Category Archives: wildlife writing

Wild words

Over the centuries words have a played a special part in shaping and defining our relationship with the natural world from the carefully crafted wildlife notebooks of Gilbert White to the intense beauty of Helen Macdonald. They have given us the tools to find ways of describing the magic of those moments of wonder when we watch a bird of prey hovering as it hunts for prey or taking a walk through a colour-rich haymeadow in the summer.

Importantly these books have also been vital in capturing our changing relationship with nature. As we have moved en mass from the countryside to the towns and cities in the last two hundred years our deep connection with the natural world waned. Whereas generations ago we could have easily identified wildflowers or trees now we’d struggle to reach double figures for different species.

Nature writing 2

In the last decade there has been a remarkable explosion in books about nature. This seems to have co-incided with and maybe even been fuelled by the financial crash of 2007 and that basic human need for the comfort blanket of familiarity and the power of nature to provide certainty that all is well in a turbulent world. It’s also been important in us dealing with that sense of loss – both in terms of our connection with nature but also the disappearance of species and the threat to our green spaces.

Wander in to any bookshop and it’s likely that you’ll come across a table full of books about nature.  Surging sales of modern nature writing and those wonderfully evocative re-discovered classics are playing an important role in helping us to reignite that love of the natural world and make it part of our everyday lives.

As someone whose love of nature was rekindled through my work and having children the written word played a vital role in helping me to navigate my way through the huge challenges facing the natural world and coming to terms with what it means to me and my family. They gave me the confidence to re-engage with nature and not be afraid by my limited knowledge of birds or butterflies; it was the general appreciation that mattered as much as being able to identify them all. At home I have stacks of well-thumbed books about wildlife and eagerly anticipate the latest release.

Reading the Lorax

Books aimed at kids are a great way to get them into nature

Reading rediscovered classics by Richard Jefferies, wonderful new fiction by Melissa Harrison and the evergreen Lorax by Dr Seuss with my kids, has fired my imagination and created a deeper connection with the wild places where I live. The beauty of new nature writing is that it has found its way into those wild places in the towns and cities as well as the majesty of our ancient woodlands or the pure joy of watching butterflies.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council is launching a bid to find the UK’s favourite book about nature, working with a team of researchers at the universities of Leeds, St Andrews and Sussex, as they start a new two-year research project that will focus on the literary, social and cultural impact of writings about the natural world.  The choice of potential nominees is limitless: it could be a novel, piece of non-fiction or a field guide. Crisp, clear and rich writing has that special ability to draw the reader in to the subject matter and bring to life a simple wildlife encounter or help us navigate the huge environmental change that has been happening in our lifetime.

 

A January nature diary

After years of trying to write a nature diary with limited success I decided that the best way forward was to pen a sentence of news from the natural world every day.

I was hoping that just penning a few words would mean that it becomes part of my daily routine, so here goes with my offering for January.

1 January: a cold windy rain kicked off the first day of the year, confusing the flowers already in bloom, as a result of the mild winter.

2 January: we see a fox run across the road in front of us in the pre-dawn darkness. Then en route back from Cambridgeshire we catch a glimpse of a fox stalking some prey in a field.

3 January: a pair of magpie’s danced in the sky as the sun shone with relief from the constant rainfall.

4 January: I heard the sweet melody of a winter dawn chorus.

5 January: it was re-assuring the see the stars twinkling as the heavy cloud briefly lifted.

6 January: a fog bound morning with deep winter darkness; nothing much stirring.

7 January: lovely crystal clear night with the stars burning bright; temperatures are becoming more normal.

8 January: a cold frosty start to the morning, with the rooks active along the side of the motorway, circling high above the trees.

9 January: watched a robin perched in the tree at Bath City Farm.

10 January: a flock of pigeons fill the sky with their busy feathers as they land on a bridge.

11 January: in the morning grey a seagull flies past, filling the air with its noisy soundscape.

12 January: a substantial flock of birds takes up residence in a field alongside the M4

13 January: the day ended with a majestically rich sunset.

14 January: two buzzards circled high above the fields searching for their prey.

15 January: a frosty landscape rich in shimmering white greets the arrival of first light.

16 January: seeing the snow covered mountains of the Brecon Beacons across the perfectly still Bristol Channel.

17 January: a cheeky grey squirrel scampers across the path to take shelter from the rain.

18 January: a group of rooks perch in a tree with its bare winter branches.

19 January: with the crystal clear star-filled sky, a heavy frost takes root on the lawn and roof, shimmering brightly.

20 January: the morning begins with a deep blood red sunrise, illuminating a frosty landscape.

21 January:  wet damp soaked fields became deeply frozen within a matter of miles as the train headed north.

22 January: the dark shape of an unoccupied birds nest in a bird tree as the evenings begin slowly to get lighter.

23 January: seagulls flew high above Victoria Park, circling in ever greater numbers, before flying into the distance.

24 January: buds were bursting from trees in the magical wood at Bannerdown Common.

25 January: five swans flew past in formation.

26 January: was transfixed by a mini-murmuration of starlings swishing and swaying above a landfill site.

27 January:  pigeons had been busy collecting twigs for their nest outside the office.

28 January: geese flew gracefully across the motorway.

29 January: a sparrowhawk flies over its territory on the hunt for food.

30 January: empty rooks nests fill the crowns of trees.

31 January: a windy rain sees in the end of the day as the mists blow in.

A natural revolution…in words

It was the second big prize for ‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen MacDonald as she walked off with the Costa book award. It feels like we’re in the midst of a really purple patch for the genre of nature writing.

Yes our need for words to capture our special relationship with the natural world has been around for a while since the days of Gilbert White and his seminal natural history of Selborne Common. And yes there are countless classics from the last 200 years but it definitely feels like nature writing is rocking with the number of staggeringly good books lining the nation’s bookshops.

Go into any bookshop and the shelves are full of wonderful books about the natural world that look to capture the spirit of place and the pure joy of wildlife.

The explosion in top draw nature writing seems to have co-incided with the big economic crash in 2008. In might be pure luck but it feels that when times are tough that we naturally return to that innate need for nature as a comfort blanket in our lives. Even though as a nation when might not have the connection with the natural world that we did generations ago, nature is an ever present part of our lives, where ever we live.

A changing of the seasons and the simple pleasure of tuning into birdsong, wandering through a wood or watching the clouds drift past makes us feel good. And these memories and connections need to be captured in a way that only really words can. It’s a perfect combination of a poetry and prose bringing a richness of description.

Many of the books about nature have a very strong personal, in fact emotional element. At certain times of our life we go back to nature as a reference point; a constant that feels re-assuring. Many of the books that I’ve read have a strong personal narrative to them; a hook for these works of art to exist that is authenic and really powerful.

And that is why the decision by the Oxford Junior Dictionary to drop nature words for hi-tech words matters. We need the tools to capture of love of nature and the fascination that it creates; we need future generations to have the exposure that we did growing up. Words are such a fundamental part of the colourful and deep heritage that they have in the national psyche.

But there is hope with the backing of the big publishers, the huge range of great writers and the democratisation of writing via blogging and websites such as Caught by the River. Looking for the words to describe a deep and enduring connection with nature continues to matter and I have a real sense of hope about the future.