In the last few years there has been a boom in nature writing, mostly coming out of the UK. The title which caught most people’s attention was the sleeper success H is for Hawk by historian Helen MacDonald, which went on to win the 2014 Samuel Johnson prize for nature writing and the same year’s Costa Book of the Year. MacDonald recounts the year or so following the unexpected death of her father, blended with an account of her training the goshawk she names Mabel. She counterpoints these with an examination of novelist T H White, author of Arthurian romance and erstwhile goshawk trainer himself. While the blend of grief memoir, goshawk training account and White biography may sound like a bizarre combination, MacDonald’s writing is simply inspired, and the combination of the personal and the historical sings. She’s also a delightful interviewee, as in this Guardian Books podcast. This was one of my favourite two books from last year, and I’ve yet to speak with a reader who didn’t love it.
Another book I was introduced to by Guardian Books is Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel. A farmer from Herefordshire, the area his family has lived and worked in for over 700 years, Lewis-Stempel’s gorgeous memoir is subtitled The Private Life of an English Field, and it is just that. It’s a diary which examines the creatures, tasks and lives which take place in one of his fields over the course of a year, with excursions into history, toponymy, etymology, sociology and meandering thoughts along the way. It is a relaxed and learned read, a wonderful evocation of a place and one person’s deep love of it, and at the back are pleasing lists of the flora and fauna he sighted during the year. No wonder it won the Thwaites-Wainwright Prize for travel and nature writing. I’ve shared it with contemplative farmers and city friends — to equal acclaim — and I already have a lovely hardback tucked aside for another friend’s birthday. Beautiful.
My latest read of these nature writers, just finished last night, is James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life. Rebanks and his forebears have been shepherds in the Lakes District and Eden Valley for the last 600 hundred years. Rebanks, a UN researcher in addition to his farmlife, came to fame with his Twitter account @herdyshepherd1, and was invited to write about his view on the Lakes District and the world. While Rebanks also follows a year of shepherding, collecting the sheep from their ‘fell’ (highland) pastures at the end of summer and bringing them back to valley meadows, his book is a consideration of the shepherds’ historical, emotional ownership of the Lakes District, compared with sense of ‘ownership’ of those inspired by the Romantic Poets. His pride in being a farmer and continuing a long-lived and valuable way of life is most evident, and it is an excellent read.
And finally, the one we can’t wait to read, is Sooyong Park’s The Great Soul of Siberia: In Search of the Elusive Siberian Tiger. Park is a Korean researcher who has spent six months of every year, for the last 20 years, in Siberia tracking and observing the endangered Siberian tiger. With only 350 animals remaining in the wild, Park aims to learn as much as possible before poaching and habitat destruction spell the tiger’s end. It looks like a powerful read, it very highly reviewed, and has amazing photos from Park’s own observations.
H is for Hawk — Helen MacDonald — Vintage — PB — $23
Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field — John Lewis-Stempel — Black Swan — PB — $23
The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lakes District — James Rebanks — Allen Lane — PB — $25
The Great Soul of Siberia: In Search of the Elusive Siberian Tiger — Sooyong Park — William Collins — HB — $25