I wrote, some time ago, a piece on the subject of books I’d take with me were I stranded on a desert island. Happily, this was a metaphorical encrusoement, so none of my eight choices were forced upon me by circumstance – survival guides had no place on my shortlist.
A project launched a few weeks ago by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) gave me a convenient excuse to look once more at the groaning bookshelves in my study… and bedrooms, lounge and bathroom, as my books are still multiplying and spreading, incrementally, like lichen throughout the house. The Landlines project has set out to find the UK’s favourite book about nature – in the first instance, by inviting public nominations. The deadline for this is November 30th 2017 – there’s an online form for your nomination, and the process is quick, free, and easy to complete.
Sadly, actually choosing one’s favourite book may prove a lot harder… My natural history library alone now stretches into several hundred books and, while some of them are arid reference volumes and easily discounted from my deliberations for all their practical usefulness, many others have a place in my affections for one reason or another. How to winnow my selection down to one, singular choice?
Robert Macfarlane (author of many lovely books including a particular favourite of mine, Holloway) weighed the impact books can have on us in one concise statement: “Books, like landscapes, leave their mark in us.”
Taking this as my starting point, I revisited my bookshelves and picked books that, at various points in my forty something years, had spoken to me and helped shape me as a naturalist. Looking back to my childhood, I was a voracious consumer of books – to the point that, after the bulb had been removed from my bedside light, and my torch confiscated, I contrived to read by the anaemic orange light cast by my bedside clock…
Books in which animals spoke to one another appealed enormously to me, so Colin Dann’s The Animals of Farthing Wood was a much-loved favourite. Richard Adams’ Watership Down meanwhile was darker, more robust stuff and, unfortunately for me, tainted at the time by the trauma induced as a five year old being taken to see the animated feature film!
Years later I revisited and loved Watership Down unconditionally, not least for Adams’ startling invocation of spirituality and folklore in an animal context. This, with hindsight, was also an appealing aspect of another late childhood favourite, Duncton Wood by William Horwood. Both are books I’ve returned to in adulthood and enjoyed anew.
One book, above all, inspired me as an adolescent – this was, of course, My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell’s golden account of a childhood turned loose in the Corfu countryside. While it was only later that I, critically, realised that Durrell’s very freedom and location owed itself to a background of relative affluence and privilege compared with most of his peers, at the time I read it (over and over again) I simply enjoyed the notion that a boy could spend his adolescence studying the creatures he found nearby. I wanted to be Gerald Durrell very badly indeed…
In my twenties, having left home, and burdened with a mortgage, I found myself feeding my natural history book habit in the local library. There were classics to hunt out, three of which make my shortlist for Landlines – Nan Shepherd’s vivid Cairngorm homage, The Living Mountain; Peter Matthiessen’s heartfelt The Snow Leopard, a crystalline exploration of the role the natural world can play in the wake of grief that precedes Helen Macdonald’s visceral H is for Hawk by some four decades; and, of course, The Peregrine by J A Baker.
No shortlist of this kind would be complete without The Peregrine. Like Macdonald, Baker is so connected with the subject of his study that he longs to become one with them, a humanhawk trapped in the leaden, earthly bounds of a humanity he would eschew if only he could. But his prose soars, and is uncompromisingly, prismatically brilliant: “[five thousand dunlin] rained away inland, like a horde of beetles gleamed with golden chitin”.
I’m privately convinced The Peregrine will eventually triumph in the Landlines search for the UK’s favourite book about nature. If it does, it’s an eminently deserving winner. It is not, however, where my eventual vote lay…
For that we spool forwards to more contemporary natural history writing that has touched me in one way or another in recent years. For very personal reasons I will always carry a torch for Patrick Barkham’s The Butterfly Isles – a wonderful travelogue that I enjoyed immensely, and was a source of inspiration for a lost, dear friend of mine at the time.
I’ve already mentioned Holloway, by Robert Macfarlane and Dan Richards, illustrated by Stanley Dorwood – this slim, hauntingly beautiful volume is the perfect evocation of the sunken lanes and droves in Dorset that I explored on foot when I should have been at school. It is also a tribute to the late Roger Deakin, and it is one of Deakin’s books – his last, before his untimely death – that I turn to repeatedly for its luminous, evocative prose and a love for his subject that shines throughout it like the burr in polished walnut.
Perhaps I knew in my heart, all along, that Wildwood would be my nomination for Landlines, as it is a marvellous thing, a journey through trees that spans continents and lives. I now call my home a part of the UK that is largely devoid of trees, and I think that my compulsion to return, again and again, to Wildwood‘s pages may be a manifestation of an inchoate longing for their presence in my life. Books leave their mark in us – but trees root us in our landscape.
I’d urge you to vote for your favourite book about nature before the 30th November deadline – and if you want to follow Landline’s progress, the AHRC has set up a dedicated Twitter account (@LandLinesNature) and hashtag (#favnaturebook). While you’re there, do please follow me too (@dunnjons) as there will be plenty of news unfolding soon about my very own imminent book, Orchid Summer. Watch this space!