In the last few months of 2017, BBC’s AutumnWatch helped to launch the search for the nation’s favourite book about nature, a survey choreographed by LandLines, a two-year project looking at the history of modern nature writing.
Over the following weeks, hundreds of nominations flooded in from the British public, and this list was whittled down to just 10 books. This final shortlist was then put back out to public vote. Each book shared clarity, uniqueness of voice, and a texture of vision that revealed new ways of looking at and understanding the natural world and our relationship with it. They included famous classics, works of fiction, personal memoirs, and poetry.
This week, Winterwatch returned to the topic, bringing the announcement of the top three winners.
The top spots were awarded to three brilliant but very different books. All three are books I have had the pleasure of reading; one I have known for a long time, the other two I encountered much more recently. All moved me and remained with me long after I turned the final pages, each for different reasons.
In third place is Rob Cowen’s “Common Ground”.
As one of the many books on my self imposed and ever growing ‘nature writing book reading list’, I picked up “Common Ground” almost at random. I had heard it was well received by readers and critics, but knew little of the storyline or content. I liked the front cover and the clever title. The words “common ground” of course have layers, and different references depending on your angle of approach. Little did I realise how this would become a running theme throughout the book. Part natural history, part memoir, “Common Ground” is based around Rob Cowen’s own experiences, at a time of significant change within his life. The author is uprooted from London and relocates to a northern town near Harrogate in Yorkshire, and the disjointed, disconnected feeling of displacement he experiences, is clear throughout the early chapters of the book.
Rob Cowen’s prose has a haunting, deeply affecting quality, richly textured with imagery and dense with interlaced layers of meaning, understanding and connection. From the first three words “Maps transform us.” I was transfixed. Flicking through the pages now, as though I need reminding, I find myself drawn in and held by luminous passages, like a fox caught locked for a long moment in the headlight beams of a car. The book focuses on the author’s journey as he copes with personal life events and immerses himself in getting to know a particular area of land on the edge of town. The edge-lands where natures’ lives overlap our own, the common ground that is shared three ways – between each of us, between our personal selves and nature, and between nature and other people – shared both physically and emotionally. At times intimate and detailed, at others vast and moving, “Common Ground” is a book that I immediately wanted to re-read as soon as I closed the final page.
The nation’s second favourite nature book is one that I have been familiar with since childhood. “Tarka the Otter”, by Henry Williamson is a strong candidate for the book that had the strongest influence on my own relationship with nature. I have forgotten how old I was when I first read “Tarka the Otter”; probably about 12 or 13, but I couldn’t be sure. As a child I devoured books about animals so I suppose it was only natural that I would stumble across Tarka eventually. I have re-read the book in part or whole many times since, taking something different from it with each reading. But it is that initial encounter that stays with me.
“Tarka” struck me from the first chapter as something different, a style of writing and imagery and voice that I had never accessed before. It was at once captivating and emotional, and yet unapologetic and unsympathetic. Straddling the fine line between fact and fiction, the text itself is deep and rich with imagery and comprehension that could only come through a lifetime of study and connection with the natural world. Although the story captures the world from an otter’s understanding, it is not an exercise in anthropomorphising wild animals. There is an understanding of human nature, but Tarka is wholly and truly ‘Otter’; the tale is undiluted and raw. Henry Williamson’s “Tarka the Otter” may at times feel uncomfortable when experienced through our human pre-conceptions, but it is also enchanting. Much like the river that runs through both the narrative and the landscape, the words are immersive and have a sparkling clarity.
I have never yet seen a wild otter, but I live in hope. Hope not expectation. You can’t expect to see an otter; it simply doesn’t work that way.
The nomination of “Fingers in the Sparkle Jar” by Chris Packham to the lofty position of nations number 1 favourite nature book, from amongst such strong competition, was a surprise and a delight to me, but I suspect more so to its author. A relatively recent release compared to some on the shortlist (“Tarka The Otter” for example was written in the 1920s), I read “Fingers in the Sparkle Jar” shortly after its publication in 2016. It is a great book, which I have recommended to friends and peers on a number of occasions, but at first glance not perhaps an immediate and obvious choice for this award.
Bold, brave, and at times brutal, this book is an honest and thought provoking account of Chris Packham’s lifelong fascination with the natural world, and equally long term struggles with Aspergers. It is educational, entertaining, and moving.
Chris Packham’s work shares something with both “Tarka the Otter” and “Common Ground”; a pure intensity and a beauty of prose. From a ladybird in a match box, to a kestrel on a fist, each minute element (which perhaps could only be gleaned and retained so vividly by someone who’s mind worked with the exacting fanatical detail of Aspergers), is conveyed with eloquent lucidity.
The memoirs capture the conjoined joyous wonder and utter bafflement at the world, which is at the core of our experiences as children and (if we stop to properly analyse our own emotions) as adults.
The magic and appeal of “Fingers in the Sparkle Jar” is not so much in the nature, but in our own personal connections with it. Although not on the autistic spectrum like the author, I could still find myself relating to some of the emotion of Chris Packham’s experiences. A deeply rooted passion for the natural world, not understanding some of the life choices of my peers, being a little ‘different’, all lead me to feel alienated and isolated to varying extents throughout my formative years.
Three books, each very different yet all loved by readers, for what they reveal about the natural world, and for how they enchant us with every turn of the pages. Anyone who reads books will know how some particular texts will remain with you or change the way you look at the world, long after the final words. We all have our own personal favourites, perhaps associated with memories or simply because we love their beauty. Others can change our lives.
So, I’d love to know… what book would you recommend to me?