Wilding Review: An Impassioned Rumination On A Return To A Rural Idyll

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I promised it last year when I reviewed The Peregrine, but I’ve been busy since then so apologise that this review is a little late.

Better late than never, I’ve finally had the chance to read and review Isabella Tree’s phenomenal book Wilding: The Return Of Nature To A British Farm.

The author is married to the owner of Knepp castle and estate, in Sussex, where this incredible pastoral experiment took place. She and her husband decided to stop using the land for farming, and instead return it to a more natural state and allowing free-roaming animals to graze on natural plants, shrubs and bushes.

Trees were allowed to die and remain as havens for animals, birds, flora and fauna, with minimal human intervention to keep the space as naturally wild as possible.

The author delves into the history of Knepp, European wild animals and how we came to achieve the ‘closed canopy’ theory, which says that the UK and most of mainland Europe was covered in dense trees before humans cultivated it.

Isabella Tree disagrees with this theory, and sites a lot of evidence to highlight why she believes that the landscape was in fact covered in a diverse range of plants cultivated by grazing herbivores.

She tells the story of how she and her husband learned, through trial and hilarious error, the means by which they could rewild Knepp and turn it into a natural British paradise.

Funny, intelligent and enlightening by turns, Wilding is a perfect pastoral book for anyone who wants to educate themselves on British wildlife and the history of man’s long and strained battle against nature.

At a time when the world is, ridiculously slowly, opening its eyes to the realities of climate change and man’s impact on our planet, this is a very timely reminder that there are things that can, and are being, done to help restore our land to its former glory. The book also shows how science is often very out of touch when it comes to the mysteries ways of Mother Nature.

In short, if you’re looking for a book to read that will take you on an eventful journey through British, and international, natural history, and end with you wanting to explore everything that nature has to offer, then I’d thoroughly recommend Wilding. Isabella Tree is passionate about bringing biodiversity back into the world and proving that every avenue is worth exploring as we journey towards a greater understanding of how the earth was before we started taking it over.

 

 

 

The Peregrine Review: A Pastoral Classic That Remains Relevant To This Very Day

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It’s come to my attention that I’ve neglected the pastoral section of my blog since I started it, so I thought I’d rectify this by including a review of a seminal book from the genre.

J. A. Baker’s classic book, detailing his frantic following of a pair of peregrines through the forests around his home in Essex, is a tour de force of epic proportions.

It spans a full year and reads much like the diary of a rabid wildlife enthusiast. Baker is an insightful, voracious follower of birds of prey and gives minute details of every aspect of the lives of the birds and animals in the forest.

His book is deeply emotional and raw, with Baker shown chasing peregrines throughout the English countryside in a bid to understand their hunting methods and mentalities.

Unlike many books about birds of prey, Baker isn’t seeking to possess or tame these birds. He wants to become one. He’s looking to achieve their level of concentration and hunting prowess.

Throughout the book he surveys the birds and tentatively tries to get closer and see the world through their eyes. His pursuit of this hawk-like state sees him go into a trance as he follows the birds across the English countryside and gets to know their habits, prey, preferences and hunting styles.

Baker is a master at creating atmosphere and describing his natural surroundings, and as a result The Peregrine is deeply atmospheric and hauntingly beautiful. Also, as the book depicts a changing landscape being reshaped by manmade pollution, making it a very topical read even today.

At the end of the day, Baker’s book was published in 1967, and written even earlier, so it’s not exactly a recent publication, but I’d recommend any pastoral literature fan, amateur ornithologist or nature lover reads this book. I’ll be doing a review of Wilding in the New Year, once I’ve got all my Christmas reading and celebrating out of the way, so stay tuned for that!

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar Review: Much More Than Just A Boy and His Bird

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar

Chris Packham’s inventive and unique memoir is much more than a story about a young boy and his kestrel; it’s about the challenges that he faced in a time when people did not understand him. The book touches beautifully on a number of tough topics including mental illness, attempted suicide, family breakdowns and desperation.

These sensitive issues are handled with exquisite care, as Packham navigates through his life, sharing his passion for nature and how this kept him going through even the darkest of times.

Although the memoir is primarily about Packham’s relationship with a kestrel he raised as a boy, it touches on many aspects of his life. Packham creates a suburban jungle through his narrative, and shares his experiences exploring this; from sneaking out late at night to catch a glimpse of a fox and her cubs to the eponymous ‘sparkle jar’, a jar of small, shiny fish that is tragically smashed by bullies.

All of these small tragedies and small triumphs, such as the neighbour who takes an interest in Packham’s kestrel and his ecstatic experiences at the cinema watching Ring of Bright Water, which led to him falling in love with otters, are told from varying viewpoints and in different tenses to create a unique narrative that is both memorable and engaging.

Each section of the memoir ends with a chapter in which we hear Packham talking to a counsellor of some description about his life and where he believes certain habits or emotions began. Such a personal account of Packham’s life is incredibly moving, and by the end I was practically crying, which is a no mean feat. The beauty Packham invokes through his stunning depictions of the natural world works hand in hand with his varied writing styles to create a book which is both emotive and intellectually stimulating.

Thanks to the vast array of different experiences that Packham manages to pack into this extraordinary memoir, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar is both universally understandable and simultaneously extraordinary, and I personally believe that it is a genuine must-read.

The Goshawk: Review

The Goshawk

T H White’s The Goshawk is renowned as a classic of the English pastoral genre- a terrifying tale of man’s eternal struggle to tame nature, interspersed with White’s account of his own personal struggles at the time.

Much like Helen Macdonald’s stunning memoir H is for Hawk (you can read my review of that excellent book HERE), which draws inspiration from The Goshawk, White’s book is about more than just the training of a bird. Filled with historical titbits, hawking trivia as well as passages of great personal sentiment, the book is an excellent reminder tha toyu are not alone in the struggle to find your place in the world.

White’s hawk, whom he names Gos in an uninspired attempt to distance the animal from becoming a pet, is lively and spirited, and White, who at the time was struggling through a quagmire of personal suffering, was completely inexperienced in hawk training, having gained much of his knowledge from books on the subject.

The result is as catastrophic as you would expect, and documented beautifully in White’s terse prose. The book is a triumph of writing versus subject- whilst it may sound dull to read 150 odd pages of a man trying (and failing) to tame a goshawk, the books depiction of this battle is what makes it so readable.

H is For Hawk: Review

H is for Hawk

I have promised before, so here you go: my thoughts on Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, which is one of my all-time favourite books and one which I would throughly recommend.

This beautiful memoir offers an emotive insight into Macdonald’s struggle as she searched for a meaning and a purpose to her life following the death of her father. This is the real focus of the book, with the Hawk, Mabel, and the struggle Macdonald had in training her, highlighting the depth of the sorrow and depression she felt at that time.

The inspiration for the text came from T.H White’s The Goshawk, a book which Macdonald frequently references. This books tells a similar story: White, a former school master turned author, decided to train a goshawk, a pursuit which later turned into an obsession.

In the same fashion Macdonald becomes increasingly fixated on training the hawk: it is as she reaches success and begins to hunt properly with the bird, learning its patterns and following its thoughts, that she sees that she is becoming less of herself.

This touching chapter of Macdonald’s life is written into this fascinating book with true skill: the author clearly has a strong knowledge of the history of hunting with hawks and a number of other rural pursuits, which she showcases with ease.

There are also some areas of near perfect description which highlight Macdonald’s passion and love for birds of prey. The very best example, and the one which has stayed with me ever since I first read this book over a year ago, is the depiction of Macdonald collecting her hawk on a Scottish quay. The breeder is meeting someone else, and has bought both Macdonald’s hawk and the other buyer’s with him. Macdonald describes the hawk she is supposed to take in the most glorious fashion:

“She came out like a Victorian melodrama: a sort of madwoman in the attack. She was smokier, and darker, and much, much bigger, and instead of twittering, she wailed; great, awful gouts of sound like a thing in pain, and the sound was unbearable.”

This stunning, passionate recount of meeting the hawk (which the breeder swapped for the younger bird at Macdonald’s request) is an excellent example of the skilled, sumptuously descriptive use of language that pervades throughout H is for Hawk.

To conclude then, my suggestion is this: READ THIS BOOK IMMEDIATELY. Get a copy in any way you can. There are some pretty covers available for those who judge books by their cover, but whether you fancy the flowery one or are happy with the beige, please read the words within, as they make for a fascinating insight into topics including humanity, history and goshawks. Which are frankly the only three topics one should ever take any interest in.

 

The Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks: Review

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The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District, represents a continuation of the revival of the pastoral genre, which was reinvigorated last year with the phenomenal success of Helen Macdonald’s excellent memoir H is for Hawk.

Primarily the comparison between The Shepherd’s Life and H is for Hawk is what drew me to Rebanks’ superb recollection of life rearing sheep in the Lake District. The books have been heavily compared and Macdonald is even quoted on the back cover of my copy.

Don’t get me wrong, the two books are fairly dissimilar. The subject matters differ greatly and there is a certain arrogance to Rebanks’s prose which contrasts with the self-deprication and uncertainty of Macdonald’s. However, there is a shared connection: the love of their landscape and the animals they rear on it.

Rebanks’ book focuses on his fascinating life as a shepherd working on the fells of the Lake District, interspersed with aspects of his  life outside of his work, his Oxford education and his family, which forms an intrinsic part of the narrative. Split between the four sessions, spring, summer, autumn and winter, the book charts both the farming calendar and his family’s progression, from the days of his beloved Grandfather, to his dad taking over the farm, through to teaching his young children the traditional ways that are still used to farm the fells.

As someone who grew up, for the most part (both in the sense that I didn’t live there all my life, and also am yet to fully grow up) in rural Dorset, I feel a certain empathy for the way Rebanks talks about the land he loves and the history of it. Rich history is a key part of rural communities and reading someone recount this with such vigour and overall understanding is a true pleasure. Rebanks’s passion, both for his animals and his land, is evident throughout the book, and enhances the brilliant narrative and strong, almost lyrical descriptions that at times make the book read like an extended poem.

Overall, this book is a real antidote to the excesses of modern life- escaping modern technology as much as they can, and avoiding mention of anything they cannot escape, the book highlights the traditions and evolutions of a landscape which is a central part of Britain’s rural heritage. A must read for anyone with a desk job looking for an intelligent and often witty insight into a world that seems so very far removed from their own.