What a year it has been. I’m not going to go on about it, except to say that I do hope that you and your loved ones haven’t been too adversely affected. It’s easy to scare yourself into thinking the entire world has gone mad, but the real world – the natural world, with all its vibrant and diverse life forms and the reassuring turn of the seasons – is still going on around us, offering an alternative, positive focus that is both constant and uplifting. The days might be dark but the winter solstice is behind us – in the northern hemisphere at least – and we can now look forward to the return of the light.
This year, I’ve read some fabulous books, and I’ve also been lucky enough to speak to some extraordinary people through my role with the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. These people are wise and insightful, and I have learned so much, either from chatting to them or from reading their words. I’ve picked a few examples of books and interviews to share with you, and I hope you’ll be inspired to find out more.
Meanwhile, I would like to thank you for your company during 2020. Whatever you may or may not be doing over Christmas, I send you the very warmest wishes, and my heartfelt hopes for better times to come in the New Year.
‘The Light in the Dark – A Winter Journal’ (Elliott & Thompson, 2018)
I bought ‘The Light in the Dark’ to read last winter, and now I’m enjoying it again. Everything about it is beautiful – the cover, the writing, the author’s intention. It is a winter journal, and it was written, quite simply, as a kind of torch to be held up against the season’s darkness, with all the negative emotions of gloom, depression and futility that it can bring. What I admire most about Horatio Clare is his honesty: it takes courage to lay all your vulnerabilities bare and expose them to thousands of strangers. Yet we are not really strangers, because I’m sure we have all felt these emotions too.
At midnight on 5th September, which is his birthday, he makes a vow to himself for the coming season:
“Beware that glaze which creeps over the inner eye, blinding you to the brightness of moss in rain. I will not lose touch with nature. This is vital. I believe in immanence, in the oneness of living things. Maintaining that faith will carry you through the hardest times. Or such is the hope, this midnight. I start my birthday with many wishes, and this is one.”
Clare’s prose is gorgeous, breathtaking, instantly re-readable just for the pleasure of it. He writes like an artist, with fluidity and vivid flashes of colour, combined with wit, irony, intelligence and sensitivity. I find it moving that he is troubled by self-doubt, when his talent is self-evident. Yet I can totally empathise with it too. I hope that writing ‘The Light in the Dark’ was a profoundly helpful experience for him, because I know for sure that it will bring pleasure and brightness to his readers for many, many winters to come.
More about Horatio Clare at https://horatioclarewriter.com/
‘A Cloud a Day – 365 Skies from the Cloud Appreciation Society’ (Batsford, 2019)
If we looked at the sky as if we were seeing it for the first time, what would we see? What would we feel? In April I chatted to Gavin Pretor-Pinney, the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society. At a time when the world was pretty much transfixed by the news, he suggested sky-gazing as a simple but perfect way of restoring our inner calm. He helped me to see the sky in a completely different way:
“We think of ourselves as creatures of the ground, but we also live in the air. The atmosphere can be seen as an ocean of air, and although it’s made of gases rather than liquid it behaves in a similar way.”
Gavin explained that we often take the sky for granted, glancing at it almost without seeing. He invites us to look at it as if we’re seeing it for the first time, because we will find never-ending interest and wonder in the changing clouds and colours. There are other benefits, too. When we look up, our thoughts take a different direction, and our mind responds by slowing down. The result may be a few valuable moments of peace, which can be so good for our mental and physical wellbeing.
This wisdom resonated with me so deeply. After all, who hasn’t watched clouds for hours as a child, totally absorbed and content, without that secret tug of guilt that you get for ‘wasting time’ when you grow up? If we take the time, we can allow ourselves to re-discover this childlike sense of wonder. Daydreaming it might be, but when did that become a bad thing? We might be tempted to start identifying cloud types, but that’s not essential. It’s more about simple appreciation, of finding pleasure in the beauty of the sky.
“The Cloud Appreciation Society… is like a gentle tap on the shoulder, to remind you to engage with this ever-present part of nature. It helps us to realise that it’s good for us as individuals, good for us as a community, and even a world community; it’s good for our relationship with the atmosphere, and it’s good for our souls.”
You can read my full interview with Gavin in RSGS’ newsletter ‘The Geographer’ (Armchair Edition, pages 28-29)
Gavin’s other books include ‘The Cloudspotter’s Guide’ (Hodder & Stoughton, 2006)
More about the Cloud Appreciation Society
‘Mudlarking’ (Bloomsbury, 2019)
“It is the tides that make mudlarking in London so unique. For just a few hours each day, the river gives us access to its contents, which shift and change as the water ebbs and flows, to reveal the story of a city, its people and their relationship with a natural force.”
For nearly 20 years, Lara Maiklem has been scouring the banks of the River Thames for all kinds of artefacts: Neolithic flints, Roman hairpins, Tudor buttons, Georgian clay pipes. Yielded by the mud that is exposed at low tide, they are the relics of nameless people – the ordinary inhabitants of a city, whose stories are rarely told in the history books. In ‘Mudlarking’, she invites us into her world, treading gingerly down old flights of steps that descend from the bustle of a modern city into the curiously quiet and timeless realm of the foreshore.
I love how Lara seems to have developed an instinct, a sixth sense, for something unusual; and, having pulled a new treasure from the gloop, she can often find an intuitive understanding that allows her to speculate in convincing detail about its original owner. She is well-read and well-researched – for her, mudlarking isn’t just a hobby, it’s a passion, and her finds are prized for personal reasons, rather than their monetary value.
I found ‘Mudlarking’ immensely enjoyable for its wealth of historical detail and astonishing human stories, beautifully told. The news is often full of the latest spectacular archaeological find, but Lara’s book proves that so much can be gleaned from lesser treasures, given the enthusiasm and the knowledge.
Follow Lara Maiklem on Twitter @LondonMudlark and Instagram @london.mudlark
‘The Summer Isles’ (Granta, 2019)
A few years ago, when Philip Marsden decided to embark on a voyage up the western seaboard of Ireland and Scotland, he found a ready supply of pessimists among experienced sailors. A solo yachtsman, he was told, would be far safer going up through the Irish Sea: he’d arrive at his destination more quickly, and he’d get there in one piece. But such advice was entirely missing the point. The physical challenge, although daunting, was the framework for a less tangible quest, fuelled by a love of landscape, people, history and legend.
Philip describes his journey in ‘The Summer Isles – A Voyage of the Imagination’. When I read it, I was struck with the idea of there being an extra layer to the topography of a country or a coastline: an invisible layer of stories and traditions, woven and perpetuated by the people who have lived there. For me, this resonates so deeply with the landscape here in western Scotland.
Other factors fed into Philip’s idea – a love of sailing, a desire to venture further afield, and an interest in the survival of Gaelic and Celtic traditions on the western fringes of the British Isles. He delved into medieval Irish literature, in which heroes undertake echtrai – journeys to the otherworld – and immrama, literally ‘rowings about’, which developed into sea-quests for mythical islands. He notes that, long before Ireland’s interior was mapped, its sites were described in dinnseanchas, loosely translated as ‘the lore of high places.’ As part of their bardic training, poets would visit landmarks and recite by heart all the stories that were present there.
For Philip, the practical tribulations of sailing provided a counterpoint to philosophical musings. Problems with equipment demanded immediate attention, and calm weather could quickly turn wild. He navigated chaotic waters caused by tidal races colliding over submerged reefs, and clung grimly to the helm in mountainous seas. In the more serene moments he had the illusion of sailing not so much in water but through the air, an experience alluded to in early chronicles where ships were witnessed in the sky: “On a clear day with bright sunshine, the horizon disappears and the sea and the sky seem to fuse… In several early Irish stories are instances of ships being seen sailing through the sky.”
I can’t recommend ‘The Summer Isles’ highly enough. It must be one of my all-time favourite books.
More about Philip Marsden: https://granta.com/contributor/philip-marsden/
‘Fingers in the Sparkle Jar’ (Ebury Press, 2016)
Chris Packham is a familiar face on our TV screens, as a presenter of wildlife shows and documentaries. What I didn’t realise until fairly recently was what a remarkable writer he was. ‘Fingers in the Sparkle Jar’ is a memoir which draws on his early experiences as a boy whose acute sensation of being in some way ‘different’ was fused with an obsession with wild creatures of all kinds.
Chris recounts his memories with a searing truthfulness that almost – but not quite – becomes a kind of detachment. There’s no emotional filter to blur the edges, just a throwing wide of the window so that we can breathe the same air. His interactions with animals and humans are described with the kind of intensity and candour that you rarely meet with in writing. He experienced nature with all his senses and immersed himself totally in the natural world, which offered an escape from the excruciating atmosphere of classrooms, playgrounds and sitting rooms. In particular, his relationship with his beloved kestrel breaks your heart. You can sense the ending, and I think maybe Chris could, too. But it didn’t help. He says: “I loved him so much I wanted to be him.”
Seeing the world through Chris’s eyes, interpreting it through his interrogating mind, feeling it through his brave and deeply vulnerable heart, was a revelatory experience that seemed to enhance my own powers of perception. It also gave me a profound admiration for his courage. Scattered throughout the book are fragments of conversations that Chris had as a young adult with a mental health therapist; in later life he has spoken openly about his diagnosis with Asperger’s and his quest to learn more about it. In this, as with all the other issues that he explores, he is unflinchingly open and honest.
I was lucky enough to interview Chris when he came to give a talk to RSGS in December 2019. I enjoyed chatting to him very much. He is one of those people whose presence you remember, as well as his words. Observant, interested and interesting, formidably well-informed, witty and humble – yet fierce, and unapologetically so, about matters that concern him. He told me: “There will never be room for any complacency and contentment in my life as a conservationist and an environmentalist… the fact that we will not give up is what provides that hope.”