On the list to read
Last updated 25 June 2012
Prehistoric Coastal Communities: The
mesolithic in western Britain
Authenticity in Nature: Making Choices
about the Naturalness of Ecosystems
Some explanation on selection - a good wildland book inspires me through it is ideas, or descriptions and understanding of natural habitats and their communities. Books that have relevance to contemporary knowledge edge out significant markers of the historical wilderness canon - you can discover the likes of Emerson, Thoreau and Muir for yourself. The track record of British literature on wildland is poor, reflecting the millennia of cultural use of our landscape.
Do We Need Pandas?: The Uncomfortable Truth About Biodiversity
Ken Thompson (2010) Green Books ISBN-13: 978-1900322867
I wanted to read this book as I thought, after a quick skim, that it would be a counter to the obsession with “biodiversity” as defined by priority species in Biodiversity Action Plans. Perhaps I should be less keen to have my prejudices supported, and just absorb what an author has to say without too much expectation. I certainly should not have imbued this book with any consistent or revealing philosophy, or have expected a coherent approach to an understanding of biodiversity. Instead, there are stabs at interpreting a few key studies so that the scientific illiteracy that the reader is presumed to have is relieved. It gets us nowhere, however, for Thompson to cover a few inconclusive experiments that set out to determine whether biodiversity is inherently good for ecosystems on the basis that human-driven ecosystem simplification raises questions about how the number of species in an ecosystem influences its functioning. It is an assumption that greater diversity affects ecosystem productivity, as well as stability, and intuition suggests it should be the case, but who are we to judge what is good for ecosystems? Isn’t that the problem of the narrow approach of biodiversity based on priority species in the BAP?
Thompson notes that topography has much to do with diversity, and that the size of protected areas and their connectivity are key issues. He argues for eco-restoration of degraded landscapes, but then uses the reinstatement of the Large Blue butterfly as an example. That wont “fix” an ecosystem! He highlights the trend of putting economic value on biodiversity and on ecosystem services, pandering to the characteristic that humans will only value the biosphere on the basis of what can be usefully exploited, and in order to gain support and money for conservation. Through example, he explains the difficulties of using different value systems - moral, aesthetic commercial or potential value – in assigning economic value. As he notes, conserving rare species does not really benefit people. He says pandas are a luxury item, as are most other rare species. His best argument is when he says that the most sensible course is to “conserve the fabric of whole ecosystems, and let the rare species look after themselves” He explains that rare species are too sparse to significantly influence the functioning of an ecosystem, and are thus unlikely to be essential for the continued provision of ecosystem services. He also makes it clear that ‘saving the planet’ and it’s ecosystems and environments is a totally different science to ‘saving the panda’ or any single species or piece of land. And he notes that we could more easily and cheaply preserve the wilder areas of the world, which he estimates as taking up about half of the worlds land area and where there are less than five people per square kilometre.
It is clear that Thompson sees wild nature only in terms of its value – to humans “I don’t see much from separating people from nature” . He doesn’t seem to understand the paradox of an all-consuming people and wild nature.
Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators
William Stolzenburg (2009) Bloomsbury Publishing PLC ISBN-13: 978-1596916241
Stolzenberg is a science journalist with a remarkable ability to bring science andscientists alive by telling their story. I discovered this when I read his article in Conservation Magazine about a Pleistocene rewilding of N America. He described the long weekend that a group of scientists spent at Ted Turner’s ranch in New Mexico, their aim to evaluate the need for a re-introduction of the megafauna, especially top predators, lost to extinction by the “overkill” of the first humans to set foot in N America. I would have given anything to have been there with this group that had an uninhibited enthusiasm for their task and a deep appreciation of natural systems. I would however have had to acknowledge that I came from a country that has an even higher extinction level than N. America and which suffers from the dead hand of a cultural inertia that stifles such discussions and leaves us almost wholly ignorant of the issues. Having now read this book by Stolzenberg about the extent of ecological damage caused by the absence of large predators, I feel much better informed to be able to discuss the issues, and to argue that there very much is a need to think in the same terms for Britain.
Stolzenberg gives a compelling and fascinating account of nearly half a century of scientific studies that show the importance of predators, from killer whales, sea otters, sharks, and starfish in oceans, to the mountain lions, grizzly bears, and wolves on lands. He follows in the wake of the removal of topmost carnivores, and finds ecological chaos in the impoverished landscapes/seascapes that ensue from their absence. He shows how the Green World Hypothesis - that predators limit the influence of herbivores, allowing vegetation to flourish – although controversial at first, gained increasing support with each new study of the effects of predators. While the ecological benefits of the reintroduction of the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park are obviously a key entry in the book, the vast range of example and scale covered shows the comprehensive approach and the depth of detail, all made easy by his interpretation. Thus the role of sea otters in maintaining the underwater forests of kelp in the Aleutian Island range. Around islands with no otters, sea urchins grow large at the expense of eating all the kelp away, destroying a habitat for a mass of marine life. Sea otters eat urchins and thus around islands that have otters, the kelp forests flourish.
There is an infectious enthusiasm for the subject and a great empathy with the scientists that he has got to know, and this is backed by chapter notes, an an extensive bibliography, and an index. The nod sometimes to popular culture and idiom to amplify a point is disappointing, as it is also unnecessary considering the clarity of his approach that obviates any need to seemingly hide a well-informed intellect, but it does get less as he goes on. That small thing apart, I keep coming back to this book. It is nothing less than a breakthrough read for me, greatly informing my ideas and giving me confidence to pursue them.
The Wild Life: A Year of Living on Wild Food
John Lewis-Stempel (2009) Doubleday ISBN-13: 978-0385613903
Jim Vail has cast new futures for a society based on hamlet economies. His proposed organisational models have a high environmental autonomy and guard against developing into hierarchies. I like his ideas about primary production, using a sliding hybrid/horticultural model to create diversified, resilient, and sustainable nodes of production. His approach starts with an efficient, multiple yield system based on Permaculture that combines annual and perennial production with forest edge systems. He sees the forest edge/forest garden as a regular contributor to productivity, but also as an arboricultural reserve that can make up for years when horticulture underperforms. But it is the third part of his model that gives him the resilience he seeks when he calls for access to replace at least half of the production from hunter/gathering. This provides insurance against systemic shocks, but it also has explicit implications for relative land use, with Vail suggesting that a community of 20 people subsisting on perhaps 80 acres, would need an additional 800 to 80,000 acres of wildland surrounding them.
It is with this backdrop that I read Lewis-Stempel’s book where he describes a year living solely off the wild food of his forty acre farm in Herefordshire. He set himself stern rules that allowed no room for compromise, but as the year wore on, a few cheats appeared to soften the lack of variety in his diet. The seasonal harvests of each month seem his only activity, consuming many hours in procuring and processing, helpful recipes given as needed. Summing up this new knowledge reflected in the book suggests that he must have prepared well for this year and had a reasonable expectation of getting a book out of it – he himself maintains though that it was a strategy to heal himself from the failure to rebuild his un-modernised farm house. He is no farmer in the sense of knowing nothing else - he did grow up in this area of Herefordshire with some semblance of country life (probably blasting everything that came into view) before living in London as an author, and then returning. Does all this conditionality matter? Yes, because he lamely invokes Thoreau towards the very end of the book, and exclaims that the year got him closer to himself, his family, and to nature. And yet wild nature to him was just the supplier to a man used to being a bon viveur. At the end of that year, he has not given over any new space for wild nature. He takes and consumes, does not nurture, and does not ascribe value to this wildness. It just exists for him, to nurture him, and it has to co-exist with the extractive land uses that bring him income in the orthodox life that he returns to.
Laura Beatty (2009) Vintage ISBN-13: 978-0099516941
The review of the paperback intrigued me when it gave a description of a teenage girl turning her back on her family and leaving home to live in the woods. Not in the bookstore, I found instead John Lewis-Stempel’s book (see above) about living off the wild food of his farmland. That book threw up quotes from Thoreau, but little evidence of a change of approach to his farmland, and so I left it. In its place, I determined to read again, Anthony Wigens book on Clandestine Farming (see below), where the author eschewed the idea of private land ownership, and began tending the wild food and a few crops of his own on the farmland and woodland around where he lived.
Days later, I came across a remarkably constructed den, secluded away in woodland, reminding me of the backwoodsman’s shelters I built as a youth. There was little sign of use –just a small woodpile under cover for the stone lined fire pit. The craft and isolation of this den brought me back to thinking about those who seek a retreat in woodland, and to this book, which I finally came upon. There is an obliqueness to the story that could fit with Anne, a not so sharp 15-year old, as the narrative is very much given through her eyes and her phraseology. This would be acceptable if it were not that Anne copes too well with her new subsistence without seemingly needing much instruction. It is also an opportunistic subsistence since Anne takes from both wild nature and from the farmland alongside the woods – she steals milk from cows and corn from the field: secures a water supply next to her woodland shelter, clears woodland and grows vegetables, and is given chickens to raise for meat and eggs. The cruelties of snaring, game keeping and poaching (a cat is shot, the excuse that it is a fox) and evisceration are not dodged, but the essentials of menstruation and defecation get solitary and belated mentions. Human encounter is constantly weaved in, none is loveable except to her, and it seems essential to the author to create situations where Anne can interact with more than just the wildlife of the woods, and for events that take her out of the woods. Why do I, unlike other reviewers, think that the wildlife has a somewhat perfunctory presence? Why during a subsequent encounter with her father does he not ask questions of her? Is it likely that her detectable presence in this public access woods is so easily tolerated? Isn’t female facial hair a banal archetype for the bag lady that she becomes?
The author lives in Salcey Forest, a Forestry Commission woodland in Northamptonshire. It is unacknowledged, but this provides the locations and some of the character-types in her story, including the café, the aerial walkway of the Tree Top Walk, and the forest ranger. It is obviously the inspiration and source for this first novel, not least that the Forest is used for half-day survival training courses that include shelter building, fire lighting and purifying water. The prose starts off in the “beautifully written” category, but settles down over the course of the novel, leaving you interested to learn how it is that Anne is finally forced to leave the woods.
Nature by Night - a guide to observation and identification
Vincent Albouy & Jean Chevallier, Illustrations Jean Chevallier (2008) New Holland Publishers Ltd ISBN-13: 978-1847731142
Late last summer, I spent my first night out under the stars for over 30 years. Back then, it was in the centre of Paris, on the sliver of the Isle de la Citie that sticks out past Pont Neuf. It was Bastille Day, quatorze de juillet, and so the night was loud with celebration, fireworks, music from the fireman’s band – les sapeurs-pompiers, and the street dances of the PCF - Parti communiste français. It was very much an urban soundscape of the night. This time, the location was in amongst the juniper woodland on Moughton Fell, the choice dictated by the semi-cover from the juniper shrubs, and the fact that I would be miles from any people or houses. I had hoped to have a night of natural and wild sounds, the shrubbery hopefully affording more species than the surrounding open landscape. And even with a relatively sleepless night (I had not bargained on how cold it would be at this elevation) I heard only the scurrying of very small mammals and the occasional call of an owl. The dominant and most depressing sounds were of the aeroplanes passing many thousands of feet above, and the continuous traffic on the A65.
Perhaps spending the whole night out was unwise, but now, with this book, I can better plan some dawn, dusk and night time adventures to hear, but also catch a glimpse of the rich wildlife that chooses to avoid us during the day, whether it be birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, fish or plants. It’s a fun book, introducing new ways to observe creatures and their habitats, as well as advice on how to find particular species. Written by two Frenchmen, it betrays the fact that most of continental Europe is far richer in wildlife than Britain since it talks about animals that we have never had, the genet, beech marten or ibex, or no longer have like wolf, brown bear and lynx, but also animals that were once widespread here but now are geographically confined, such as the pine martin, wild boar and the wildcat.
The book is beautifully illustrated not with photographs but with pastels and charcoal drawings, as well as watercolours and other media. These add immeasurably to the descriptions, and the rough and readiness of some of them work well as impressions of the kind of view we may only get at night. The fox in moonlight, and the pine marten crossing a road at dusk are favourites. More than a field guide, this is an inspiration to connect with wild nature at times of the day when it has mastery.
Travels in the Greater Yellowstone
Jack Turner (2008) Thomas Dunne Books ISBN 0-312-26672-3
Turner lives in Grand Teton National Park, where he is a professional mountaineering guide in the wonderful mountains that form the backdrop to the Park. As well as that work, his life revolves around the seasonal rhythms of the large chunk of Wyoming and Montana that make up the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem: the Parks of Yellowstone and Grand Teton, surrounded by an even larger area made up of seven National Forests, two National Wildlife Refuges and the National Elk Refuge. His book is a series of essays describing the trips he has taken in revisiting his favourite places, along with his favourite people, and at the time of year best suited to really appreciate those places. I bought this book before setting out myself to Greater Yellowstone. I only managed to get half way through it before leaving, but what I had read gave me valuable pointers to where I should go, and what I would hope to see - such as the wolves in the Lamar Valley, and the alpine flowers up at the Pass on the Beartooth Highway. I took the book with me, intending to finish it, but my attention was gripped by the evidence of the archaeological and historical presence of Native Americans in Greater Yellowstone, and so I read about that instead (see the review below). It has been a joy to read the second half of Turner's book on returning home, because the journeys he describes remind me now of the places I have been to.
Turner is of an age where he has refined his views about wild nature and the threats it faces, to a straightforward and mostly uncompromising degree. He is fortunate that he has the fabulous ecosystem of Greater Yellowstone which can inform his views - he rightly identifies that it represents a pretty compelling ground zero for this knowledge and the issues - and he does know it well because in the classic way of Americans and the great outdoors, he makes use of it - driving its scenic byways, hiking, fishing, hunting, drawing, kayaking, horse riding, making money out of it. Bar the latter two, that is the basis of his twelve trips, and it is while he is describing these trips and the things he is seeing and doing that he expands into the significance of them, the problems associated with them at both local and national level, and who he thinks is to blame. Strong opinions, calmly put with incisive logic that one would expect from someone who started out as a college lecturer in philosophy. Turner doesn't intellectualise - as he says on one backcountry walk with two friends down along the mountain peaks of the Tetons: all three have ample college qualifications, but the hike is about them being "happiest when we completely occupy our bodies"
There is a bit more about cutthroat trout and fishing in the book than I wanted to know, but having seen how popular fishing is there, it is no more than it should be. But it is his dog Rio that gets Turner into trouble with me. A mostly constant companion, Turner admits that he breaks some basic regulations when he doesn't have Rio on a lead in wilderness, and he doesn't follow precautions in bear country with his food by securing it high in a tree because he thinks Rio will keep any bears away. He also rails against the regulation that holds in the National Parks that prevents him from taking Rio into the backcountry there. It is unfortunate that Turner appears to want to pick and choose which regulations should apply to him, when he is so steadfast in seeing the need to regulate against other harms. In the scheme of things, his dog is no big deal, but perhaps he should have seen the comments I saw on the trailhead register for a wilderness where many had signed out of the wilderness complaining of "pets not on leash". It is by our consensus, and not some free for all, that wild nature is protected.
Ecology of Woodlands and Forests: Description, Dynamics and Diversity
Peter A. Thomas and John R. Packham (2007) Cambridge University Press ISBN-13: 978-0521542319
There is an online facility within Google to look inside significant proportions of a book and thus decide whether to buy it. I alighted on Chapter 5 on Biotic Interactions where it covered the impact of woodland carnivores, omnivores (bears) and herbivores, and the balance between herbivore and hunter, before moving into a section on Herbivores and the Holocene where the authors critiqued Franz Vera’s theory that herbivores kept landscapes in an open, park-like structure of wood pasture. Like many authors, they say Vera’s ideas raise many interesting questions before then going through the evidence that countered Vera’s theory. I bought the book. However, that part of Chapter 5 was as close as I got to the authors having a view on the relative place of woodland ecology in our landscapes or even some policy context, even though the final chapter is ostensibly about the future and how our forests will change.
Perhaps they don’t see that as their brief, because the aim in the Preface is set out as giving an account of forest structure, the evolution of forest communities of plants and animals, the ecological relationships among forest organisms, woodland processes including the flow of energy and the decomposition and cycling of nutrients, and the significance of plant and animal diversity. I’m not sure the latter is dealt with very well. However, many ecological concepts are named and explained, such as plant strategies and the relationship between diversity, competition, stress and disturbance, and regenerative strategies and methods of seed dispersal. There is a profusion of very useful examples in boxes, case studies, as well as tables, figures and diagrams that are interspersed throughout to illustrate those concepts. Some are just good reference, such as the figure that shows the emergence and period of leaf cover and flowering period(s) of the ground layer, shrub and tree species of woodland, including identifying the Ancient Woodland Indicator species. I like that terms and key words in the text are given emphasis in bold type.
The book has an opening chapter that identifies the characteristics of woodlands and forests, reviewing a range of ecosystem and ecological properties, defining general forest types, and providing examples of regional forest classification systems. Chapter 2 provides a summary of forest soils, their horizons (zones) and how climate affects forest soils, and their influence on ground flora root systems. Chapters 3 and 4 review plant life-forms in primary production and forest development and how abiotic and biotic constraints such as shade can shape plant growth and reproductive strategies. Chapter 5 has the biotic interactions found within forests, including insect pests, mycorrhizal associations, fungal pathogens, and mammalian herbivory. Chapter 6 describes patterns of diversity as well as the mechanisms responsible for the evolution and maintenance of diversity. Decomposition and mineralization and then nutrient processes and energy flow are described in Chapters 7 and 8. An account of forest change through geologic time is given in Chapter 9 along with descriptions of succession, gap-phase dynamics, and disturbance factors. The penultimate and chapter covers working forests, their management and improvement, before surprisingly launching into landscape ecology, the fragmentation and connectivity of forests. The final chapter covers anthropogenic impacts on forest communities, discussing the agents of forest change and forest decline.
The problem in amongst this wealth of topics is that some are comprehensively described while others get a few paragraphs, sometimes referring readers to other sources. Then there are odd tangential moments when the authors hare off into a detailed description of a species that is not central to the topic. On balance though, there is much of interest here that will have me using the book as a first choice reference on woodland ecology.
Silent Fields: The Long Decline of a Nation's Wildlife
Roger Lovegrove (2007) OUPISBN-10: 0198520719
This book catalogues the deliberate killing of wildlife in Britain from 450 years ago until the present day in the cause of ensuring that the human use of natural resources is paramount. In two chapters alone, Lovegrove describes the systematic killing of 23 species of bird and 11 of mammals, in some instances such as pine marten, wild cat and polecat, taking them to the point of local extinction, and national extinction for the osprey and sea eagle. Starting with the Tudor vermin laws - the Acts for the Preservation of Grain - he shows how parish records document the slaughter across England and Wales and the bounties paid for each head. Trapping and killing methods are described, as are the literary sources that betray the delight some had in the killing. He shows how the patterns of slaughter varied across the land, and how different species fared with the impact of enclosure and the habitat and land use changes that it wrought. But his accounts of slaughter become the more grotesque when sporting estates burgeoned especially in Scotland from the late eighteenth century and up until the late 1930s, and where routine and efficient slaughter by virtue of the breech-loading shotgun allowed total control over the landscape for human exploitation.
In coming up to today, Lovegrove notes
that many of those persecuted species now have legal protection in
response to public revulsion and changing attitude, but then proceeds to
affirm the rightness of continued control of unprotected “vermin” on
shooting estates – foxes, crows and stoats - as being an acceptable
consequence of maintaining the financial viability of the shoots:
Lovegrove deftly avoids entirely “outing” himself as an ex-RSPB employee, but you can join the dots that his lack of condemnation of the slaughter of “accepted predators” is because the RSPB regard foxes, crows and stoats as threats to their beloved raptors that now have protection. Thus the RSPB and gamekeepers have common cause in ensuring the slaughter of "accepted predators", but they are strange bed fellows when the iconic protected raptors are also still routinely and illegally slaughtered in Scotland by those same gamekeepers. Cataloguing all this information and retelling it at such repetitive length is only justifiable if it brings forward some solid lessons and conclusions for all our wildlife. But Lovegrove just alludes to a gulf in public understanding of the need for wildlife management and that difficult discussions are needed to bridge the gap of what he regards as hardened views and entrenched positions – “a real need for rational debate and discussion”. WRONG. This is about moral decisions and principled leadership, neither of which Lovegrove supplies with this book.
The Wild Places
Robert Macfarlane (2007) Granta Books ISBN-10: 1862079412
This is a book or “map” of journeys in search of wild places in Britain. It took Macfarlane to islands, highlands, windswept coast, mountain and hill, holloways in Dorset, shingle coast in Suffolk, and his local beechwood. The writing style will split opinion. Some will find it poetic, an evocation of an intense and sensitive experience. Others will think that it suffers from an embellishment too far, a trading in poignancy that is for effect rather than for honest communication. And there is an annoying tendency to invent new verbs that function as ‘foreshorteners’. Is this some unconscious balance to the embellishment or some literary tick. Whatever the answer, it is wearing to endure such examples as carpentered, shoaled, turfed, shallowed, and candling.
Nothing is ever mundane in Macfarlane’s purview – we hear little of the ‘business’ of journeying, the provisioning and equipment carried, the pitching of his ubiquitous “bivouac bag” (which is really a small tent). Combine this with the seemingly endless convenience of events that invite his lyrical comment, or historical connection, and it soon becomes a repetitive formula for each place visited, and made me want for some variety in attack. That formulaic style is forsaken only once when Macfarlane describes the illness and death of his friend, Roger Deakin. Here, perhaps sensing his audience would want honesty and directness of emotion, Macfarlane is at his most forthright and uncomplicated.
Is this a book about wild places? In truth, and as Macfarlane admits, remoteness does not equate with wildness. Thus he readjusts from his early journeys, learning from Deakin in the Burren when he exclaims the verdant floristic of a large gryke in the limestone to be a wild place. His next lesson is also in the presence of Deakin when they explore a disused holloway to find it overshadowed by hedgeline trees above, and itself overgrown with bramble, hawthorn and nettles, giving home to spiders and unseen scuttling creatures. Macfarlane’s time with Deakin was always well spent since, if he only but knew it, he was being exposed to the wild virtue of three dimensional landscapes, not often apparent in the remote locations he first visited. This third dimension could be contributed by landform (holloway) or geology (gryke in limestone pavement) but it is wild in all senses when it is contributed as well by woody and herbaceous vegetation, the self-willed clothing of landscapes unhindered by the herbivore pressure from livestock (as in the gryke) or by our human management and disturbance (as in the holloway). Macfarlane does not register this, although intuitively he knows it can be close by. There is a second book if he wants to take this on.
In Bear Country - A Global Journey in Vanishing Wilderness
Brian Payton (2007) Old Street Publishing ISBN-13: 978-1-905847
There are eight species of bear remaining around the world, some just clinging on to existence, while others – such as the 600,000 population of the black bear in N. America – are still a wild part of the greater landscape. Payton undertook a series of journeys for this book, travelling to Cambodia, China, India, Italy, Peru, France and N America in search of the bears themselves, but what he really found out about and chronicles is our often cruel relationship with them, both in the past and now. Thus there is too much in this book about the people he met, their customs and cultural history irrespective of whether it directly relates to bears. There is too little in the book about the “vanishing wilderness” if only because many of the bears now are forced to coexist in a fragile, close proximity to our human settlement, such as in Italy, or are attracted to our garbage as in Churchill, Manitoba. Wherever they live, all bears face the ineluctable fate that if they become a threat to human existence, then they will be killed.
Payton does dissect the
systems in place that aim to protect the continued existence of bear
populations, but his narrative is riven with the dichotomy best expressed
in the book by a Dr Boscagli, a long-time worker for the cause of bears in
the Abruzzo National Park in Italy. Boscagli ponders the role of these
parks – are they for conservation or the promotion of tourism?:
Then contrast that view with
Dr Fosse, a
researcher into the
cave bear in France. Payton
believes Fosse is at best ambivalent to the fact that possibly only 15
brown bears are still alive in France. Fosse thinks their fate is a
Where Payton scores an emotional hit is in his description in the last chapter of a black bear hunt in the La Sal Mountains in Utah. I thought he was going to evade describing the kill. After a brief diversion, he returns to that moment, leaving the reader in no doubt that this was a senseless act.
This book was published under a different title outside of the UK: Shadow of the Bear – Travels in vanishing wilderness
The Wild Trees: What if the Last Wilderness is Above Our Heads?
Richard Preston (2007)Allen Lane ISBN-13: 978-1846140235
This is the first book of narrative non-fiction that I have read. It tells the story of real characters and events in the discovery and climbing of the tallest coastal redwood trees, hidden in unseen valleys of dense primeval rainforest on the coast of California (only 4% of the original coastal redwood forest remains unlogged). The redwood "titans" are 113 m (370ft) and more tall, their age is measured in a thousand years. Their sheer bulk is shown by a diameter of 7.3 metres. They have a very complex canopy crown made up of over 220 trunks occupying a space of 24,000 cubic metres, with the tree itself having over 1000 cubic metres of wood. The canopies are often laden with fern mats full of crustacea, a fully saturated mat weighing upto two tonnes. And it is not just ferns in these canopies as there are mosses, lichens, algae and lycopods; shrubs such as salal (Gaultheria), rhododendron, currants, huckleberry, elderberry and salmonberry; small trees such as dwarfed Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, buckthorn, as well as redwoods themselves; small mammals such as red tree voles, birds and a whole slew of insects (beetles, bees) as well as salamanders, earthworms and soil organisms (mites) and soil in dead or rotting holes of the trunks. It is a whole terrestrial habitat suspended in air that few ever get to see.
The narrative has a central character in Steve Sillet around whom is weaved the lives of fellow redwood explorers, amateur naturalists and climbers, his lovers and wives, as they develop their passion into academic study and, for some, employment. Sometimes long on tales of hunting for the record of the tallest redwood, it always comes back to marvelling at the complex ecology of the canopies. The narrative is joined by the author towards the end as he learns to climb redwoods with Sillet without damaging them, and volunteers to assist in climbing and studying redwoods. Preston enthuses his family members to climb trees, and takes them off to holiday in Glen Affric in the Highlands of Scotland, where they climb the ancient native pines of the Caledonian forest. There he finds evidence of a canopy habitat as well, with small rowan and bilberry living and reproducing, as well as mosses and lichens. In what I suspect will likely be hotly contested by some, Preston advances the theory that the lack of current day regeneration of the Caledonian forest is because of the extinction of the wolf from the Highlands by 1746. The link is with the population explosion of red deer that followed and which browse out pine seedlings. He believes the 250 year old pines that he was climbing were the last pines to begin growing while the wolf was still about, but that the Caledonian forest is doomed to vanish as these old trees die and there are no trees coming in to replace them.
On a recent trip to wet, coastal woodlands in Pembrokeshire after I finished this book, I looked into the canopies of ash trees and saw ferns, mosses, shrubs and climbers growing in soil in the crooks and crannies of the trunks. It may not be on the same scale as the suspended habitats of the redwoods, but it was no less fascinating.
Beechcombings: The Narratives of Trees
Richard Mabey (2007) Chatto and Windus ISBN-13: 978-1856197335
Beechcombings is the next step on the way to Mabey using his book writing to unravel the ‘id’ of wild nature, this time with the metaphor of beech trees. I so admire the ability for self-reflection that he couples with acute personal observation of nature, especially how a tree to him is wild nature and not just an exploitable resource, that I forgive him the odd turgid passage in his use of historical sources to set up a next reflection. Perhaps it is my impatience to hear what he has to say, rather than some historical figure. This is not to throw out any merit of those historical sources, the book could lose its roundness if they were omitted, but Mabey has the advantage of our modern day systems thinking and, as he shows, these historical sources – art and craftwork, literature, learned treatise – while often worthy in intent come with their own artifice and baggage. In addition, the historical sources he can draw on of necessity span only the centuries of the last millennia, from which written records and artwork survive. And yet in his quest to understand the true nature of wildwood, he would at least in Britain to be certain have to have sources going back some four to five millennia, observed with that same systems thinking, such is the extent of our intervention in the landscape.
As it is, Mabey does have the ‘scientific’ findings of the 20th century to continue with his exploration, clocking up an impressive list of names in which the canon of woodland ecology is framed: Clements, Tansley, Watt, Rackham, Peterken and Vera. Each is given a life by Mabey that is more than them being defined by their work, but then their work comes under Mabey’s scrutiny, and he is not afraid to find fault when he considers it is there. As he implies, Watt’s findings on succession have been overplayed in the decades since; he is not impressed with Rackham’s pessimism; and he is quite bruising in likening Frans Vera’s contemporary contribution to being a bull in a china shop.
It is in his constant
reference to Hardings Wood, the woodland in the Chilterns that he once
owned, that anchors this book and gives it its strongest message. Mabey
reflects on the vision he had for that woodland, and the thought processes
he went through at that time to justify his interventions, although there
was some horror at the heavy handedness of one work party who volunteered
their time. Today, he views it very differently. He is opposed to the
idea, as he says is still argued by many conservationists, that all woods
must be managed. To him, this is as arrogant and outrageous as suggesting
that all wild animals should be in zoos. As he writes:
Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees
Roger Deakin (2007) Hamish Hamilton ISBN: 978-0241141847
Deakin is an inveterate name dropper in this book - some of whom I would cross the road to avoid meeting (again). To an extent the name dropping is symptomatic of the small world of the media, literary and artistic milieu that he was linked in to, especially their strong showing in the East Anglia of his home base. They become fellow travellers in what is essentially a memoir of the people he stayed with on his tour of areas notable for their use and celebration of woodland. Sometimes the descriptive passages of where he has been, the people he has met and the things he has seen, while always well written, seem empty of any great purpose other than being another room in a museum of woodland use, and their literary and artistic representation. You feel he ought to have taken a deep breath and offered more personal reflection since, when he does, his prose comes alive. His revisit of his schoolboy field studies area in the New Forest is insightful and incisive; his counting of the beams and studs in his timber frame house illustrative of our demands on woodland centuries ago; the concern at the disregard that blackthorn scrub is held in is refreshing, as is the advice that neglect is the most enlightened approach to hedge management if they no longer need to be stockproof.
Deakin was an accomplished naturalist (he died in 2006) but the wildwood of the title is rarely the object of this book, other than his trip to the Bieszczady Woods in the mountains of SE Poland - even then not straying from working woodland. But you will learn about cricket bat willows, walnut veneer, cork oaks in the Spanish Pyrenees, bush plums in the Australian outback, the origins of our domestic apples from the wild trees in Kazakhstan, and the walnuts in Kyrgyzstan. It was in the forest village of Arslanbob in Kyrgyzstan, next to snowy mountains, that his enchantment with the daughter of the farmhouse he stayed in, turned into "a hopeless and impossible" love.
Sea Change - Britain's coastal catastrophe
Richard Girling (2007) Eden Project Books ISBN 978-91903919774
Girling has written an account of our recent coastal history that revived my childhood memories of growing up in the 50’s and 60’s on the south coast, overlooking the Solent towards Cowes. He takes a journalistic approach, as befits his trade, painting his arguments using the words and human characters that make up the theatre of his observations. There are no references in what is otherwise a textbook-like thoroughness, but which is always an easy read.
While there is an index, I found myself wishing that he had included a more detailed contents that would refer to the many different aspects of our relationship with the sea and its coastline that he covers. Thus the most poignant of his chapter headings befits the overwhelming message that comes through in this book. On marine conservation, he takes his heading from a summary of responses to the Marine Bill consultation in 2006. A voluntary scheme to protect the Overfalls, a gravely underwater sandbank in the Solent, is judged to be of limited success because of “Inadequate Stakeholder Consensus” amongst sand and gravel dredgers. He adds to this sorry story by recounting the failure in practice of the voluntary no-trawl zones for scallop dredgers in Lyme Bay, in spite of endless negotiation, and the failure of the voluntary no take zones for crab and lobster fisherman on the St Agnes coast in Cornwall because of their resolute ignoring by just one commercial fisherman. I would add in myself the voting down by local fishing interests of the statutory no take zone in the Skomer Island Marine Nature Reserve.
Girling is right when he says that “We are, as a species, conspicuously bad at accepting responsibility for our actions”. What he reveals is the fallibility of people. His refrain is that Government departments act with all the speed of a nerve impulse travelling from the brain to the tail of a diplodocus; that vested commercial interest is implacable; that the feted ecosystem approach is undermined by an over-emphasis on resource use; and that the triumvirate of sustainable development in giving equal priority to environmental as well as social and economic interests is a wicked illusion. Don’t be put off by this since we get nowhere if we are not honest with ourselves, and Girling does give it to us in a straight, entertaining and very informative way.
Call of the wild - My escape to Alaska
Guy Grieve (2007) Hodder & Stoughton ISBN 978-0340898253
I sat reading the first chapter or so in a bookstore and was seduced into buying it as it pushed buttons for a person uneasy with their existence and seeking a life changing, wild experience. It was only when I got home and studied it more that I realised it was written by the annoying overactive man-child from “The Wild Gourmet” series shown on Channel 4, where his “lumberjack attack” style seemed so inappropriate in the “tames” of Britain. And so it proved with this book, where his self-serving adventurous spirit in conquering an Alaskan winter is ably assisted by a contract to write a weekly column for a Scottish newspaper, which meant that he had a satellite phone and laptop for calls and emails. He also had sponsorship from a whisky company; care packages from his wife; people to build his log cabin for him; a quad bike is given to him; he has a chainsaw, assorted weapons and ammunition, people dropping in to see him all the while, some weighing scales (?), a canvas wall tent and stove, and a medical kit that he could open a field hospital with. I should also mention his trusty dogs and the sled and husky team that he uses and abuses, but which adds another layer of Alaskan romanticism to his story as the great love between man and his dogs. Nothing is more futile – and which sums up this book - than when he recounts the senseless killing of an injured wolf. He misses repeatedly with a gun and then resorts to bashing the wolf on its forehead with the back of an axe, three times. In an epilogue, he admits he can’t explain why he set off for Alaska, but avers that his life has changed. It would be more honest if he admitted it got him out of sales and marketing on the Scottish newspaper.
Wild - an elemental journey
Jay Griffiths (2006) Tarcher/Penguin ISBN 978-1-5842-403-0 (UK edition from Hamish Hamilton, May 2007)
Wild begins as a wall of words, a prolixity that if it doesn’t reward is just burdensome. It’s a carpet-bag of a book, throwing in a lifetimes reading (just check out the weight of her bibliography) and there is the element of carpet bagger about Ms Griffiths as she appropriates the land culture of indigenous peoples that she visits. Shamans are never far away in her narrative as if she is always trying to find others through which to make a connection, never allowing the landscape and the community of the land to speak to her itself. Trite metaphor abounds, as do sexual politics and female genitalia, the latter seeming at odds with her fixation with male shamans.
There is much empathy with indigenous peoples and much rage at the inhumanity that they have suffered at the hands of imperial and particularly religious expansion. Some of her assertions are populist conjecture, others more grounded in fact. While many will see the strength of this book as being in its placing of human’s in the wild, what it is not is an advocacy for the rest of wild nature. Her respect for indigenous cultures and her absolutism about the place of humans in the wild should be tempered by evidence from New Zealand, free of human influence until Polynesians began to colonise it 1,000 years ago. They began the wholesale landscape changes and extinctions that were only accelerated when European-descended settlers arrived later in the 1780s.
Oliver Rackham, Collins New Naturalist Series (2006) ISBN 0007202431
I usually like opinionated writers, but after wading through hundreds of pages of "Rackham's World" it just becomes a frustrating bore. There is no denying a lifetime's scholarship embodied in this book, but Rackham writes in a way that often assumes you have read his other books. Or he lists a series of facts, as though building to a conclusion, but just stops short without making a point. On the other hand, he will often assert something, or use a technical term, without adequately explaining it. Also, do not expect much information in this book about northern woodland because he is more likely to have visited Japan for a study visit than he is to have visited Yorkshire.
Perhaps more worryingly, nothing is allowed to exist outside of his knowledge. Thus woodland indicator plants of ancient woodland are not indicators of wildwood presumably because he hasn't been able to study an extant wildwood in Britain. Woodlands have always been free floating, moveable islands in the landscape because he has no evidence that they were joined up. You get the impression that if wild nature were allowed to get on with it, he would stand there criticising Mother Nature for doing something that he has no historical blueprint for.
While there are a lot of points of interest in this book, I find myself reluctant to embrace all of them as their value is debased for me by so much else that is patently the outcome of rigid thinking - it would be disingenuous of me just to cherry pick. Read Peterken as well.
Fencing Paradise: Reflections on the Myths of Eden
Richard Mabey (2005) Eden Books, Transworld ISBN 1903919312
I shunned this book when it first came out because I thought it was mostly about the Eden Project in Cornwall, a tourist attraction that is never knowingly undersold. Then a friend encouraged me to look at the land wisdom of the penultimate chapter. I read more extracts and then realised that although the book drew some of its structure from reflection on the individual biomes of the project and their habitat themes, the real treasure is Mabey's knowledge of the origins and uses of plants, and his ability and willingness to place that in the context of wild nature. Interestingly, the subtitle of the book changed to "The Uses and Abuses of Plants" when the paperback edition came out, giving a second but equally important twist to his reflections on the success of human development. And this book is just that - a critique of how when given the riches of wild nature we have shaped and bent it to our own egocentric ends. For Mabey "The natural world is now increasingly contained, both physically and in our minds, in enclosed reserves and managed gardens, in simulations and virtual experiences. Paradise has become a fenced enclosure."
Mabey treads a path between pristine wilderness and intensive agriculture to locate our place in nature. Unsatisfied with any current system of agriculture, including organic, he points to experiments in forest farming and Permaculture as being on the right track. We are "hopelessly ignorant about how eco-systems function to sustain life". Mabey thinks we need to "turn our conventional relationship with nature upside down, begin to learn from it rather than just 'about' it". Permaculturists will take great heart from this and other indications of a convergence of views and outlook on nature and our cultivated ecology. Few mainstream writers have been as supportive, unintentionally or otherwise, but Mabey has written a book that is his understanding of wild nature which doesn't need a following, just a determination from everyone who reads the book to go out and find that understanding themselves.
Ancient Trees Living Landscapes
Richard Muir (2005) Tempus Publishing Ltd. ISBN 0 7524 3443 8
This is an account of the cultural history of British woodland from the perspective of a northerner, a refreshing change to southern hegemony. Muir also tackles some of the myths and legends attached to woodland, one being the later existence of the great forest of Caledon - assumed from unclear contemporary writings to have been observed by the Romans as a continuous wooded landscape - and its survival through to the eighteenth century in Scotland. Romanticism bites again, I think. Of solid importance is his view that the fear of wolves was inflamed by farmers who had more to lose from ravaged stock than villagers, whose chance of encountering a wolf was lower than is often thought. These re-workings come in a fabulously-named last chapter - Woodlands of the mind. Other chapters look at landmark trees, ancient trees and hedgerows, and men of the forests. Two chapters describe the development of parkland, arising through the forest system for deer hunting, and their sophistication into the landscaped deer parks of the large country estates. This is not a book about wildwood, but sometimes you just need to know how we got to where we are.
Richard Mabey (2005) Chatto & Windus ISBN 0-7011-7601-6
Mabey, for so long a brilliant interpreter of nature, suffered a debilitating depression that closed down his life for two years. Cutting ties with the Chiltern landscape and home that had been with him since childhood, Mabey took up an offer to move to the flatlands of Norfolk. Gradually, instinct took over, and Mabey began to explore this new landscape. He describes his discovery of it's wild nature and combines this with his contemporary take on wildland. Rekindling his engagement with wild nature, and the opportunity to share it with a new lady friend, was his cure.
Beyond Conservation - A wildland strategy
Peter Taylor (2005) Earthscan ISBN 1-84407-198-7
Peter has put together the primer on the state of current efforts to rewild Britain, and lays out a large-scale vision for the future in his strategy for core areas of wildland that are linked by wildland corridors. There is an impressive coverage of facts and ideas in this book, particularly on the need to re-introduce wild carnivores. I would only disagree with his ideas on wilding farming in which he places too much faith in organic farming to deliver. In the same way that we need new ideas on wildland, we also need new ideas on farming.
British Isles - A Natural History
Alan Titchmarsh (2005) BBC Books ISBN 0 563 52162 7
Titch has become the media everyman of our age, but fundamentally he is a plant lover who grew up next to the gritstone moors of Ilkley. His book covers 3 billion years, with the first third taking us up to the period when wide-scale cultural influence began to be felt on the landscape. A layman's interpretation, it has excellent photographs illustrating the points in his text. His last chapter, The Future, is thoughtful about the potential affects climate change and alien invasion may have on our vegetation, and makes a case for re-introduction of lost species such as wolf, beaver and wild boar.
White Fella Jump Up - The Shortest Way to Nationhood
Germaine Greer (2004) Profile Books ISBN 1-86197-739-5
Best known for her polemics on gender and society, Greer is becoming an articulate advocate for wild nature in her older age. Greer argues that contemporary Australia should reconsider the European approach to land use and natural resources that was imported with colonists, and replace it with the wisdom, knowledge and practice of it's native people, the oppressed and marginalised aboriginal culture. Greer is uncompromising about where she thinks things went wrong, but her vision of this new nationhood of hunger-gatherers is perhaps too underwritten to overcome the fears and misunderstanding it will evoke.
Portrait of a Woodland - Biodiversity in 40 Acres
Charlotte de la Bédoyère (2004) Search Press ISBN 1844480135
This book is the 25-year romance of a woman fortunate enough to find and live her dream in a house surrounded by the trees of the eight, distinct woodlands she owns in Sussex. The history and individual description of each woodland is complemented by a section that extensively documents the woodland flora and fauna in photographs with interpretive text, and with tables of species lists and their habitat requirements. The photographs are illustrative and excellent.
Nature by Design : People, Natural Process, and Ecological Restoration
Eric Higgs (2003) The MIT Press ISBN 0262582260
Ecological restoration is the process of repairing human damage to ecosystems. It involves reintroducing missing plants and animals, rebuilding soils, eliminating hazardous substances, ripping up roads, and returning natural processes such as flooding to places that thrive on their regular occurrence. Higgs explores the ethical and philosophical bases of restoration and the question of what constitutes good ecological restoration. Somehow, his reasoning goes around in circles and, while he anchors his exploration in his knowledge of modern-day unmanaged landscapes, he regards these as "freak landscapes", missing a human component that observes historical use patterns (cultural belief and narrative continuity - historicity!) and which he stretches to a belief that community involvement is vital for restoration projects to be successful. No argument on the latter, but there is a world of difference in motivation and outcome behind a core, protected area and the focal restoration of a degraded but populated and extracted landscape. Perhaps it is because, as a North American, he has the luxury of those unmanaged core areas that he is able to be so dismissive, but his case for good ecological restoration is not made any better by this criticism. It reminds me of a presentation I saw that called for the support of traditional farming in the Lake District because tourists flocked to the area, and it was farmers who manufactured the landscape that was so admired. Well, yes, but that is a circular argument as the tourists aren't offered any contrast in that Lake District landscape because all of it is farmed. How would they know whether there was something better? How does anyone living in Britain?
Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability
David Holmgren (2003) Holmgren Design Services ISBN 0646418440
I read this in almost one go. A long awaited book from one of the co-originators of Permaculture, Holmgren has always been one of its more thoughtful writers. Against the backdrop of his personal choice and interpretation of Permaculture principles, Holmgren adopts a satisfyingly analytical and practical approach to how we reorganise our lives, communities and landscapes to creatively adapt to the ecological realities that should shape our destiny. The book is suffused with an understanding of ecological energy flows, and how we can integrate into nature's self-regulating whole systems. His twelfth principle - creatively use and respond to change - is very challenging. Permaculture is about the durability of natural living systems and human culture, but he believes this durability paradoxically depends in large measure on flexibility and change. His embracing of impermanence and continuous change can still give rise to the apparent illusion of stability, permanence and sustainability as the small-scale, fast, short-lived changes of the elements that he believes we can harness can actually contribute to higher-order system stability. This is a self-published book - it sometimes betrays the lack of a good editor, but it is never less than riveting.
Indians in the Yellowstone National Park
Joel Janetski (2002) Uni. of Utah Press ISBN 0-87480-724-7
Away from the urban areas in America, it is hard to avoid coming across some evidence of the history of the Native American presence in the landscape. So it proved again when I fetched up in Yellowstone National Park and realised that while the "discovery" of its amazing and diverse landscape is often attributed to the early white pioneers - the mountain men who exploited the landscape for trapping and skinning - their presence there dates only from the nineteenth century, whereas the Native Americans had lived in, visited and travelled through the area for over 10,000 years. This book is about that Native American presence, starting with archaeological evidence - the Clovis projectile points (spearheads) after the last glaciation - coming through the millennia to historical times, and what has been discovered of pre-contact history. It gives a picture of tribal society, moving through the landscape in tune with the seasons of the year and being in the right place at the right time to harvest the seasonal richness of the landscape. They were hunters and gatherers that lived well within that ecosystem and its various niches, and using simple technology.
The coming of the Euro-American settlers changed all that, breaking their connection with the land and destroying their way of life. This happened all over America, but the events at Yellowstone, because it became the first National Park in the world, tells the story but with some particular issues. The presence of Native Americans living in Yellowstone was considered to be a deterrent to tourism in the Park in its early years, and so the Superintendent negotiated an agreement for them to leave. Hostilities outside the Park spilled into it, as small bands of Native Americans crossed the Park to seek refuge in Montana, or flee into Canada. The various tribes found their hunting and gathering grounds around the outside of the Park were being degraded by the livestock of settlers and the continuing unsustainable slaughter of wild game. It must have been galling then, as food from hunting and gathering became scarce, and a dependency was being developed by relying on the "Indian Agent" for their food, that they were excluded from the rich landscape of Yellowstone that had succoured them so well.
Living on Wilderness Time
Melissa Walker (2002) University of Virginia Press ISBN 0-8139-2109-0
In 1993, soon after her 50th birthday, Melissa Walker set out on three extended solitary trips over the next two years looking for peace and solitude, and to learn the dynamics of preserving wild places in America. "The magic word was wilderness. I began to think of wilderness protection as a personal cause, but before I could be really effective, I had some learning to do about our National Wilderness Preservation System and about the Wilderness Act of 1964"
There is a scathing review of this book on Amazon, some of which I agree with: her husband comes in for unnecessary critical analysis; Ms Walker labours the threat from males for a woman travelling around alone; and her travelogue is long on encounters with people on her journeys between wildernesses, and less so on her experiences when she actually enters wilderness. I ask myself why Walker wrote this book some eight years after the event, and then denies us an Epilogue that would have put her experience into context. Perhaps what we have from Ms Walker is a white, female college professor stepping outside of her comfort zone. The rap on males could be analogous with her repeated fear of encountering grizzlies; the criticism of her doctor husband reflections of the flaws in her own life.
Nevertheless once picked up I was absorbed
with this book. Some moments left me teary, others left me angry. This is
the first time I have read of the abuses of wilderness, a legislated
system in America that I thought inviolate. But the key to the book is
that Walker set out to discover life at its most basic and untrammelled
and, in the process, fell in love with wildness. "Rebound, recovery,
healing, revival, convalescence." Her time in wilderness allowed her to
"recover from the stress of an overscheduled life". Walker learnt that
loving a place is the first step to making it a home, but that she now had
so many homes from all the wild places that she had been and loved. She
wanted to revive the simple, focussed life she had had as a young women by
bringing out of the wilderness the gems of self-realisation that she had
This is as near as I can get to a description of what's in my mind.
Nature Conservation - A Review of the Conservation of Wildlife in Britain 1950-2001
Peter Marren (2002) Harper Collins ISBN 000-711306-4
Marren has written a review of toe-crunching size and detail. He is one of our best nature writers in that he brings his personality into what is often a complex analysis of intent, action and outcome in conservation. A reference book on some days, it is also a satisfying read with excellent critique - although I don't always agree with him. Marren briefly broaches rewilding when he recounts the thicket-choked state of a reserve left to is own devices. Longterm experience of rewilding is still rare and I am sure Marren now will appreciate that rewilding needs a longer timescale for its true nature to evolve than the few years of this observation. Marren concludes that conservation overcomplicates to the point that sometimes we lose sight of the simple pleasure that wild nature evokes in us. As he says, "We should resist seeing wild animals as pets or 'targets' and respect their indifference to us, and the complete lack of personal contact every time a beast looks us in the eye"
Flowers at my Feet - The wild flowers of Britain and Ireland in photographs
Bob Gibbons & David Woodfall (2002) Collins ISBN 0-00-220213-1
This is a coffee table book of photographs that has little written interpretation. What allows it to transcend that description are the habitats that can be discerned in the photographs, and the combinations of wildflowers that can be seen to grow in those habitats. It also proves if needed that our best wildflower habitats are those that are outside the margins of our productive land.
Fauna Britannica - The practical guide to wild & domestic creatures of Britain
Duff Hart-Davis (2002) Wiedenfield and Nicolson ISBN 0-2897-82532-1
Farm and domestic animals claim the latter half of this book, but it starts with the dinosaurs, notes the emergence of humans, documents the extinct mammals before covering the mammals that are no longer wild in Britain - but which could be re-introduced. The wild mammal section continues this excellent coverage in text, pictures and illustrations. Horses have a section of their own.
Natural Landscaping - Designing with native plant communities
John Diekelmann and Robert M. Shuster, 2nd Edition (2002) Uni. Of Wisconsin ISBN 0-299-17324-0
The demand of an increasing interest in naturalistic approaches to landscape design, led to an updated second edition of this book being published twenty years after the original. I came across the original in a public library in Vancouver. The design approach seemed similar to Permaculture Design, and so I made a note to buy a copy when I could. What I see now is a book firmly rooted in observation of natural landscapes of NE America and their plant communities, so that they can be the inspiration for the cultural landscapes of gardens, and public and commercial spaces. The book begins with detailed descriptions of the plant communities of the Central Hardwoods, Eastern Oak, Midwestern Prairie Oak, and Northern Conifer-Hardwood regions of the NE (the last region so perfectly describes what I saw in the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire.) There are then various sections on planning and design, with reference to a variety of landscape types. The final part reports on a range of landscape projects in different settings, giving excellent descriptions and evaluation, along with concept, development and master plans. I adopted this approach in my landscape designs for the Ecology Building Society, taking the south Pennine oak wood plant communities of its location as the inspiration.
Unmanaged Landscapes: Voices for Untamed Nature
Edited by Bill Willers (1999) Island Press ISBN 1-55963-694-7
A fabulous collection of essays in which various authors challenge the need for human interference/management in wild nature and discuss how modern civilisation can live with self-willed land. Mostly based on the American experience, but 'The Forest of Forgetting' by Guy Hand has some profound insights for the landscapes of the Scottish Highlands. Overall an inspiration that should be required reading for all UK conservation professionals.
Aldo Leopold - For the Health of the Land: Previously Unpublished Essays and Other Writings
Edited by J. Baird Callicott and Eric T. Freyfogle (1999) Island Press ISBN 1-55963-763-3
Before his untimely death in 1948, Leopold intended writing a manual for farmers on his concept of land health - the capacity for self-renewal in nature - and how farmers could combine nurture of wild nature alongside farming. The manual was to be based on the many articles he wrote for journals, such as a series in the Wisconsin Agriculturist and Farmer. This book collects those articles together, along with some unpublished work by Leopold, and sets out to show what that manual could have been. Leopold is well-served by the editors who contribute an excellent introduction, and an afterword by Stanley Temple, that give context to Leopold's life and work. But it is the suffusion of Leopold's writings with his enchanting but unsentimental wildland observations, and his careful study and reasoning - he was an ecologist before that word had much meaning - that make it difficult to avoid being caught up in the common sense of what he has to say about land use. There are so many quotable passages that resonate today for those who want to get near to the soul of the land community. I wonder about the impact of individuals of their time, and the legacy they bequeath. Posthumous book publishing has kept Leopold alive, and presented his writings to a global audience. I suspect though that Leopold was never happier than when talking to a local farmer, and second best would be writing for a local journal because it would be like talking to a group of farmers.
Britain's Rare Flowers
Peter Marren (1999) T & AD Poyser ISBN 0-85661-114-X
Marren gives us a personal look at the evolution and distribution of Britain's rarest wild flowers. Rarity does not necessarily equate with beauty as in the sense of garden worthiness. It does however give insight into the specificity of habitat that some plants are adapted to, and how easily those habitats can be lost when landscapes are smoothed out through human productive use. Marren is no sensationalist, instead having an eye for the humour in some of the more disjointed plant rescue attempts he documents. He traces the provenance of some obvious plant introductions that have been set up in wildish colonies, and of plants where there has been a reassessment giving them native status.
The Great New Wilderness Debate
Edited by J. Baird Callicott and Michael P. Nelson (1998) Uni. of Georgia ISBN 0-8023-1984-8
A fat volume of writings that explain, criticise and defend the (mostly American) concept of wilderness. Writings from the big names in the historical canon are mixed in with contemporary authors, making this an oft-quoted collection when wilderness comes up for discussion. If you really can't get enough on wilderness philosophy, then this is the book for you.
Into the wild
John Krakauer (1997) Anchor Books ISBN 0-385-48680-4
Was Christopher McCandless foolishly ill-prepared when he walked alone into the wilderness of Alaska, north of Mt McKinley, or was he unlucky that his spiritual and physical journey led to his tragic death. Krakauer covered the story of this young man in a magazine article for Outside, published in January 1993, a few months after the discovery of McCandless's body. The article drew more comment than any before: some in sympathy, others accusing McCandless of selfish stupidity. The volume of reaction, including some that had come from those who had known McCandless in the last months of his life, coupled with Krakauer's own fascination, led him to explore further the life of McCandless, and attempt in this book to understand why he did go alone into the Alaskan wilderness.
I have reviewed an excellent film based on the book, and you should read that review for detail of the events that led up to McCandless going into the wild.
I bought a copy of the book when I was away in America, walking wilderness myself. As I read, I was looking for comparisons with the film, but the book has more. McCandless’s life and tragic death made Krakauer look inside his own life, and he recounts a moment in his young adulthood where he imperilled himself alone in a risky climbing venture in Alaska. Was he reckless, selfish, foolishly ill-prepared, as has been levelled at McCandless? Was it luck that he survived, and bad luck that McCandless didn’t? Is a troubled upbringing that he had in common with McCandless expiated by such transcendent experience?
Krakauer chronicles other examples of people who have perished in wilderness after seemingly seeking relief from disaffection with their lives, and wanting to explore their "inner country". Some were tragic romantics, others were clearly troubled souls. Not all of them gave up their life willingly, or that is the surmise as they left little evidence. McCandless kept a journal, but it has few philosophical revelations, concentrating mostly at his success or otherwise at finding food. That is the reality, the "daily transactions with nature that don’t allow for abstraction" because there is a narrow margin by which it is sustaining. But that does not mean to say that McCandless wasn't in awe of his surroundings, or that he was indifferent to the importance of the species that gave him sustenance. These are the things I want to learn about from just such a book. Are they a primal force in me, as well as a way of de-complicating my life? Am I just not suited to live in the world as it is now, or would I be running away? The marginal survival of McCandless in his Alaskan wilderness is a salutary lesson for our own landscapes in Britain, where farming has rid it of any capability to sustain a humans in nature existence. Whereas McCandless became trapped by unfortunate circumstances in the wilderness, we are fated never to have that experience available to us unless we break with the agricultural domination of our landscapes.
The Earth Manual: How to Work on Wild Land Without Taming It
Malcolm Margolin (1997) Heyday Books ISBN 0930588185
An earth-working guide for restoring and maintaining semi-wild areas. First published in 1975, it's based on the authors’ experience of running the conservation program for the Redwood Regional Park in the hills above Oakland in California. While the species maybe N. American, the land sense is universal, with simple human-scale techniques described and illustrated with line drawings, and which can readily get children involved in land care.
The Illustrated History of the Countryside
Oliver Rackham (1997) Phoenix Illustrated ISBN 1-85799-953-3
Rackham is an elder statesman amongst authorities on the history of the British countryside. While the majority of this book documents the outcome of millennia of cultural use of British landscapes, it does first reach back to the wildwoods that developed and covered Britain after the cessation of the last ice age, and then chronicles their fragmentation as we turned the landscape to agricultural use.
Natural Woodland - Ecology and Conservation in Northern Temperate Regions
George F. Peterken (1996) Cambridge Uni. Press ISBN 0-521-36792-1
Woodland scientist, Peterken, has a lifetimes knowledge of British ancient woods, their ecology and history of management. But it was the sight of near natural landscapes on his first visit to America in 1982, particularly Yellowstone National Park, that convinced him that an awareness of natural states and processes was important to forest conservation in Britain. This book is a synthesis of his study of temperate and boreal natural forests, and virgin forest remnants, in Europe and north America, and what lessons they have for reconstructing and conserving British natural woodland. In considering re-afforestation, Peterken argues that the potential for natural woodland redevelopment has been irrevocably altered by more than 5,000 years of human influence. He therefore refers to future-natural woodland since there would be little chance of turning back the clock. In a Postscript for the paperback edition, Peterken takes the opportunity to comment on the theories of Frans Vera, which suggest that temperate natural woodland was more likely to be maintained as open wood pasture than closed-canopy high forest. Vera believes the predations of large wild herbivores maintained this open structure, and that this would explain some of the patterns of tree pollen deposits. Peterken is sceptical that all the evidence is supportive of Vera, but he welcomes the theory as he recognises its contribution in reinforcing large-scale approaches to conservation.
The man who planted trees
Jean Giono (1995) Harvill Press ISBN 1-86046-117-4
A delightful birthday present from a delightful person, this little book contains a short story, written in 1953 and translated from the original French. It tells of a solitary shepherd, somewhere in the semi-uplands of Vergons in the Var region in France who bemoans the desolate nature of its tree-less landscape and sets out to reforest it by sowing acorns, one-hundred at a time. He is visited on a number of occasions by the story teller over a period of 30 years that span the two wars in Europe, and to which the shepherd is completely oblivious. The scale of the sowing is prodigous as he spreads tens of kilometers out from his hut; he begins to use other tree species as he expands into areas of varying habitat; and he eventually eschews his sheep in favour of bees, as the former damage his efforts by their grazing. The burgeoning new woodland markedly affects the ecology of the landscape, reinstating its hydrological cycles and ressurecting the mostly abandoned small settlements that have their running water restored. Officialdom mistake the woodland regeneration as a natural event, classify it as a nature reserve and instate three wardens to protect it. This story has often been mistaken for a true story, even being included in an anthology of biographies when the author was approached and mischeviously played along with the misconception. But maybe it isn't a story - maybe there is a semi-upland area somewhere in the world that has mysteriously become clothed in trees again, and sitting cheerfully in its centre grove is a solitary person with a huge smile of contentment on their face.
Design with Nature
I.L. McHarg (1995) John Wiley & Sons ISBN 047111460X
If you get stuck deciding where to put a road, then a way to break out is to decide where it shouldn’t go! This design method owes its existence to Ian McHarg, a Scottish landscape architect and planner, who spent most of his working life in N. America. He was one of the first to bring environmental concerns to planning and landscape architecture. When invited to assist a community in protesting a proposed new road, he produced a base map of the area and a series of transparent overlays. The overlays mapped areas where there were good environmental reasons why the road should be excluded. Once all the overlays were placed on the base map, areas left blank showed the potential routes for the road. McHarg describes this in his book as the McHarg Exclusion Method. The original hardback edition was published in 1967.
Jan Čeřovský (1995) Sunburst Books ISBN 1-85778-101-5
In this case, a compendium of uncommon European wildflowers, grouped by habitat and showing photographs of the flowers and maps of their distribution in Britain and across the continent. The supporting text is detailed and identifies changes and disturbance to these habitats. Increasingly, plant conservation in Britain has to look to a plants distribution elsewhere in Europe to be certain of what is the true natural habitat for its survival.
Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare: An Ecologist's Perspective
Paul Colinvaux, Princeton University Press (1988) ISBN 0691023646
In teaching, the most satisfying moment is when the penny drops and people begin to understand things rather than passively take them on as fact. Colinvaux has that approach in his writing on ecology, setting some poser such as Why the sea is blue? and giving an answer that is accessible and convincing (short answer, not enough plants to make it appear green!). I first picked up the book many years ago to read what Colinvaux says about ecological succession. His 18 chapters also have explanations for tree distribution, about natural plant communities, why there are so many species, what hunting animals do, and the title question of why there are so few big, fierce animals. His final chapter is on The People's Place, and he says "People are animals who have learnt to change their niches without changing their breeding strategy". Colinvaux has no time for those that always approach ecology with doom-laden predictions. He reckons that the while the success of humans as a species inevitably makes us hostile to the interest of almost all other species, we have been so evolved for only 9000 years. Sometimes verging on the folksy, Colinvaux inserts facts smoothly as he builds his explanations. There may be more up to date interpretations written since Colinvaux (and the 1980 Pelican edition I have is out of print) but this is a fun way to get into ecology.
Clandestine Farm NEW
Anthony Wigens (1981) Paladin ISBN-13: 978-0586083055
Wigens lived on the edge of Welwyn Garden City. Near his house was a farm, and it put in his mind his inalienable right, based on the Common Law, to run a clandestine farm from the hedgerows and waste areas round and about. One March afternoon he climbed over the fence and walked on the farm as though it was his own, reclaiming the existing rights of way, and developing a few of his own. Over the following year, he built a clandestine farm on verges, in the corners of fields, and hidden deep in woods. He also delved into the common law and lore of the land. He took none of the crops of the farm, but introduced wildfood crops that he tended for himself, or harvested the wildfood that he found. My memory of first reading this, nearly 10 years ago, was of a revolutionary approach, but reading it again I see that I was bowled over by the ideas and land rights issues it posed rather than in its practical application. To be fair. that is the strength of the author. His seeming fastidiousness in establishing fat hen would have benefited from a more relaxed and experience approach to rough and ready horticulture. Nonetheless, read this if you think land ownership is land theft, and that you should have inalienable land rights.
Wild Flowers - Their habitats in Britain and Northern Europe
Edited by Geoffrey Halliday and Andrew Malloch (1981) Collins ISBN 0-85654-618-6
A book to learn from. It shows the wildflowers and woodlands of Britain and northern Europe, and explains why a plant grows best in a particular habitat, explaining the influence of moisture, aspect, soil structure and underlying rock. Photographs and illustrations accompany informative text. This book covers the more common wildflowers and so is complementary to Endangered Plants listed above.
A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC - With Essays on Conservation from Round River
Aldo Leopold, Ballatine Books (1970) ISBN 0-345-34505-3
If the natural landscapes of North America were the turning point for me in understanding the value of self-willed land, then this book - accompanying me during that journey of discovery in 2003 - was the first that I read that put the emotions and thoughts I experienced into writing. Leopold is the inspiration for many in his non-sentimental but highly lyrical descriptions of his experiences with land and the natural world (particularly on his farmland in Sand County, Wisconsin) and the expression of his ideas on how humans can once again become part of the community of the land - his land ethic. Leopold had considerable success in his professional life in the Forestry Service, as a forester consultant and then college professor, setting up the first federal wilderness reserve in the headwaters of the Gila River area, developing game management as a conservation objective, and being a driving force in the formation of the Wilderness Society that went on to draft the Wilderness Act of 1964. He wrote many articles for journals, but they were not published in book form until after his untimely death. Through it all, his writing has the humility of someone in step with the wild world around him. Please note that there are various publications of A Sand County Almanac, differing in which additional essays are included.
The British Islands and their Vegetation
A.G. Tansley (1939) Cambridge Uni. Press
Tansley is maligned today for his confident assertion on climax ecology based on what are now considered simplistic assumptions, and his classification of different types of woodland has been superseded. This two-volume set, however, is still inspirational in the way that it collects together species lists for archetypal natural vegetation in a way that is more accessible than a modern day NVC number for woodland type. Be aware that some of these lists predate better knowledge of the potential natural distribution of tree species and may reflect a composite that includes the widespread tree planting from the 17th century onwards. But, away from the major trees such as oak and beech, the lists are probably accurate for wetland, woodland edge, shrub and ground layers.
On the list to read (but some will have to await their release as paperbacks!)
Tooth and Claw: Living Alongside Britain's Predators
Peter Cairns & Mark Hamblin (2007) Whittles Publishing ISBN-13: 978-1904445463
An exploration of how we live successfully or otherwise alongside predators in Britain, with some comparisons to continental Europe.
How to be wild
Simon Barnes (2007) Short Books, London ISBN-13: 978-1904977971
Barnes takes us on a journey through a year, from one spring to the next - with sparrows and flying squirrels, blackbirds and elephants, badgers, butterflies and mosquitoes, as his companions. The publishers blurb says he helps us to realise that by enjoying the wild world, by saving the wild world, by seeking to understand the wild world, our own lives become richer and more satisfying. Barnes usual "Happy Meal" approach to wild nature in his Wild Notebook columns in the Times will probably discourage me from reading this book as I doubt if it offers any significant message.
Habitat Fragmentation and Landscape Change: An Ecological and Conservation Synthesis
David Lindenmayer and Joern Fischer (2006) Island Press ISBN 1597260215
Habitat loss and degradation that comes as a result of human activity is the single biggest threat to biodiversity in the world today. This book sets out to define the ecological problems caused by landscape change and to highlight the relationships between that change, habitat fragmentation, and biodiversity. The book considers theoretical principles for examining and predicting effects; examines the range of effects that can arise; explores ways of mitigating impacts; reviews approaches to studying the problem; and discusses knowledge gaps and future areas for research and management.
Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900
Alfred W. Crosby, Donald Worster, 2nd Edition (2004) Cambridge Uni. Press ISBN 0521546184
Ecological Imperialism argues that the displacement of the native peoples of the temperate zones of the world- North America, Australia, and New Zealand - by European peoples was the result of the European plants and animals the invaders brought with them, and not just their superior weapons. It is an account of how Europeans spread over the globe, turning distant lands into what Crosby calls "Neo-Europes." Australia, New Zealand and the Americas are Neo-Europes, but the conquest started nearer with the smaller islands or island groups of the Canaries, Azores and Madeiras. Livestock such as pigs and cattle, but also the pets, vermin, crop plants, and weeds that were taken with the conquest, were able to dominate native biotic niches and European germs swept aside the native people. Consequently, these imperialists became proprietors of the world's most important agricultural lands.
Wild Law - A Manifesto for Earth Justice
Cormac Cullinan (2003) Green Books ISBN-13: 978-1903998359
The survival of the community of life on Earth (including humans) requires us to alter fundamentally our understanding of the nature and purpose of law and governance, rather than merely changing laws. In describing what this new ‘Earth governance’ and ‘Earth jurisprudence’ might look like, Cullinan also gives practical guidance on how to begin moving towards it.
The Social Creation of Nature
Neil Evernden (1992) The Johns Hopkins University Press ISBN-10: 0801843960
Evernden traces the evolution of the concept of "nature" over the past five centuries. In exploring the consequences of conventional understanding, it seeks a way around the limitations of a socially created nature, in order to defend what is actually imperilled - "wildness".