You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Book Review’ category.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cooling off for six hours in a police cell in Esher, Surrey, in 1997, with King Arthur Pendragon taking up residence in the cell next door, I had a moment to reflect on the power of words, language and stories. We had both been arrested at the protest in Canbury Gardens, Kingston– the site of the annual Kingston Green Fair. While he was calmly debating with the duty officer as to whether Excalibur was a sword, or actually a religious artefact and therefore it should accompany him into his cell, I was contemplating my reasons for getting angry about the proposed felling of fifty six Lombardy poplars so that new residents of luxury riverside flats would have a better view of the river.

The protest included veterans from Twyford Down (1991) and Newbury Bypass (1994), much bigger protests than the one taking place in leafy, well-to-do Kingston. The line of poplars weren’t native woodland threatened by road building. They were introduced trees planted in the 1930s for screening of a now-disused power station. To those of us who attended the annual  Green Fair however, and who couldn’t leave jobs to join the big protest camps, they were a symbol of resistance to the destruction of the countryside.

At the time, the emotional stories around the protection of the trees weren’t enough for me, and importantly didn’t influence the people that seemed to matter: developers, councillors, government, the police.  I wanted more. I wanted indisputable scientific fact as to the importance of theses trees. In that police cell I decided to become an ecologist: armed with those facts- the REAL story-I would be unstoppable. Surely no one would argue with the facts! So I studied a foundation science course in my evenings, then a biology “A’ Level and finally I went to University to study ecology. A Masters Degree in Applied Ecology and Conservation followed directly and here I am, armed to the teeth with science on habitat destruction, fragmentation, invasive species and global warming. Yet its not enough. 97% of all scientist agree (Cook et al 2013) that global warming is anthropogenic in origin and causing runaway climate breakdown. The IPBES are reporting what amounts to a 6th mass extinction. Yet  the response, the action taken to address this is woefully inadequate and glacially slow.

I worked in conservation for 15 years and learned that there were however only so many people who would sit up and take action over the facts of biodiversity loss and climate change. Facts are far too abstract for most people. The economist Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow explains that a large part of our decision making processes are fast, automatic emotional, stereotypic, and unconscious. I was beginning to find that telling people the factual story and asking them to change their lives was not working. A way through began to emerge for me by listening to people’s stories and trying to highlight with them where nature mattered; to help them see they were embedded in ‘nature’ not separate from it. Facts provide architecture but it was the stories that made them relevant. In a world beset by problems caused by human population growth and resource use, things cant be just what they are; they become what people see them as.

Choice of words and language are critical to understanding and they can be used to build bridges or erect walls. Late last year, George Monbiot called for a change in the language we use around the environment and climate change, proposing amongst other changes the use of the words climate breakdown instead of climate change to convey the sense of urgency; and that phrase ecosystem services, much hated by non-ecologists, should be instead called life support systems.

Words, in this case the deliberate removal of them from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, prompted Robert Macfarlane, Captain of the  Modern Nature Writing Ship, to collaborate with artist Jackie Morris to create The Lost Words, a tome of poems and art that have captured the hearts and minds of so many people that local fundraising campaigns to buy Lost Words have sprung up in all over Britain . At this time we are also exploring a Lost Words Ontario.

Working for the Wildlife Trusts we sometimes struggled with scientific language as a barrier to popular communication. That dreaded word ecosystem services for one, but also the concept of a Living Landscape– the landscape-level conservation thinking that is the key mission of the Trusts- defied abbreviation to media-friendly comms. When you start to explain it, it becomes two wordy but when asked to reduce it to something the public would understand it becomes something so amorphous as to lose its meaning entirely. Perhaps, I thought, some concepts are just not easily explained with words.

In Savage Gods Kingsnorth, after years of using words to fight for nature, finds himself in a place where words- the Savage Gods- are failing him, and language might be tricking him into believing he no longer has a sense of purpose.

“None of this is real. The Scot’s pine is real it is a being, a presence, the birds are real, the solidity of the earth is real and the words are nothing. Nothing. The words are not alive. The words are not quickened, they do not dance or stagger, they are not inhabited. They are hammered survey stakes, acrylic falsehoods that die in the reality of the place. All humans do is talk. Talk talk talk and out come the sounds and like poetry they change nothing but we talk talk talk anyway and we mistake the sounds for meaning or action and the tree just stands there silently and we just talk.” p31

” Is Language the Trap? The field is full of language. Everything is speaking to everything else, and some of it i can hear and some of it, because of my biology or my cultural inheritance, i am not equipped to. All nature is language- but none of it is written down.” p117

I was introduced to Paul Kingsnorth’s writing by a good friend who recognised in his works something I was going through in my own personal journey. Kingsnorth was an activist at Twyford Down, Solsbury Hill and the M11 link road. He has worked for Greenpeace and then was deputy editor of The Ecologist. In 2001 he had the honour of being named one of Britain’s Top 10 Troublemakers by the New Statesman. He is a writer of books, poetry and articles exploring place, nature and environmental concern. In 2009 he co-founded, with Dougald Hine, the Dark Mountain Project , a network of writers and artists who have all but accepted that social collapse is around the corner and have named themselves witnesses to the event.

I read ‘Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist‘ where in a series of essays Paul explored his growing distance from the world of environmental activism. I recognised the sense of it but I wasn’t yet ready to give up ‘the fight’ as Paul seemed to had done. He had gone deeper into the world of environmental politics and protest than I ever had, however. For me, Canbury Gardens had led to Nuclear Testing and anti-WTO protests but I put my energies completely into deepening my scientific understanding.

Savage Gods finds Paul sense-making with his family from his new home in Ireland. The fire in his belly is cooling, becoming something less consumptive, more like the tributaries of a river finding its way through the land. Without the energy from those fires, he is exploring his seemingly frustrated creativity.

“What does a writer do when his words stop working? I dont know. All I know is I’m churning inside and everything I know is windskipping like brown willow leaves in a winter gale”

The move to Ireland brings reflections on place making and connection. How does a self-proclaimed “wanderer through words and worlds” make the connections with place and land that he once had and still craves. Kingsnorth knows that connection to land is an important part of his or anyone’s sense of self, – a ‘sense of reciprocity between a people and the place they live in,‘ yet he finds it almost impossible to bear once he has them.He escaped from his middle-class upbringing and he found no solidarity with his Oxford peers. Now he has also come to hate idealists like the one he used to be.

“I was born in the rootless suburbs and they have given me a rootless soul. I am not a tree. I am some kind of slinking animal in the hedgerow. I am a seed on the wind. I am water. I am coming to the rocks at the lip of the fall.” p25

This style is echoed later in the book when he quotes the Song of Amergin, the invocation of the spirit of Ireland by the mythological poet-druid of the Milesians. As with the original poem perhaps this is a calling to the spirit of the land for recognition, but not this time for a people, but for one man’s uprooted soul.

Language is perhaps our greatest achievement and, if we all just want to connect, to belong to something, language might well be the tool of our demise. Words are an abstraction of things, they are not those things. Language sets us apart in an observers role and defies belonging which we all simultaneously crave and fear. Belonging brings acceptance and annihilation of individuality in the same moment.

The most Savage Gods though seem to be not words or language but the thoughts behind them. The cognitions that form as we unconsciously filter the information from our environment with our evolutionary-sculpted sensory systems. The world we see is the one we inherited through millennia of interactions between us and our environment. The cruel trick begins with thought: the separation starts before words are formed,  because if  we saw things how they really were we would be seeing flow not form, process not state. Yet words and language are part of the road map for survival; they brought us here to where we are today.

In The Language Instinct Steven Pinker, buidling on the work of Noam Chomsky before him, proposed that the ability to learn language is inherited, that we possess a proto-language or ‘mentalese’ which is the same for every language and forms a grammatical structure on which our learning is mapped. This would suggest a thought-prison of our own making, an inability to escape from thinking outside our own box. Recent insights from  Professor of Linguistics Vyvyan Evans in his book The Language Myth challenge this notion. He argues that thoughts aren’t taking place in an abstract mentalese but are “embodied”, arising directly in and from experience. If this is indeed true, thoughts and the language that arise from them aren’t an abstraction at all, but a direct consequence of interaction with the material world, all be it still through a biological filter. It is impossible as yet for an unaided individual to see gamma radiation or smell the world as richly as a dog would.

Where we are could also be a cul-de-sac. In the science fiction novel ‘Blindsight‘ Peter Watts suggests that this separation from ‘being’ through consciousness could actually be an aberration, an evolutionary dead end.

“Evolution across the universe was nothing but the endless proliferation of automatic, organized complexity, a vast arid Turing machine full of self-replicating machinery forever unaware of its own existence. And we—we were the flukes and the fossils. We were the flightless birds lauding our own mastery over some remote island while serpents and carnivores washed up on our shores.”

Life cannot exist for long separated from itself. I am reminded of a time-lapse model of source-sink dynamics, the sink ‘winking’ out of existence unable to maintain itself in a hostile environment without migration from the source.

Savage Gods reads at first like the notebook for a finished work. Something to be honed and crafted and, well……completed. In my head I often asked Kingsnorth why he felt it necessary to publish these ‘workings out’. But if we suffer from seeing form not flow, here he gives us flow. beautifully. Here he is exploring the trap every being falls into when, rather than just doing, begins to ask themselves why?  The answer, if there is one, may not lie in the book, or the bowl or the basket but in the crafting of the book, bowl or basket. We are possessed by ghosts of the evolutionary process which we mistake for purpose. We have come too far down the line of self-reflection which was only ever meant to be a side show to the greater theme of being.

The book also feels aptly titled because it feels like a prayer offered up for a revelation, for insight into the true reality of things, and for meaning and direction.

Perhaps there is only peace to be made with that reality. Defy those Savage Gods, stop fighting and start doing. We can’t easily do both.

Savage Gods was released in early June in Europe and  is available for pre-order in North America through publishers Two Dollar Radio. I am grateful for them for providing a preview copy.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

HAre_JCrumley

“….what makes you think the Hare is done with night just because she kicked a badger in the ribs?”

Ever since the days when I thought I might be a druid, the Hare, along with the bear and the wolf, has been an animal of  power and magic in my imagination. This triptych is with me daily, three figures adorning my bookshelf, a wolf from the Schleich range of figurines; a brown bear sculpted from who-knows-what rock, a salmon in its jaws; and a hare. The hare is solid carnelian.

Brown-hare-female-boxing-male-during-courtship

Imagine the somersaults in my soul then, when on a unplanned sidestep into The Haslemere Bookstore, heading as I do straight for the nature and wildlife section just by the sales desk, I spy the form of a hare on the cover of a book. Not just any hare this, this is an orange and white poem in paint from the imagination of Carry Akroyd, one of my favourite nature artists. Following the hare I spy fox, barn owl and swan all in the same unmistakeable colours and patterns. As I pick up Hare my fingers delight in the hard spine and rough cover. This is something of substance, an appeal to all the senses as a good book should be. There might be a threshold of stimulation above which the mind dissolves, and suddenly I am aware that the author of this book, these books, is Jim Crumley, and it feels like a dam has been breached somewhere in my head.  My brain is so hot it may melt like butter. My cheeks start to sting a little. I feel like I have discovered a treasure hoard, half expect the glittering tail of Smaug the Magnificent to drop from the topmost shelf, backed up by his deadly dentistry. When nothing so dramatic happens, an impulse makes me turn to see if I have been discovered in this intimate moment of joy. I almost set my back to the shelves- this treasure discovered, I will fight all comers; this is too good to share. Instead I walk away as if nothing has happened, calm myself within the earhy logic of the gardening section, then quickly exit the store, £10 poorer but richer beyond my dreams as I slide the paper wrapped……book is such a poor word, this is a doorway…..into my bag.

Jim Crumley has written 30 books and you may imagine from my reaction I have read them all, but my only other encounter with the Scottish nature writer was with The Last Wolf he  But what an encounter! In that wonderful book, he told the story of the disappearance of the last wolf in a more or less conventional way through relating the facts of the case and embedding its demise- it’s supposed demise- in a historical context’ He points out how careful we should be about the claims of the killer when such an act could be clearly used for self-aggrandizement and political manoeuvring. Scattered through this interesting read, however,  the poet and visionary (dare I say druid?) is shape-shifted into that Last Wolf, and wandered through the glens and lochs that Crumley knows intimately. Through this powerful storytelling technique, despite my own reservations about the possibility of such a thing in the modern human-dominated landscape, I was one with Crumley in his instance that the wolf should be reintroduced to Scotland as an urgent imperative.

Encounters In the Wild

Hare is in a series of books called Encounters In the Wild which cover the Barn Owl, Fox and Swan. Each chapter is a different encounter with either (and in one encounter both) the Brown Hare Lepus europeaus and Mountain Hare Lepus lepus. From observations of interactions with fellow denizens of the field and wood in the lowlands, to an inexplicable and solitary quest for the peaks in the mountains, Crumley’s encounters with hares are bought to life through his impeccable attention to the details of how things are and what they do- what a scientist would call morphology and behaviour- shape-shifted with a storytellers heart.

This book is about the hare. There is a chapter about the UK current status of the hare and the appalling slaughter that we wreck on this ever-declining species in the name of sport- both through illegal hare coursing and through state-sponsored massacres in the form of grouse shoots. But Crumley weaves the hare’s tale so much with other animals and with the landscape that it all seems part of the same one thing. And here he is, watching and retelling this tale and it’s clear he is also part of that same magical pattern. But while we know on one level what hares are, we are still far away from fully understanding them, and this series of encounters walks the line of familiarity and mystery perfectly.

“..finally there was a blur of dark brown sodden fur between two clumps of heather, but then it stopped dead still. It could be anything-at-all……The anything at all trembled. The shape shifted. It became taller, developed ears, extraordinary brown and white and grey and black ears that flicked upright and scanned the wood and turned into the wind. To watch a hare reveal itself piecemeal as it both changes shape from low-lying horizontal to tall-sitting vertical and inches back and forward among different clumps of heather and skinny birch clumps is to bear witness to a kind of sorcery.”

Brown-hare-scratching-ear

Carry Akroyd’s art is a perfect complement to this book. Her work arises from the linocut tradition and is inspired by the wildlife and agricultural landscapes of the East of England, where Brown Hares still do well in decent numbers, and in particular by one of its most famous sons, the poet John Clare. For me it is a reminder of a youth spent at my Aunt, Uncle & Grandparent’s second home in Glinton, outside Peterborough- very near to Clare’s residence and Akroyd’s gallery at Helpston. It was a youth of ladybirds, walks along the edges of vast wheat fields, “hills and hollows” and Peakirk’s Wildfowl, where the sky was huge and forever blue and if you were lucky you would spot Hawker Harrier out from RAF Wittering. But for paralysing hayfever I would have spent more time rooting round rather than looking up at those planes: a story for another day.

As we approach the breeding season when Hares are easily seen in the day, I have been planning with Mammal Group, Wildlife Trust and SBIC colleagues to push on finding out where Hares still exist in Surrey. Watch out for an upcoming blog about a day out searching for them near Cranleigh, almost as far from the snow-covered slopes of Bidean nam Nian as you can be without leaving the mainland. I shall hold these encounters with me; for or an ecologist like me they are a reminder should I need one that looking is the beginning of learning and leads to understanding; but understanding is only part of the story. The head and heart are in one body for a reason.

One line I will also take with me:

“ I realised at this point that the Hare was not in site and neither the badger or I had seen it go.”

Badger and I are will be keeping a careful watch from now on.

 

This post is about why my blog is so named and how a connection, in this case with ideas in a book can be life changing.

The first book that opened my eyes to science was Fritjof Capra’s book Web of Life: A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter (1996). If I’m honest, sitting here almost 20 years later I don’t remember much of the detail, but it was a bridging point- a profound connection- between a semi- mystical path I had been following exploring the unity and connectivity of living things (I had started to follow the Druidic tradition) and opened my eyes to a life of scientific enquiry. In my head that’s not much of a leap; you could argue druids where really the ecologists of their day, utilising the same observational techniques of the natural world, but based around a different knowledge paradigm.

In the Web of Life, Capra summarises the problems that the world faces- climate change, poverty, population growth, environmental degradation- as integrated and systematic, requiring a totally new approach to thinking about the world. He proposed that a “paradigm shift” is needed similar to that which marked the discoveries of Newton/Einstein and Lamarck/Darwin which permeated every sphere of existence. In the Web of Life he explores the movement to  systems thinking away from the reductionist understanding of components. Systems also have emergent properties that are more than the sum of the parts: simply put, the bicycle is an emergent property of the positioning of pedals, wheels, saddle etc in a prescribed manner to produce a functioning system. Importantly the properties of the whole are not present in the parts, so studying components is unhelpful in understanding the properties of the system. Capra explores how systems thinking has transformed approaches across disciplines including mathematics (chaos theory), cybernetics, gaia hypothesis and autopoiesis (self-organising systems).

Systems thinking has important social science repercussions because it moves thinking away from the separation of humans and nature (a big bugbear of mine as my Web of Life will reveal); it implies integration rather than self-assertion and the triumph of ego; and networks underpin systems rather  than hierarchical structures.

Capra also explores the deep ecology which broadens ecological science into a philosophy of life. More on that in future blogs.

After reading this book while a care worker at a residential home for people with learning disabilities and challenging behaviours. I started studying part –time an OU Discovering Science course and read the second of two formative books: Edward O Wilson’s Diversity of Life. It became clear to me that I wanted to study ecology- essentially the science of the distribution and abundance of populations because it encapsulated for me the take home message from Capra – the idea of connectivity and complementarity between parts and the whole. Ecology connects with so many other scientific disciplines and I think can embrace non-scientific world views as well, although many ecologists would disagree I suspect.

While the Web of Life was pivotal in changing my life, like the paradigm shifts mentioned here it crystalised some experiences and thinking that were already present; but now I had a framework of knowledge to build my experiences into and to pose more questions to test that framework. For me, as I am sure for you too, a life without at least some kind of filter through which to pass your experiences is, to use one of my father’s favourite quotes from Macbeth “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

 

This post first appeared on Feb 16 with details of how to order the work from NHBS at £399. I was promptly contacted by Georg Muller the author to tell me that neither he nor his publisher had supplied NHBS and certainly not at this price.

If you would like to purchase the book please contact Georg Muller direct for 318 euros = 262 pounds including shipping costs if it is dirket ordered from the author. See website http://www.wallhecke.de.

This is an impressive work that Georg has funded himself. Without visionary and dedicated people like him, works like this would not exist. Worth every penny.

******

Europe'sFieldBoundariesAfter 30 years of intense research in over 30  European countries Georg Muller has produced a colossal and comprehensive new work on Field Boundaries across Europe, which highlights the connection between farming methods and their field boundaries.

I was able to leaf through these impressive tomes at a recent Hedgelink Steering Group meeting, two of my colleagues having been sent complimentary copies. The books are so large that Emily bought Volume 1 from Leeds and Rob Volume 2 from Devon! As well as the beloved hedgerow, types include fences, dead hedges and hedge banks and dry stone walls. As well as wonderful colour photographs the 2 volume set has diagrams of construction methods

Professor John Dover, also of Hedgelink has written of Muller’s work

 “Field boundaries are not simply stock control or ownership boundary features, they are human cultural artefacts – and their presence in the landscape is a physical history of human endeavour

If you are feeling charitable and should you wish to purchase a copy for me, well, my gratitude would be as large as Georg Muller’s work.

Muller 2013 Europe’sFieldBoundaries_sample

hedgelinklogo900 www.hedgelink.org.uk

 A New Era for Wolves and People-Review

Click on Book Reviews Tab to Buy form Amazon

Twitter Updates

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Archives

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: