds things for himself, observes what he finds with great attention and describes it very tellingly (Gilbert White or Henry Thoreau would have been other good examples.) This is the naturalist’s response, drawn from experience. By contrast, Aristophanes, in his great comic play The Birds (412BC), treats birds as symbols for human hopes, fancies and ambitions – as reflections of ourselves. This is the response of the imagination, and we see such emblems and associations all round us (think robin, swan, peacock, eagle ...).

But my favourite book combines these two modes of engagement, and in an extraordinarily powerful way. This is The Peregrine, first published in 1967 by the reclusive author J.A. Baker. It’s the story of one man’s obsession with a particular bird. He becomes fascinated with a peregrine that he encounters locally, and he stalks it for a whole year. He comes to know it intimately; indeed he comes to feel a kind of affinity with it and longs to be accepted by it. In a sense he wants to be the bird, and he uses it to express the way he feels, or wants to feel, about the natural world as a whole. The writing in the book is remarkable — it’s a very lyrical, elevated and daring kind of prose that could completely fail, or become too lush or rich or

pretentious; but he pulls it off magnificently and I still find it very moving. The peregrine itself, of course, remains for most of us a very thrilling and charismatic species — which has interestingly gone from being a bird of remote places to a bird of our cities, but still brings with it the spirit of wilderness.

Further Reading Selected Prose and Poetry by John Clare

The Birds

by Aristophanes


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JONATHAN NEWDICK Jonathan Newdick is an artist and writer

The Birds of the British Isles and their Eggs by T.A. Coward This little classic from 1920 was written by a man who was not only a respected authority on birds but who also possessed a love of and a delight in his subject and who had the added qualification of being able to write lyrical prose. When combined with Archibald Thorburn’s atmospheric watercolours of the species described the result is a work that would have greater value to me than the Bible or Shakespeare if I were ever to be invited to the BBC’s fabled desert island. You just do not find this level of joy and humility in today’s bird books, dealing as they do with ‘natural history’ while Birds was all about ‘nature study’. The Oxford Birds of the Western Palearctic is all very well,

and a commendable piece of scholarship but its volumes are dense and tedious – you get the impression that its contributors never actually enjoyed writing them and they gather dust on a high shelf. Coward and Thorburn, however, are ever with me and part of the reason is that you can tell that these men worked with an enthusiastic love of nature – and that is another way of saying a love of life.

Further Reading The Fishes of the British Isles by J.Travis Jenkins

The Butterflies of the British Isles by Richard South


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MARTIN NOBLE Martin Noble is guitarist with British Sea Power

The Shining Levels by John Wyatts The Shining Levels is John Wyatts’ personal diary of when he left the city to live a frugal life, in a modest hut, in the wilderness of the Lake District. It’s a lovely, charming, easy book to read, and thankfully there isn’t a TV crew or camera in sight. On Johns arrival, he pulls water from a well with a frog in it (“if it’s good enough for the frog, it’s good enough for me”) and makes the best cup of tea he’s ever had. He shares his experiences with the plants and animals he encounters, both their practical uses, and as things of beauty, and later, as companions, when he befriends a buck Roe Deer. He becomes a connoisseur of wood smoke, goes on bug hunts, gets stuck in a bog on his way

home from a pub lock-in, sleeps rough and constantly marvels at the minutest details that surround him. Up there on the mountains, the reflective lakes appear as shining levels. Living amongst wildlife, his simple existence becomes magical and grandiose.

Further Reading In The Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall Birds and People: Bonds in a Timeless Journey by Nigel Collar


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JAMES OLDHAM NME, A&R, A&M

Selected Poems by RS Thomas It would be misleading to describe RS Thomas as a nature poet, and it would be false to call the Penguin edition of his Selected Poems a nature book. Thomas was an Anglican clergyman for over 40 years, and much of this collection is inevitably devoted to his relationship with God (“this great absence that is like a presence”). For this writer, though, the great beauty of it lies in his writing about the natural world. Thomas was a deeply contrary figure – a cleric who doubted, and frequently vocalised that doubt, an entrenched Welsh nationalist who married an English woman, and a pacifist who sympathised with those who burnt down Welsh holiday cottages. He also lived a life embedded in the landscape of his beloved

Wales, unencumbered by either friendships or modern comforts (he even threw out the family vacuum cleaner on the grounds that it was too noisy) and it was this “narrow experience” which helped give his poetry such a concentrated purity of vision. His views of the contours of Northern Wales have often been described as harsh and merciless, but there’s a chill beauty to them as well. He writes superbly on rivers and fishing (Afon Rhiw, The River), as well as birds (indeed his only recreation was birdwatching), but the greatest of his poems are where the connection between the spiritual and natural world is made; Raptor, where God is imagined as “an enormous owl”, for instance, or my personal favourite, The Moor, a poem that articulates

the sheer majestic power of nature and it’s effect on the mind of man. It’s as good a place as any to begin to understand his undoubted greatness. It was like a church to me I entered it on soft foot Breath held like a cap in the hand. What God was there made himself felt, Not listened to, in clean colours That brought a moistening of the eye, In movement of the wind over grass. There were no prayers said. But stillness Of the heart’s passions – that was praise Enough; and the mind’s cession Of its kingdom. I walked on, Simple and poor, while the air crumbled And broke on me generously as bread

Further Reading Growth Of The Soil by Knut Hamsun

Complete Country Bizarre by Andy Pittaway

and Bernard Scofield


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KEVIN PEARCE Writing. Music. Connections

The Summer Book by Tove Jannson The most precious things are often those we find by chance. I stumbled across a copy of The Summer Book by Tove Jannson while looking for something ‘light’ to read in the local library. It was the title that attracted me. I don’t think at the time I made a connection between the author and the Moomin books of my youth. I borrowed it, devoured it, and have often returned to it. I am not a great reader of nature books. I hate stories of disenchanted city folk who have retreated to pastures new and feel compelled to share their experiences. It’s all so forced. But there is a beautiful simplicity and naturalness about this ‘adult’ book by Tove Jannson. It’s really a collection of strikingly stark tales about a girl of six and her contrary

grandmother, and the time they spend together on their small island in the gulf of Finland. It’s so much more than that though. And it makes me desperately want to visit that island. It makes me want to hug that old grandmother and hear some of her words of wisdom. It makes me want to copy chunks of text out which I can chuckle over at leisure. And it makes me want to buy copies to give to loved ones.


A Nature Book Reader

JIM PERRIN Jim Perrin is The Guardian’s Country Diarist for Wales

The Maine Woods by Henry David Thoreau John Clare’s poems are the most uncluttered acts of attention to the natural world you will ever read; Nan Shepherd’s exquisite prosemeditation on the Cairngorms is unique in the literature; but the book I’d offer as first choice is Thoreau’s The Maine Woods. You cannot not include Thoreau if you’re to consider nature-writing. The obvious choice would have been Walden – a book I re-visit endlessly, always with pleasure, new discovery and appreciation – but its condensed, apophthegmatic style is less immediately accessible than that of The Maine Woods, a wonderful, playful book, full of sly, sharp views of his companions, races, camp-fires, chance encounters, short rations, fish feasts. He evokes the shifting and imprecise with

affective precision, gives us a clue, a way through into a more focused state of human insight and perception. This is how it is with Thoreau as you come to know him. He permeates and refines your objective awareness in ways that are subjectively amplifying and enhancing. When you move on into his best work, his observation of particular landscapes at crucial points in their history as man had begun to wreak grievous change becomes an entrancement even more relevant now than in his own time.

Further Reading

Selected Poems and Prose by John Clare The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd


A Nature Book Reader

DEXTER PETLEY Novelist, translator, angling writer

Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden This is nature under pressure; apple trees, birds, pike and pasture at war between the trenches. Undertones isn’t generally considered a nature book but to me it’s supreme as such. Blunden was a countryman and a nature poet, a Keatsian with those sensibilities of the Georgian Poetry Bookshop. He goes to war in rural France where pastoral idyll is pulverized into the images we are familiar with; spikes in a sea of mud. Blunden’s war is as much about the denuding of nature as it is the slaughter of men. Undertones, muted notes, minor keys; his “mesmerizing detachment” is as much rooted in rural England as it is at Ypres and Passchendaele. His survival is miraclous, but so too is the writing. The most convincing book to

come of out World War 1, it is the most poetic, and in its haunting pastoral interludes it is the most minutely observed recognition that war is a rejection of the natural harmonies of nature.

Further Reading The Face of England Edmund Blunden

The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jean Giorno


A Nature Book Reader

DAVID PROFUMO David Profumo writes the Reel Life column for Country Life magazine

Salt Water Fishing by Van Campen Heilner ‘Writing is a form of living,’ observed Arthur Ransome, and few other angling authors exemplify this more powerfully than the American Van Campen Heilner, a stylish young plutocrat and naturalist (and protégé of dentistturned-bestseller Zane Grey) who pioneered and eulogised fishing the salt in those golden years between the Wars. An explorer and field rep. for the American Museum of Natural History, Van’s inherited mining fortune allowed him to travel widely, and wrote with wit and lyricism about everywhere from Alaska to Peru. At Bimini before Papa glamorised it, he was also a prominent member of the Catalina Tuna Club, and was an early exponent of wildlife cinematography. His book

was a runaway success, partly for its descriptions of high living. During one early morning broadcast he vomited over the microphone; the interviewer rapidly improvised, ‘That’s right, Van. The barracuda may be faster in the dash, but he can’t keep up with the bonefish over a quarter-mile course.’ Inimitable.

Further Reading Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village by Ronald Blythe

At The Tail of The Weir

by Patrick R. Chalmers


A Nature Book Reader

KATE REW Kate Rew is founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society

Wild by Jay Griffith Compelling, poetic and passionate, Jay Griffith’s startlingly original book picks you up by the scruff of your neck and transports you, like a small bare animal, into worlds where icebergs squeak hiss and whistle, where jungles sweat and twine, where fish walk, huskies howl and the immensities of deserts panic people. What I love most is the staggering realness of it, the unorthodox femaleness of it. Nature writing is full of men in various stages of intellectual detachment. Griffiths – a learned and remarkable mind – sweats and grunts and lusts and yearns as much as any other animal and her baseness somehow raises the spirits. This book will change your mental geography,

but that isn’t why you should buy it. It’s because even as she gives you the epistemologies and maps and charts with which we try and tame the world, that little animal in you wants to revel with her to the very end as she celebrates our feral sides, our wildness of mind and untameable spirits. What is also remarkable about it is that it hasn’t won a host of literary prizes.

Further Reading The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch

The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson


A Nature Book Reader

DANIEL RICHARDS Caught By The River reader

The Rings of Saturn by W G Sebald Sebald was unknown to me when I arrived to study in Norfolk. By the time I discovered the crisp flat scape of his prose he’d gone; perhaps we passed each other in the grey corridors of UEA – near missing, our paths over lapping but never converging. This book is best a found thing – a book of lost images or spidery notes in a wiry hand, a thing to be poured over and decoded – a map without a key or cross. I found my copy in a blanket box whilst looking for something else. Nothing else I have read captures the depth and loss of the broads; crawling into the landscape on a listless, wheezing train, walking out – the dot of the man getting smaller and smaller until he is swallowed by

the landscape and only the voice remains. Rothko and Ballard near Benacre Broad. I read it in one sitting in a Norwich student kitchen, the book playing out until, suddenly, the end. I blinked and peered about me to see where I was. It was dark outside.

Further Reading The Wheelwright’s Shop by George Sturt The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Stewart Collis


A Nature Book Reader

MARC RILEY Marc Riley is a broadcaster at the BBC

Last Chance To See by Douglas Adams & Mark Carwardine Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises – The visual guide to the worlds cetaceans by Mark Carwardine. Its my bible. Not very literary...but I wouldn’t be without it. A lot of the buggers look the same. Leviathan by Philip Hoare. If I were clever enough I’d have written this book. I share Philip’s passion for Marine life... and his introduction to the obsessive world of whale watching mirrored mine. I’ve just given my copy to Guy Garvey... I hope he enjoys it. Its a brilliant account of Philip’s obsession and the history of whaling. Gripping stuff. Last Chance To See by Douglas Adams and

Mark Carwardine. I know the follow up TV / book sequel is on the boil at the moment, but this book is typical Mark Carwardine. He’s a conservationist who has made a name for himself as a broadcaster, biologist, photographer and all round ‘expert’ .. but for such a long time he’s been on the front-line of conservation. A subject very close to my heart. I know Mark Carwardine – and I won’t embarrass him by telling you of his exploits here, but he’s put his balls/personal safety on the line so many times you wouldn’t believe. He’s the Indiana Jones of the natural world. My admiration for him grows by the week. This

book is a trail-blazer... all those years ago trying to raise awareness endangered species. He’s also a whale expert (see Leviathan)... and has over the years been trying to get the Japanese, Icelandics and Norwegians to stop killing whales... and the rest of the world to stop the killing of an estimated 100 million sharks a year for Shark Fin soup – a practice so cruel and stupid (shark fin is like cardboard.. has no taste and a pitiful nutritional value) it beggars belief.

Further Reading Whales, Dolphins & Porpoises by Mark Carwardine

Leviathan by Philip Hoare


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BERNARD SCHOFIELD Bernard Schofield co-founded The Country Bizarre magazine

The Englishman’s Flora by Geoffrey Grigson As a young lad with an obsessional interest in nature and the countryside, I had developed a keen appreciation of wild flowers and was very proud of my knowledge of both common and Latin names. So it came as a big surprise when, on visiting my aunt who lived in rural Devon, she referred to the foxgloves growing wild at the end of her country garden as Lady’s Fingers. That had to be wrong, and I told her so. Unfortunately I was the ignorant one, and then it became an on going fascination discovering local common names around the country for all the wild flowers I knew and loved. Many years later I came across a copy of Geoffrey Grigson’s wonderful book The Englishman’s Flora which catalogues a veritable

treasure trove of common names to many of our native flowers , together with endless fascinating information regarding their folk history, distribution and habitat. Did you know , for instance, that among over a hundred common names listed for the ubiquitous Foxglove, in Yorkshire they were called Poppycock and in Somerset , Bunch of Grapes. Or that in Wiltshire, Bluebells were known as Griggles, but in Derby were affectionately named Cuckoo’s Stockings. So many charming, evocative names – Baa Lambs (White Clover); Mournful Bells of Sodom (Snakes Head Fritillary); Lucky Moon (Pennywort) – all endlessly inventive, whimsical, poetical, and yet intrinsically a natural part of the old rural culture.

This masterly researched book – the one I would cheerfully take to my desert island – takes us back to a bygone era where country people’s relationship with the land on which they lived and toiled was intimately steeped in magic, myths and superstitions passed down from one generation to the next. A significant number of native flora that grew in their fields, woods and hedgerows were also essentially medicinal plants and many of the local names reflect this. In this sense my favourite country book is a true Language of Flowers.

Further Reading Food for Free by Richard Mabey

The Forgotten Crafts by John Seymour


A Nature Book Reader

RICHARD SHELTON Naturalist, fishery scientist, wildfowler and writer

Mediterranean Seafood by Alan Davidson

Mediterranean Seafood was described by the late Auberon Waugh as, “The best book I have ever read on this or any other subject” and I agree with him. Alan Davidson was a diplomat, a distinguished classicist and polymath with a deep interest in the natural history of the fish and shellfish eaten by the coastal peoples to which his duties as a diplomat introduced him. Davidson’s stated objective in writing the book was, “to help those who visit or live in the Mediterranean region to fully enjoy the seafood there available”. Mediterranean Seafood is a great deal more than that. It is a beautifully written natural history of the seafood species of the

region, each described with scientific precision and with pithy notes covering both their biology and the ways in which their culinary qualities are brought to perfection by the various local communities that fished for them in the mid twentieth century and two millenia before when, at the height of Roman power, watching red mullet die before consigning them to the oven was a favourite dinner party entertainment. Accompanying these literary riches, notes on the work of the early naturalists introduce the reader to the underlying science and remind him of the giants upon whose shoulders the modern science of biological oceanography is supported.

Above all, the book is a testament to Davidson’s gift for describing Man’s sustainable relationship with the resources of the sea before the industrialisation of fishing reduced it to the soulless exploitation it has become.

Further Reading Life On Earth

by David Attenborough

The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins


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NICK SMALL Photography peddlin’, wild river lovin’ man o’ the North

Flight Identification Of European Raptors

By R.F. Porter, Ian Willis, Steen Christensen, Bent Pors Nielsen. The mid-seventies: toxic war had been waged upon British birds of prey. A Kestrel was all you might hope to see. Some weekends, two male teachers routinely took me, a lone 14 year old boy, into wild woods (days of trust), to log and ring small birds. One drive upon the North York Moors, a speck in the sky drew gasps. Circling, it was a Montague’s Harrier... the rarest of our breeding birds. How could they tell? “Get this book”, they said. So off the beaten track was this book, I had to order it, with a sense of entering an exclusive club. Its arrival coincided with my family’s earliest travel adventures, in a VW camper: the Pyrenees, the Picos,

Turkey, Greece, high Sierras. “What’s that?” Dad would ask. And I would identify the soaring vulture as a Lammergeier, by its unique silhouette, or the Osprey by its “W” profile or the Golden Eagle by its size, colour and majesty. Now, when I stand alone in remote forest, and a dark shape looms above, swooping for seconds before disappearing for ever, I feel a warm glow, because I know, without recourse to thought, that I’ve just been seen by a Goshawk. I pack this book every time.


A Nature Book Reader

TRACEY THORN Singer, songwriter, gardening columnist

Poetry of Edward Thomas by Edward Thomas

My favourite is a poem called The Brook, which simply describes a child paddling in a brook on a hot summer’s day. It’s a scene of complete peace and tranquility, there’s almost a sense that time has stopped, and watching the child, and the stream, and a butterfly on a rock, he has a sense of losing himself entirely, and at the same time feeling connected with the ancient dead lying in the ground below. Thomas is usually regarded as a war poet, and many of his poems, written between 1915 and 1917, deal with the suffering of the First World War, and this poem seems to yearn towards a recapturing of peace and innocence. “No one’s been here before” the child says, and

it’s a line that I always think of whenever I’m anywhere quiet and still in the countryside.


A Nature Book Reader

CHERYL TIPP Cheryl Tipp is Curator of the wildlife sounds collection at the British Library

A Sky Full of Starlings by Stephen Moss

I love everything about this book; the striking cover, the intricate reliefs at the start of each chapter, the paper, the shape, but, most importantly, the content. During the course of 2007, Stephen Moss kept a diary of his birding experiences and these tales are shared with the reader to great effect. This charming collection of entries demonstrates that you don’t have to travel far and wide in order to enjoy birds. The back garden can provide just as many memorable birding moments as renowned wildlife locations such as the Cairngorms. The underlying message that flows through this book is that you don’t have to pencil in a certain time or visit a specific place to qualify as a birder. By being in tune with your

surroundings, wherever you may find yourself, you open up a whole world of birding possibilities. I haven’t started my own birding diary yet, but ‘A Sky Full of Starlings’ has certainly inspired me to do so.

Further Reading In The Shadow Of Man by Jane Goodall

Born Free by Joy Adamson


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CHRIS WATSON Chris Watson is the UK’s leading sound recordist specialising in wildlife

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen The Snow Leopard is a life story and a magical journey into a place we all know about but where most of us will never visit. The diary accounts give the work a familiar and accessible grounding making it easy to return to sections and passages after a long time on the shelf. For me it instantly captures thought and imagination whilst leading the reader into darkly beautiful locations and dangerously hostile conditions. You are on the edge of a 14,000 ft precipice, it’s -11C and the animals you hear behind you are wolves. The flora, fauna, geology and climate are all carefully observed and beautifully described within a sense of place that includes the varied and nomadic populations.

The spirits rise off each page and carry you into the next valley; a place of wind caves, stone demons, blue sheep and just perhaps a snow leopard.

Further Reading The White Foxes of Gorfenletch by Henry Tengner

The Natural History of Selbourne by Gilbert White


A Nature Book Reader

JANE WHEELER Caught By The River reader

Summer In Broadland by Henry Montagu Doughty

A prolonged tour of the Norfolk Broads in a converted wherry in 1889; a loving description of a world long past. Wherries were the sailing barges of the Norfolk waterways, already suffering from competition from the railways. Gipsy’s voyage through the broads is an indulgent, leisurely, and entirely benign passage through a wetland landscape of reed fen, dyke, woodland, lakes, choked with weed or open to the elements, full of fish, birds, and characters - eel catchers, reed cutters, working wherrymen, poor tenant farmers, gamekeepers. Already the waterfowler and the egg and bird collector had wiped out the bittern and the ruff.

The joys and vicissitudes of sailing are fully described; Gipsy penetrated far further than is possible now, as far as Aylsham up the Bure, past Geldeston Lock and Ellingham Mill to Bungay, through Hickling broad and on past Horsey to Waxham, and then in a smaller boat up the canalised Thurne river to its starting point where the flat farmland is only divided from the sea by a line of sand dunes. This is a book which connects with contemporary writing about wild places in our own countryside; Roger Deakin would have enjoyed it, I think, and some now dead members of my own family, who adored these waters, sailed them, fished them, wrote about them, and tried to defend them from the modern age.


A Nature Book Reader

JAMIE WHITTLE Jamie Whittle is an environmental lawyer and author of White River

The Singing Wilderness by Sigurd Olson Perhaps it was his description of paddling a canoe along a moonbeam that first hooked me in. Tales of those great Northern lakes and forests, trout fishing, snow-shoeing, cabin living, listening to the land. Sigurd Olson had a highly attuned sense of the natural world, and wrote with a pared-down precision and groundedness as well as with insight and colour. The Singing Wilderness is my most favourite of all his books, and indeed of any book on nature. It is lyrical yet capable of conveying silence. It is a celebration of both nature’s intricacies and ruggedness. Olson captured like no other that essence of being out in the backcountry – the smell of conifer needles, the warmth of the spring sun, the call of birds, the glow and

crackle of the campfire. Reading his work transports me at once to that area of Quetico-Superior, a place I was lucky to visit as a student. An advocate of wilderness protection and conservation, Olson has an effortless ability of conveying the importance of the wild, its sanctuary and tonic. A man of the rivers, lakes and forests, Olson’s writing resonates with the rhythms of the outdoors and is a sheer joy to read.

Further Reading The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold


A Nature Book Reader

ROY WILKINSON Roy Wilkinson is official archivist for the rock group British Sea Power

Birds As Individuals by Len Howard In Birds As Individuals we meet a collective known as Dobs, Baldhead, Judge and Thief – plus a narrator called Olive but who writes as Len. They’re names strangely suggestive of the great Mancunian ASBO-funkers Happy Mondays, a band called things like Knobhead and Bez. Olive Oil is one of their songs. Another, Fat Lady Wrestlers, hints at peculiar gender transference. Baldhead etcetera are, in fact, names given to blackbirds, great tits and other species – in a book first published in 1952 and as wonderfully odd as the Mondays. It’s by the late Olive Howard, who wrote under the pseudonym Len Howard. She lived with the birds at Bird Cottage in Ditchling in Sussex – meaning they shared her house. The furniture was habitually

covered in crap-asborbing newspaper. While The Natural History Of Selborne is one of the perennial naturebook givens, Baldhead and pals are lesser known natural wonders. Olive Howard was, apparently, a naturalist and musicologist who lived in meticulous reclusiveness. Her garden was constructed to foster intimacy with birdlife. In the book an astonished visiting electrician finds Howard with birds perched all over her. “How wonderful!” he exclaims, before pondering things for a second. “But why shouldn’t it be like that? It ought to be like that!” Birds As Individuals is actually a sequel to Howard’s earlier Living With Birds. It’s an almost unbelievable story, but the prose is about undemonstrative documentation of an

extraordinary situation, rather than any lyrical, digressive spin on events. For the latter I’d evangelically recommend another bird-themed read, Mark Cocker’s 2001 memoir/ social survey, Birders. Looking at birdwatching culture, Birders elegantly destroys one of the idiocies of our age – that anyone amazed by anything outside a majority spectrum must be ‘anorak’, ‘nerd’, ‘spotter’. With brilliantly lucid writing, Cocker introduces some cooly charismatic birdwatching characters and enchantingly considers the physics of light bouncing from a bird’s plumage onto the human retina. In similarly illuminating style, Birds As Individuals and Birders both place human and avian existence in astounding, mindquickening juxtaposition.

Further Reading Birders

by Mark Cocker

The Natural History Of Selborne by Gilbert White.


A Nature Book Reader

KEN WORPOLE One of Britain’s leading writers on architecture, landscape and public policy issues

The White Peacock by D.H. Lawrence The setting which provides the scenery for Lawrence’s first novel, The White Peacock, is a small patch of terrain connecting Eastwood – with ten collieries then – with the surrounding farmland. Lawrence loved this stretch of Nottinghamshire countryside, and knew the names of every bird and flower to be seen there. It is for the redemptive qualities of flowers, both wild and cultivated, that Lawrence reserved his most exquisite writing: ‘The earth was red and warm, pricked with the dark, succulent green of bluebell sheaths, and embroidered with grey-green clusters of spears, and many white flowerets. High above, above the light tracery of hazel, the weird oaks tangled in the sunset. Below, in the first shadows, drooped

hosts of little white flowers, so silent and sad; it seemed like a holy communion of pure wild things, numberless, frail, and folded meekly in the evening light.’ What Lawrence captures most perfectly for me is a sense of place combining the industrial and the agricultural. Wherever the characters wander in the lanes and fields, they are within hearing of shunting yards and coal trains. In The White Peacock Lawrence explored how a small patch of landscape could sustain a lifetime’s attachments and memories.

Further Reading Briggflatts by Basil Bunting Dart by Alice Oswald


A Nature Book Reader

CHRIS YATES Chris Yates grew up surrounded by good countryside and good water

The Story of my Heart by Richard Jefferies Good writing is like good music; very often you can only truly appreciate the content after several revisits. Sometimes, as with music, you can hardly understand it at all first time around, but patient re-reading gradually teases out the subtle shadings of meaning and poetry until the complete picture becomes clear. I have to remind myself of this truth every time I read a new book because, if I’m enjoying it, I always think it must be the best book ever written and, if I’m not, then I just want to toss it on the floor. Of the many books in my collection the three main categories are fishing, contemporary poetry and country, and my favourites are those volumes that have lived with me for several years – long enough to be able to hear their own unique

music just by holding them in my hands, long enough to know that there will always be something new to discover within their pages. However, I have dozens of favourites and it’s very hard to reduce them to just a few special titles. For instance, I have just re-read and, once more, really enjoyed Roger Deakin’s Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, but I can’t yet honestly tell whether I rate it higher than T.H. White’s England Have My Bones, which I’m re-reading at the present moment. Both books offer beautifully written observations of the British landscape, yet I don’t think either would quite make it onto the ‘desert island list’ which, I suppose, can’t contain more than eight titles. But that is five too many for this CBTR list, making the task of choosing my favourites even


A Nature Book Reader

harder. However, after much deliberation and many pots of contemplative tea I have now whittled my selection of country books down to just the required three, though tomorrow I’ll probably feel differently about them. They are The Living Landscape by Fraser Harrison, Season Songs by Ted Hughes and The Story of my Heart by Richard Jefferies. Fraser Harrison published ‘Living Landscape’ in 1986 and the book kept me sane through a very difficult separation from a beloved cottage in a Hampshire wood. I had been living amongst the trees for eight years, but I had to leave because I wanted to live closer to the river that was then obsessing me. The book, subtitled, The Seasons of a Suffolk Village, described a landscape very different from the one I was familiar with, closer in character to the more open countryside I

was moving to. It made the transition much easier and I was so inspired by the author’s wonderful relationship with his surroundings that, for months, I spent more time wandering through the downland of my new home than fishing the river. Season Songs was published in 1976. A collection of poems written during a year at Court Green, Devon, it was originally intended as a book for ‘young people,’ but it grew up in the process of writing and I think it contains some of the most perfect descriptions of the natural world I have ever read. Ted Hughes was a good sharp-eyed countryman and it was our good fortune that he was also a great poet. One of my favourite poems in the book, The Warm and the Cold, is the last and it opens with this chilly lovely stanza: ‘Freezing dusk is closing / Like a slow trap of steel / On trees and roads and hills and

all / That can no longer feel. / But the carp is in its depth like / Like a planet in its heaven./ And the badger in its bedding / Like a loaf in the oven. / And the butterfly in its mummy / Like a viol in its case. / And the owl in its feathers / Like a doll in its lace. Of the three kings of country writing that strode through the wider woods and heaths of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – Richard Jefferies, W.H. Hudson and Edward Thomas – I think Thomas was the most gifted writer; but I think Jefferies produced the most memorable book. The Story if my Heart, first published in 1883, was originally described as an autobiography, but it is unlike any other life story. It begins with a description of the author’s dissatisfaction with the world. He appreciated the beauty of land and sea, and he

understood how the natural world was meshed together, but he wanted more, a more intense and a more fulfilling relationship with nature and humanity. In writing that is often sublime, but sometimes a little over eloquent for our times, Jefferies charts the course of his yearnings, hoping for the moment of illumination that will bring him home – a spiritual as well as natural home, but free from any idea of gods or deities. Imagine how Richard Jefferies would have responded to much of the English landscape today. Read him and weep!

Further Reading The Living Landscape by Fraser Harrison

Season Songs by Ted Hughes


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