Orchard: A Year in England’s Eden by Benedict Macdonald & Nicholas Gates

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

Bristol friends and BBC colleagues Ben Macdonald and Nick Gates set out to chronicle a year in the life of a traditional Herefordshire orchard that has been managed differently from the industrial norm. Operations are designed to maximize wildlife as well as production, so the orchard has become a bastion for birds and insects. In a culture “obsessed with tidiness,” Gates notes, a place where deadwood is left in situ for invertebrates bucks the trend and provides much more habitat. The bad news is that 90% of traditional orchards have been lost since the 1950s. “These days, the ramshackle beauty of wild English fruit groves is now a rare sight indeed.” The good news, though, is that orchards like the one spotlighted in this enthusiastic, lyrical nature book are a successful model of another way of doing things.

After a brief history of apple cultivation and orchard design, it’s straight into a month-by-month rundown of what can be seen and heard on this particular patch. For the most part, the co-authors trade off chapters. They observe and describe the kinds of behaviours that most of us never get to see, like a bumblebee queen taking over an old mouse nest and great-spotted woodpeckers temporarily turning carnivorous and feeding blue tits to their chicks. They find hoverflies that have been eaten from the inside by a zombie fungus (seriously! for more, read the Wainwright Prize-winning Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake). A process of elimination indicates that it is a pair of goshawks that have been killing wood pigeons and pheasants. Slow worms, orange-tip butterflies, and mistle thrushes are regular sightings.

Every bit of this ecosystem is connected, and the wrong management has cascade effects. Orchards that spray pesticides don’t get as many insects, and therefore not as many birds – which would have eaten the pest insects for free. Needless cutting of hedgerows, likewise, reduces biodiversity and incurs unnecessary work and costs. Much of my natural history reading of the last year or so – On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester, Silent Earth by Dave Goulson, Deeper into the Wood by Ruth Pavey, Wilding by Isabella Tree – has reinforced these points. What is best for nature is often best for us, too. All too often, we don’t have the imagination to break from the status quo and think about wildlife’s simple needs.

As autumn drew in, I particularly enjoyed reading about spiders and bats, and perry-making, respectively, in the September and October chapters. But there are natural marvels to celebrate in each month. For instance, Macdonald fetes May as “the fizzing month, the bursting month, the blossom-frothing month” when “Britain regains its three-dimensional verdure. … New melodies ambush the rusty listener, who hasn’t heard them in eight long months. The dense blackthorns develop a mechanical, sewing-machine chatter: the lesser whitethroat is back in its favourite hedge.”

A central section of remarkable photographs, some of them by the authors, illustrates the year as vividly as the passionate prose. My only complaint would be the frequent dangling modifiers and incorrect use of semicolons, but that’s just me being pedantic. I marginally preferred Gates’s writing to Macdonald’s, but would gladly read more work from either author. Macdonald won the 2020 Wainwright Prize for Writing on Global Conservation for his book Rebirding and has a new book entitled Cornerstones: Wild Forces that Can Change Our World coming out in 2022. Orchard won the 2020 Richard Jefferies Award for outstanding nature writing.

Almost the most striking thing about the orchard is that this entire microcosm grew up in less than a century: most of its trees were planted after 1930. It might seem late in the game to plant more traditional orchards now, but as Martin Luther is recorded to have said, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” It’s never too late to reduce the damaging impact of industrial agricultural practices. Nature bounces back quickly if we will only give it the chance.

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Rebecca Foster is a freelance proofreader and book reviewer from Maryland, USA. She writes for the Times Literary Supplement and Wasafiri literary magazine, among other publications, and blogs at Bookish Beck. She loves watching birds and picking apples and pears in her own garden.

Benedict Macdonald and Nicholas Gates, Orchard: A Year in England’s Eden (William Collins: London, 2021). 978-0008333768, 256 pp., paperback.

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