Review by Liz Dexter
“For Japan’s lotus blossom, praying mantis and bear, we have bramble, wood louse and urban fox”
Lev Parikian, a writer, birdwatcher and conductor, had already started this project to map British nature against the 72 seasons of Japan (each about five days long) as news started to spread about a virus appearing in China. So it didn’t start as, but did turn into, a sort of coronavirus lockdown project, and we’ve seen a few of these lately, but this is very nicely done and certainly not all about the lockdown, or made difficult to read because of that aspect.
The book opens with an introduction to the way different cultures divide up the year – from the wet and dry seasons of the tropics through our four, the Sami of Lapland’s bridging periods of spring-winter, etc., to Japan’s four main seasons, each divided into six, each of those divided into three.
Each Japanese mini-season has its own name – which is where the title comes from – and a lot of the joy of the book comes from Parikian’s alternative British names for the sets of days. For example, the Japanese name for 9-13 February is “Bush warblers start singing in the mountains”, which Parikian replaces with “Dunnock song defies traffic noise”, and 2-6 July is “Crow-dipper sprouts” or, to him, “Lavender assumes massive proportions”.
So he starts with the beginning of (Japanese) spring, 4-8 February and shares his nature experiences through the year, finishing on 3 February. Although it’s not a calendar year start, it would be a nice process to read this through a year (starting anywhere in the book), and I think I will do that for a re-read. He shares his non-expert birdwatching, like me, keener to observe something changing and developing in his own “patch” than to rush around the country staring at some haphazard rarity, although he doesn’t eschew the rarer creature when it turns up nearby.
Lockdown does hit, and for him the worst effect is that the local cemetery he likes to observe in is closed to the public. He takes to walking around the outside, sadly peering in. He’s very much an urban nature-watcher, even more so than me, as he doesn’t seem to have any lakes nearby so doesn’t get to see different kinds of geese and the occasional seabird, so the cemetery is important to him and we feel his loss, and his joy when it’s reopened. He also finds nature in itself is sometimes not quite enough, but doing little projects with colours or shapes helps. But it’s not very much about that and more about the everyday of bird- and nature-watching:
“As I sit in quiet contemplation of the world’s woes, my eye is caught by a scattery movement. I’m familiar with scattery movements. They’re the bane of my life. Because once you’ve seen one you’re obliged by the laws of nature-watching to see where it takes you, and where it takes you is often peering into a mass of foliage waiting for it to repeat itself. So many missed sightings, an unending torrent of non-identifications.” (pp. 48-49)
Of course I learned things; did you know Flying Ant Day isn’t when the ants hatch, but when they mate? There are pleasing moments when the seasons coincide and he does indeed see some wagtails during the “Wagtails sing” season, and he’s great on the privilege of seeing tiny details, crows mobbing a hawk, a flower growing in a crack, without being mawkish or sentimental (and there is some death and decay and some worry about fledglings, but nothing too challenging in that regard). He acknowledges that this year of observation has given him more insight into his patch and into the human-constructed context and its interplay with nature, a lovely positive to draw from a time of constraint, and he states it has made the year more bearable.
As narrative non-fiction, this book has some explanatory footnotes but doesn’t need the academic referencing and index of some of the books I review here. It has the usual good quality of Elliott & Thompson’s books, and a lovely cover designed by Clover Robin. A lovely book, highly recommended, and readable in a number of different ways, too – a dip in, an all-in-one go or a season-by-season approach.
Liz spent lockdown observing birds and plants on her own local patch, a small park with a lake, and it saved her lockdown. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com
Lev Parikian, Light Rains Sometimes Fall: A British Year Through Japan’s 72 Seasons (Elliott & Thompson, 2021). 978-1783965779, 336 pp.
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