Crafty Green Poet recommended 'How to be Wild' by Simon Barnes a few weeks ago and on the spur of the moment I requested it from the library, and it has been an absolute delight. I needed something uplifting and positive and this book certainly is. It is packed with enthusiasm for the natural world and Simon shares the many and varied experiences he has had just being outside; some of his 'outsides' are slightly more exotic than others, but the simple process of walking the dog has as much interest for him as trailing lions in Africa.
I don't know much about birds, British or otherwise, though have always enjoyed their presence. I recall watching swifts gathering to leave at the end of the summer when we first moved to Yorkshire and the way it made me feel as if I had arrived in the real countryside: the magpies and rooks dominate here in south Manchester. Birds are obviously his thing, and Simon Barnes waxes lyrical about the pleasures of recognising birdsong:
"It really was a garden warbler. Not a blackcap. These two are species that are notoriously confused, but I get it right every time. My method is simple: I listen to the song, make my diagnosis and walk on. I never look for the bird. That simplifies things enormously." (p.105)
His admiration for nature brings him back time and again to the damage that humans are doing, but for everything that loses there are also new opportunities, he manages to be perpetually upbeat:
"Global warming giveth and global warming taketh away. The cuckoos and the willow warblers are struggling under the stress of climate change: the little egrets and the Cetti's warblers are thriving. Does that make everything all right then?
Well, I;ll tell you the first thing that the egrets and the Cetti's show: and that us the extreme resilience and opportunism of life. If conditions change, there will always be creatures that find that the new way suits them down to the ground. If the world floods tomorrow, most of us will drown, but it will provide a wonderful opportunity for ducks and turtles. That is probably not, on the whole, a sound argument for flooding the earth overnight. The same argument hold for a nuclear winter." (p.128)
He shares his delight in the quirks of nature, pointing out both the mundane and the exotic. I found myself swept up by his enthusiasm for everything, just enjoying listening to his reminiscences and reflections. The writing is so engaging and easy, though you envy him the opportunities that his journalism careers has provided to travel the world. Here he is talking about swifts:
"A friend of mine told me one of the great memories of his childhood was the young swifts' annual emergence from their nesting darkness into the world of flight: and how some of them failed to negotiate the tricky bit between dropping from the nest exit and rising to the skies. They found themselves belly-down on the ground: legs too short and wings too long to get a decent flap going and get airborne. He remembered picking them up and throwing them skywards: launching then into their life in the skies, sometimes racing the cats to set the wild wings free." (p.153)
Here he is talking about flying squirrels:
"Are they an evolutionary mistake? No, certainly not: there are 43 species of the worldwide, including one in Siberia. There are fourteen in Borneo alone: from the pygmy flying squirrel at eight centimetres in length, to the giants, five times as big. They are a successful little group.
Are they then improving? Are the forces of evolution trying to make them more sophisticated, less funny? Again; certainly not. Why should they improve? They work perfectly well as they re. The blind forces of evolution are not seeking to create perfection: they are seeking something that works well enough: well enough to permit the creature to survive, breed, become an ancestor.
The flying squirrels are gorgeous proof that evolution is not perfection. This is an absurd and glorious jerry-rigged creature: a living breathing, thriving Heath Robinson device." (p.163)
Part of the point of the book however is to point out where it has all gone wrong for human being. He sees how we are part of the wild world, but that our progress has taken us out of it, and what we need is to get back: thus the title, How to be Wild. He reflects thus, in between stories of Germany and Africa, about what we have done to evolution:
"This is something takes place over the course of generations: if a change is good, the being that inherited the change is more likely to survive, breed, and pass on that change, and so on, and so on, until, in the classic example, a species of sky-reaching mammals becomes giraffes. There is no evidence to suggest the process went too fast for giraffes: that they are sad alienated creates who live with a perpetual nostalgia for the low and the short. Evolution goes at a natural pace: one that the hearts and minds of the evolving creatures can, it seems, readily deal with.
But humans have found an additional way of changing. What one generation acquires, the next generation can take on right away. There is no need for the prolonged, generation-after-generation process of testing. Humans can acquire changes within their own lifetime, implement them and then pass them on. as a result, the human way of life has changed as a speed no other creature has ever experienced.
We are city-slickers with hunter-gatherer souls: we have evolved for the wild and we have created a world of oppressive tameness. We are out of step with ourselves and the society we have built with such reckless brilliance. We need wildness in our lives: and the more wildness we destroy, the more clear it becomes: we need it more than ever." (p.190-192)
He then talks variously about the process of what is being done to mitigate the damage that we have dome, specifically the idea of 'rewilding', to replace animals in areas where human destruction has wiped them out. He goes out looking for dormice that have been rewilded in Bradfield Wood, and does not see any:
"That begs the question: why bother to put them back? This has two answers. They're completely contradictory, and they're both right. The first is that conservation is not about human gratification. It's about doing the right thing by life, by biodiversity, by the requirements of the wild world. The second is that al conservation is gratifying to humans: that Bradfield Wood feels the better, the richer, for knowing that us has dormice in it. The world itself seems slightly better for knowing that dormice have been put back into it." (p.208-9)
It's not just that he makes you feel that the wild is important because it provides something important for people, but that it is vital for it's own sake. He never says it explicitly be he recognises that humans are just one part of the ecosystem and to a certain extent it is our destruction of it that has landed us with the responsibility for it. He comes back to the swifts, and how their coming and going symbolise the turning of the year and whether the world is "still somehow unfucked":
" When you see the last swift of the year, you feel a pleasant frisson at the year's turning. But you also cannot help but wonder: so much for the last swift of the year: and will there be a first swift next year? In eight months time, will they be arriving to show us that the globe's still working? Or not? To every sight in the natural world, the ancient haze of permanence is gone. We see things clearer now, clearer than ever our ancestors did. We see the world in all its hideously fragile perfection. In every revelation of beauty, those with ears can hear the faint ticking of the time bomb, the faint whisper of the voice that says: enjoy it while you can. The high summer is the season of ease and plenty for humankind: and all the better, it seems to me, for that faint touch of melancholy: for that subtle sense of disquiet." (p.225-6)
The book is so positive though, encouraging the reader to notice what was there all the time but so easily ignored. I liked particularly where he talked about the wildlife that is around you and the ability to tune yourself into it rather than tune it out, being 'nature-deaf' as he calls it:
"I am incomparably richer for having found my hearing, and for having developed my sight. Not in terms of expertise, but in terms of noticing. It's not that I am a better scientist or a more useful recorder. It is rather that I am that little bit wilder. As a result, that little bit richer, that little bit happier. Joe found frogspawn in his own small pond, and a goldcrest sang, high and thin from the top of the pines. I looked, listened, wildly." (p.41)
I found myself standing on Fog Lane the other day listening to a chattering of birds in a tree opposite and trying to pick out how many different ones there were, not recognising them of course, but enjoying listening carefully. And here, to finish, is 'our hedgehog', visiting the cat food in the garage, and hopefully hibernating somewhere snug in our scruffy garden.