Review by Liz Dexter
Lev Parikian is a conductor and, more recently, a birdwatcher, and you might have seen or read his book on birds, Why do Birds Suddenly Disappear? which was published on Unbound, so it’s nice to see he’s found a traditional publisher for this one. This is a very pretty and enticing book with a lovely cover which includes birds, butterflies, insects, plants and a … crisp packet, because it’s essentially a book about British people’s relationship with nature.
The British people of whom he speaks include himself and other serious hobbyists, experts, guides, the general public and a few nature writers from the past whose homes he can visit. This aspect of the book doesn’t overwhelm it, though – he visits Charles Darwin’s house and has a look at the more quirky parts of it where he experimented with seeing how much soil earthworms turn over, for example.
The book takes an interesting trajectory, as he puts it, and chapter by chapter
… working my way from the urban and domestic, through the rarefied atmosphere of museums, out through zoos and nature reserves to the wild and untamed.
and he even bravely devotes the final main chapter to an exploration of space (seen from an observatory) which is quite a wide definition of “nature” but does work within the context of the book. Going back to the introduction, though, I loved his amiable and honest description of how he moved on from just being interested in birds to focusing on other animals, mammals, insects, trees and flowers. He introduces the first of a range of amusing footnotes here, too, which raised a smile as I worked my through the text from his garden to his patch and out into the wider world.
Along the way we meet a Perfectly Normal Tree (just a tree, why not look at one properly once in a while), a man he doesn’t expect to have that kind of a chat with, and he reminds us of the disadvantage of shiny, colourful nature programmes on the telly:
No matter how immersive and gripping these programmes are, they’re no substitute for getting out into the pissing rain in the vain expectation that the drab mudflat before you will yield something more dramatic than a distant and bedraggled shelduck.
I loved all these little truths about being a birdwatcher that the book is peppered with (it’s not only about birds, of course, but this is the hobby he’s had longest). It’s certainly true that all sets of binoculars should carry a notice with “Warning: Carrying these in public will induce passing strangers to ask if you’ve ‘seen anything interesting’”. There’s also the real meaning of some of the things birders say to each other. But among the amusement there’s a nice reference to the camaraderie, when someone runs back to tell him where a creature has been spotted
Something I also really liked was Parikian’s concentration on talking about female scientists, naturalists and photographers. This did stand out, emphasising that lots of people don’t do this, but it was very refreshing. He compares a woman photographer from the 1840s, Anna Atkins, with Emma Turner who worked in the 1920s and explains the techniques they used, and also fills in the background to the formation of the RSPB, created from two organisations run by women, who organised tea parties as a political activity after being excluded by the men of the British Ornithologists’ Union, etc. Leading on from this, he also has some paragraphs about equality of access to nature after going on a boat trip with a load of middle-aged, white, bearded men, not overloading the book with this but praising the work of individuals who are agitating to change this (I would have liked some names and organisations but this in itself was different to many nature books).
With an index to help you along and a good structure, this is a lovely and attractive read that will hopefully appeal to the general reader as well as the nature-lover. He certainly approaches it from a true amateur viewpoint, with his tatty notebook and shock at the number of moths there are, and that makes it less intimidating and more approachable.
Liz Dexter has found it easier to admit to being a birdwatcher the older she’s got. Her favourite birds are jays, jackdaws, tree creepers and herons and she spotted a black woodpecker by simply deciding to sit in the guide’s car and read her Iris Murdoch book. She writes about reading and running at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com
Lev Parikian, Into the Tangled Bank (Elliott & Thompson, 2020). 978-1783965069, 280 pp., hardback.
BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)