Nature Archive

Dara McAnulty wins Wainwright Prize

There’s a passage in Diary of a Young Naturalist (Little Toller) in which Dara McAnulty writes of trips on which each member of his family, from youngest to oldest, chooses a song to be played on the car stereo: “Our journeys around Fermanagh usually take half an hour, which means two music cycles each — though Bláthnaid [his sister] sometimes gets three, depending on traffic. Today is one of those days, so when ‘My Little Pony’ comes back on again Lorcan [his brother] and I roll our eyes and try not to moan at the high-pitched rubbish about everyone being winners and other saccharine impossibilities…”

Yesterday, Dara, an autistic boy of 16 who loves punk music and wants to be a scientist, was a winner. He took the Wainwright Prize for UK nature writing for his extraordinary debut, in which he tells of the connections he feels to wildlife, the way he sees the world, and how he weathers storms with the help of a family who are “as close as otters”.

This year’s prize was extended to include a second category for books about global conservation and climate change. The winner was Benedict Macdonald for Rebirding (Pelagic Publishing), which, the judges say, “sets out a compelling manifesto for restoring Britain’s wildlife, rewilding its species and restoring rural jobs – to the benefit of all”.

More ways of escape: new books on travel, place and nature

I got an unusual email today; unusual because it says that a literary event hasn’t been cancelled. With the island “relatively virus-free”, the third Corfu Literary Festival is due (at the moment) to take place from September 17 until September 20. Speakers lined up include Sebastian Faulks, Peter Frankopan, Sarah Churchwell, Sabine Durrant, Evie Wyld and James Naughtie. Elsewhere, though, festivals are still being called off or going online, launches are on social media (with the virtual white wine, in London, even warmer than usual) and cash-strapped newspapers are commissioning fewer reviews. As a result, new books on travel, place and nature might not be given the space they deserve. Here are some to watch out for over the next month-or-so.

Spirit of Place: Artists, Writers and the British Landscape by Susan Owens (Thames & Hudson, £25, August 13)
British landscape painting, we’re often told, was an invention of the 18th century. But people have been writing about the land, and drawing and painting it, for as long as they have had pen and paper (or parchment). In Spirit of Place, Susan Owens, art historian and exhibition curator, aims to do justice to this long tradition. She offers a panoramic view of the landscape, as seen through the eyes of writers and artists from Bede and the Gawain-poet to Gainsborough, Austen, Turner and Constable; from Paul Nash, WG Sebald and Barbara Hepworth to Robert Macfarlane. In the view of Alexandra Harris (author of Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies), Spirit of Place is “A wonderfully deft and varied study… Owens has a gift for making the past feel so close that we might be riding over a hill with Gerald of Wales or John Leland.”

The Book of Trespass: Crossing the Lines that Divide Us by Nick Hayes (Bloomsbury Circus, £20)
Nick Hayes is an artist and writer and, for the past 10 years, has been an activist arguing for greater access to the countryside of England and Wales. In The Book of Trespass, he takes us on a journey into the thousands of square miles of rivers, woodland, lakes and meadows from which we’re usually blocked by walls and fences. In The Guardian last Saturday, the book was reviewed by William Atkins, and in The Observer on Sunday, Rachel Cooke joined the author as he went on his forbidden way in Berkshire. 

Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe by Judith Herrin (Allen Lane, £30, August 27)
“If you have never visited… Ravenna, you have missed an amazing experience, an extraordinary delight, which this book aims to recreate.” Thus the historian Judith Herrin introduces her study of the unique role and significance of a city renowned for its glorious mosaics; a city that was first the capital of the Western Roman Empire, then that of the immense kingdom of Theodoric the Goth, and finally the centre of Byzantine power in Italy. Peter Frankopan (author of The Silk Roads) says Herrin’s is “an outstanding book that shines a bright light on one of the most important, interesting and under-studied cities in European history. A masterpiece.”
                                
The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Divided Nation by Declan Walsh (Bloomsbury, £20, September 3)
Declan Walsh covered Pakistan for a decade, for The Guardian and The New York Times, until he was expelled on the eve of the 2013 election for unspecified “undesirable activities”. In The Nine Lives…, he draws on what he calls “the offstage encounters” of his job to offers a portrait of a country whose most sensitive borders, he says, lie inside. “It was riven by ethnic, tribal, and sectarian fault lines, a place of head-spinning contradictions. One day, a street would fill with rioters protesting [over] an obscure insult to the Prophet Muhammad. The following day, rich folk would gather to party in a mansion along the same street, clinking their glasses in a Gatsby-like bubble.” Walsh’s book, says William Dalrymple, “sets a new benchmark for non-fiction about the complex palace of mirrors that is Pakistan”.

Between Light and Storm: How We Live With Other Species by Esther Woolfson (Granta, £20, September 3)
Esther Woolfson is the author of Corvus: A Life With Birds and Field Notes From A Hidden City. The latter,  short-listed for both the RSL Ondaatje Prize and the Wainwright Prize, won much praise for its close study of urban wildlife, from pigeons to rats, and prompted even one or two literary critics to think better of slugs. It is also a fine portrait of Aberdeen, a place the author sums up as that “tight grey city by the sea”.
  In Between Light and Storm, Woolfson  reflects more broadly on the complex relationship between humans and animals. Her book is sweeping in scope, taking us from creation stories to climate change. It’s scholarly, too, but also anchored in her own experience. In the acknowledgements, she says her greatest debt “will always be to Chicken the rook, who was beside me during the entire writing of the book”.

English Pastoral: An Inheritance by James Rebanks (Allen Lane, £20, September 3)
Social media’s most famous shepherd, author of the bestselling The Shepherd’s Life, says on his Twitter account (@herdyshepherd1) that his new book “is about everything I care about and love”. His publisher sums it up as “a stirring history of family, loss and the land over three generations on a Lake District farm”. English Pastoral tells how, “guided by the past, one farmer [Rebanks] began to salvage a tiny corner of England that was now his, doing his best to restore the life that had vanished and to leave a legacy for the future. This is a book about what it means to have love and pride in a place, and how, against the odds, it may still be possible to build a new pastoral: not a utopia, but somewhere decent for us all.”

The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn (Michael Joseph, £14.99, September 3)
In The Salt Path, her bestselling and prizewinning debut, Raynor Winn told how she and her terminally ill husband, having lost their home and their livelihood, set off to walk 630 miles along the South-West coast. In The Wild Silence, they find a new home. Someone who read their story offers them the chance to breathe life back into a farmhouse in the Cornish hills; “rewilding the land and returning nature to its hedgerows becomes their saving grace and their new path to follow”. This new book, the publisher says, is “a luminous account of the human spirit’s instinctive connection to nature, and how vital it is for all of us”.

The Fresh and the Salt: The Story of the Solway by Ann Lingard (Birlinn, £25 September 3)
Ann Lingard and her husband manage a smallholding in north-west Cumbria, within sight of the Solway Firth, that crooked finger of water between Scotland and England. In The Fresh and the Salt, she tells the story of the firth, its origins and its ever-changing margins. “Sometimes,” she writes on her website, “I have been actively involved with the firth – wading across it, slithering along its mudflats, walking far out to mussel-beds on a low spring tide, flying over it, bouncing over its waves in boats – and at other times I have been an observer and listener (and I’m so grateful to all those who have shared their knowledge and stories with me over the years).” The naturalist and author Mark Cocker says she has created “a portrait of this nation-cleaving water that is as broad and deep as the estuary itself. A wonderful addition to the literature of place.”  

Eat the Buddha: The Story of Modern Tibet Through the People of One Town by Barbara Demick (Granta, £18.99, September 14)
Barbara Demick is a reporter who opens up places by asking the locals what it’s like to live in them. She won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea. She is also the author of Besieged: Life Under Fire on a Sarajevo Street, which won the George Polk Award and the Robert F Kennedy Award and was short-listed for a Pulitzer Prize. In Eat the Buddha, she turns her attention to Ngaba, a town on the edge of  the eastern Tibetan plateau, where dozens of Tibetans have shocked the world since 2009 by setting themselves on fire in protest at Chinese rule. What, she wanted to know, was it like to be a Tibetan in the 21st century living at the edge of modern China? And why were so many residents of Nagba “willing to destroy their bodies by one of the most horrific methods imaginable”?

  Books published recently that I’ve not mentioned here before include Quite Alone, in which Matthew Teller gathers his journalism on the Middle East from the past decade, “27 stories, long and short, from 13 countries between Egypt & Oman”, as he puts it on Twitter; and Turn Left at Lenin’s Statue, in which Fabrizio Soggetto, author of the blog Are We There Yet?, recounts his travels in Central Asia.

‘Greenery’: a book for this moment

“Nature Writing”, says the classification on the back of the latest book from Tim Dee. Partly true. He’s good at that. But leaving it there is a bit like saying that Wordsworth was a gardener and Springsteen is a harmonica player. Dee is one of our best living writers of non-fiction, and Greenery: Journeys in Springtime (Jonathan Cape) — which is travel and memoir and poetry and music and human as well as natural history — is perhaps his best book yet. 

  Having noted that spring moves north at about the speed of swallow flight, he tracks the season and its migratory birds all the way from South Africa to Scandinavia. His book is about how spring works on people as well as birds, animals and plants; about the possibility of life growing from death. It couldn’t be more timely. There’s an extract in the travel section, in print, of today’s Daily Telegraph. Buy the paper if you can and read it (there’s another extract on the Caught by the River website). Then buy the book, preferably from an independent bookshop

*Update, April 16: The extract that appeared in The Daily Telegraph has since gone online.

On the trail of ‘the lost man of science’

It’s 250 years since the birth of Alexander von Humboldt. Chris Moss, for Telegraph Travel, has retraced some of the South American journeys of this pioneering polymath — “the first person to think of nature as a complete interconnected web, spanning topographies and even continents”. (You’ll have to register to read the piece online.)

13 titles on Wainwright Prize long list

The long list for the Wainwright Prize — £5,000 for the best writing on the outdoors, nature and travel focused on Britain — was released today, World Environment Day. It runs to 13 books, which vary enormously in genre, subject, tone and length. Among them are Underland, Robert Macfarlane’s exploration of the world beneath our feet; Out of the Woods by Luke Turner, which is both an examination of bisexuality and a tribute to “Effing” Forest; Landfill by Tim Dee, which is about birds — gulls, specifically — and rubbish; and Timesong: Searching for Doggerland by Julia Blackburn, a hymn to a vanished landscape and the people who once inhabited it. The full list is on the Wainwright Prize site; the short list will be announced on July 2.

New Nan Shepherd prize for nature writing

A new prize in memory of Nan Shepherd, author of The Living Mountain, was announced this week by the publisher Canongate, which is working with the Nan Shepherd Estate and the University of Aberdeen “to find the next big voice in nature writing, from communities underrepresented in the genre”. The winner of the Nan Shepherd Prize for Nature Writing will receive a book deal with Canongate – including editorial mentoring and an advance of £10,000 – and the option of literary representation with the agency Jenny Brown Associates. Entries can be submitted from June 24.

  Canongate says: “Nan Shepherd is one of our most beloved authors, and while her classic of nature writing The Living Mountain took three decades to first find a publisher, today the book is recognised as a masterpiece and Nan is inspiring a new generation of writers. We felt that a prize named after her was a fitting way to honour her legacy.”

Barry Lopez: wisdom-keeper turns wisdom-sharer

If you have any interest in what we’re doing to what Barry Lopez calls the “throttled Earth”, and how we might begin to ease our deadly grip, you ought to read his latest book, Horizon. My review appeared in print in The Daily Telegraph on May 11 and is now online. You can also read it here on Deskbound Traveller.

Nicolson wins Wainwright Prize

The 2018 Wainwright Prize, for travel/nature writing focused on Britain, was awarded today to Adam Nicolson for The Seabird’s Cry (William Collins), which is both a celebration of life on the wing and a warning of the threats the birds face from the action of human beings.

Travelling the world in Edinburgh

It’s a while since I’ve been to Edinburgh. This year’s bill for the Book Festival (August 11-27), which is now online, is making me think I should be booking for the duration. Writing on travel and place is particularly well represented. Tickets will be on sale from June 26.

  Rory MacLean will be talking about In North Korea, a book with which he and the photographer Nick Danziger aim “to catch a glimpse of life away from the performance, as it is lived in the world’s most secretive nation, at a turning point in its history”.

  Richard Lloyd Parry will discuss Ghosts of the Tsunami, his account, told through the stories of survivors, of the 2011 earthquake in north-east Japan (a book that recently won him the £20,000 Rathbones Folio Prize).

  Tim Dee (author of The Running Sky and Four Fields), will talk about Ground Work, the collection he has edited of writing on connections between place and people.

  Rose George (author of Deep Sea and Foreign Going), Maya Jasanoff (author of The Dawn Watch, about Joseph Conrad and globalisation) and the Brazilian philosopher Djamila Ribeiro, a major figure in the Afro-Brazilian women’s rights movement, will discuss the seas as a space for trading.

   James Campbell of the TLS and Rosemary Goring, literary editor of The Herald, will consider the city of bedsits, bachelors and bombed-out buildings that is “Muriel Spark’s London”.

  Graham Robb will talk about The Debatable Land, a territory that once lay between Scotland and England but belonged to neither.

  Alastair McIntosh (author of Poacher’s Pilgrimage, a journey through the Outer Hebrides) will compare notes with Guy Stagg (author of The Crossway, about a walk from Canterbury to Jerusalem, due to be published by Picador on June 14).

  Suzy Hansen (who writes for The New York Times Magazine from Turkey and is author of  Notes on a Foreign Country) and Sarah Rainsford (witness for the BBC to the end of Cuba’s Castro era and author of Our Woman in Havana) will offer “portraits of countries that American influence can barely reach and… discuss the issue of America’s place on the global stage”.

  Ian Buruma, editor of The New York Review of Books, will discuss his memoir of 1970s Japan, A Tokyo Romance.

  Abir Mukherjee, Sandip Roy, Nalini Paul and Sampurna Chattarji will mark 70 years of Indian independence by mapping the connections, ancient and contemporary, between Scotland and India.

  Bruno Maçães, who was Portugal’s Europe Minister from 2013 to 2015, will present The Dawn of Eurasia, which “weaves together history, diplomacy and vivid reports of a six-month journey from Baku to Samarkand, Vladivostok to Beijing… in an effort to persuade us that our future lies in developing a supercontinent called Eurasia”.

  The Canadian-born artist and poet JR Carpenter and the Catalan writer Alicia Kopf will discuss polar explorations. The former’s collection An Ocean of Static “is generated from ship logs and code language”; the latter has written a hybrid novel, Brother in Ice, “from research notes, a fictionalised diary and a travelogue of polar exploration”.

  Claudio Magris (author of Danube and, most recently, a collection of essays, Journeying) and Francis Spufford (whose novel Golden Hill won last year’s RSL Ondaatje Prize and whose latest work is True Stories & Other Essays), will talk on the theme that “Life is a journey”.

Wainwright Prize long list

The long list has been published for the Wainwright Prize for the best book of travel, nature or outdoors writing focused on Britain. John Lewis-Stempel, as I predicted, is on it for The Wood (Doubleday). The 13 titles also include The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Kay (Hamish Hamilton), a “book of spells” that has worked magic in encouraging children and their schools to reconnect with the natural world, and Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington (see earlier post). The short list will be published on July 5 and the winner named on August 2.