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BookBlasts® | Top 5 Nature Books for Independent Minds | May, 2020

Never has the word “social” been more used, just when this is probably one of the most antisocial times of our lives! To be locked down indoors with an azure blue sky and gorgeous spring sunshine outside the window is frustrating. So I decided to indulge in some armchair escapism, and find out what independent publishers have recently released, heralding the seasonal shift from Spring into Summer, and the annual arrival of winged visitors from the south.

According to the RSPB, not only do we have swallows and martins landing on our shores, but also warblers, flycatchers, wheatears, whinchats, redstarts, nightingales, yellow wagtails, tree pipits, cuckoos, swifts, nightjars, turtle doves, hobbies, ospreys, terns, puffins and gannets. An uplifting discovery, since here in West London, the pigeons and parakeets have colonised the back gardens, chasing away the starlings and sparrows, blue tits and robins who once flashed and flittered about.

So here are five books to transform social isolating at home into awe and wonder at the complexity and radiance of nature’s abundance and beauty.

The Birds They Sang Birds and People in Life and Art by Stanisław Łubieński. Translated by Bill Johnston (April 2020, Saqi Books)  BUY now

Every year we’d take family vacations in the Masurian Lakes. We’d listen to the hooting of a Tengmalm’s owl in a narrow inlet of Seksty Lake; from close up we’d watch kingfishers fishing. We’d discuss whether a bird seen from the car could have been a short-toed eagle. In this way I gradually immersed myself in the world of birds. I picked out my first binoculars from the cornucopia of Russian goods laid out on camp beds at the Banacha market. The Soviet lenses were pretty decent and besides, they were the only kind available.”

From Papageno’s Song in Mozart’s Magic Flute, to Hitchcock’s film The Birds, and the 1955 bestseller by Thomas E. Gaddis The Birdman of Alcatraz, birds have inspired people and given them hope. Stanisław Łubienski’s unusual bird spotter’s memoir is strangely compelling as he waves into the narrative colourful stories of Polish ornithologists, artists and writers, tales of birdwatchers in World War Two and all manner of cultural references and observations from Billy and Kes in A Kestrel for a Knave, to the Polish realist artist, Józef Marian Chełmoński.  

In today’s world in crisis, birds are dying as we fail to accommodate them. Most recently experiments with 5G masts led to the death of hundreds of birds found lying dead on the streets of Italy; and around 20 000 seabirds died off the Dutch coast in a mass death, showing signs of starvation. Birds matter, and are worth protecting.

How to Create an Eco Garden: The practical guide to sustainable and greener gardening by John Walker  (March 2020, Lorenz Books) BUY now

Offering a sustainable environmentally-friendly alternative to pesticides and urban “pave it all over” gardening practices, this comprehensive, beautifully illustrated, ecological gardener’s handbook is perfect for those of you who care about what you do having an impact on the world beyond your  garden hedge, or fence.

Friends in Harlesden with a big garden who are keen eco gardeners have done many of the book’s recommended tips and suggestions, and now have a successful composting system in operation, not only for garden waste but also kitchen vegetable matter. And they use a water butt to catch water running off the roof for watering when there’s a dry spell.

Honey Bee Drones: Specialists in the Field by Graham Kingham and Simon Paterson (January 2020, Northern Bee Books) BUY now

Bees are the world’s most important pollinator of food crops and are dying at an alarming rate because of a variety of causes — pesticides, drought, habitat destruction, nutrition deficit, air pollution, global warming among them.  Foods that would no longer be available to us if bees were no longer with us are: broccoli, asparagus, cantaloupes, cucumbers, pumpkins, blueberries, watermelons, almonds, apples, cranberries, and cherries.  The good news is that urban bee keeping is on the rise. If you want to know something about the life of bees, this book is a good place to start.

The queen bee and worker honeybees keep the colony going and produce honey from nectar — that much I knew before browsing this book . But I had no idea that male honeybees, or drones, are layabouts who are looked after by the worker bees, or that a queen only mates once in her early life over the course of several mating flights when hundreds of drones from numerous colonies compete to see who can fly closest to her in order to mate successfully. So much for genetic diversity! After mating, the drone’s endophallus is ripped from his abdomen and he dies . . .

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The Story of Trees: And How They Changed the Way We Live by Kevin Hobbs & David West. Illustrated by Thibaud Herem. (February 2020, Laurence King Publishing) BUY now

Like a meeting with friends, this well-researched story of trees reminds us of trees we are familiar with while at the same time intriguing us with details and histories that are less familiar . . . The book maintains a delicate balance between fact-finding and storytelling. Each tree is introduced with fascinating botanical facts and examines geographical distribution over time, which seamlessly gives way to delightful anecdotes about how they have changed the way we live . . . The role trees play within cultures and communities can be explained by an innate human connection with the natural world often described as ‘biophilia’.” From the introduction by Dr. Alexandra Wagstaffe, Eden Project Learning

The Story of Trees takes the reader on a visual journey from some of the earliest known tree species such as the Ginkgo biloba, to the latest hybrids. All the trees profiled have had a profound effect on the planet and humankind, and many have become important religious, political, and cultural symbols.

Two very different books, not obvious bestsellers at all, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way by Lars Mytting, show the importance of being attuned to nature and the passing seasons. Is The Story of Trees a bestseller in waiting? Time will tell . . .

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The Accidental Countryside: Hidden Havens for Britain’s Wildlife by Stephen Moss (March 2020, Guardian Faber Publishing) BUY now

You wouldn’t perhaps expect to find the fastest living creature on the planet in the centre of one of the world’s busiest cities. Indeed, when I was growing up on the outskirts of London during the 1970s, if you’d suggested that peregrine falcons would not only be living in the capital but breeding here, I would have thought you were off your rocker . . . Passers-by rarely look up, so seldom notice them, but they are there. On and around Tate Modern, the Houses of Parliament, Battersea Power Station and many other famous London landmarks . . . As well as London, peregrines now breed in almost every British city . . . One of the most exciting things the accidental countryside offers is making nature available to everyone.” From the Introduction by Stephen Moss 

The author, a birder since boyhood, travels up and down and around this country in which farms take up almost 57% of the land, “so the tiny, unmeasured fraction of accidental countryside we have needs protecting,” he says. “From ancient ruins, to disused railways, these unintended havens dot the British landscape. Tate Modern, on the Thames, with its nesting peregrine falcons, counts as accidental countryside. So do motorway service stations, which birders keen to spy pied wagtails know offer birds more food than neighbouring sprayed fields. Stonework in cemeteries attracts more than 600 species of lichen – a composite organism of algae and fungi living in symbiosis – some of which are hundreds of years old. None of these places were designed for wildlife.”

I look forward to being able to go for a walk again, around the London Wetland Centre, once social isolating is a thing of the past.

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georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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