Adventures in nature writing

16 Nov

It’s Sunday morning and I’m watching an Asian short-clawed otter munch on some shrimps while her sisters frolic about her, searching for more fish. I’m at the London Wetlands centre in Barnes and it is feeding time at the otter enclosure. The family of otters, all of them sisters, arrived at the centre about six months ago, and are unsurprisingly, its top attraction, aside from the many species of migrating waders and wildfowls that stop by throughout the year. I’m here primarily because of a book. Or more specifically, a series of books, that have taken me from armchair nature-lover to budding otter fancier and all-round wild enthusiast.

It started with a book called Deep Country by Niel Ansell. It called to me from the shelf; deep country sounded like something I would be interested in. ‘The subtitle, ‘Five Years in the Welsh Hills’ sounded even better. And on its cover, it whispered to me: ‘I lived alone in this cottage for five years, summer and winter […]. This is the story of those five years, where I lived and how I lived….it is the story of the hidden places that I came to call my own, and the wild creatures that became my society.’ The bit about wild creatures was especially appealing. Well reader, I read it. And I enjoyed it very much. Dipping into Ansell’s story was a bit like submerging my head under water, or perhaps more aptly, plunging into a dense woodland: things became quiet, and all I could hear was the sound of the birds and the wind rustling the leaves in the trees.

Having dipped my toe in, I wanted more. I chanced upon a copy of Kathleen Jaime’s Sightlines. I was faintly aware of her work generating breathless, gushing praise, mostly based on her previous book Findings. I jumped in. I took Sightlines with me on a holiday up the Highlands, which turned out to be a very good idea indeed and I impressed people with, among other things, my new-found knowledge of the mysterious isle of St Kilda, uninhabited since the 1930s.

Not long after, I brazenly picked up Annie Proulx’s Birdcloud, a fascinating blend of memoir, social history and a Grand Designs style account of Proulx’s attempt to build her dream home. I’d always wanted to read one of her books, having a keen interest in the old frontier landscapes against which many of her novels are set. Birdcloud, the home she builds on a remote piece of land in Wyoming, is surrounded by the elements, battered by the wind, engulfed in snow during the winter and menaced by wandering cattle. But Proulx is also haunted by the place’s previous occupants: Native American tribes, immigrant settlers and once-predominant wildlife.

By this point I was well-primed, making my meeting with one particular book destined to be true love at first sight. I had first heard about the poet Miriam Darlington’s Otter Country while scoping out soon to be published titles at work. So it was on my radar. But it wasn’t until a copy arrived in the bookshop that my fate was sealed. Not your standard hardback size, it was a bit squarer, a bit squat, much like an otter perhaps, making it all the more endearing. The otter on the cover, with its shiny nose, was the most beguiling of all. So on it went: onto my birthday list.

In fact, it somewhat set the tone for the majority of my birthday presents. My friends, being the observant and thoughtful fellows that they are, picked up on my burgeoning thirst for all things wild and ottery. So not only did I receive my very own copy of Otter Country, I also acquired Chris Yates’ Nightwalk: A Journey to the Heart of Nature and Roger Deakin’s much-lauded Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain.

As my appetite for it grows and grows, it seems as though the tradition of nature writing in Britain is thriving. Not only have whole new avenues of reading opened up to me, but also, these books are what led me to the Wetland, and beyond: to excitedly watching Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan on BBC’s Autumnwatch (there were otters on there too!) and to buying a bird feeder for my garden. Above all, these books have married my cliched, jaded Londoner daydreams about living in the countryside, with my once all-consuming childhood passion for nature and animals. Looks like I’ll have to read some Thoreau too.

See reviews of the books here


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