For hundreds of years, writers have been capturing the wonder of the natural world in poetry and prose, and exploring our changing relationship with nature. Throughout November, the Arts & Humanities Research Council have teamed up with research project Land Lines to track down the UK’s favourite book about nature. As committed nature book-lovers we couldn’t shy away from this challenge! We’ve asked the Bloomsbury Wildlife team to tell us their ultimate favourites.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
It’s great to see people talking and thinking about their favourite nature book. Everyone should have one. I know I do – it’s H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. Before it came out I’d been a friend of Helen’s on Twitter for a while, and gently following the procession to publication of her book. I got a copy more or less the day it came out – not because I was swept along by the hype (there wasn’t really any), but because she was fun to chat to and I was interested to read what she’d written. I didn’t really know anything much about the book, or about her, either.
And of course it blew me away, like everybody else who has read it. What I hadn’t realised was that prior to publication, I’d been swapping 140-character nonsense with someone who, in time, will be considered a true great of English literature. You don’t need me to tell you how good H is for Hawk is. It’s not just a nature book – it’s the best non-fiction work of the century so far. H is for Hawk will be read and enjoyed for generations to come. And yes, I am annoyed I didn’t publish it.
Jim Martin, Publisher
Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell
Written in 1959 and published in 1960, Ring of Bright Water is a firm classic of nature writing and my all-time favourite of the genre. Gavin Maxwell writes beautifully about the life he lived in Sandaig with his pet otters, and his eccentric devotion to them. There is definitely a reason that this is one of the most popular nature books ever written. In parts it reads like a fairy tale – it is beautiful, evocative and romantic. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to!
The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
The Guardian calls The Living Mountain ‘the finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’ – and I completely agree. Nan Shepherd beautifully describes her journeys into the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland – musing on the ways in which we form emotional connections with our landscapes. It is a book that delights with each rereading.
Julie Bailey, Senior Commissioning Editor
Animalium by Jenny Broom and Katie Scott
Animalium is such a beautiful book – and a great idea for it to be framed as a ‘virtual museum’. Each chapter features a different branch of the tree of life, from the sponge to the elephant. I was completely absorbed!
Jenny Campbell, Editor
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
My favourite nature book is Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. I find Bill’s writing absolutely hilarious – and in between the laugh-out-loud descriptions of his hapless attempts to walk the Appalachian trail, he offers beautiful descriptions of the American countryside, as well as interesting facts.
Molly Arnold, Editorial Assistant
On The Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin
I’m not sure if this strictly counts but On The Black Hill steals my top spot because of its touching portrayal of a human relationship with the land. It is set on a farm in rural Wales, and revolves around two brothers who never leave home. It’s a wonderful story; so well told. I read it on the recommendation of my Year 9 English teacher and it has stayed with me ever since. Bruce Chatwin even inspired my visit to Patagonia.
Hannah Paget, Senior Marketing Executive
What’s your favourite book about nature? Join in by tweeting #favnaturebook before midnight on 30th November 2017. The results will be announced in February 2018.
Feeling inspired? Browse through our collection of brilliant nature writing.
World-renowned ornithologist Lars Jonsson, born in Sweden in 1952, is widely regarded as one of the greatest bird artists of all time. He lives in southern Gotland, where he runs his own museum and immerses himself in the rich birdlife of the open countryside.
In this stunning book, Jonsson celebrates and explores the beauty of the birds that surround him during the Swedish winter months. He illustrates each bird in his classic style, and his text provides information on their behaviour and insight into how to identify them as he shares personal observations as both an artist and ornithologist.
Inspired by the desolate, wintry landscapes, the dazzling light and the stark contract of colours he observes against the snow, Jonsson has created an unparalleled collection of art.
Explore the selection of beautiful images taken from Winter Birds, alongside commentary from Lars Jonsson.
The Blackbird prefers to nest in gardens and many of us see it close by, in city or countryside, perched quietly on a bush in winter. For many, it is doubtless its song on late-winter/early-spring evenings that leads them to have a strong feeling for the Blackbird. The Blackbird male is well suited as an object of study aimed at understanding how passerines moult: this can be done well and in comfort from the kitchen window on a winter’s day if you put out a few apples.
The Green Woodpecker belongs to a group of woodpeckers which are sometimes called ‘ground woodpeckers’ and therein lies the explanation of why they are predominantly green on the upperparts. They feed largely on ants which they find on the ground, down beneath turves or in ant-hills. Against the grass surface the colour functions as a camouflage.
The Rook is the size of a Hooded Crow but seems more slender in build, with a longer, more wedge-shaped bill and somewhat more ‘loosely joined’ wings and tail. If you watch a Rook in light wind, it is often as if the feathers are lifted by the wind and the wing looks a little ‘looser’. This creates interesting shadow effects for an artist, and Rooks are enjoyable subjects. Their featherless face adds a human characteristic and when seen from the front it resembles an old woman with a black head-scarf.
Images taken from Winter Bids by Lars Jonsson, available now.
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By louise Gray, author of The Ethical Carnivore
For the last two years, I have been only eating animals I killed myself. It seems an extreme position. But really it was all about compassion. The idea was to find out how meat is sourced and educate people about where their food comes from.
Mostly, I was vegetarian except for a small number of mammals including rabbit, deer and a pig. Overall I ate far less meat than your average British omnivore.
I also ate a lot of fish.
The fish I ate most in my year was mackerel. The ‘tigers of the sea’ are plentiful around the coast of Britain in the summer months and even a complete amateur can catch one. I hauled up 24 in one afternoon off Arbroath in North East Scotland.
Below is the recipe, for more Ethical Carnivore adventures please look out the book.
4 x smoked mackerel fillets (equivalent to two whole fish)
1 tsp grated horseradish or 2 tsp horseradish sauce
2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp crème fraiche
½ lemon juiced
100g unsalted butter
salt and pepper to taste
Take the skin off the mackerel and mix with the horseradish, mustard, lemon and crème fraiche. Blend in a food processor or with a hand blender. Add the butter and blend to a paste.
Serve on oatcakes with a parsley garnish to a literary crowd.
An article by Marianne Taylor, author of Birds: Myth, Lore and Legend
For those of us lucky enough to live and work in sturdy, heated buildings, finding out what the weather is going to do is merely a matter of interest. But for our ancestors, and for plenty of modern cultures as well, accurate weather prediction could mean the difference between life and death. Humanity has a very long tradition of using natural phenomena, including bird behavior, to try to forecast the weather, and this is reflected in folklore from around the world.
Fishermen and merchants risking their lives at sea to deliver goods or bring home a catch have a particularly pressing need to understand the weather. Who better to help them than the seabirds that spend virtually their whole lives out over the waters, coping with whatever the elements throw at them? The European Storm-petrel is one of the smallest of all seabirds but one of the toughest too, able to ride the wildest seas. Its English name reflects a widespread British belief that its arrival predicts – or perhaps even causes – sea storms. Another old British name for the species, ‘Mother Carey’s Chicken’, references mater cara, the Virgin Mary, to whom sailors pray for safety at sea. The storm-petrels’ big brothers, the albatrosses, are also said to bring bad weather if they linger too long close to a boat, but a brief sighting means good luck and fair weather for seafarers.
Singing in the rain
Several Britsh birds are said to call or sing in advance of a rainstorm. One is the Green Woodpecker, also nicknamed ‘yaffle’ because of its laughing voice, and ‘rain bird’ because that laughter supposedly heralds rain (the bird is laughing at the sun). The Red-throated Diver has the local name ‘rain goose’ in Orkney and Shetland where it breeds, because its drawn-out wailing call means imminent rain – while a different, more witches’-cackle version of the call is a sign of that the clouds will clear. In Africa, the mighty Southern Ground Hornbill’s booming call is another predictor of precipitation, as are the yells of black cockatoos in Australia.
Its laughing call is said to herald rain, but the Green Woodpecker enjoys sunshine as much as anyone else.
Fact or fable?
Gulls turning up inland is often cited as a warning of bad weather at sea, but in truth many species of gulls have long nested and foraged inland.
Common Gulls are (probably) so called because they often feed on ‘common-land’, and can be seen inland regardless of the weather.
The idea that Rooks nest higher in treetops in years that are to have long sunny summers is also misguided, as Rooks habitually use the same nests year after year. In fact, the idea that birds can predict long-term weather patterns is rather suspect all round. When many Waxwings turn up in Britain in autumn, this is often considered to be a sign that the winter to follow will be severe, but in fact is related to past rather than future events. If it was a bad summer for berry-bearing trees and shrubs in Russia and Scandinavia, more Waxwings will be forced to move south and west to find food.
It is a shortage of food rather than a premonition of freezing weather that sends Waxwings from north-east Europe to Britain.
However, birds really do have some ability to predict weather in the short-term. A structure in the avian inner ear (the Vitali or paratympanic organ) is highly sensitive to changes in air pressure, which as all budding meteorologists know is the key to changes in the weather. This can give birds a day or more’s warning of advancing bad weather, triggering them to indulge in feeding frenzies (as noted in Blue Jays and other species in the Blue Ridge mountains, USA), or even brief migrations to safer areas (observed in Golden-winged Warblers in Florida). Snow Geese in North America seem to be able to dodge extratropical storms on their southbound migration, by varying their route and timing of departure.
It is very tempting to ascribe mystical powers to wild creatures. And birds certainly have more natural, innate ability to predict weather changes than we humans do. But of much more importance is their ability, honed by millennia of natural selection, to contend with bad weather, by sheltering or fleeing or simply enduring it. Or, in some cases, embracing it. It’s worth going outside on a wild-weather day to watch Ravens soaring and tumbling like windblown ashes on a blustery day, or pigeons rain-bathing with all the apparent delight of actors in power-shower commercials. Such sights are part of the joy of wildlife-watching and a joy that inspired our ancestors just as much as it does us today.
For confident fliers like this Raven and Carrion Crow, windy days mean aerial playtime.
Read more about how historical accounts, scientific literature and superstitions have shaped our understanding of bird behaviour in Birds: Myth, Lore and Legend by Marianne Taylor.
This month the RSPB are encouraging us all to swap our comfortable homes for nature’s home for a night and discover a secret world of wildlife by taking part in their Big Wild Sleepout between 29th and 31st July. By venturing outside to kip under the stars, you’ll get to know more about wildlife at night, spotting nocturnal animals going about their lives under cover of darkness.
To help you make the most of the evening, we’ve put together some fantastic ideas from Hattie Garlick’s Born to be Wild about how to have fun under the stars
MAKE SHADOW PUPPETS
- Draw the basic outlines of some nocturnal creatures onto a piece of card. Before it gets dark, or else by torchlight, cut them out.
- Find some sticks and Sellotape them to the backs of the animals.
- Hold them up against a tree trunk, wall, fence or the ground, and shine a torch on them to project shadows onto the surface.
- Make the puppets hop around, play together, fight, adventure, nibble on leaves… whatever theatrics your imagination dictates.
TELL A STORY BY TORCHLIGHT
Clearly this is more authentically and cosily undertaken by firelight. You can’t, after all, toast marshmallows on a battery-operated torch. If you are good at building fires and have, to hand, the space in which to do so and the materials with which to do so, I applaud you. If you’re like me, use a torch and eat chocolate instead. Reading aloud in the outdoors is pretty magical whatever the light source.
- Find a sheltered space in which to make yourself comfortable. This could be a bench, a fallen tree, a log, some garden chairs or a cushion on a balcony.
- Sit down with friends or family, warm clothes, sustenance, a torch and either a book or a story in someone’s head.
- Nominate someone to tell the story. They get the torch, of course, with which to read and gesture.
Note You can also pass a book around the circle, so that everybody reads a page, or make up a story together, so that each person adds a sentence in turn.
LOOK FOR NOCTURNAL ANIMALS
There is a whole other world, right under our noses, whose inhabitants walk the same streets, sniff around the bins we use every day, and stretch out and play in the same gardens and parks in which we stretch and play ourselves. All you have to do to access this universe is come out after dark. Keep quiet, keep still and keep warm, and you’ll see this other world come alive around you.
Don’t use a torch or make lots of noise. You’ll scare them off.
Do wrap up really warmly and listen carefully – you might well hear animals that you can’t see.
Note You don’t even, necessarily, need to go outside. If you turn off the lights in your sitting room and sit still you might get lucky.
What to look for
- Deer (yep, even in some urban and
- suburban areas)
Ideally, you need a clear, dark sky, somewhere far away from street lights, strip-lit shop fronts and office buildings that beam brutally into the nightscape. But for the small astronauts who dream of rocket trips from the fifteenth floor of a concrete jungle or the safety of their suburban semi, there is still plenty of hope. In the winter, when it gets dark earlier than in the summer, the possibilities to explore the night sky are endless. All you need is a clear night, this book, an outside space (a garden, park or even a balcony will do), warm clothes, hot drinks, imagination and sparkling eyes. Done? Okay, now can you spot any of the following?
- The Plough (or Big Dipper)
- the Pole Star n Venus
Note The night sky looks different depending on where you are in the world, but you can always find guides online. Wherever you stargaze, don’t forget to look for shooting stars and other planets, too, and notice what phase the moon is in.
Discover more nocturnal activities in the rest of the book – Born to be Wild by Hattie Garlick