By Rebecca Foster
The Stubborn Light of Things collects five and a half years’ worth of Melissa Harrison’s monthly Nature Notebook columns for The Times. The book falls into two rough halves, “City” and “Country”: initially based in South London, Harrison moved to the Suffolk countryside in late 2017. For the first three or so years of her entries, then, she’s very much an urban nature watcher, having to try that little bit harder to see the signs of the seasons. “I needed to retune my eyes (and my other senses) to notice how much life there actually was around me,” she writes. One thing that helped was adopting a rescue dog, Scout, and looking for the city’s hidden green spaces as places to exercise her.
In the grand tradition of Gilbert White, Harrison records when she sees her firsts of a year: the first butterfly of a spring, hawthorn blossom, the first swift of a summer, hedgerows full of ripe blackberries, and a first frost. Often, she need look no further than her own home and garden to identify spiders and observe bird behaviour. She expresses frustration that people are not properly valuing nature: yet another neighbour replaces their front garden with tidy paving or gravel (whereas nature “needs untidiness in order to flourish”), and the Oxford University Press’s Junior Dictionary replaces some wildlife words with ones related to technology and celebrities (the impetus for Robert Macfarlane’s The Lost Words project).
I particularly appreciated how hands-on and practical Harrison is. She’s always picking up dead animals to clean up and display the skeletons, and she never misses an opportunity to tell readers about ways they can create habitat for wildlife (e.g. bat and bird nest boxes that can be incorporated into buildings) and get involved in citizen science projects like moth recording. It’s by engaging with nature close to home that people can develop the collective passion that can actually effect change: “connecting with and defending our ‘home patches’ is a powerful way to protect the environment – more powerful, perhaps, than inciting guilt about far-off destruction that most of us feel, rightly or wrongly, we can’t do much about.”
It’s a beautifully produced book, with a riot of colour on the hardback and the half-jacket adding just a partial overlay of human civilisation. There are also lovely woodcut-style black-and-white illustrations by Joanna Lisowiec. The final two entries are set during the UK’s first COVID-19 lockdown. Spring 2020 was a notably fine one, and as in Harrison’s second novel, At Hawthorn Time, the splendour of the spring seemed like a foil for the uncertainty and tragedy of human life. “I find it immensely comforting to sense the seasons’ ancient rhythm, altered but as yet uninterrupted, pulsing slow beneath our human lives,” she notes.
This contrast between human existence turned upside down and nature as normal – or better than normal – fuels The Consolation of Nature, a tripartite diary of the coronavirus spring kept by three veteran nature writers, Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren, all of them familiar to me through their involvement with New Networks for Nature and its annual Nature Matters conferences. I’ve also read a book each by McCarthy and Marren: the one about species loss in general and the other about the British love for butterflies. All three are based in southern England: McCarthy in Richmond, with Kew Gardens on his doorstep; Mynott in a rural village in West Suffolk; and Marren in Ramsbury, in Wiltshire’s Kennet River valley (not far from my neck of the woods).
The entries, of a similar length to Harrison’s, are grouped into chronological chapters from 21 March to 31 May. While the authors focus in these 10 weeks on their wildlife sightings – red kites, kestrels, bluebells, fungal fairy rings and much more – they also log government advice and death tolls. There was something uncanny about reading about such recent history; I lived through it, and not so long ago, and yet there is so much I’ve forgotten already.
The authors achieve an ideal balance between current events and the timelessness of nature, enjoyed all the more in 2020’s unprecedented spring because of a dearth of traffic noise. Although McCarthy is sad not to be able to tramp the Royal Botanic Gardens, he soon notices the extreme reduction in planes going over on the way to Heathrow. Mynott is the most hardcore birdwatcher, while Marren is the most likely to mention insects and wildflowers.
All three, though, have their eyes open to all of the life around them, and are keen to warn of what will be lost when the country returns to business as usual – especially the silence in which to appreciate nature. “All very well to sing of ‘England’s green and pleasant land’, but look more closely at it. There is much less of it to celebrate” than in previous centuries, Mynott remarks. Marren adds, “progress and conservation are in permanent collision, and always will be.” Yet the coronavirus spring was, McCarthy hopes, “a great global reminder … that we have nearly reached the point of no return in our destruction of the natural world”.
This collection of short writing from three top-notch nature writers is a treat. Like Harrison’s nature notes, it would make a perfect Christmas gift for outdoorsy types, and a perfect bedside book for reading along with the English seasons into a new year.
A freelance proofreader and book reviewer, Rebecca Foster writes for BookBrowse, Bookmarks, the TLS and Wasafiri, and blogs at Bookish Beck. From her office window, she watches the seasons come to the Newbury stretch of the Kennet & Avon canal.
Melissa Harrison, The Stubborn Light of Things: A Nature Diary (Faber & Faber, 2020). 978-0571363506, 224 pp., hardback. BUY at Blackwell’s
Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren, The Consolation of Nature: Spring in the Time of Coronavirus (Hodder Studio, 2020). 978-1529349153, 240 pp.,hardback. BUY at Blackwell’s