😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂
In 1976, John Lister-Kaye bought an estate in the northern central Highlands of Scotland, and set up what is now Scotland’s premier field study centre, Aigas. Although a wide range of wildlife lives and is studied there, Lister-Kaye’s own main fascination is with the many varieties of birds that make their home there – his gods of the morning. In this book, he takes the reader through a year, showing the changes that come with each season, as different birds arrive, nest, breed and leave again. In the introduction, he talks about how he has noticed changes to nesting and breeding patterns over the years. He declares his reluctance to put the blame for these changes wholly at the door of climate change, but points to the growing unpredictability of weather patterns in recent years. His stated intention in this book is not to provide answers but rather, based on his personal observations, to pose some questions of his own.
Lister-Kaye is an established and respected nature writer and on the basis of this book it’s easy to see why. His knowledge of the natural world that surrounds him is matched by his passion for it, and his easy style and fine writing allow both to come through clearly to the reader. In truth, there isn’t much in here that adds to the debate on climate change and I wondered if perhaps nature writers currently feel they have to be seen to be talking about that, or be accused of burying their heads in the sand. In fact, the book is a fairly simple nature diary in structure, allowing Lister-Kaye to select topics that represent for him the progress of a natural year. For me, the suggestion of the climate change angle was something of a minor annoyance, since I kept waiting for it to be raised and, except for occasional references to changing migratory and breeding patterns, it really isn’t much. He makes much of the adverse impact of an early false spring followed by a big freeze in his chosen year, 2012/3, but points out himself that such anomalies have always happened.
…to do justice to nature, the nature of this mystical land of hills and glens, forests, lochs and rushing rivers, and to the confused seasons of what has proved to be a discomfiting and bizarre year, I need to start at a real transition, in late September when fidgets of swallows were gathering on telephone wires like chittering clothes-pegs; when the first tug of departure was fizzing in the blackcaps’ tiny brains; before moonlit frosts cantered rust through the bracken; before the chlorophyll finally bled from blushing leaves; even before the last osprey lifted and wheeled into its migration to Senegal or the Zambia. I need to start when the word was fresh on our lips, in the incipient, not-quite-sure-if-it’s-happened-yet autumn of 2012.
However, read purely for its description of the natural world of this fairly rugged part of the British Isles, the book is both informative and hugely enjoyable. The prose often heads towards lyrical without ever getting too overblown and, though he tells us a lot about the ‘science’ of nature, it’s done very lightly in passing, making it easy to absorb. The tone is personal, based on his own observations rather than textbook stuff, and is often interspersed with anecdotes about life in the field study centre or his own childhood. Like most naturalists, he combines a real passion for the creatures he observes with a hard-headed, non-sentimental approach, recognising that nature is indeed ‘red in tooth and claw’. But occasionally we see a bit of anger seep through at man’s behaviour towards nature, when for instance he describes the on-going poisoning of protected birds of prey, or the battery farming of thousands upon thousands of game birds, destined for slaughter by rich men (I considered saying ‘people’ but I think I’ll stick with ‘men’ in this case) who prefer to have the game fixed to ensure them a good ‘bag’.
Most of the book, though, is filled with delightfully told observations of the minutiae of life around the estate. His year runs from autumn 2012, and really gets underway in the second chapter as he shows the birds and animals preparing for winter – the red squirrels hiding their nuts, the woodmice moving indoors and making nests, the arrival of the geese, moving south from their Arctic summer. (I particularly enjoyed the bit about the geese, since my house happens to be beneath one of their migratory routes and twice a year for one or two days, the sky is dark with them passing and the noise could drown out a passing jumbo jet, except that happily no jumbo jets pass by here – it’s always one of the highlights of my own year, when I can be found standing in the garden gazing upwards in fascination at their squadron-like manoeuvres.) Also at this time of year, many birds are migrating away, and Lister-Kaye combines lovely descriptive writing with information on what triggers migrations, how they have been scientifically observed and some of the myths that have surrounded them in the past.
No sound in the world, not even the rough old music of the rooks, etches more deeply into my soul than the near-hysterical ‘wink-winking’ of pink-footed geese all crying together high overhead. It is a sound like none other. Sad, evocative, stirring and, for me, quintessentially wild, it arouses in me a yearning that seems to tug at the leash of our long separation from the natural world.
And this pattern of information and description continues as the long, harsh Highland winter rolls in with its short days, and we see the struggle for survival of those birds and animals that stay; then the welcome shortening of the nights bringing in the late spring, and moving on to the long days of summer when, this far north, darkness falls only briefly before the sun rises again.
There’s almost nothing I enjoy more than reading or listening to a knowledgeable enthusiast telling of their passion, whatever it might be, and that’s what this book is. Whether telling us of the swan that couldn’t manage to take-off, or tales of his own beloved pet dogs, or of the nesting rooks he can see through the window while lying in his bath, this is a man talking about the things that bring him joy, and allowing the reader to share that joy with him. He doesn’t prettify nature but, even when its at its cruellest, he sees the glory in it. A most enjoyable trip to the Highlands with an expert guide.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate Books.