Book Review: Seek the Singing Fish

singing fish

“People could slash and seethe over who owned what chunk of land all they wanted but I understood it wasn’t theirs to begin with”

Seek the Singing Fish, by Roma Wells, tells the story of Artemila De Zilwa, a young Sri Lankan woman who grew up during the years of her country’s civil war. Told from her perspective, the experiences recounted are not for the faint-hearted. She addresses herself to Shi, ‘breath of life’, and describes the traumas she suffered as her ‘twisted voyage’. What we have here is an odyssey shadowed by the appalling cruelties man inflicts, even on his own kind – the commodification and destruction of lives by those seeking control.

Mila has a deep appreciation for and curiosity about the natural world. It is this that sustains through the many and varied aspects of situations inflicted on her. She compartmentalises memories, closing doors on some and opening others for comfort. The knowledge of creatures abilities and habits shared are fascinating – a highlight amidst the disturbing accounts of abuse and tragedy.

A prologue sets the scene for what is to come. Shi is told that Mila has a mangled face, disfigured by shrapnel – ‘I am beauty spoiled; Lanka corrupted.’ The first of the three parts into which the story is divided then covers her childhood.

Mila came from an intelligent and caring family. Her parents married for love, a choice that estranged them from their wider clans. She was closer to her father, an English professor who instilled in his young daughter a love of books and learning. He listened carefully to her and encouraged her interest in wildlife. Her mother favoured Mila’s little brother, Ravi. Both children appreciated the delicious food their mother could conjure from whatever ingredients were available.

The early pages explain the reasons why war raged all around. None were spared from the violence – the tit for tat torture and destruction. Mila’s father would talk to her in metaphors, trying to offer explanations for the madness of the conflict. Both he and his daughter understood that, despite the propaganda, more connected those fighting each other than divided.

“we look for differences in the Vedas, the Quram, the Bible and the Sutras when their ink runs with the same intent. After all, the very word religion means to bind in its Latin origin.”

As with so many in this time and place, grief soon fractures the family, each survivor dealing with the aftermath without support. They are then challenged by the devastation wreaked by a tsunami. The coming together of warring sides to cope and rebuild is short lived. Mila’s eyes are opened to the dark side of nature as well as its beauty.

Mila finds solace with an older friend made at a local market, and in caring for a stray dog. She meets Kai, a young fisherman orphaned and placed in the care of an alcoholic uncle.

“He reminded me of the elephants who’d undergone phajan, the training regimen used to beat and starve them into submission for the tourist industries.”

Their burgeoning love story is schismed by the war.

The second part of the book is set in London and offers yet another seriously disturbing aspect of human behaviour. Mila knows to keep her head down if she is to survive this life but is once again scarred by what she sees happening around her. For a time she works as a cleaner in a wealthy family’s home – invisible to them amidst their sterile surrounds.

“it was all for show; lifeless items to be admired but not touched. A gallery disguised as a house masquerading as a home.”

The third and final part of Mila’s story offers closure of sorts. There are elements of luck – timely coincidence – to achieve this. Nothing is sugar coated but this is, perhaps, the least satisfying of what is a desperately hard hitting account of man’s inhumanity.

Woven throughout the horrific descriptions of abuse are stunningly beautiful evocations of the natural world. Sitting alongside such challenges as living with PTSD, the Sri Lankan lagoons, even the parks of London, become oasis.

The language used to tell this tale is impressively rich but never cloying. Mila never asks for sympathy but rather seeks understanding.  While not always easy to consider man’s behaviour, there is much beauty to be found elsewhere when looked for. This story offers a metaphor for the lives we all must live – a way of coping.

A thought-provoking but always engaging tale interlaced with stunning imagery. For those able and willing to consider the myriad traumas of conflict, this is a recommended read.

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

Book Review: Light Rains Sometimes Fall

light rains

“There is more, much more. No matter how well you look, there will always be something else”

Light Rains Sometimes Fall, by Lev Parikian, is structured in 72 short chapters, each focusing on a micro-season from the ancient Japanese calendar. The author lives in suburban London and spent the few days that make up each season closely observing the gradual changes in bird, insect and plant activity within a few miles radius of his home. By visiting and revisiting the same sites repeatedly he experiences the wonders of nature as it has adapted to life in a city environment.

Parikian is interested and attentive but not an academic expert. His style of writing is enthusiastic and often self-deprecating. All of this makes what he documents and comments on both entertaining and accessible. Buoyed by his optimistic approach to the wildlife he encounters, readers may well find themselves wanting to get out around their own neighbourhoods to also ‘look, look again, look better’.

The first season covers 4-8 February which Japan notes as the beginning of spring. In London, spring is still some weeks away. What we get here is the author introducing the areas he will be observing. This includes: his own back garden and those of neighbours, the streets he traverses, and a large cemetery that will provide many of his most exciting encounters.

As well as describing the creatures as they go about their daily business, there is commentary on habitat and how more nature respecting residents have adapted to the presence of people. There is wonder at the industry of birds, at their vocalisations, along with acceptance of the necessary deaths that occur to provide food and enable continuation of each species. Parikian notes that humans tend to have favourites, willing the fluffy chicks to survive while cheering the deaths of certain ‘nuisance’ insects.

What comes through clearly is the wonderment of all that happens yet goes unseen by many – the unfurling of leaves, the intricacies of nest building or web spinning, the global migrations. Readers are urged not just to look up or down at the obviously amazing but to look closely at all plants and the creatures that inhabit them, however ubiquitous they may seem.

“I do this occasionally, looking at something as if for the first time. It’s a way of finding beauty and interest in the mundane, learning to appreciate the things that form the backdrop to everyday life.”

The book was started in 2020, a year that became like no other, for humans at least. The author’s observations are noted during permitted daily exercise when the distance he travelled was limited. While creating its own stresses, for the purposes of this project the new rules provided a need to focus on an even smaller area than was perhaps first envisaged. There is still much to see.

“if you’re not interested, you can easily go through life without being aware of the microscopic universe around us”

For those who pause to listen there is rarely silence, even when much remains hidden. Behind the noise made by traffic and power tools there is birdsong and a good deal of raucous behaviour. The author seeks out areas where nature has been allowed to proliferate – not tidied by people intent on their own comfort and desired aesthetics. Wild creatures are sensibly wary of a killer species.

“I wonder, too, at the human instinct, when faced with something we perceive as a threat or a pest or just something that’s in our way, to destroy it”

I read this book slowly, taking many breaks to go outside and look at my own area. It is a rich and joyous account of not just the beauty that occurs briefly and grabs everyone’s attention – the special treats – but also the ‘wallpaper’ we may wander past without noticing. The author rejoices when he spots a rare visitor above his garden but also appreciates the intricacies and interdependencies of the regular residents.

An enjoyable new way of looking at the annual lifecycle of a locality, the bitesize chunks offering much to savour. The author’s enthusiasm is infectious – in a way to be welcomed – his writing style knowledgeable but never pretentious.

This book will now sit on my coffee table as a reminder and reference. It has inspired me to observe and listen, to go outside and pay attention. I may not possess the author’s ability to differentiate between certain species, aurally or visually, but can still recognise how awesome nature is with its casual complexity and interdependencies.

This is a highly recommended read.

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

Book Review: The Gamekeeper

The Gamekeeper

“George Purse never killed anything for fun. He only killed to protect his pheasants, which were then killed by other people for fun.”

The Gamekeeper, by Barry Hines, follows a year in the life of George Purse, one of the gamekeepers working on a country estate in Yorkshire owned by a Duke. The lineage of this landed aristocrat could be traced back to William the Conqueror. The Yorkshire manor, moors and woodland in which this story is set make up his small estate, his larger one being located in Wiltshire. The place is meticulously maintained according to his wishes that he may enjoy part of the shooting season there with invited guests. He visits for only a few weeks each year.

George lives with his wife and two young sons in a cottage that comes with the job. It is set by the woodland in which he must work raising pheasants and protecting them from predators. He has been in this role for a decade having previously worked at the local steel plant. It is a hard life but still better than the alternatives.

“George Purse had always enjoyed being outside. When he left school there had been two choices. It was either the steel industry or the pit. Some lads chose the pit. George Purse chose steel … two more years of working shifts, of lifting boxes, of strained backs, of fierce heat, of metal burns. He took the gamekeeper’s job at half his previous pay.”

George is a conscientious keeper, carrying out tasks because that is what he is paid to do. This does not always make him popular locally. Hungry men become poachers but must still be deterred. The Duke’s land is not open access so children are to be scared away. George sets traps to kill the many wild creatures that would take the birds he raises. He shoots or poisons both land and avian predators. From time to time he can barter a favour from local residents with his catches. His family find the life they must lead lonely due to his job.

There are evocative descriptions of nature through the changing seasons but these are shadowed by the violent deaths meted out by a man in the service of a wealthy landowner. Over the course of the year George will provide for and protect the pheasants – from eggs to chicks to poults until finally they are shoot worthy. He battles disease and inclement weather to minimise losses he would be judged harshly for.

“Ascot week … It rained every day at the races. The thunder rolled, and the rain came down like rods. It rained every day in most places. Crops were flattened all over the country, and a river overflowed in the south-west. But it was the weather at a race meeting which made the headlines.”

Although a story that shines light on the work of a gamekeeper – and this is both informative and fascinating in the way it is told – at its heart is the unbridgeable divide between rich and poor. George recognises the absurdity of his hard work, how he labours day and night to keep pheasants alive that they may be shot from the skies by his employer. It is a job and he gets on with it, mostly stoically.

What he does complain of from time to time is when the wealthy claim they cannot afford to raise the standard of living for their employees. Wages remain depressed. Dwellings are maintained only minimally. He deplores that when they meet, the workers must kowtow to the landowners and their ilk.

“Some estates had contracts with exclusive London restaurants to provide a few brace for the evening of the 12th … some restaurants used to charter light aeroplanes in which to carry the birds from the moors … The cost was passed on to the customers, and they could afford to pay for it anyway.
And during the same period there was the General Strike, when miners stayed out for six months and were eventually starved back to work, and the Depression, with millions of people unemployed throughout the country.”

The author employs a neutrally descriptive tone in the narrative, yet still it overflows with the beauty of the natural world – and how it is thoughtlessly damaged by men who regard it as their personal and rightful playground. The grouse shoot and then pheasant shoot chronicled raise the important issue of why on earth such ‘sport’ is still allowed to happen. It made me angry this is accepted – and despairing that so little ever changes.

A powerfully understated account of a working man’s choices and the costs he must then pay – a story that resonates and will linger. This is country life stripped of its bucolic veneer.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, And Other Stories.

Book Review: Shalimar

shalimar

“I am not listening out for the same pitch or cadence, I am listening out, always acutely, to the differences. These, I know, tell me exactly where home is and all the spaces in between.”

Davina Quinlivan describes herself as of diverse cultural heritage. Her forebears are of Irish, Burmese, Portuguese and Indian descent. Within each ethnicity are other minglings as, throughout time, people have emigrated for work or safety, blending to create new identities. Her father was born in Rangoon but lived in England for most of his adult life. Davina was raised within a close, multi-generational family scattered around the West London area, being told the stories of her relatives’ early experiences in distant parts of the world that have since changed borders and names as colonisers secede. There has never been enough money for them to make return visits to those left behind.

Shalimar is a memoir that explores what the links between home and family mean. It opens with a defining incident in her father’s childhood, made all the more poignant as he has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Davina and her husband have been living with her parents for the past six years. They now decide to move away, to settle in their own place. Over the course of the stories being shared they move from London to Surrey, Berkshire, Hampshire and finally Devon. In the intervening years they have two children, and Davina’s father dies.

Grief, for someone with terminal cancer, begins before the actual death. Davina writes of denial, of running away from what she knows is inevitable, and of how she copes when it happens. Her life in London mostly revolved around the streets where she and her relatives lived. Once moved away she starts to use walking as a coping mechanism rather than a way to simply travel. She discovers the beauty and sensation of nature, the comfort to be found there.

“Even if you pull a tree out of the ground, its roots will have threaded through the other trees around it and will go on providing a scaffolding to the living systems it has dwelled within for years to come.”

Although there is obvious fondness and gratitude for the stability they offered, observations and anecdotes from wider family get togethers are entertaining and recognisable. Being related, especially through marriage, doesn’t necessarily mean being liked.

“In truth, there was a subtle history of unspoken tension between these two sides of my family, which followed them to England. Both families had known each other in India and Burma, but they were very different … These differences would manifest themselves at family gatherings, never openly admitted, but there in the way they interacted with each other. Everyone would be measuring each other’s behaviour.”

Many of the author’s musings focus on how a person is shaped not just by personal history but also by the histories of parents, and they by theirs’. In her children she recognises features they have inherited from both sides of their family. She ponders what they carry forward of her late father.

Quinlivan’s own experiences include the influence of aunts, uncles and grandparents. For example, she remembers, as a young child, being taught to swear in Burmese.

“Though a little blunt and inappropriate, it was a lesson really: in her own way, she was teaching me to be armoured, to be fierce.”

Davina may not have moved as far as her forbears to resettle but the new lands she encounters have similar issues. Ownership is asserted by the powerful not because of love of place but for the right to plunder its wealth. As she walks through fields and woodland she observes how everything eventually goes back to the earth or sea from whence it came. The great oak trees planted when ships were built from them remind her of the journeys her family made to get to England.

“this book is not my ship, it is my father’s, carrying my family safely within it, through all the little gaps in space and time.”

The prose in places is dreamlike and poetic. The grief the author feels is palpable. There is humour and love aplenty but what comes to the fore is how much a part of everything everything is. We are affected by an ecosystem whether or not we acknowledge it.

A hauntingly beautiful memoir that evokes the multiple layers that exist in people and place. An appreciation of life in its myriad incarnations.

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

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.