Book Review: Aurochs and Auks

aurochs and auks

“we speak, but we rarely listen; we tell cautionary tales, but we go on making the same mistakes; we state the obvious daily, yet we never act on what we say we know”

Aurochs and Auks, by John Burnside, is a collection of four essays that ponder man’s place in the world alongside his culpability in the extinction of species. Whilst it may be depressing to consider how foolish and damaging our behaviour too often is, the undercurrent in this writing is one of hope for what still thrives among ruins, and will do so when we are gone. The author may grieve for the damage wreaked by our self-destructive habits but can also look out in wonder at the here and now.

The opening essay, Aurochs, explores story telling across the ages and how this enables ‘the most radical alternative to authorised history’. The titular animals preceded domesticated cattle and survived in lands where man had not yet decreed that places could be enclosed and owned by an elite. Farming turned animals into commodities, killed for profit rather than as needed for a hunter’s sustenance. By changing natural habitats – building on wilderness, felling forests, over fishing oceans – a long trail of extinctions followed. The author posits that many so called civilisations have lost connection with the liminal spaces our ancestors sought to connect with. What became organised religion was once a respect for unknown but occasionally encountered forces rather than a belief in a deity.

“Out in the wild, or gazing up at the stars … I do not feel diminished. On the contrary, I feel appropriate, one instance of a particular species with its own way of being in the world”

The second essay looks further at extinctions and how those who act on their concerns come to be branded negatively, often criminalised. Politicians and business leaders focus on the economy, ignoring the wide variety of damage industrialisation causes. The author reminds us that the ‘economic health of entire societies is measured according to the market value of its richest members’. The degradation of land, and the removal of freedoms afforded in wilder spaces, has left people ‘greedy, anxious, less spontaneous’.

Interesting asides include the way nature has recolonised the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, now ‘lush, diverse and swarming with animal, bird and insect life’.

“normal human activities associated with agrarian society are more destructive than the world’s worst nuclear meltdown”

There are further reminders that habitat changes result in displacement, that land should not be viewed primarily as a profitable resource.

“Land ownership inevitably leads, first to the denaturing of place and, second, to the basic conditions for social injustice. If one person has the right to enclose, develop or colonise an area, then others are not only excluded from its use, but also coerced into a position where their relationship to the land quickly becomes distorted.”

The penultimate essay, Auks, includes the always distressing account of how the Great Auk was systematically slaughtered to extinction. This, along with commercial whaling, depicts man at his worst in so many ways. Much is made in historical accounts of holocausts and genocides – man killing man. How we treat our other fellow creatures says much about moral compass – so called humanity.

The final essay tells of the author’s recent near death experience when he caught Covid-19. Once recovered he found himself more attuned to the now, more connected and appreciative. He offers special thanks to the healthcare workers who saved him, noting that a pay rise would be a better way of expressing this than a nation’s halo making.

“Nobody can say that these people are as culpable as the CEOs and politicos who keep the extinction machinery running – they, at least, have chosen to work on the side of life”

Although grateful to be alive, the author accepts his mortality and rejects the entitled assumption that ‘the whole show belongs to us’. He posits that it is this attitude that will drive man towards his own extinction, and that other species will likely blossom and flourish in the ruins we leave behind.

The writing is persuasive with many points of interest raised. Little hope is offered for change given how entrenched man’s self-entitlement remains, the comforts enjoyed that cost so dearly. Nevertheless, those who understand and value nature’s ecosystem will recognise that we are merely one species among many. We know what we are doing and continue, making a mockery of any complaints we may raise at our systematic degradation of what is our life support system.

Never didactic but clear on the issues that deserve unadulterated consideration, this is recommended reading.

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

Book Review: Goshawk Summer

goshawk summer

“Ultimately, just how compatible are concepts such as commoners’ rights, unfettered public access and commercial logging, with the encouragement and protection of biodiversity?”

Goshawk Summer: A New Forest Season Unlike Any Other, by James Aldred, was written from field notes the author kept while filming a family of goshawks in the spring and summer of 2020. An experienced wildlife cameraman internationally, Aldred was happy to return to what had been his childhood stomping ground during the first lockdown. As the rest of the world retreated he was able to fully appreciate the creatures of the New Forest and how they behaved when freed from the invasions of people. And then lockdown ended and the public, restless from many weeks of confinement and with few other options, returned to the forest in barely manageable droves.

Aldred’s observations are measured and candid. He films with the help of New Forest Keepers who grant him access to areas where they know the various creatures he seeks are breeding. The author may grow exhausted from the 3am starts and days spent ankle deep in water but footage captured provides him with a new perspective on the forest – its visitors and inhabitants.

“Humans are sensory beings, we all want to feel alive to prove we’re not wasting our short time on this planet, and I find the best way to connect with the here and now is to step into trees and give myself over to the wonder, curiosity and joy that they evoke. They help remind me of who I am, where I’ve come from and where – ultimately – we are all going.”

The New Forest is very much a managed environment, even if now mostly aiming to conserve its biodiversity. There is much in this book on species under threat from multiple sources. Ground nesting birds can have their nests trodden on by careless walkers or disturbed by curious off the lead dogs. When numbers of a bird species decline, their ability to fight off predators as a team effort becomes less viable. Aldred does not focus entirely on goshawks through their breeding season. He also observes amongst other creatures: lapwings, a Dartford warbler, curlews, dragonflies, a family of foxes. He notes not just their behaviours but also the conditions they require to survive. People are an obvious threat to survival but certainly not the only one. For all its endearing beauty, this is nature and it is brutal. In rearing their chicks, goshawks must hunt for the food they require to grow.

“It’s almost impossible to identify most of the corpses that arrive on a goshawk nest, especially since the male usually plucks and butchers them beforehand. It’s like trying to recognise an animal from the inside out.”

To capture his required footage, the author sets up a hide in a tree, fifty feet above ground. On filming days he then brings in his expensive camera equipment, all without scaring away the subjects who are well aware of the dangers man poses. Adult goshawks are particularly wild and wary, and could choose to go elsewhere if a threat is deemed too great. Each arrival and departure must be carefully planned by Aldred to be minimally disruptive.

The forest during lockdown was alive with creatures venturing out where they would normally avoid. The author muses on how amazing this was while recognising his own invasion and the privilege of being there to observe. In the outside world there is fear of dying. The forest is also a scene of regular quietus.

“We tend to celebrate springtime as a joyous period of awakening, fecundity and new beginnings: the season of life. And so it is. But its easy to forget that springtime is defined by death just as much. The pressure placed on parents to bring back a never-ending supply of food results in nothing short of a seasonal killing spree. We just don’t tend to see it”

When lockdown is eased and visitors return, the killing of creatures on the busy roads is added to the more nature driven death toll. Many of the people arriving have little idea how to behave in the forest, risking barbecues on tinder dry surfaces, organising raves and leaving behind litter or other environmental damage. Locals grow incandescent with rage as verges are parked on. Fear of disease being imported leads to othering.

Just as many of the people arriving are not New Forest natives, neither are many of the creatures the author observes. Species of raptors that were once common have been hunted to extinction – many regarded them as vermin. Their cousins exist in the forest now thanks to reintroductions. Goshawks were returned in 2000 and appear to have established a foothold – at a cost to those they feed off.

“you have to accept that when you bring these things back – just like goshawks themselves – it will have an impact. But how do you know what’s the norm? … chuck a new species back into the mix it’s obvious others are going to suffer”

The author welcomes the greater variety of creatures and despairs of the species in decline. He ponders how much man should be doing to bring nature into line with whatever is currently perceived as desirable.

“I believe that a little space goes a long way and sometimes all we really need to do is take a step back to let nature do its thing. A helping hand is sometimes welcome, but to think that nature needs constant micromanaging smacks of hubris and to my mind simply reflects our generally elevated sense of self-importance.”

He returns to this theme when filming dragonflies that thrive in and around a mire.

“Dragonflies have lived in perfect harmony with the planet for [280 million years], while the way we treat it makes me sometimes wonder whether we are as sentient as we like to believe.”

Aldred’s knowledge and appreciation of his surroundings are inspiring and instructive. I was, however, somehow pulled up short when he described a visit to a couple who raise birds of prey in captivity. This is done for the purpose of training them to fly alongside a camera. The author states that these birds make regular appearances in David Attenborough documentaries. While much of the footage is skilfully captured wild animal behaviour, it appears some is staged – and this disappointed me.

Not that such revelations are a reflection on the book. It is simply another nugget shared by a man whose work brings life in the wild to a wider audience. If changes are to be made to protect the wild creatures, people must be made aware of the dangers modern developments pose. Goshawk Summer offers a fascinating window into the lives and habitats of many forest visitors and dwellers, and their complex interrelationships. Man doesn’t need to be banned from the benefits of existing alongside but rather to be educated in how to minimise the damage currently wreaked by rapacious usage.

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

Book Review: The Heeding

the heeding

The Heeding is a poignant and powerful poetry collection written by Rob Cowen and stunningly illustrated by Nick Hayes. It reflects on the year following the first COVID19 lockdown and will serve in the time to come as a reminder of when the world changed profoundly – how we lived lives altered in previously unimaginable ways. The poems capture the concerns and frustrations of families required to deal with the challenges of: house arrest, homeschooling, a ban on visiting their cared for elderly. It provides an evocative reminder that nobody will live forever.

“They are staring into a child’s eyes, wondering at the storm that’s coming.
How they might put themselves between what they love and everything”

The author is father to young children and his worries centre on them. He reflects on his own childhood and the lessons learned and valued from his parents and grandparents – often appreciated only in hindsight. He was taught to heed what was around him, particularly in nature. He now wishes to pass this valuable skill on to the next generation.

The poems have a depth that belies the ease with which they may be read. Incidents recounted are often everyday yet have an impact, a value, in the connections they engender.

Solidarity on a Saturday Night is a short poem about neighbours lighting up their backyards and somehow feeling together without the need to meet. This Allotment reflects on a humanity that is possible when people are accepting of difference in looks or creed – willing to offer practical advice and their labour along with excess produce.

“When heart-sore, I often wonder if this place is
secretly a model for what should be; how things could be,
were we not so preoccupied with property”

Last Breaths took my breath away, moving me to tears. It is a heartfelt account of a man in a nursing home, dying alone of this terrible plague. He remembers aspects of his life: war, a beloved wife outlived, a daughter who died in childhood, another now banned from seeing him – to keep him safe! The illustration that goes with this poem is perfect, as are so many here. The words brought home to me, perhaps for the first time, how my own father passed away last year – hand held by a nurse in PPE.

Another particularly poignant poem is Dennis, a man taunted relentlessly by local children whose casual cruelty makes their older selves squirm. The reason for his odd tics and behaviour is heartrending.

There are poems that describe encounters with birds and other creatures along with the Yorkshire landscape where the author lives. Nature is depicted as savage as well as beautiful, teeming with life but also death. There are reflections on more human concerns – failing businesses, history, politics, fearful unease.

“These cancelled birthdays.
These bans on being together.
These redundancies, uncertainties,
limits on impulse and joy,
on movement and autonomy.”

Black Ant highlights how we may try to save a tiny creature in difficulties, but will not tolerate those that threaten the structure or safety of our dwelling and family.

Pharmacy Cake brings home the loneliness of lockdown life for the elderly it was sold as designed to protect.

“This braving of sleet and virus;
this coddling of staff, is a way to treat a pain
more mangling, more unbelievably sore
than any of us are collecting prescriptions for.”

Viking Gold is a wonderfully evocative remembrance of a stern grandmother who, in the end, offered the author a window into all she had kept in check throughout her life, just before ‘her mind unspooled towards infancy.’

“Born of bleak moor and indoctrinated patriarchy;
the dark, meagre modesties of mill town terraces.
Be grateful for the least. Repent, repress
the sin of boastful joy; let your worries be endless
lest God give you, with a clout,
something proper to worry about.”

Lockdown, with all the mental baggage it has created, has certainly given the author much to worry about. He is scathing in his opinion of those who do not take the vaccine, especially those who spread fear about side-effects, branding them murderers. I pondered how many were living with such concerns and if this will change how they interact once guidelines are lifted.

Whatever views one ascribes to on this, the collection offers much to consider along with an appreciation of the natural world that continues to turn through the seasons however man is living within. I found this thought uplifting, that we too may choose to go on, perhaps still at risk but not allowing this to rob us of the joys to be found both in our back yards and beyond.

“Be kind. Forgive. Attend and heed.
Be strong, but lead with love not power.
Look for the universe inside the seed”

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

Book Review: What Willow Says

what willow says

“you don’t need ears to hear the trees, you only need to listen”

What Willow Says, by Lynn Buckle, tells the story of an artist grandmother and her hearing impaired granddaughter as they learn to communicate, aided by a mutual appreciation of nature. The granddaughter can lip read and grows increasingly adept at using sign language. The grandmother is doing her best to learn this latter skill. Their conversations mostly rely on a more primal understanding, on observation and resonance.

The story opens during a hot spell in summer. The girl wishes to play with other children in the neighbourhood. Some accept her, many do not. She is not averse to turning her deafness to advantage when opportunity arises. The grandmother admires her audacity. When alone the pair walk their locality as the seasons progress, seeking out untamed areas and sharing stories of time and place. Set in Ireland, these include many myths and legends – of flora, fauna, and the people they represent.

The child has a metal detector, the grandmother an art project she wishes to complete – ‘A Compendium of Native & Non-Native Trees of Ireland’, illustrations rather than a field guide. They collect their treasures on planned excursions. The child asks what sounds different trees make.

“All those years studying their structures, weights, and textures while missing their inherent languages. I do not know what the breeze brings through them or how their sounds differ”

The grandmother has known loss and is now eager to appreciate the unique abilities of her young charge, however much authorities may wish her to adapt herself to a prescribed ‘normality’. Medical professionals do not appear to understand that cochlear implants may provide improved hearing, but that the granddaughter would lose the world she now happily inhabits.

“Sometimes there is no one so deaf as a hearing person”

As the year progresses it is not just the child’s health care that unsettles. The grandmother receives a diagnosis that will be life changing for them both.

These bones of a story make for interesting and engaging reading but what raises the book to something special is the use of language, the evocation of the spirits inhabiting what some may regard as untidy spaces. There is both lyricism and the lightness of a dancer in the prose – what those who understand the discipline, as it interprets musical accompaniment, recognise as poise and strength to limn feeling and beauty. In music, the silences are as important as notes played.

Grandmother and granddaughter stand beneath tree canopies listening – to the leaves and branches, to the unseen root system that joins trees together. When felled, these roots remain to nourish new growth. It is a fitting comparison to the love and learning the elderly can offer a younger generation.

Although there is much beauty in the metaphors evoked, the author does not shy away from difficulties faced by the deaf community as they navigate a hearing world reluctant to pay attention. Neither does she avoid the subject of death – the lasting sense of loss, how those remaining must adapt to change.

In pulling these themes together amongst the imagery of trees, what seem human tragedies are granted perspective. The family story told is one of support and tenderness. The wider tale provides food for the soul that left this reader sated.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, époque press.

Book Review: The Spirit of the River

spirit of the river

“I don’t have to understand nature to appreciate it – to do that, I only have to look around me.”

The Spirit of the River, by Declan Murphy, is taglined A Quest for the Kingfisher. While the author’s desire to observe this beautiful bird is an important aspect of the unfolding tale, there is much more to explore and enjoy than his study of the habits of a single species. While searching for the kingfishers’ nesting site, he also finds the nesting sites of dippers and woodpeckers. His days by the river are filled with wonder as he moves between locations, noting the various birds’ behaviour along with that of other flora and fauna in their vicinity. Combined, they have made the river and its banks suitable for these creatures to mate and raise their offspring. There are also predators to watch out for. Over the months detailed, the birds – and the author – must deal with attacks that threaten their existence.

“In nature, there is always something that wants to eat you.”

The story is set in County Wicklow, Ireland. Much of the action takes place over a spring and summer. The narrative often reflects on how the author’s interest in nature was nurtured by his patient and loving parents and siblings. The youngest of four children, he has always got on better with wildlife than with people. He approaches his subject with a warm and childlike wonder. He has learned strategies for observing without upsetting the subjects in which he is most interested.

“the time spent looking and searching for any animal or plant is only part of the experience; the immersion of oneself in nature and its surroundings and the indulgence of the senses, is the reward for effort. I feel sorry for people who search unsuccessfully for a particular aspect of nature and feel the time was wasted.”  

In opening his tale, the author writes of nature’s patterns – mathematics – and nature’s movement – physics. The evolution of the natural world is as complex as the human brain; the interlinks within its ecosystem as little understood by man, who wreaks damage with his ill thought through invasions. The author considers all his studies to be opportunities to learn, noting when assumptions he has made prove incorrect. He recognises that while behaviours follow a pattern, much remains unforeseeable.

“Rivers are like people. They have different life stages, unpredictable moods and erratic personalities.”

The stretch of river he explores is one he has long been familiar with having returned to it year after year to observe its residents. This is his way of coping with life and its inherent challenges. Although describing himself as sociable, he finds human behaviour is too often baffling. The creatures at the river live in ways that make more sense.

“What was left to see? At its simplest, I watched because I enjoyed being part of their world – theirs and every other creature that shared it with me. There was always something new to learn”

The writing employs a gentle cadence with observations intricately explained while maintaining the excitement of what is happening and what this foretells. The sinuous dance steps of the birds’ behaviour bring forth new life and aid survival. Their actions prove endlessly fascinating to anyone willing to pay attention.

This is a book filled with wonder, acknowledging the dark times but always moving forward – the only direction possible in life, whatever one’s species. In reading it feels like walking alongside the author as he pursues his quest for the kingfisher. Although he writes that he does not understand those who lack the curiosity to find out more about natural habitats, prior knowledge is not necessary to enjoy what he shares here. 

A glorious meditation on nature filled with detail and appreciation. A soul enriching and recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, The Lilliput Press.

Book Review: Gone

“Never underestimate mankind’s capacity for mindless destruction.”

In recent months I have read several articles in the mainstream media that suggest human fertility could make reproduction difficult within a generation (e.g. here). Having read Gone, by Michael Blencowe, it is hard to mourn this potential issue. Throughout his existence man has been a scourge on our amazing planet, wiping out entire populations of his fellow creatures seemingly without caring about the carnage and suffering thereby caused.

The book is divided into eleven chapters, each focusing on a species that is now extinct, often because man discovered it existed. The creatures were slaughtered: for food, for wealth, for science. Where their natural habitat contained no predators, man’s arrival introduced them. Although often passing through – seeking food and trophies – if man stayed then his desire for settlement and agricultural land further destroyed ecosystems that had previously supported healthy populations of diverse wildlife. If money could be made this was regarded as reason enough for decimation.

The supposed great naturalists of past centuries, whose interest in science was lauded as a step forward in human understanding, were often culprits in destroying that which they studied.

“Like any great naturalist of his era, he carried with him the two qualities required for such an expedition: an enquiring mind and a big gun.”

Chapter One explains how thriving colonies of great auks were wiped out. The account is horrific and heartbreaking. Subsequent chapters continue in this vein proving that extinction was not a concern if riches and renown could be obtained. A good number of natural history museums around the world were founded on collections created by zoologists and other wealthy scientists, from specimens brought to them by bounty hunters. All that is left now of many magnificent species is skin and bones stored in drawers and display cases.

As well as travelling to the last known habitats of extinct species, the author visits the museums that hold what remains of them. He talks to the curators and is granted access to rare body parts, learning more about their history and the species’ demise.

“I look again to the animals whose lives I had followed and with whom I had felt an unexpected affinity. But all I see now are bones, feathers and fur, the sad remains of the worlds extinct creatures, taxidermy testaments to the havoc we have wreaked upon the world.”

The writing style makes this an easy book to read; the subject matter is harder to digest. Beautiful and evocative illustrations of the eleven creatures focused on – artwork by Jade They – help bring to life what has been lost. It is a cry to do better.

 “On 6 May 2019, scientists from the United Nations gathered in Paris to announce the findings of a global study on biodiversity, concluding that 1 million of the world’s estimated 8 million species now face extinction, many within decades.”

“The driving forces behind these extinctions are changes in land and sea use, hunting and poaching, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species.”

It seems that man has learned nothing from his past wanton destruction – and continues apace.

Although upsetting to consider, if a book such as this can touch readers and drive a change of attitude it will have served its purpose. Sadly, I question if mankind is intelligent enough to fathom fully how this planet – our life support system – is being damaged by our actions. Unlike many of the creatures we have driven to extinction – peaceful and curious, unable to comprehend the danger posed by man – we have some awareness, yet continue.

Will we be willing to change how we behave when to do so may make our day to day lives less congenial? An evocative, disturbing, recommended read.

sea cow

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Leaping Hare Press.

Book Review: Fifty Words for Snow

Fifty Words for Snow, by Nancy Campbell, is a beautifully produced book containing an eclectic mix of history, myth and anecdote. Structured into fifty short chapters, each preceded by an illustration of a snowflake, the author travels the world to explore how snow has impacted the lives of diverse cultures. She digs into the etymology of indigenous languages as well as musing on how incomers have shaped changes in vocabulary. While there are many references to climate change, the narrative avoids polemic.

The transformative powers of snow are wide ranging. Within the varied chapters the author looks at a snowfall’s sound, shape, texture and colour. She explains where and why phenomena happen and how, over time, people have adapted to the challenges wrought. Also included are the fun side of snow – from the origins of skiing and snowboarding to the joy to be garnered from creating a snow angel.

“This time, the marks we humans leave behind will last only as long as the snow itself”

Many landscapes around the world have been carved by glaciers. Snow can bring forth life but also cause death due to factors such as cold and avalanche. Readers will learn of: a mountain that has never been climbed, the rules of using an ice road in Estonia, where snow may be found in Hawaii, how a snow shower inspired the building of a basilica. There are also details on how to build an igloo and on how an arctic whale hunters ship was traditionally constructed. Snow can be a shroud, a playground or provide shelter. It is a source of life giving water and an inspiration for art.

The text is blue on white, the illustrations white on blue. These aesthetics are notable and fitting, adding to the pleasure of perusal. This is a book that may best be enjoyed by dipping into rather than read in a lengthy sitting. It contains much of interest without going into great detail.

A reminder that natural phenomena should be respected, often defying attempts by man to exert control. A light yet informative look at snow’s influence. A gentle warning of the damage caused when nature’s cycle is eroded.

Fifty Words for Snow is published by Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: Greensmith

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

In amongst her other work, Aliya Whiteley has published an impressive number of novels. She first came to my attention when I read The Arrival of Missives and realised she produced original stories in a style I wanted to read more of. Her writing is playful and imaginative, mind bending and intoxicating. Her characters defy stereotypes yet remain ordinary alongside the various features that make them extraordinary.

Greensmith opens with an introduction to its protagonist, Penelope Greensmith, in the form of an online dating profile. We learn that she is a scientist in her fifties who is now somewhat lonely. A war is mentioned, one that caused her to flee to a remote cottage with her life’s work. She collects and catalogues seeds, building a flower bank that includes many species which may now be extinct. The Collection was started by her late father, who raised her following the death of his wife. Penelope’s grown up daughter, Lily, does not share her mother’s passion for the ongoing project.

With a basic background in place, plot gathers pace when a stranger, Hort, arrives unexpectedly in Penelope’s cottage garden. He wishes to talk to her about her Collection and the device used to prepare the seeds for storage – named the Vice. Although wary at first, the thought of the online dating app reminds Penelope she was looking for greater connection with the world beyond her current existence. When news of a virulent plague reaches her, one that is killing all plant life across the globe, she must decide on her future.

When considering life and its preservation, man has a habit of focusing on himself and, perhaps, other mammals. Yet all living creatures rely on plants for air and sustenance. If the plants die suddenly – in this case coating the world in green sludge – it will not take long for every other life form to expire.

It turns out that Hort is an inter-galactic traveller looking for a solution to the virus that is affecting many planets, not just Earth. He asks Penelope to become his companion – bringing along her Vice and Collection – to try to save her world. Hort is persuasive, and Penelope rather likes the idea of becoming a hero.

So, Greensmith is science-fiction. This requires a degree of world building, or should I say universe building, which the author tackles with a hefty dollop of humour. She gets around some tricky concepts by pointing out the limitations of language. How, after all, can something be accurately and fully described in English when nothing like it has ever been seen or experienced by any English speaking people?

The human brain has a habit of anthropomorphising – it sees shapes in clouds, faces on tree trunks or such items as potatoes. When confronted with beings and situations beyond her comprehension, Penelope copes by seeing them as something she can recognise and name – she is, after all, an expert in cataloguing. Her first aliens, other than Hort, are flamencos. She views their antagonists as lizards dressed in armour, knowing they look different to beings from other worlds who will define by their own standards.

Hort is harder to pin down. Attractive and enigmatic, reservations hover around his trustworthiness. Having left Earth with him, however, Penelope has little choice but to follow his lead. The one thing she will not give him free rein over is her Vice and Collection. Hort struggles to understand how he is not unquestionably her handsome hero in the film he creates of his actions and subsequent memories.

As plot is developed and progressed, the author’s writing style comes into its own. Each diversion offered is a delight as well as a further layer in the quirky world building. Penelope never loses sight of her goal – to save planet Earth and thereby her daughter. What she comes to realise is how insignificant one time and place is in the scale of the universe – yet how important the smallest thing can be in making life worth preserving.

“when the largest things made no sense, relief could reside in the smallest objects, the ones that needed so badly to be cherished, instead.”

The denouement ties up threads with aplomb, leaving a sense of satisfaction without compromising all that has gone before.

Any Cop?: This is a tale that is clever yet lightly rendered, offering much to consider within a universe created from witty concepts playing with recognisable features. It is science fiction that focuses on the fun side of storytelling, with a hat tip to how astonishing our natural world is. A timely yet always entertaining reminder that Earth deserves wider protection – not management – for the good of us all.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Secret Life of Fungi

“fungi are all over us, around us, and in us, so this is not a world we can choose to ignore, or escape, because it’s their space just as much as it’s ours”

The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries from a Hidden World, by Aliya Whiteley, is a work of non fiction that reads like a series of short vignettes. It enables the author to share her lifelong interest in these extraordinary organisms, which many of us take for granted without considering their wonder. The love of her subject shines through the factual, fascinating and often playful prose. It is a book that could change readers’ perception of what exists all around them, wherever they are, in or out of the natural world.

Short chapters offer nuggets that remind how amazing nature remains, despite how it has been plundered. Take, for example, Pilobolus crystallinus, the spores of which are jettisoned from the dung heap where they feast at an acceleration equivalent to 20,000G (a bullet is fired from a shotgun at an acceleration of roughly 9000G).

“this spore release is one of the most powerful forces in nature”

A living specimen of Armillaria ostoyae in the Malheur National Forest, Oregon, has an underground network estimated to stretch for 965 hectares – you could fit 110,000 blue whales within it (although I don’t expect they would be happy with this arrangement). The fungi is a vampire, killing the trees it feasts on. It is also, for no discernable reason, bioluminescent. As the author writes, imagine coming across that in a dark forest at night…

Fungi grow in every possible environment: underground, on icy tundras, from Stonehenge to the International Space Station. Fungal spores can be carried in the wind, some causing illness such as coccidioidomycosis (Valley Fever), which can be fatal – invading its host until eventually (without treatment) vital organs fail. And yet, for every deadly variety there are others necessary for life as we know it.

There are also, of course, the many varieties that are tasty to eat and pleasingly nutritious – although don’t forage unless you know what you’re doing.

The author offers up many interesting facts and musings. Fungi can: bring down a giant ants’ nest; help the depressed or those facing death; aid decomposition of a plethora of substances, including plastic. Without fungi, there would be no orchids.

As we approach the fifth mass extinction on our planet it is worth remembering that fungi have survived and thrived. They are amazing opportunists, growing with equal enthusiasm in graveyards and volcanic ash as in woods, fields or when cultivated.

“We are insignificant as individuals, even as a species. If we were to disappear tomorrow, we would not be missed for long, if at all. The cathedrals might stand for a while, as stones do. The microbes will remain in motion and the light of the stars will still shine.”

The writing flows and engages, making clear why the author has developed and retained her interest in these wondrous organisms that grow and then die back so quickly and reliably. I challenge any reader to finish this book without immediately wanting to go outside and look more closely at the fungi growing where the natural world has not yet been sanitised.

“We are not the giants of this world, but the caretakers.”

“Let’s all go on a long walk and replace words with experience. Let’s go now.”

 
Photos taken by Jackie

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

Book Review: Into the Tangled Bank

“Honestly, there are times when nature seems to be taking the piss.
‘Here you go – have something of unfathomable beauty. Here’s another. And another. Careful not to faint.'”

Into the Tangled Bank, by Lev Parikian, follows the author as he contemplates the natural world around him as it gets on with its business of living, everywhere. He starts on the pavement outside his home in South London. Alongside the traffic and urban debris are: plants, butterflies, birds and other creatures. The reader is reminded that they too are part of nature and it is not necessary to visit a specialist reserve to observe the wonder of ecosystems.

Later in the book such reserves are visited. The author also journeys to the homes and gardens (some covering many acres) of key figures from history who shared observations of their surroundings – local and further afield – with the wider public through scientific and artistic endeavours.

First though, what is alive – and not always welcome – within homes is investigated. Efforts may be made to eradicate supposed invaders such as flies, wasps or spiders but it is pointed out that they serve a useful purpose. They are also amazing when form and habits are closely observed.

The author’s garden and local woodland are explored. The author contemplates a Perfectly Normal Tree. He also muses on how others experience place and its features.

“When we see someone looking at a tree, we have no way of knowing what’s going on in their heads. Maybe they’re silently composing poetry; perhaps they’re wondering if they left the iron on; or they might just be thinking about the deliciousness of really good chips. It is, and should remain, a mystery. But sometimes the Thomas Bewicks and John Clares of the world see fit to record their reaction in the form of art, and that in turn affects people in different and unknowable ways.”

Encounters with people are included in contemplations. Some are chatty; others appear unmoved by what is around them. One lady, on a boat trip to view eagles, is loud and excitable – an irritation to others or a reminder that what is being observed is worth getting excited about? This is better, perhaps, than the parents hurrying children away from their encounters with the creatures they were brought to observe, enjoy, and now wish to linger with.

The text is informative but also personal with many footnotes offering elucidation along with self-deprecating humour. Birds are of particular interest and the reader is reminded that it is not just the unusual that should be sought for admiration. One anecdote shared is when bird-watchers in China rushed to view a visiting robin – a rarity there.

“a vivid reminder not to take commonplace for granted, to look at normal more closely, to appreciate the magic of the everyday.”

The author does not consider himself an expert, pointing out that information can be readily gleaned from books and the myriad of online resources available. What he urges is that readers take time to observe, wherever they may be.

Towards the end of the book Parikian turns his gaze upwards. He visits a Dark Skies observatory and is overwhelmed by the vastness of outer space. What this does offer, though, is perspective.

There are cautions against man’s habit of anthropomorphising – attributing reactions to how we would feel. The author also advises against expecting the constant action depicted in televised nature programmes. Nature does not perform for man’s benefit but rather as is necessary for continued survival.

This is a gently structured, affable study that takes the reader ‘from the kitchen sink to the cosmic void’ via museums, zoos and what now passes as wilderness. It provides a reminder that all are connected and everyday actions are truly fascinating. Informative, well written and interesting – an entertaining and uplifting read.

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