Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
The Wainwright Prize longlists for writing on UK nature and global conservation themes were announced in early June and will be whittled down to shortlists on 30 July. These three releases, all from the first half of 2020, blend nature and autobiographical writing to incorporate themes as varied as parenting, farming and spirituality.
Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature by Patrick Barkham
Childhood has moved indoors over the course of three generations, Guardian journalist Patrick Barkham observes. “Today the wild child is functionally extinct in the Western world,” he writes, but he is lucky to have charge of a few individuals of that endangered species – his three children, Millie and Esme (twins), and Ted. Highlighting the activities that can engage budding naturalists in every season and accompanying his children to an outdoor nursery, he suggests how connection with nature can be made a part of everyday life.
Outdoor experiences dominate Barkham’s memories of childhood, though he also loved cars and wanted to be a mechanic. When his own children were tiny, the family lived in a Norwich home that backed onto a graveyard. That urban space became their special patch; they saw more wildlife there than in the countryside, where they later moved. It was an ideal place to watch the turn of the seasons. Esme, especially, gravitated towards wild things. Nowadays, his children make outdoor dens, keep a watch on nests and baby birds, play with taxidermied creatures, host funerals for dead pets, go pond-dipping, raise caterpillars and look for butterflies. They notice things, and collect them.
All three have spent time at Dandelion, an outdoor nursery in Marsham, Norfolk where Barkham also volunteers. On this off-grid site, free of plastic and brand names, children are left to self-directed play. While there is no praise or discipline, there is remarkably little in the way of conflicts or tantrums. Children are treated as individuals and encouraged to think about the consequences of their actions. They even have regular group “philosophy sessions” where they are presented with situations to think through and must explain their decisions.
The author is upfront about his privilege and hypocrisy, acknowledging where he fails to live up to his environmentalist ideals. However, he is quick to emphasize that nature isn’t just for middle-class white children. All of the UK’s three- and four-year-olds are eligible for 15 free hours of childcare a week, including at places like Dandelion. When he tags along on an ESL forest school session in Nottinghamshire, Barkham sees that the children get more exercise and show greater concentration, while underachievers taken to study poetry in a National Trust ruin benefit from the kinaesthetic learning and time in nature.
With Wild Child, his fifth book, Barkham lays down a challenge: “Show me a child who cannot make a home in nature, given the opportunity.” This engaging narrative is not just for parents and educators of young children but for anyone who has a stake in future generations’ resolve to conserve the natural world – which is to say, all of us.
Native: Life in a Vanishing Landscape by Patrick Laurie
Galloway may be the forgotten south-western corner of Scotland, but third-generation cattle farmer Patrick Laurie can’t imagine living anywhere else. Yet his eyes are open to the contradictions of this landscape and how he makes a living from it. He’s passionate about birds, especially the curlew, which is in serious decline. But modern farming practices, like cutting hay while ground-nesting birds are active, are incompatible with conservation, and tree-planting has pushed curlews to the brink in Scotland.
Initially, Laurie set out to write about curlews, but his project morphed into a more general, bittersweet portrait of a difficult, and disappearing, way of life. Having read Mary Colwell’s Curlew Moon earlier in the year, I enjoyed hearing more about the birds (but was relieved for Laurie that he didn’t undertake a single-species study only to find his work duplicated). He still hears curlews occasionally, and comes across two chicks during the year he chronicles in Native, but both die. Foxes are most likely responsible – he reluctantly kills them on his land, but no matter how long he waited with a rifle, he couldn’t get this one. His recent tweets have told a similar tale: nearly every nest fails, with the eggs or chicks taken by predators.
Life can be “a steady, draining slog” for Galloway farmers like Laurie. But in this year-long nature diary, each month brings rewards as well as challenges. The author strives to manage the land in a manner beneficial to wildlife, which often means doing things more slowly and less efficiently than many would deem acceptable. He harvests hay with an ancient mower instead of turning the grassy fields over to silage; he teaches himself to repair his own tractor and replaces rotten gateposts with old timber. Some of the teachings of the old fellas he turns into a composite character named Sanny are worth putting into practice, but sometimes he goes against traditional wisdom and/or modern practices.
For instance, insemination is now the norm in cattle breeding, but Laurie resists, getting a bull so calves can be made the ‘natural’ way. All the more ironic, then, that he and his wife have to start fertility treatment in Glasgow. I’ve read many women’s stories of infertility but none, I think, from a male perspective, so I found this refreshing, and sensitively addressed.
I’m lucky enough to have visited Wigtown and the surrounding area, so I have an idea of why Galloway is so special to those who love it. You needn’t have been in person, though, to appreciate this pensive account that is rich with the sense of place and balanced between solastalgia and practicality.
Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape by Jini Reddy
Jini Reddy has often felt like a nomad and an outsider. Raised in London and Montreal by Indian parents from South Africa, she spent what she calls a “decade of despair” moving between temporary jobs – everything from publishing work to volunteering with Mother Teresa. Looking back, she sees that what she was searching for in her years as a wanderer was a spiritual connection to nature. Through a year of making trips to holy sites, whether famous or obscure, she seeks to become rooted in the country she has come to call home.
The quest takes her all over the British Isles. Near Hastings, she looks for a sacred spring in St Helen’s Wood with the help of a treasure map. She paces a labyrinth in Cornwall, crawls into a prehistoric chamber, takes trips to Lindisfarne (“Holy Island”), talks to and hugs trees in Derbyshire, meets a priestess of the Goddess, makes a secular pilgrimage from St Ives to St Michael’s Mount along St Michael’s Way, undertakes a journey to Iona, gets guided – with eyes closed – on a 90-minute walk through the South Downs, and sees land art in Wales.
This book marks an important landmark: Reddy is the first person of colour nominated for the Wainwright Prize in its seven-year history. We are hearing more nowadays about the disconnection that people of colour feel from nature. They may sense that the countryside is ‘not for them’, or there may be financial barriers to them getting out of a city. Despite all the beautiful places seen in the course of a year, and all the peaceful moments achieved, Reddy still feels unwelcome in certain situations. Staying at a Christian retreat house on Lindisfarne, she (raised by an atheist and a Hindu) doesn’t think she fits in with her fellow pilgrims. Meanwhile, her race is something she is always aware of; she doesn’t want to be the token “urban ethnic” person in the countryside wherever she goes.
It is important for readers of nature writing – a genre still dominated by white men – to get this different perspective. It will also prove worthwhile for those who are sceptical of the supernatural to approach a book like Wanderland with an open mind. Reddy envisions the human bond with nature as a “two-way relationship,” akin to what “ancient peoples, indigenous peoples, the true shamans of the world, have with the land.” While she confesses that she herself has felt “too conventional for the pagans” and “too esoteric for the hardcore wildlife tribe,” her travel book is an accessible introduction to Britain’s sacred sites. Recovering a sense of reverence for nature can only help us in the long-term mission to preserve it.
Also reviewed from the UK nature writing longlist:
- The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange
- Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie
- Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty
Also reviewed from the writing on global conservation longlist:
- Greenery by Tim Dee
- Irreplaceable by Julian Hoffman
- Losing Eden by Lucy Jones
- Notes From an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell
Rebecca Foster is a freelance proofreader and writer from Maryland, USA. She reviews memoirs for the Times Literary Supplement and blogs at Bookish Beck.
Patrick Barkham, Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature(Granta Books: London, 2020). 978-1783781911, 344 pp., hardback. BUY at Blackwell’s
Patrick Laurie, Native: Life in a Vanishing Landscape (Birlinn: Edinburgh, 2020). 978-1780276205, 256 pp.,hardback. BUY at Blackwell’s
Jini Reddy, Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape (Bloomsbury Wildlife) 9781472951939, 272pp., hardback. BUY at Blackwell’s