Sharing words: recommendations part one

Victoria Franklin – Conservation Graduate Trainee

Without the Conservation Department’s usual mid morning coffee time over the last 18 months we’ve missed out on the usual office chatter of what everyone thought to the latest BBC Countryfile episode, what people have been growing in their gardens or the interesting things we have seen on our site visits. So with my late summer holiday looming I thought I would ask what everyone’s favorite books are, not that my book shelves are in need of anymore!

So here we go with a list that contains some of the Department’s favorite books, each with its own synopsis. This is part one of a two part series, this part containing ten Natural History books and part two containing ten Local History books. Maybe our recommendations will inspire you to pick up a book and learn something new as the darker nights draw in.

The Peregrine by J A Baker

J. A. Baker’s extraordinary classic of British nature writing was first published in 1967. Greeted with acclaim, it went on to win the Duff Cooper Prize, the pre-eminent literary prize of the time. Luminaries such as Ted Hughes, Barry Lopez and Andrew Motion have cited it as one of the most important books in twentieth-century nature writing.

Despite the association of peregrines with the wild, outer reaches of the British Isles, The Peregrine is set on the flat marshes of the Essex coast, where J. A. Baker spent long winters looking and writing about the visitors from the uplands – peregrines that spend the winter hunting the huge flocks of pigeons and waders that share the desolate landscape with them.

“… honestly the most beautiful prose by this guy who’d never written a book before … wrote this absolute banger then disappeared back into obscurity.” 
Ann Pease, Ryevitalise Administrator

The Harvest of the Hills’ by Angus Winchester

This illustrated environmental history of rural life in Northern England and the Scottish Borders in the late medieval and early modern periods explores the relationship between society and the environment – the ways in which humans responded to and used the environment in which they lived. The author uses the orders and byelaws made by manorial courts to build up a picture of how pastoral society in the Pennine, Lake District and Border hills husbanded the resources of the uplands. It offers an upland, pastoral paradigm of land use, the management of common land, and the transition from medieval to early-modern farming systems to balance the extensive literature on the agrarian history of the lowlands. The geographical scope of the book includes the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, the Border hills, the North Pennines and the Forest of Bowland.

“One other that has come to mind – is ‘The Harvest of the Hills’ by Angus Winchester. It’s a historical look at farming practise and kind of environmental history, including the use/exploitation of common land in the upland north and borders. It covers the period 1400 – 1700, so quite useful for understanding the landscape as we see it now.”
Miles Johnson, Head of Historic Environment

“As a general cultural/natural heritage crossover, how about …”
Miles Johnson, Head of Historic Environment

The History of the Countryside by Dr Oliver Rackham

Exploring the natural and man-made features of the land – fields, highways, hedgerows, fens, marshes, rivers, heaths, coasts, woods and wood pastures – he shows conclusively and unforgettably how they have developed over the centuries. In doing so, he covers a wealth of related subjects to provide a fascinating account of the sometimes subtle and sometimes radical ways in which people, fauna, flora, climate, soils and other physical conditions have played their part in the shaping of the countryside.

“Miles great shout, I love that book.”
Holly Ramsden, Conservation Officer

Nightwalk: A journey to the heart of nature by Chris Yates

Chris Yates, one of Britain’s most insightful and lyrical writers, raises his gaze from his beloved rivers and ponds and takes us on a mesmerizing tour of the British countryside.

“Last November, the sudden appearance of a hundred wintering ravens in a wood in Cranborne Chase, where I have lived for twenty-five years without seeing more than a few solitary specimens, reminded me that there is always something ready to flame up again in the landscape, just when it seemed the fire had gone out.”

In Nightwalk we accompany Chris Yates on the most magical of journeys into the very heart of the British countryside. His acute observation of the natural world and ability to transcend it exquisitely sets Chris apart from his contemporaries.

Time slows down for a deeper intimacy with nature, and through Chris’s writing we hear every rustle of a leaf, every call of a bird. He widens the power of our imagination, heightening our senses and revealing beauty in the smallest details.

Edgelands by Michael Symmons Roberts

The wilderness is much closer than you think. Passed through, negotiated, unnamed, unacknowledged: the edgelands – those familiar yet ignored spaces which are neither city nor countryside – have become the great wild places on our doorsteps.

In the same way the Romantic writers taught us to look at hills, lakes and rivers, poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts write about mobile masts and gravel pits, business parks and landfill sites, taking the reader on a journey to marvel at these richly mysterious, forgotten regions in our midst.

Edgelands forms a critique of what we value as ‘wild’, and allows our allotments, railways, motorways, wasteland and water a presence in the world, and a strange beauty all of their own.

Feral by George Monbiot

In Feral, George Monbiot, one of the world’s most celebrated radical thinkers offers a riveting tale of possibility and travel in the wild

How many of us sometimes feel that we are scratching at the walls of this life, seeking to find our way into a wider space beyond? That our mild, polite existence sometimes seems to crush the breath out of us?

Feral is the lyrical and gripping story of George Monbiot’s efforts to re-engage with nature and discover a new way of living. He shows how, by restoring and rewilding our damaged ecosystems on land and at sea, we can bring wonder back into our lives. Making use of some remarkable scientific discoveries, Feral lays out a new, positive environmentalism, in which nature is allowed to find its own way.

“A journey to the heart of nature by Chris Yates (guy goes out at dusk and walks through the night in the countryside), Edgelands by Michael Symmons Roberts (wildlife and value of ‘wasteland’ and scraps of land on edges of urban areas), Feral by George Monbiot (rewilding, humans needing to up their game etc) and anything by Robert Macfarlane obs  …. We’ve developed a bit of a problem in this house buying them and our front room does resemble the natural history section of Waterstones.”
Ann Pease, Ryevitalise Administrator

A Sting in the tale by Dave Goulson

One man’s quest to save the bumblebee…

Dave Goulson has always been obsessed with wildlife, from his childhood menagerie of exotic pets and dabbling in experimental taxidermy to his groundbreaking research into the mysterious ways of the bumblebee and his mission to protect our rarest bees.

Once commonly found in the marshes of Kent, the short-haired bumblebee is now extinct in the UK, but still exists in the wilds of New Zealand, descended from a few queen bees shipped over in the nineteenth century.

A Sting in the Tale tells the story of Goulson’s passionate drive to reintroduce it to its native land and contains groundbreaking research into these curious creatures, history’s relationship with the bumblebee, the disastrous effects intensive farming has had on our bee populations and the potential dangers if we are to continue down this path.

“I loved [it].”
Holly Ramsden, Conservation Officer

“… also on my list would be …”
Victoria Franklin, Conservation Graduate Trainee 

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

This book is a lens to help you take a closer look at what you may have taken for granted. Slow down, breathe deep and look around. What can you hear? What can you see? What do you feel?

Are trees social beings? How do trees live? Do they feel pain or have awareness of their surroundings?

In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben makes the case that the forest is a social network. He draws on groundbreaking scientific discoveries to describe how trees are like human families: tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, support them as they grow, share nutrients with those who are sick or struggling, and even warn each other of impending dangers.

Wohlleben also shares his deep love of woods and forests, explaining the amazing processes of life, death and regeneration he has observed in his woodland. A walk in the woods will never be the same again.

Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake

Here is a lifeform so strange and wondrous that it forces us to rethink how life works…

Neither plant nor animal, it is found throughout the earth, the air and our bodies. It can be microscopic, yet also accounts for the largest organisms ever recorded, living for millennia and weighing tens of thousands of tonnes. Its ability to digest rock enabled the first life on land, it can survive unprotected in space, and thrives amidst nuclear radiation.

In this captivating adventure, Merlin Sheldrake explores the spectacular and neglected world of fungi: endlessly surprising organisms that sustain nearly all living systems. They can solve problems without a brain, stretching traditional definitions of ‘intelligence’, and can manipulate animal behaviour with devastating precision. In giving us bread, alcohol and life-saving medicines, fungi have shaped human history, and their psychedelic properties, which have influenced societies since antiquity, have recently been shown to alleviate a number of mental illnesses. The ability of fungi to digest plastic, explosives, pesticides and crude oil is being harnessed in break-through technologies, and the discovery that they connect plants in underground networks, the ‘Wood Wide Web’, is transforming the way we understand ecosystems. Yet they live their lives largely out of sight, and over ninety percent of their species remain undocumented.

Entangled Life is a mind-altering journey into this hidden kingdom of life, and shows that fungi are key to understanding the planet on which we live, and the ways we think, feel and behave. The more we learn about fungi, the less makes sense without them.

“OOH! and Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake (best name???) – extraordinary book about fungi.”
Ann Pease, Ryevitalise Administrator  

English Pastoral by James Rebanks

As a boy, James Rebanks’s grandfather taught him to work the land the old way. Their family farm in the Lake District hills was part of an ancient agricultural landscape: a patchwork of crops and meadows, of pastures grazed with livestock, and hedgerows teeming with wildlife. And yet, by the time James inherited the farm, it was barely recognisable. The men and women had vanished from the fields; the old stone barns had crumbled; the skies had emptied of birds and their wind-blown song.

English Pastoral is the story of an inheritance: one that affects us all. It tells of how rural landscapes around the world were brought close to collapse, and the age-old rhythms of work, weather, community and wild things were lost. And yet this elegy from the northern fells is also a song of hope: of how, guided by the past, one farmer 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 all the odds, it may still be possible to build a new pastoral: not a utopia, but somewhere decent for us all.

“I have loved seeing everyone’s reading suggestions. I now have a long wish list! Like Victoria I have recently read the English Pastoral by James Rebanks and thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Rachel Pickering, Woodland Team Leader

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