Over the winter months I have read and enjoyed two stunning and very different books, one at the start of winter and one at the end, that each spoke to me and the way I view and interact with natural things. We all have sources that we enjoy and learn from, but these two are ones that I want to share and encourage all my friends to try to find and read too (it won’t be hard).
The first book is The Lost Words by Jackie Morris (illustrator) and Robert Macfarlane (writer). It was published in October of 2017 and is widely available from the usual sources. This book is large format and beautifully illustrated – I am always a sucker for good illustration and a passer by on the other side when it comes to “poems” (or spells in this case) but this is good stuff. This is a book to share with all your friends, but especially with the younger ones growing up is a world quite different to the one we grew up in.
The second book is Orchid Summer: In Search of the Wildest Flowers of the British Isles by Jon Dunn and was published at the end of winter in early March 2018. This book is mostly text but is more than just a dry accounts of finding wild flowers, it bubbles over with terrific writing and fascinating information about people and places. I simply loved reading it. Not a book for kids, unless they are preternaturally wise, but one for adults who could do with a bit of uplift and hope. Although written in Britain I think the underlying information and spirit is universal.
Why should I read them?
Well, because I tell you that you should, of course. I will begin with the book about orchids …
Orchid Summer: In Search of the Wildest Flowers of the British Isles
Jon Dunn is a really good and engaging writer on natural history. He grew up in the south west of England but today is based in Shetland. He leads tours around the world and writes books such as definitive guides to Britains Mammals and a specific one about Sea Mammals.
In 2016 he set out to see every one of the species of naturally flowering orchids to, theoretically, seen in the United Kingdom. This is the sort of challenge much beloved of birders but I cannot think of ever encountering the urge in botanists, a generally more retiring group of enthusiasts. The taxonomy of orchids is complex. There are some 51 species in Britain … or is it 52 or 54 or 58? It all depends on what you mean by “species” and who is counting … to say nothing of the fact that some orchid genera are promiscuous hybridisers, to put it mildly. Wildly complex … and quite fascinating. The publishers blurb described this book as “Capturing the intoxicating beauty of these rare and charismatic flowers, Orchid Summer is also an exploration of their history, their champions, their place in our landscape and the threats they face. Combining infectious enthusiasm and a painterly eye with a deep knowledge that comes from a lifetime’s passionate devotion to their study, Dunn sweeps us up on his adventure, one from which it is impossible not to emerge enchanted and enriched.”
Suffice it to say that by driving and flying from one end of the country to the other, from sea cliffs in Cornwall to East Anglian Fens, Yorkshire Dales, playing fields in the poorer parts of Glasgow and remote Scottish islands he managed to see all but one species by the end of the year. As he did so he encountered botanists who are to the flowers of their interest perhaps more focussed than some of the hardest of hard bird “twitchers”. All of them with interesting tales to tell and hidden gems of flowers to share.
Historic accounts of fields and forest floors ablaze with hundreds, thousands of orchids in centuries past are a sad reminder of what has been lost … and not only in Britain. For the author to have to rely for modern sightings of some of these species on hushed phone calls from “those in the know” announcing the brief flowering of one or two specimens only is a sad reflection on the world we live in. Flowers that were once common, or at least relatively so, are now so uncommon that their very existence has to be guarded in secrecy. In Yorkshire for many years there was a genuine “secret society” that guarded the existence of the very last examples of one species of orchid in the country … well, Yorkshire is funny like that; as I should know.
One search for a particularly rare orchid too the author to the Hebridean island of Rhum – and excellent excuse for a short digression summarising the infamous pre-war Hislop-Harrison botanical fraud wherein an important botanist, an academic of some renown, “planted” rare alpine plants on the mountains of Rhum and then “discovered” them again. It’s a fascinating tale (and has a long book about it all if you wish to know more). The Cambridge classicist and amateur botanist who uncovered the fraud, John Raven, appears three times in this book in connection with unusual orchids – and was a member of that secret Yorkshire orchid group.
An enthrallingly interesting book … treat yourselves to a copy. It’s also available as en ebook from Kindle and Kobo etc.
Now, on to the other book
The Lost Words
Very different to the first book. The Lost Words is about the very sad fact that common words describing natural phenomena and species are being lost to the language with young people never hearing or knowing them. Not arcane scientific language but words like Kingfisher and Goldfinch, Dandelion, Otter, Bramble and Acorn. All gone or going. More importantly, these are words that have been deliberately removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary
The book takes 20 of the lost words – each of them is beautifully illustrated three times. Once to illustrate an “absence” of the word, once to illustrate the word and lastly to show the word replaced in the world. The illutrations are accompnaied by an acrostic “spell” intended to conjour the word back into everyday use.
People who know me will be shuddering at this point – the above sounds a lot like “woo” but it isn’t. Trust me, I do not do woo. Ever. The book is beautiful to look at and enjoyable to read. Adults will like it. Kids will like it.
A review in The Guardian said … “The acrostic spell-poems are designed to be read out loud. It is a book for adults and children, for adults to read with children. The spells carry the spirit of their subject in their structure. Take the brilliant “Magpie Manifesto: /Argue Every Toss! / Gossip, Bicker, Yak and Snicker All Day Long!” Not only are the word and the bird restored and celebrated, but the spirit and nature and the clatter of the magpie are conserved within its lines.”