Reviewed by Liz Dexter
Stephen Rutt and his partner move to Dumfries, to a flat near the Solway Firth, just as he’s finishing writing his first (wonderful) book The Seafarers (which I also reviewed for Shiny here). He wasn’t really interested in geese before but here he is living among the great migrations and regularly sees skeins of geese flying over, when at home or out and about, which pique his interest. As this is the autumn, and the time the geese arrive in the UK from Russia, Iceland, Greenland, etc., he decides to concentrate on them (OK, becomes obsessed with them) and learns about them while trying to see the six most common species of goose which over-winter over here. Some of them are easily visible as he learns the inlets, marshes and nature reserves of his new home; for some he has to return to the east of England and the marshes he grew up with, travelling around with his dad, just like his first introduction to birdwatching.
On seeing his first skein whipping across the sky, Rutt adds these large and not always elegant birds to his totems – including the first chiffchaff of spring and the final swift of summer’s end. Each chapter after the introduction is named after one of the breeds he looks into, but roams around the topic. At the end of the book, the spring comes back round, and once he hears the chiffchaff he knows that the geese will be leaving – although of course they’ll be back, living long lives and enjoying returning to the same spots.
Like The Seafarers, this book is warm and friendly and doesn’t wear its learning too obviously, while being impeccably referenced and backed up. Rutt really shares what makes him love the geese, as well as gathering additional knowledge to share with us as if sitting round in a hide on a reserve. It’s also funny, with little notes that will amuse the regular bird-watcher:
The bean goose is now so rare in Dumfries and Galloway that if you see one you have to write a description of it for a panel of four men to adjudicate on whether you are correct.
The additional cultural notes cover literature, the Wigtown Book Festival and Egyptian art (there are lots of geese depicted in Egyptian wall-paintings), and of course he also touches on the myths, including the pervasive one that barnacle geese hatch from barnacles and are actually counted as fish if you’re of a religion that doesn’t eat fowl on certain days. He’s got such a lovely way of putting things, too: on being in Essex looking for Brent geese on a suddenly cold day, ‘Cold weather has a tendency to move birds around, to shuffle the pack of waterfowl.’
And as in his first book, he describes his own life at the time and touches on the fact that nature observation saved him from his life as an ‘awkward’ boy, but not too much sentiment or personal stuff intrudes (a bugbear of mine, although many people don’t mind this, I know).
The beautiful cover is by Dan Mogford and the book has a full set of notes, a wide-ranging bibliography and a decent index. Available in hardback and now paperback, the perfect Christmas present for the bird- or just nature-lover in your life.
Liz Dexter does like a goose, and coincidentally saw quite an unusual one at her local lake just the other week. She blogs at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com
Stephen Rutt, Wintering: A Season With Geese (Elliott & Thompson, 2020). 978-1783965052, 197pp. paperback.
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