A hymn to a north­ern English win­ter, ur­ban gar­den­ing for begin­ners and van­ish­ing birds

The Guardian - Review - - Books Of The Year - Pa­trick Barkham

Tele­vi­sion wildlife doc­u­men­taries are un­der fire for re­mov­ing hu­man­ity from the frame, but “new” na­ture writ­ing, first pop­u­larised in Bri­tain by Richard Mabey, has al­ways re­flected on our re­la­tion­ship to other an­i­mals, plants and places. Many 2018 books high­light ur­ban wildlife. There’s Land­fill (Lit­tle Toller), Tim Dee’s droll lit­er­ary paean to the gull and “gullers”, and Bob Gil­bert’s Ghost Trees (Sara­band), which will awaken any Lon­doner to the plants that cling on in the city’s cracks. Dar­win Comes to Town (Quer­cus) by Menno Schilthuizen ex­plains the sci­ence of evo­lu­tion in the city, while Kate Brad­bury of­fers ur­ban mem­oir in The Bum­ble­bee Flies Any­way (Blooms­bury). Brad­bury is the only po­ten­tial buyer of a damp flat to ask to see the gar­den, and what un­folds is a mov­ing, un­pre­ten­tious ac­count of start­ing again. My favourite slen­der mem­oir is Ho­ra­tio Clare’s The Light in the Dark (El­liott & Thomp­son), a hymn to a north­ern

English win­ter. Clare is lyri­cal and ro­man­tic with­out ever ob­scur­ing place with pur­ple prose. Any­one look­ing for an ur­ban na­ture man­ual will en­joy David Lindo’s How to Be an Ur­ban Birder (Prince­ton); gar­den bird fans will ap­pre­ci­ate The Wren: A Bi­og­ra­phy (Square Peg), the lat­est in Stephen Moss’s smart sin­gle-species se­ries.

There is also a grow­ing body of cli­mate change non­fic­tion cen­tred on ice and sea lev­els. El­iz­a­beth Rush’s Im­per­illed … Mary Col­well seeks out the dis­ap­pear­ing curlew

(Milk­weed) is a vivid and ur­gent piece of re­portage about coastal change and de­nial. The Li­brary of Ice (Scrib­ner) by Nancy Camp­bell looks (mainly) north while Jean McNeil’s Ice Di­aries (ECW) heads south. McNeil’s grip­ping book, a mem­oir of her stint as “the writer” dur­ing an Antarc­tic sum­mer, is a vivid de­pic­tion of the hu­man com­mu­nity in a po­lar base camp. This sci-fi land­scape is suf­fused with men­ace.

The big­gest pic­ture of a chang­ing cli­mate, and wildlife, is painted by Tim Flan­nery in Europe: A Nat­u­ral His­tory (Allen Lane). He sug­gests hu­mans – not cli­mate – were re­spon­si­ble for the con­ti­nent’s loss of rhi­nos, mam­moths and other megafauna. The con­clu­sion of this long view is: bring them back.

Odysseys re­main pop­u­lar in na­ture writ­ing. Miriam Darlington searches for the most com­pelling avian sub­jects in Owl Sense (Guardian Faber), while Peter Mar­ren’s quest to find ev­ery species of British plant opens with the re­mark­able tale of the ghost orchid. His Chas­ing the Ghost (Square Peg) is jolly, quixotic and ends with real poignancy. Orchid Sum­mer (Blooms­bury), Jon Dunn’s as­sured de­but, con­sid­ers the flower in Bri­tain; Mary Col­well’s Curlew Moon (HarperCollins) is an odyssey for an age of ex­tinc­tion, a west-east walk across Ire­land and Bri­tain, bear­ing wit­ness to the van­ish­ing of a bird species. Charles Ran­ge­ley-Wil­son’s Sil­ver Shoals (Chatto) is an­other ele­giac jour­ney – in search of five British fish and the men (al­ways men) who fish them.

Mark Cocker’s Our Place (Cape) ex­plores the 20th­cen­tury strug­gle to save British na­ture. He writes with su­perb un­der­stand­ing of less fash­ion­able land­scapes. In Wild­ing (Pi­cador), 2018’s best story of ac­tion and hope, Is­abella Tree tells of her fail­ing farm and its al­most ac­ci­den­tal rewil­d­ing. Tree gives us an em­phatic ex­am­ple of how the coun­try­side can be en­riched be­yond ex­pec­ta­tions.

(Chicago) stands as an­a­lyt­i­cal coun­ter­part to Pow­ers’s novel: a hope­ful jour­ney through the land­scape his­to­ries of “vi­brant re­sis­tance” that have sprung up across North Amer­ica over the last two cen­turies. Re­becca Sol­nit’s (Granta) is an­other vi­brantly re­sist­ing work, that calls out eu­phemism (“cli­mate change” should be “cli­mate vi­o­lence”). Lastly, I was gripped by Guy Gu­naratne’s re­mark­able de­but novel,

Rad­i­cal Land

(Tin­der), with its com­plex cast of lonely Londoners.

Call Them By Their True Names

In Our Mad And Fu­ri­ous City

Ris­ing: Dis­patches from the New Amer­i­can Shore

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