Two nature memoirs set in the New Forest: Goshawk Summer by James Aldred & The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell

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By Rebecca Foster

Two recent memoirs have shone a spotlight on the fauna and management strategies of the New Forest, a place my Hampshire-raised husband and I have often visited and of which I feel fond. One is a photographer’s account of the lockdown summer of 2020 spent filming goshawks and foxes, while the other chronicles a year of visits just before the pandemic. Both feature top-class nature writing – Neil Ansell was on the 2021 Wainwright Prize longlist, and I will be surprised if James Aldred isn’t nominated next year. Together, the books have sharpened my hankering to get back to the New Forest after some years away.

Goshawk Summer: A New Forest Season Unlike Any Other by James Aldred

James Aldred has won an Emmy Award and been nominated for multiple BAFTA/RTS awards for his wildlife camerawork for the BBC and National Geographic. He has collaborated with Sir David Attenborough on several programmes. His previous book is The Man Who Climbs Trees (2017), and there’s plenty of shinnying up trees in this one as well.

In March 2020, Aldred had recently returned from filming cheetahs in Kenya when the UK went into a first national lockdown. He had the good fortune to obtain a permit from Forestry England that allowed him to travel regularly from his home in Somerset to the New Forest, where he grew up, to gather footage for a wildlife documentary (the 60-minute New Forest: The Crown’s Hunting Ground, presented by Hugh Bonneville and made for Smithsonian Channel UK and Terra Mater Studios).

Zooming up on empty roads and staying in local cottages so he could set off at 4:00 each morning, he marvelled at the peace of a place when humans are taken out of the equation. His diary chronicles a few months of extraordinary wildlife encounters – not only with the goshawks across from whose nest he built a special treetop filming platform, but also with dragonflies, fox cubs, and rare birds like the cuckoo and Dartford warbler. 

The descriptions of animal behaviour are superb throughout, and the tone is well balanced: alongside the delight of nature watching is anger at human exploitation of the area after the end of lockdown, and despair at seemingly intractable declines – of 46 curlew pairs in the Forest, only three chicks survived the summer. 

Despite his woe at nest failures and needless roadkill, Aldred is optimistic that sites like the New Forest can be a model of how light-handed management might allow animals to flourish. “I believe that a little space goes a long way and sometimes all we really need to do is take a step back to let nature do its thing. … It is nature’s ability to help itself, to survive in spite of us in fact, that gives me tentative hope.”

The Circling Sky: On Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest by Neil Ansell

Like Aldred, Neil Ansell grew up near the New Forest. On Remembrance Sunday 1966, though, his family home burned down when a spark from a central heating wire sent the insulation up in flames. He can see how his life was shaped by this incident, making him a nomad who doesn’t accumulate possessions. 

Hoping to reclaim a sense of ancestral connection, he returned to the New Forest some 30 times between January 2019 and January 2020, observing the unfolding seasons and the many uncommon and endemic species its miles house. The Forest has more than 1000 trees of over 400 years old, mostly oak and beech. Much of the rest is rare heath habitat, and livestock grazing maintains open areas. There are some plants only found in the New Forest, as well as a (probably extinct) cicada. He comes face to face with butterflies, a muntjac, and lesser-seen birds like the Dartford warbler, firecrest, goshawk, honey buzzard, and nightjar. 

Yet this is no mere ‘white man goes for a walk’ travelogue, as so much of modern nature writing has been belittled. Ansell weaves many different themes into the book: his personal story (mostly relevant, though his mother’s illness and a trip to Rwanda seemed less than necessary), the shocking history of forced Gypsy relocation into forest compounds starting in the 1920s, biomass decline, and especially the unfairness of land ownership in Britain. More than 99% of the country is in the hands of a few, with hardly any left as common land. There is also enduring inequality of access to what little there is, often along race and class lines.

Ansell speaks of “environmental dread” as a “rational response to the way the world is turning,” but he doesn’t rest in that mindset of despair. He’s in favour of rewilding, which is not, as some might assume, about leaving land alone to revert to its original state, but about the reintroduction of native species and intentional restoration of habitat types. In extending these rewilded swathes, we would combat the tendency to think of nature as something kept ‘over there’ in small reserves while subjecting the rest of the land to intensive, pesticide-based farming and the exploitation of resources. The New Forest thus strikes him as an excellent model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access.

I appreciated how Ansell concludes that it’s not enough to simply love nature and write about the joy of spending time in it. Instead, he accepts a mantle of responsibility: “nothing is more political than the way we engage with the world around us. … Nature writing may often be read for comfort and reassurance, but perhaps we need to allow a little room for anger, too, for the ability to rage at everything that has been taken from us, and taken by us.” 

The title is from John Clare and the book is a poetic meditation as well as a forthright argument. After this, The Last Wilderness and especially Deep Country, his account of five solitary years in a Welsh cabin, Ansell is among my most-admired British nature writers.

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Rebecca Foster is a freelance proofreader and writer from Maryland, USA. She reviews memoirs for the Times Literary Supplement and blogs at Bookish Beck.

James Aldred, Goshawk Summer: A New Forest Season Unlike Any Other (Elliott & Thompson, 2021). 978-1783966127, 304 pp., hardback.
Neil Ansell, The Circling Sky: On Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest (Tinder Press, 2021). 978-1472272362, 352 pp., hardback.

BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate links: Goshawk Summer, The Circling Sky