July 12, 2019


Country Matters on Booksquawk

Planters’ and Potters’ Almanac, Part One

by Pat Black

Here’s a nice fresh bunch of the tulips I’ve been tip-toeing through this past while.

by John Lewis-Stempel
304 pages, Doubleday

I’d happily read JLS’s diaries every year. Well, not his secret diaries. That would be weird. I mean his nature diaries, which he cunningly disguises as books.

Thankfully, his publisher sees fit to release them on a yearly schedule. The books usually have a distinctive underlying theme, but the format is pretty much the same each year, and I’m happy with that.

Still Water is framed as a look at the life of ponds, particularly in Britain. Beloved of those Victorians who had a bit of garden space, these plashy holes in the ground are a haven for creatures such as frogs, toads, ducks, dragonflies, water boatmen, moorhens, coots, pond skaters and sticklebacks. And not forgetting a creature beloved of conservationists but perhaps less so of town planners and construction companies - the great crested newt, Britain’s funkiest animal. If anyone finds one of these amphibians on a building site, then you ain’t building no buildings, folks.

JLS’s pleasant, meandering style skims over the history of ponds and references to them in other literature (we learn that the word pescatorian was an insult in days of yore). It perfectly sums up the tranquillity of sitting in his own English garden, waiting for the sun.

We jump between a pond in Argenteuil, France, and the author’s own backyard in Herefordshire, but there are also entirely pond-free digressions. One of these takes in JLS’s interest in the First World War, and a walk he undertakes in the Lakes in memory of the men killed at the front more than 100 years ago. You won’t mind a bit.

The First World War is one of the author’s common themes, and he returns to it and several others in this book. Sometimes I read bits and pieces that I’m sure I’ve heard about before, whether in Meadowland, The Running Hare or The Wood. I’m sure JLS has previously mentioned his first memory: being bitten in the face by a dog. New information is the fight he gets into as a kid, and his father’s refusal to stop the scrap, plus the bloody steak he is given as a reward for putting on a good show. Fathers are such strange creatures. He also mentions his parents’ divorce, which I don’t think he did before, either. Similarly, we learn that the author was desperate to join the navy, like his hero, Sir Peter Scott, but this was ruled out owing to a lack of facility with numbers. I feel his pain.

In the present day, JLS channels Roger Deakin by trying some wild swimming in a pond. He gets covered in muck and beasties, and is perfectly happy with it - until he encounters a leech. Cue a digression about leeches, and the staggering observation that the leech quacks of olden times might have been onto something.

These personal reminiscences and digressions bring colour and comedy to an already rich meal. And if the author leans a little too hard on John Clare and Edward Thomas references… Well, most of us come back to our favourite things, whether in life or in writing. Hence, this review.

by JA Baker
224 pages, Collins

This one has been referenced in many of the modern era’s great nature books. It’s a slow-burner in publishing terms, written by a fiercely private man who tracked and recorded the movements of peregrine falcons through the flat countryside of his native Essex in the 1950s and 60s.

JA Baker’s slight volume is a condensed version of 10 years’ worth of journals. Championed by Robert Macfarlane and others after being out of print for a long time, The Peregrine could be described as a work of poetry rather than a conventional narrative. Taking a diary format, Baker’s masterwork underlines his remarkable gift for describing the exact same things in several different, but equally enthralling ways.

He can’t get enough of the peregrine’s stoop (or swoop, as muggles would call it), as the world’s fastest bird descends, tyrannosaur claws agape, to snatch other birds and mammals and then tear them to pieces. The language is sparkling, a visceral, immediate delight best consumed quickly. Like the bird itself, it’s all lean muscle.

Baker’s tone is curious. This book is as romantic as they come in terms of language, but there is not a shred of sentiment involved - and anthropomorphism is out of the question. The predator is brutal, and yet described as a thing of beauty. While Baker deplores humanity’s revelry in killing, he cannot help but luxuriate in it himself. The author asks us something like: ‘Blood red’ – was there ever a more useless description? What else could red look like that could match it better than the colour of blood?

He sees predation as a dirty business - all the more on humans’ behalf, because we have the luxury of being able to consider whether or not to kill, before doing it anyway. Even so, Baker has a kind of rapture when describing the falcon turning its prey into gore, strewn guts and feathers.

The author is not quite so keen on his own species. In light of his various disabilities and painful health problems, not least his myopia, you wonder if Baker gained a sense of freedom from watching the falcons on the wing. Perhaps he discovered the true meaning of ecstasy, or ekstasis, as Robert Macfarlane points out: being taken outside of ourselves.

There are signs of the environmental rage which has become close to the norm these days. The Peregrine was written in a time when the birds were being poisoned through the use of pesticides, after they had been shot as pests themselves during wartime. Baker deplores the use of chemicals, wholesale culling and other industrial horrors. Were he still alive, he would have been dismayed at our continued descent into the gargantuan act of self-harm that is the Anthropocene era, although not greatly surprised.

Going by Mark Cocker’s introduction, The Peregrine still attracts controversy. Some descriptions of the creature in the title do not tally with common observations by seasoned bird watchers. The amount of kills the raptor makes by Baker’s reckoning are under dispute, as is his observation of one of them eating worms. There is also a suggestion that Baker might have gotten confused with a kestrel, in noting hovering behaviour – something the peregrine apparently doesn’t do.

Countering this, Cocker asserts that it hardly seems likely that a person so deeply ingrained in the appearance and habits of his quarry would make such fundamental mistakes over details – or indeed fabricate them, as many have suggested. Perhaps it was just as he described it, at one particular time, with one particular bird?

Either way, if you’re a lover of gorgeous descriptive prose, I’d say these small details don’t matter too much. Baker is one of those writers with a great gift for making any scene, thought or image sparkly with unique light. If the price of making a true story gorgeous is Doubting Thomases getting sniffy about it, then it’s one he would have paid, no question.

by Roger Deakin
320 pages, Penguin

We were robbed of Roger. He might still have been merrily turning books out, as he might fashion a table and chairs from driftwood in his workshop. Even better, he would have been all over BBC4, any given weeknight. Fate had other ideas.

He might have turned his ire over pollution and corporate slovenliness into a fulminating masterpiece fit for 2019. I feel sure he’d have been involved in the Extinction Rebellion protests.

It’s nice to wonder about this. But we can only make do with what we’ve got.

Notes From Walnut Tree Farm is Deakin’s third and final book, edited together posthumously by his partner Alison Hastie and Terence Blacker from journals written in his last six years. It follows a diary format from January to December, although it meanders back and forth in time, with one date sometimes having more than one entry. So it’s kind of a “greatest hits” of Roger’s diaries.

Apart from some seasonal framing, the author has a free hand. I think this style suited him.

We get reminiscences about his childhood, recollections of his adventures both close to home and far away, and impressions of the farm in the title, a semi-wild Suffolk retreat he called home for the closing decades of his life. That’s the place with the moat, the one he swum around every morning in Waterlog. What a life!

We get Roger’s thoughts on sleeping in his little shed in all weathers, fixing the house up, and looking after any human or animal that passes through his front door. He details all the little creatures he loves, and their readily accepted invasions of his home, from the birds in the attic, to the cats prowling the yard, and the spiders stringing silk across his furniture. He’s the type of guy who would become anxious at the idea of crushing ants as he steps onto the path outside his front door every morning – in fact there’s a moment involving a tiny creature on the loose in his study that shows a childlike empathy with all creatures great and small.

Countering this, there’s his disdain for human agency and petty rules affecting his beloved Common. Gentrification also annoys him. If you’d won the lottery and bought a big country pile down the road from Roger, I suspect it might have taken him a long time to like you.

This might be my favourite of Roger’s books. And yet, I’m struggling to give you an overview of what it’s like. The best example I can give is one entry on the joys of what he calls jotting - writing freeform, and letting your observations, memories, fears, ecstasies and personal mysteries tumble out onto the page any way they choose.

Roger was a wanderer, a freebooter with a bit of a gypsy heart - and yet also an ardent conservationist, with a strong sense of home. More conservative, you suspect, than he liked to admit, but no lover of fences or the inequalities they contain, and certainly a detester of chauvinism and disrespect for nature. He was every inch the English radical, with tones that remind me of Orwell at his best. His influence is still strong among writers, readers and lovers of British natural history, part of a pantheon that grows year on year.

In particular, the 20 years since Waterlog came out have seen an explosion of interest in wild swimming. He definitely had a hand in this.

Going by the esteem he enjoys from his proteges and contemporaries, it’s safe to say Roger Deakin’s legacy is secure. Many have reported an odd sense of familiarity with the author through his work that they don’t quite get with other scribes. He feels like someone we know and like; that rare friend you might feel compelled to actually pick up a telephone and talk to.

In part two, we’ll check out Nan Shepherd, Robert Macfarlane, Kate Humble and Kate Bradbury. Although I suspect we might have to wait out the summer before I get there…

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