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.

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Book Review: Linescapes

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“We describe the world in rational terms, aware of geology and geomorphology […] whereas our ancestors saw a landscape filled with agency, one that was animate.”

The land on which we reside is forever being reshaped by the varying needs of its flora and fauna, including man. Pathways form where creatures habitually traverse their domains, their existence in any space resulting in some species flourishing, others being threatened. When changes are made to the land a rebalancing is required. Elements may be lost but, given time and sufficient neglect, nature regenerates.

The ancient tracks formed by man have been developed, expanded and altered dramatically as our ability to travel in new ways has increasingly isolated us from our fellow creatures. The linear features we use to form connections or to separate the land we now work so intensively have resulted in increasing fragmentation. Many traditional species have, as a result, been unable to survive. In Linescapes, Hugh Warwick examines the history and impact of the various lines man has created which shape our countryside. He explores hedges, ditches and dykes, walls, ancient paths and green lanes, canals, railways, roads, pylons and pipelines. He muses on potential steps that could be taken to mitigate the damage caused when these lines denude and shrink the habitats of creatures requiring more space than they are granted.

“They are so much more than their function as barriers or carriageways. To change our perspective – towards an empathetic look at the landscape – is to become aware of the impact they have”

The author emphasises the value to all of a healthy and diverse natural world, even when managed for man’s benefit. He warns against trying to measure this value in monetary terms, arguing for its intrinsic worth. In his research there is recognition that what now appears beautifully peaceful was often once a heavily worked landscape. The old may be lost and what comes after unexpected.

The author clearly favours certain features. Hedges protect his beloved hedgehogs. Dry stone walls offer sanctuary to many plants and creatures. He has little love for canals which he describes as ‘a concrete ditch of stagnant water’. He writes fondly of green lanes and the benefits these bring.

“There is a ‘green-lane effect’, whereby the inside faces of the hedges that bound the lane tend to be warmer, more sheltered and more attractive to wildlife than the outside faces, creating a microclimate tunnel within which wildlife, should the surrounding fields be forgiving, can flourish.”

“finding over 2000 individual species in an 85-metre stretch is not unreasonable”

Although he argues for protection of nature he also wishes to protect his favoured man-made features.

“The biggest threat these lanes face is neglect – left alone for long enough they will become absorbed into the fabric of the land. The next biggest threat they face is being discovered.”

For each chapter he explores the history before going on site to talk to experts in their fields. Where he held preconceptions to the contrary he invariably comes away more sympathetic. The concrete barriers that prevent vehicles crashing through the central reservations on motorways may be the cause of fatal impacts when large mammals become trapped, but motorway verges are home to a wide diversity of life-forms, left alone as they are to flourish. Railway land enjoys similar biodiversity despite the need for regular interventions for tree maintenance. The argument for building HS2 with adjacent cycle lanes, walkways and linear reserves is a rare suggestion that this infrastructure project could deliver something positive despite its exorbitant cost in money and impact.

The writing is eager and enthusiastic. Interesting facts are shared and points made. Nevertheless I wondered at the focus which seemed to wander. I remain unclear what exactly the author wishes to accomplish.

Any Cop?: A country walk is often circular, the point being the pleasure of the journey rather than to achieve a destination. Likewise this book is a pleasing amble through features that most will encounter but may not always appreciate. With my interest in nature I learned little new but was provided with a congenial reading experience.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Under the Rock

The first thing a reader will notice on picking up Under the Rock is that it is beautifully produced: the vibrant detail and embossing on the cover; the purple end papers; the clear, well spaced print. Within a few pages it becomes clear that the writing is something special too. That subtitle, The Poetry of a Place, is deserved.

This is not a book to be rushed. Over the course of the days I spent reading I kept setting it down to step outside and appreciate my surroundings – the small things it is easy to pass by, unregarded, on my walks through local fields and woodland.

The author is curious and unafraid of straying beyond marked paths. He views man as a part of nature, a shaper of landscape albeit for short term, selfish gain. There are no gushing superlatives about the beauty of our natural world – however that may be defined given man’s tinkering – but rather an exploration of a microcosm through the changing seasons and from a variety of perspectives. There is recognition and appreciation of the cycle of life, that death is not an end.

“Nature does not stop. It never shies away from the task at hand: perpetual growth and death, growth and death. Survival – that is all. Of plant species and creature alike. Feeding, mating, birthing. Dying. On and on it goes.”

“Only humans reach further, filling their time with false desires, delusion and distraction from the self. Turning away from news media, I find myself instead considering the wider environment, at a deeper level.”

Ben moved out of London with his partner a decade ago. He left the noise and bustle of the city for a village in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire. Within Mytholmroyd is a fenced off area containing the looming mass of Scout Rock. The site has been quarried, was once the town dump in which asbestos from a nearby factory was buried. It is a place of:

“toxic soil and bottomless mineshafts and cliff-diving suicides and unexpected landslides in the night”

Having been abandoned by man, the flora and fauna thrived. This is the story of the place, its history and surrounds, the impact a sometimes desolate environment has had on the author.

Ben and his wife purchased a property in the shadow of the rock. Each day he would take their dog and walk through the fenced off area, scrambling around the rock, making his way to the moorland above. He came to understand the personal changes wrought by the seasons, to endure the persistent rainfall, to accept the mud splatter, the minor injuries from slips and falls. He would swim in the nearby pools and at a reservoir, seeking to immerse himself physically in the place. Gradually he learned its history from libraries and conversations with locals, some of whose families had lived there for generations.

Divided into four main sections – Wood, Earth, Water and Rock – each is completed by field notes, poetry, and photographs. The chapters in Water detail the devastating floods that affected the area at the close of 2015. There is acceptance that this was not a unique event in the valley’s long history. It did, however, bring change.

“The Scout Rock I have known for the past decade is no more. It is something else now.”

When the workmen, drafted in to supposedly make the area safer, finally leave, this fresh molestation will be recolonised, reclaimed. The author may then explore the place anew, recreate the paths he chooses to take.

Ben’s walks and swims lift his mood but the dank darkness of winter, the heavy rainfall of the area, are oppressive. He mentions the financial difficulties of surviving as a writer. He acknowledges both the challenges and benefits of modern living. Woven into these deeply personal musings are the layers of discovery from his daily perambulations.

He writes:

“My goal in life is
to walk the
hills unheard.”

Within these pages we hear his voice, and it sings.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

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: A Tale of Trees

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A Tale of Trees, by Derek Niemann, provides a potted history of British woodland, and details the devastation caused after the Second World War when farmers and other landowners were subsidised first by the government and then by the Common Market to bulldoze their plots of ancient woodland in order to convert them to arable use or conifer plantations. All land was expected to be managed with the aim of maximising economic return. To these modernisers, wood was simply a slow growing crop.

The author explains the difference in ecology between ancient woodland, mixed use replanting and regimented conifer plantations. The benefits of ancient woodland to the fragile ecosystem was not taken into account in the drive for increased food and timber production after the war. A complex habitat that had taken millenia to create could not quickly nor easily be replaced. The skills required to maintain such an environment can be lost in a generation.

This is a fascinating, beautiful but hauntingly poignant account of the damage caused by short term, ill advised human thinking. Many fret over the loss of ancient buildings, works of art and historic artifacts yet fail to appreciate the value of what man working sensitively with nature, of which he is a part, has created over many centuries. There is beauty but also utility. It is only in recent years, too late for large swathes of ancient woodland now lost forever, that value is being understood. A healthy ecosystem is an asset, even if this cannot be measured in monetary terms, and is required for healthy people as well as other living things.

To stem the destruction, support was required from government which had financially encouraged such actions – described in the book as being akin to setting a madman loose in an art gallery with a Stanley knife.

“He has signed a petition to parliament that has a straightforward demand: Give all ancient woodland statutory legal protection. Surely that’s not beyond the bounds of possibility, since there are so few of them?

He has sent me the reply he received […] Woodland cover in England is at its highest level since the 14th century. Perhaps this may be true, but […] If the paintings of the National Gallery were at risk, would we be happy with a response that said Britain has lots of paintings?”

With the benefit of hindsight it is difficult to understand how such desecration was allowed let alone encouraged, yet when there is money to be made such actions are still all too easy to believe. Protections are seen by some as a nuisance. Valuable assets to be managed for the benefit of all can be resented by those thereby prevented from maximising their personal monetary gain. Consider how art is purchased for investment potential rather than aesthetic appreciation.

Although dealing with a specialist subject the writing is clear and accessible. Anyone who has enjoyed the peace and beauty of a bluebell wood will have sympathy with those who fought to save these national treasures. What this book offers is an understanding of how much additional value they provided – their loss is devastating. That some are now attempting to do what they can to reverse the damage is a beacon of hope.

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

Book Review: The Outrun

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The Outrun, by Amy Liptrot, recently won the 2016 Wainwright Prize, this after being shortlisted for the 2016 Wellcome Book Prize. Although I would not normally be drawn to read memoirs, the judges’ comments persuaded me to pick this one up. I am very glad I did.

Amy was born and raised on a farm on the remote island of mainland Orkney. Her father suffered mental health issues which triggered psychotic episodes so severe he would, from time to time throughout her childhood, be sectioned under the Mental Health Act and removed to a secure unit in Aberdeen. Her mother was a Charismatic Christian whose Church influence and disciplines led to Amy developing a strong aversion to religion. Her parents divorced after her father had an affair.

As an adolescent Amy eschewed what she regarded as a subtle conspiracy to present Orkney as an island paradise. She describes herself as:

“a physically brave and foolhardy child […] Later I plunged myself into parties – alcohol, drugs, relationships and sex – wanting to taste the extremes, not worrying about the consequences, always seeking sensation and raging against those who warned me away from the edge. My life was rough and windy and tangled.”

As a teenager she wanted nothing more than to leave the island, dreaming of glittering success and excitement in London. When she got there she immersed herself in a social whirl fuelled by alcohol and drugs. Over a hedonistic decade her life spiralled out of control. Eventually she determined to undo the damage she was inflicting upon herself and enrolled in rehab, taking steps to manage her alcoholism. She returned to the islands to recuperate, not expecting to stay.

The book opens with this return, with her visiting the farm she grew up on. Her story is told from the perspective of a recovering alcoholic looking back on events that brought her to where she is today. Woven into her tale is the island, its weather and wildlife, history and topography, as much an influence on what she is and was as any people she has known or choices she has made.

It is a study of nature and of life. Amy is aware of how the land was formed, how it affects what it supports with all changing and adapting over time. Yet still there are events that cannot be fully prepared for – asteroids, severe storms, addiction. She writes of the place of which she is a part.

She spends a winter on Papay, a small island north of the mainland, with a population of seventy. She describes how a community such as this gets by:

“Here I have been mixing with people of all ages and backgrounds – we have to – whereas in London I was in a bubble. I went to the city to meet new people, to expand my ideas and social circles, but ended up meeting people more and more like myself. We curated our experiences into ever narrower subsections until we were unlikely to encounter anything that made us uncomfortable.”

Amy’s parents came to Orkney from the South of England so, although she was born there, she was still considered an incomer. With so many young people choosing to leave incomers are now welcomed as necessary to keep the small communities viable. Just as wildlife must adapt to change to survive so too must people.

Amy enjoys the apps and information available via modern technology. She keeps in touch with life beyond the island through the internet:

“Many of them I’ve never met in person but we’ve vaguely followed each other’s lives for years. Often I feel as if my real life is inside the computer while my time back in Orkney and the people I see here are just a temporary intrusion. I know people on Twitter I’ve never met better than people I’ve sat opposite for months at work or people I went to school with.”

Amy watches the skies, swims in the sea and takes long walks. She describes the land and the wildlife she encounters, recalling the history of the place and the changes over time. She considers her own existence alongside that of the birds and sea creatures whose habits and habitats she studies and presents. The story told is poignant and perceptive but it is the quality of the prose which sets this book apart.

The writing is sublime. This is a memoir but also an appreciation of the nature of which we are all a part. There is raw beauty but also acknowledgement that change is inevitable. Amy chose to adapt to survive.

A trip to the seaside

England is currently experiencing a heatwave. I love the sunshine and outdoor living so I am not going to complain about this relatively rare phenomena. I will concede though that trying to get anything done in temperatures that are hovering around the 30’C mark can be wearing.

With my daughter now safely arrived in Madagascar I have been checking the daily weather forecasts for the area that she is exploring and, if correct, then she is having to cope with daily temperatures about 10’C lower than back home. This is probably just as well given that she is required to walk a fair distance each day with a heavy pack on her back, and to work outside on projects the group will be challenged to complete. At least it does not appear to be raining and she has a good sleeping bag to keep her snug in her tent when the night time temperatures drop significantly. I do hope that she is enjoying her big adventure.

Having waved her off at the weekend I was whisked away to the seaside to take my mind off her departure. It was a very welcome and enjoyable distraction. For a couple of nights I was able to enjoy the comforts of a hotel on the beach with delicious food and a cooling, outdoor swimming pool as well as the sea. We had taken a room with a balcony that overlooked the water so morning coffee was sipped and pre dinner drinks imbibed whilst watching the yachts and expensive motor boats as they made their way in and out of the large, natural harbour. It felt wonderfully indulgent to spend time in such luxurious surroundings.

There is something about the sea and the tides that calms and relaxes my mood. The beaches were understandably busy on these hot days with young people swimming and diving off the rocks, fisherman casting their lines from the jetties, and the many birds gliding and diving in search of tasty tidbits. The surrounding roads were chaotic with traffic trying to move from one place to another along the coast, or in search of an unused parking space; I was glad that we could walk from the hotel to our desired destinations without having to move our car until it was time to head home.

Due to seasickness, I do not generally enjoy going out on boats. However, our proximity to an island that I was eager to visit and the relative calmness of the water in this weather persuaded me that we could risk the journey to spend a day enjoying the cooling shade of woodland. Thus we had a fabulous few hours wandering the paths between quiet glades in search of deer and the rare, red squirrels of Brownsea Island. We saw families of peacocks and flocks of chickens roaming free as well as the wildlife we had come to admire.

Most visitors to the island stay close to the visitors centre. We prefer to enjoy peace and quiet so chose to explore the many woodland paths as we circumnavigated the small island. In doing so we came across a small pond surrounded by trees on which interesting paint marks had been daubed. Intrigued by the apparently random nature of the strokes we moved around the pond and discovered that, with the right positioning and perspective, hearts appeared through the foliage. Created by painting a part of a heart shape on several trees at differing distances from the viewer these would only come together from one vantage point. We enjoyed the challenge of searching out the best place to view each of the four hearts.

Having enjoyed a few days of good food, a fabulous location and an air conditioned room in which to sleep, I returned home from our short break feeling rested and relaxed. I cannot put aside my natural concern for my daughter’s well being but, knowing how eager she was to take part in this expedition, I cannot wish her anywhere else.

My boys have now returned to school to complete the summer term before we head off camping next week. If this heatwave continues then it could be an interesting experience; our family camping trips are rarely taken in fine weather. We have coped with rain, wind and overnight frost in the past but never extreme heat. There will be no assisted air conditioning in our tent; neither will there be wifi. That could be the biggest challenge for my gadget addicted children.

In the meantime I have a few days of quiet reflection and preparation. With my daughter away I have the house to myself while my boys are at school; I must ensure that I make use of this time. Although she was only at home in the day with me for the few weeks around her recent exams, it quickly came to feel normal making this solitude more noticeable. How quickly we humans adapt to changing circumstances.

For today, the heat is building once again and I have much to do. Whatever the good or bad that comes our way, life goes on. I am grateful that, for now at least, the life I am living is very good.

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