Book Review: The Screaming Sky

screaming sky

“In the Neolithic we started carving up the world. We built walls across it to separate things that had once been part of a whole. Behind some of the walls we penned the animals we had previously seen as our ensouled cousins, and behind some of the walls we penned ourselves. In some of these Neolithic walls – which were really symptoms of a disastrous mania for control that has dominated and blighted us ever since – lived common swifts. If you choose to make your home in the manifestation of a disease, it’s probably not going to go well with you in the long term.”

The Screaming Sky, by Charles Foster (illustrated by Jonathan Pomroy), is the latest in the always fascinating and beautifully produced Little Toller Monograph series. Its subject is swifts, particularly the common swift (Apus apus), a species that arrives in Europe each summer to breed. The author describes his interest in this bird as an obsession – something borne out in what he shares within these pages. Although not considering himself a scientific expert, he credits the swift with teaching him how to be ‘a father, a friend and a human.’

The book is divided into the months of a calendar year. Swifts live in perpetual summer. In January they are hurtling through the skies above Africa. They mostly live on the wing, travelling awe inspiring distances at high speed. The birds are also long lived, many reaching their third decade. They feast on insects, snatching them out of the air yet choosing what they take and leave with a fastidiousness it is hard to fathom given the velocity at which they exist. They bathe in clouds and stay within sociable colonies. Once they mate they are monogamous.

“In the zoological world the tendency to monogamy is generally correlated with relative brain weight – and hence with cognitive ability. Promiscuous animals, by and large, have smaller brains, for relationship demands a good deal of neurological processing power”

The author lives in Oxford, in a house chosen by a breeding pair of swifts as their nest site thanks to an available hole under the eaves. He cautions against considering these birds his, or indeed referring to them as British just because they breed on this isle. Evidence suggests that proto-swifts were travelling the air roads over 50 million years ago. Plate tectonics have since changed continents and climate markedly. Swifts may be creatures of habit but the distances they travel mean huge swathes of Earth may be considered home to them.  

“Most of the birds that will breed in western Europe, after milling with all the world’s swifts over the Congo basin, move to Liberia which, after the mid-April rains, sees one of the greatest wildlife gatherings on the planet.”

Much of what we now know about swifts has been discovered because, in recent years, some of the poor creatures were fitted with tags and harnesses to enable monitoring. Much, however, remains unknown, such as how they navigate. What is clear is that man’s desire for tidiness in his surroundings along with the increase in factory farming and industrial agricultural practices has damaged the quantity and quality of insects on which swifts rely for food. 

Apart from the weeks spent raising their young each year, swifts avoid terra firma. Where they gather is mostly dependent on weather events and may involve regular journeys of thousands of miles. Although long lived, unexpected weather can prove catastrophic to large numbers of birds. 

“the architecture of the sky is as complex as that of the sea”

The author writes of the swifts’ history and geography as well as their physics and biology. This is not, however, an essay on science but rather a sharing of the wonder of a lifelong interest. Foster’s obsession is clear in the effect the swifts have on his mood and behaviour. He travels abroad in the hope that when he looks up the birds will be there. He is scathing of men who do not appreciate what may be learned from nature. His occasional views on politicians inject dry humour.

“sociopathy, vanity and talentlessness are emphatic disqualifications for leadership, rather than, as for us, essential elements of the CV.”

As with each of the Little Toller Monographs I gained a deeper appreciation of the subject while picking up nuggets of wider interest along the way. The author writes with passion and remains engaging. He feels anger and sadness when humans don’t notice what is happening around them, imploring the reader to look up and take time to enjoy these wondrous visitors. He cautions against the recent habit of arguing the societal or economic value to humans of any species.

 “The presumption that swifts need to justify themselves in terms that mean something to us is malignant and highly metastatic. Who are we to demand that the wild world pleads for its life in language that we can understand?”

An enjoyable and thought-provoking monograph that soars alongside these avian marvels while offering up broader considerations man would do well to attend to. A reminder of the perils inherent when we damage what is also our life support system. 

Book Review: On Silbury Hill

On Silbury Hill, by Adam Thorpe, is another fascinating addition to the Little Toller Monograph series (I have previously reviewed Snow, Landfill, Eagle Country, and Limestone Countryall these books are also worth reading). Thorpe first became interested in Silbury – the largest prehistoric mound in Europe – while he was a pupil at nearby Marlborough College, an exclusive public school where he boarded during the 1970s while his parents lived abroad due to his father’s work. As well as providing the reader with information about the enigmatic hill and the varying theories about its original purpose, Thorpe writes of his time in Wiltshire as a schoolboy, and later in life when he would return to visit. Like many who are drawn to the area – I have lived nearby for over three decades – he finds something elemental in his reaction to the location and its ancient artefacts.

Silbury Hill was built, probably over several generations, more than 4000 years ago. She is around 130 feet high – the equivalent of a 13 storey building – and has a base covering around 5 acres. Nobody knows why she was created although there are many theories. Archaeologists have drilled down into her, dug tunnels through her and taken away samples to try to work out her purpose. She is neither a burial mound nor a treasure trove. There are few clues as to what she may have been used for.

What is known is that she was one of three man made mounds in an area that also includes the Avebury stone circles and its associated avenues. Nearby are several large barrows that exist to house the dead. There is evidence of massive gatherings in ancient times suggesting significant rituals were enacted. Today, gatherings are of tourists or those who claim a religious link.

“Sometimes I think that invasive archaeology is a metaphor for our whole current situation: the process of discovery necessitates destruction.”

What we know about Silbury Hill is due to the investigations that broke her open and allowed modern man in. These were halted earlier this century and repairs made to the damaging invasions. As a UNESCO World Heritage site the location must now be protected. Visitors are no longer granted access to the hill.

Thorpe writes of his time at boarding school and also of the visits he made at that time to his family in Cameroon. He found an appeal in what he perceived as the simpler, less materialistic lifestyle of certain Africans and compares this to what is known of Britons in Neolithic times. The latter, of course, had short life expectancy and high death rates. Their bones show signs of painful afflictions – it was hardly an ideal way of living.

At the time of Silbury Hill’s construction, much of the country was still wooded and large predators roamed free within their dark canopy. Man was transitioning from hunter gatherer to farmer but would still be reliant on the small community he lived within and contributed to.

“the examination of period burials reveals not only a ghastly catalogue of ways to suffer and die (plenty of fractures and wounds, severe arthritis, tooth abscesses, gum disease, rickets, polio, spina bifida, tetanus, tuberculosis, plague, malaria), but the likelihood that ‘four people in ten died before they were twenty’ – not including the 50 per cent who didn’t make it past their third year.”

As a schoolboy, Thorpe visited East Kennet Long Barrow – 5000 years old and the longest in Europe – and ‘had an extraordinary sense of my own mortality’.

“I was a mere blip, soon to be extinguished, in comparison with the multiple generations witnessed by this earthwork, and those stretching out onto the future.”

The ancients were closer to death and, perhaps therefore, revered the ancestors. Rituals would reflect this and their reliance on nature for survival.

“death was woven into the landscape here in the chalklands in a colossally evident way.”

“Alternatively, Silbury might have been a brilliant means to unite a people with a common project that gave their brief lives a meaning.”

Perhaps the hill draws so much interest because its purpose remains unknown. It has existed through several rounds of climate change – warming and cooling, with associated changes in water levels – and multiple ages as man’s habits and beliefs have endlessly shifted. She has been probed and speculated over. Her surroundings have been desecrated and rebuilt. It is her age and continuing existence – from such ancient times through to now – that demands pause for contemplation.

“So frail the summer,
I would like to plait it
like grass, and keep my place

in the book of my life
forever, now, here.
I’ve noticed this is not possible.

Something is always ushering us.”

The author writes in a personal and compelling style that pulls the reader in. He weaves the memoir elements with a wider history of the area and how these have contributed to shaping his own development. In a time when man has all but detached himself from his surroundings – the cars on the busy A4, that runs adjacent to the hill, whizzing by in too much of a hurry to pause at the millennia old wonder they may glimpse as they pass – it is good to consider how transient our existence, inventions and prideful acquisitions will be. Silbury Hill remains a mystery – just one facet of its allure – but stands as a monument to that which can endure, and the value of reflection.

On Silbury Hill is published by Little Toller Books.

Book Review: Landfill

Landfill, by Tim Dee, is the most recent addition to Little Toller’s series of nature monographs. With jacket design and occasional illustrations by Greg Poole, this beautifully produced book explores the author’s interest in gulls, and how their populations have grown and adapted to make the most of modern man’s waste generating behaviour. Dee’s research was carried out at various landfill sites where birds are tagged and observed. These once migratory creatures now live year round in British cities where they are regarded as pests for getting too close to the humans who have enabled them to flourish.

“It’s also important to remember that we’re responsible for all this. We’ve thrown so much edible stuff away.”

Due to man’s habits, gulls no longer need to travel to find winter food. Gulls fly over wide areas but many return to breed where they hatched so populations expand. They are dynamic and fast adapting. In eating human rubbish they have become indicators of future problems such as when DDT exposure caused feminisation of embryos.

The author has been a keen birdwatcher since his teens. He seeks out those with specialist knowledge to interview and accompanies them on field trips. He writes up the conversations that take place in: Bristol City Centre; various Essex landfill sites; an island in the Severn Estuary; the Isle of Lewis off Scotland; still segregated South African population centres; the rainforests of Madagascar; the Natural History archive centre. It is not always gulls that are observed. What bird enthusiasts seek are rare sightings and better understood avian behaviours. The author notes that evolution isn’t over – species are coming into existence as much as they ever were. When a new species is discovered it is new to science but could, perhaps, have simply avoided prior categorisation. Humans have this need to label – birds, animals and people.

Although accessible and raising interesting questions, the subject will be of particular interest to other bird enthusiasts. Gulls deliver a challenge for ornithologists as certain species can hybridise – nature exists whether or not man names or understands it. Nevertheless, awakening interest, as chasing a rare sighting does, may make man less eager to follow through on his typically selfish and destructive behaviour.

One rare bird spotted in Lewis in 2013 had twitchers rushing to watch in awe. They observed as its impressive aeronautic display was cut short, literally, by the blades of a wind turbine.

There are many historic books featuring birds, the merits of which the author discusses in sometimes scathing terms. The only positive views he has on the Richard Bach’s best selling Jonathan Livingston Seagull are about Russell Munson’s photographs which he wished to identify. This desire to recognise and categorise is strong.

In Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds, nature assembles to attack its greatest destroyer, man. Henry Mayhew’s London Labour London Poor, published in the nineteenth century, barely mentions gulls which at the time were kept for eggs or occasionally eaten, but rarely flew up the estuary. What this and other books offer as interest is how rubbish was perceived and treated. The recent growth in gull numbers is down to people. In visits to overseas landfill sites, Dee observes both human and avian scavengers.

“When do objects – or people – cease to have value?”

Having provided so bountifully for gulls, man is once again changing how his rubbish is treated. Food waste is no longer to be dumped in landfill sites, and these are to be covered over and converted into parks. Cities are taking measures to cull populations of birds regarded as unruly. Numbers may have peaked and now be in decline but the author is keen to show what wider lessons may still be learned from the tagging and sharing of information. If nature is to be protected it requires new generations of ambassadors.

“The world is, and then the world is as we say it is.”

As with each book in the monograph series, the author’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. I am highly unlikely to become a twitcher but will now view gulls with more curiosity. This was an interesting, informative and often entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller.

Book Review: Eagle Country

Eagle Country, by Seán Lysaght, is the tenth book in the publisher’s Nature Monograph Series. Presented in the form of a journal it details the author’s travels around Ireland as he searches for the eyries where eagles once nested. Despite growing up on the island I would not have associated Ireland with eagles, never having heard reports of these magnificent hunters settling there. Until a recent reintroduction programme they had been exterminated, shot or poisoned by farmers and gamekeepers who would not tolerate them taking small livestock or the grouse required by shooting parties. The impact of this policy is described in some detail, a lesson in causality when attempting to control nature.

As Lysaght walks across the mountainous and coastal land where eagles once bred he marvels at the flora and fauna that has somehow survived modern farming methods. The land has been denuded by overgrazing as farmers maximise the subsidies they may claim from the EU. This has affected the habitats required by grouse and hares on which eagles would feast. It is not just the land that has been affected. Fish farms and rubbish contaminate the water. Pine forests turn rivers acidic making it unsuitable for native fish species. Short term gain has been given precedence over a healthy ecology. Man has set himself apart and then wonders at the impact of the damage.

“state bodies and learned institutions were there to give us exact statistics about the degradation, without any apparent clout to change things.”

Despite his unease at these observations, the descriptions of the elements Lysaght encounters are awe-inspiring. In poetic prose he marvels at the landscape and the nature it supports. He remains aware that his presence also has an effect, exemplified by the chagrin felt when others appear in the landscapes he walks many miles to survey.

“Mine was a typical arrival – a lá brea (fine day), someone who appears only during fine weather and arrives with a tourist’s fantasy of remoteness, cultural purity and authenticity.”

There are explanations of the names of places. As he travels the views shift, the same features observed from different vantage points. Vast mountains disappear behind closer peaks, lakes come into view reflecting the sky and the sheer drops of their surrounds.

“The binoculars isolated the image, extracted it from the scene, and made it abstract; I imagined these recorded on video and placed in one of the temples of contemporary art.”

For some time the only eagles the author sees are fashioned in stone or plaster and placed upon gateposts. Landowners marvel at the creatures despite having wiped them out. The land itself has been shaped to suit human development, stunning vistas offering health and safety compliant adventures, marketed and branded almost out of existence.

“[I] lay in the tent, amused at my own naivety in thinking I could escape the twenty-first century in the twenty-first century.”

Lysaght feels a strong affinity to the place and its history. In his observations he recognises that he is myth making yet what he shows the reader is a fascinating snapshot of the detail most won’t be aware of because they do not know where to look. There is suffering inflicted on creatures that modern squeamishness may baulk at, despite knowledge of animal cruelties that prevail in factory farm settings.

As well as the wildernesses and farmland, Lysaght’s travels take him to state run reserves and places he visited as a child.

“My father brought us to those institutions to make us understand that Ireland’s identity was as much about the country’s flora and fauna as it had to do with symbols of the armed revolution.”

Now a grandfather himself he thanks his grandson for reminding him that ‘there is more than one way of looking through a telescope’.

The sights are described in exquisite detail. Alongside the landscape and its natural history, the inhabitants and their impact, there is wonder and appreciation. This is a glorious evocation of nature, and of the difficulties of recreating the order that man has upset.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller.

Book Review: Limestone Country

“which came first, geography or history? And where does one end and the other begin?”

Limestone Country, by Fiona Sampson, is the ninth book in Little Toller’s monograph series (you may read my review of Snow, by Marcus Sedgwick, here). These are beautifully written and presented meditations on subjects that impact personally on each of the authors. They are varied in scope but focus on human interactions with the environment and forces of nature. In this work what is offered is a portrait of life in four particular limestone landscapes:

  • Chambon, a farming hamlet in Périgord, southern France;
  • Škocjan in the Karst region of Slovenia;
  • Coleshill, a rural parish in England;
  • Jerusalem, Israel.

 The author has lived in or travelled around these locations and opens each of the four sections of the book with a short personal anecdote from her experiences. They set the scene for a lyrical and sympathetic study of the very different lifestyles of the locals, how these have been established over time, and the natural, cultural and political forces that subject them to change.

“the liveliness of tradition doesn’t come from where and how it originated, but from its use today.”

Locations are steeped in a constantly evolving history. Residents must adapt as generational exposures change. Modern incomers trying to capture whatever drew them to the place with their tidy, sterile renovations may be welcomed but rarely blend in.

As people have fought wars and moved borders there has been a shift in tolerance to certain visitors. This is particularly striking in the Karst region which the author travels with a friend from Macedonia, also a region of the former Yugoslavia, who is made to feel unwelcome by some who would previously have been his countrymen. Yet the land remains largely the same – the woodlands where walkers are warned of bears, the caves which draw tourists and provide income.

“Geological time is incomprehensibly grander than human history.”

There is the seemingly ubiquitous addition of holiday homes for the wealthy offering heritage chic. Visitors are drawn to admire centuries old churches that have survived through iterations of belief, places of cultic pilgrimage containing:

“graves of important figures […] who, like the rich everywhere, seem to have planned on the front row in paradise.”

In Coleshill the author observes how the working English villages have become satellite residences for wealthy metropolitans. Old traditions have been monetised if not valued by landowners such as the National Trust.

“It’s as if the techniques of land work, whether dry-stone walling or game-keeping, don’t count as knowledge if someone has practised them all his life, but only when they’re acquired by someone young and middle-class. The public schoolboy who grows his hair and chooses a holistic lifestyle as a craft worker, and the graduate of land management courses who plans to spend his life in an estate office, are alike in being valued as ‘experts’. Whereas Walter from number 17, now in his 70’s and bow-legged by arthritis after a lifetime of outdoor work, is regarded as merely old-fashioned; a burden to be laid off.”

Kept awake by the B52s taking off and landing from the neighbouring airfield at Fairford the author mulls the payload of death and destruction they carry to regions currently undergoing catastrophic change. From her rural idyll she notes that the cities of which visitors are most in awe

“have been destroyed almost as often as they’ve been rebuilt.”

Jerusalem is one such place. Each of her fellow visitors is there to come away with a personal experience based on their own ideas of what the place has been, the dreams and nightmares that whole societies entertain.

“Those fantasies devour the places they fix on through colonial exploitation, through war and plunder, even through mass tourism. Every city is as much unreal as real.”

Landscapes are formed over millennia and shape the lives of its settlers. These personal adaptations are passed down, altered by events and evolving attitudes but still umbilically tied to home regions. We are each a constituent of where we live, and it of us:

“We make places our own in part by the stories we dream up about them”

This book is a perceptive, thought-provoking observation of nature with man passing through. The exquisite yet substantive prose is a pleasure to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller Books.

Book Review: Snow

snow

“we live in a world of over-simplification. Few people have the time, energy or desire to see the world as any more complex than they can cope with.”

Snow, by Marcus Sedgwick, is the latest addition to the publisher’s monograph series – beautiful books which explore aspects of the natural world and the rich variety of places in which the authors live. Echoing the six sides of a snowflake, the six chapters in this highly readable study delve into the science and art of snow – its impact on literature, folklore, exploration and scientific progress, on those who have experienced its power to trigger awe and fear.

The author now lives in the French Alps but spent his childhood in rural Kent where he remembers there being more snow than typically falls today. Despite its ability to throw travel plans into disarray he associates it with freedom. A deep covering would have prevented him and his brother from attending their hated school leading to fun and imaginative play. The transformed world offered a blank canvas, an empty page on which to create. The muffled silence and crisp cleanliness belyed the potential dangers. He goes on to discuss this in some depth.

Music and literature use snow as a backdrop to terror. Historic explorers have been trapped, frozen or maimed. Snow has physically shaped the mountains and valleys. The modern world is impotent when a heavy fall cuts off communications.

The author looks not just at the physical but also the emotional impact of snow on the human psyche. He talks of ancient stories, mythical figures, and the powerful forces an accumulation of these flakes can unleash. There is much to consider and take in.

The quality of the writing ensures that the ideas are never difficult to process. As befits the subject, it is a captivating read.

“Snow ranks amongst the greatest forces in the natural world […] the result of the humble snowflake, tiny and almost weightless. Minuscule, intricately beautiful too”

Snowfall has transformed the world in many ways. This book will enable readers to look at its arrival this winter through a newly polished lens.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller.