Reviewed by Liz Dexter
Nick Baker is a well-known naturalist, writer and broadcaster, whose work here, described by the publisher as a memoir of sorts’ but really very different from a memoir, aims to help the curious and well-intentioned person who is keen to get closer to nature but is not sure how to do it.
Baker does lift episodes from his childhood and also his work encouraging groups to experience the natural world (whether that’s getting children to walk barefoot in the mud or OAPs to lie down in the long grass) to help explain and give examples of what people can do and what we’re capable of; but much of the book is very practical, designed to help us get closer to nature ourselves.
The book gives practical tools and tips for how to, for example, navigate a moonlit walk (did you know how long it takes your eyes to adjust to the dark?) or walk more quietly (not necessarily barefoot), backing it up with his own examples (watching badgers and being surprised by a Masai tracker creeping up on him, respectively) and also the science behind it (rods and cones explain why it takes your eyes that long, and the bare foot has many nerves and receptors).
It’s ordered by sense, starting off with vision but also taking in smell and taste, although here he’s quick to point out that we need to be careful when tasting or touching plants, however innocuous they might appear. He makes it very clear that these skills are not special ones that we need to learn, but innate abilities we simply need to relearn; that our bodies and brains are set up to be able to do this stuff. Starting off with slowing down and looking around us, he takes us through exactly how to walk as quietly as possible, how to get your ear in, the best time for smells … really good, solid information which is very inspiring and works from the easiest thing to do (for example, lying down on your own lawn and looking at insects) to more ambitious ideas (solo midnight walks so there’s no one around you rustling or suddenly turning a torch on). He also interestingly points out that this can be considered as part of the mindfulness that is all the rage at the moment.
Baker also talks about the wider meaning of ‘rewilding’ – introducing high-order carnivores back into ecosystems and trying to join up the relatively small areas of national parks into larger wildlife corridors. Early on in the book, he explains how adding wolves back into the Yellowstone National Park cut down the predominance of deer, allowing plants to recover once they weren’t being stepped on, which promoted insect and then bird life. When he’s explaining these concepts, he’s both passionate and clear, while always bearing in mind that people need to work together in small ways to embrace the wild themselves before they’re ready to think about this kind of re-introduction. Planting some native species in your garden or building a pond and introducing some frogspawn is thus on a continuum that leads up to these bigger projects but can get more people on board.
The author is refreshingly honest about his own life and misadventures, admitting early that he used to be afraid of a particular (not very scary) species and near the end talking about both the healing power of nature, using his own family trauma as an example (this did feel a tiny bit forced, as if he was encouraged to bring in personal upset, although it makes a good point, and there is an interest in this kind of thing in memoir/nature writing) and also talking about how when he gets worried that he’s the only person who cares about pollution and people getting further from nature, immersing himself in watching a simple garden bird can really help (this feels more natural, so to speak).
In the end, Baker puts in a strong claim for the idea that real experiences, listening to a bird sing, watching it, outdoors, with the smells of nature around us, are going to be more satisfying than the synapse patterns involved in computer games or getting a bargain on an auction website, as they tap into older networks that lie dormant but can be used again.
Although he mentions near the end that this is a book for people who are really not sure what to do, put off by jargon and experts, I think it would also appeal to birdwatchers (like me) or ramblers who are already used to sitting still and watching and being, adding lots of really great and appealing techniques to whatever we have come up with on our own. It’s very accessible and readable, not too sciencey or too over-personal: a recommended read for sure.
Liz Dexter, who blogs at Adventures in Reading, Writing and Working from Home is definitely going to try a moonlit nature walk one day, although she’s not doing it alone and will be accompanied by her husband, however rustly he might be in his waterproof birdwatching trousers.
Nick Baker, ReWild: The Art of Returning to Nature (Aurum Press, 2017). 978-1781316559, 271 pp., hardback.
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