THE SACRED COMBE
ew articulate the joy of watching – no, the joy of simply being with – wildlife like Simon Barnes, lyrical and prosaic in the same breath: elephant droppings are “great round wet loaves”, a lion’s tongue “like a farrier’s rasp”. But though he writes about nature, his work isn’t easily categorised as nature writing. Similarly this slender new book is hard to pin down.
Ostensibly its 100 brief chapters comprise a paean to Zambia’s South Luangwa Valley, where Barnes has spent many of his happiest months. It’s his archetype ‘sacred combe’, an earthly eden where people instinctively reconnect with nature, described with a boyish wonder reminiscent of Gerald Durrell’s My Family.
His canvas is broad. Among captivating episodes starring lazy prides, wild dog families and hut-munching elephants, Barnes weaves ruminations on biophilia, rhino conservation, Tolkien, twitchers and the beauty of cranes. Yet at the book’s heart is the notion that sacred combes, those Celtic ‘thin places’ where heaven and earth are close together, are found wherever we look – in London or Africa. A delightful curiosity.