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