Europe: A Natural History by Tim Flannery

From fossils to the future…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Starting roughly 100 million years ago, Flannery sets out to tell the story of Europe – how it formed, the species that have lived, survived or become extinct in it, the rise of humanity, and the possible future impacts of our current galloping climate change. Along the way, he tells us of the many men and women who have contributed to uncovering this history or who have in some way affected it.

There’s so much in this fascinating book that it’s hard to know how to summarise it in a few hundred words. It gives a panoramic view, bringing together and linking all the bits of natural history that are often covered separately, such as the formation of the continent, or current rewilding projects, or the origins of humanity. It’s surprisingly compact, considering its huge scope, and yet never feels superficial or rushed. And Flannery is a master of the art of converting scientific information into language easily understandable by the non-scientist.

Flannery starts by explaining how the landmass formed and changed over time and how this impacted on the development and spread of species, or conversely on their isolation to single geographic areas. He explains the various climate changes over the aeons – why they happened and how they affected both environment and fauna. He describes the various land corridors that have existed at points between what are now separate continents, and the flow of species along these. I was reading a review copy without maps, but it indicated that maps will be available in the final version – I didn’t find the lack of them seriously affected my understanding of what he was describing, but they would undoubtedly be an enhancement.

Cretaceous Europe

Personally I’m very human-centric, so I found the sections where he discussed the early hominids, the Neanderthals and the early humans particularly interesting. Flannery seems to have a good deal of admiration for the Neanderthals, seeing them not in any way as a lower form of species to humanity. In fact, he often gives the impression that in some ways he thinks they were superior in terms of intelligence and innovation, and that humanity’s main advantage, and the reason why we survived and they didn’t, is that humans can exist on foods other than meat, which enabled us to adapt better to changing environments. There’s a fascinating chapter on hybridisation between pale-skinned European Neanderthals and the early black African humans to create the first European humans. He doesn’t specifically say so, but I got the distinct feeling that he thinks the infusion of Neanderthal DNA was advantageous to the humans. Certainly he suspects that female Neanderthal mothers may have passed tips to their hybrid offspring on how to survive in the cold European climate, such as cave-dwelling. Apparently indigenous Europeans (and their descendants throughout the diaspora) still have a small but significant percentage of Neanderthal DNA.

Neanderthal Man, though I’m sure I’ve
met him up the dancin’…

Once into the human phase of history, he shows how man began to impact on the environment and on other species, hunting some to extinction, destroying the habitats of some through farming, and domesticating some as farm animals or working animals. He talks of the European reliance on the cow as a source of food, and how that advantaged those with high lactose tolerance. He discusses the domestication of dogs, horses, cats, and explains how repeated selection and breeding of those with the most suitable temperaments for living domestically eventually changed them fundamentally from their wilder forebears. And he shows how human activities led to the introduction of species from (and to) other regions of the world, sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally, and often with unforeseen effects on indigenous species.

As well as being a naturalist, Flannery is a renowned name in the field of climate change, so his final section looks to a future where change is happening so fast some species are unlikely to be able to adapt quickly enough to survive without human intervention. However, it’s not all bleak – the warming of Europe allows scope for reintroduction of species who emigrated during the ice ages, and Flannery sees this as a possible means of survival for some of the species who will be under threat in warmer parts of the world. He makes a strong case for Europe reintroducing some of the large species from Africa, including the predators, arguing that it’s unfair for Europeans to expect a turbulent, growing Africa to have to bear all the risks and costs of preserving these species if we are all to enjoy the benefits of their survival. He’s less clear about his support for the reintroduction of extinct species, possible now with genetic science, but suggests that society should form a view on this (presumably, though he doesn’t say so, before the mad scientists make the decisions for us). Thankfully, he draws the line at the idea of reintroducing the Neanderthal, although the survival of Neanderthal DNA makes this possible, concluding that the genetic manipulation of humans is immoral. I can only hope the wider scientific community agrees with him on that one.

Serious moves are already afoot to clone mammoths by creating an embryo from genetic material and implanting it in the womb of a donor elephant. Good idea? The elephant doesn’t get to express an opinion…

As always with these science-based books, I feel I’ve give only a superficial flavour of this one, concentrating on the bits that most interested me. But I found the whole thing fascinating, bringing together lots of disparate bits of things I’ve read about over the years into one coherent whole. Flannery writes clearly and entertainingly, including lots of anecdotes about the scientists and naturalists who’ve contributed to the sum of knowledge over the centuries, which helps to break up the more sciency stuff. And he’s meticulous about differentiating things that are known from those that are theorised but not yet proven, and from his own occasional speculations. An excellent read, informative and enjoyable – highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press.

PS Although obviously Europe is the best continent in the world, for those of you from inferior other continents, Flannery has previously written similar books on the natural and human histories of Australasia and North America.

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At the Loch of the Green Corrie by Andrew Greig

Timor mortis conturbat me, part 2…

🙂 🙂 🙂

At his last meeting with renowned Scottish poet Norman MacCaig, MacCaig laid a charge on Andrew Greig to make a journey after MacCaig’s death to his beloved Assynt in the north west of Scotland, and there to fish in the Loch of the Green Corrie. This is the story of that trip, mixed with Greig’s memories of and musings on MacCaig and his own life.

I’ve said this before, but my rating system is not an indicator of quality but simply of my enjoyment or otherwise of a particular book. In terms of quality, this book deserves more and plenty of people have loved or will love it. So I’ve gone with 3 stars even though I didn’t enjoy it at all.

I often recycle the titles I use for reviews, and I knew what the title for this one would be before I was more than a few chapters in: Timor mortis conturbat me – the fear of death confounds me. I also knew I had used the title before, so checked to see when. Turns out it was when I reviewed the only other book of Greig’s that I have read, In Another Light.

Greig writes of MacCaig’s declining years, of the loss of his mountaineering friend Malcolm Duff, of his own near miss when he suffered from a cyst in his brain, of his father’s death. He tells us of his breakdown following a failed relationship, when he ended up in a psychiatric hospital after attempting suicide. I found the whole thing deeply depressing.

Andrew Greig

Most people of my age have lost people we loved and recognise that we’re closer to death than birth, and we all deal with it differently. Greig writes it out of his system and does so very well. Many people read about it and find comfort and strength from the recognition of common experience. I know already how grief feels and that it passes or lessens in time, and find no benefit or comfort in reflecting endlessly on my own past losses or anyone else’s. Timor mortis has never confounded me particularly – I’m more of an eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die type. So Greig and I are simply not a good match. And that’s not a criticism of either of us.

I abandoned this one at 30%, and won’t be attempting to read any more of his books. But I’m still happy to recommend them to the many people who find some kind of comfort or insight in having the experience of mortality and loss reflected back to them.

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(P.S. TBR Thursday has moved to Friday this week so it can include the result of The Classics Club Spin #17!)

The Long, Long Life of Trees by Fiona Stafford

Suffering from misleading blurb syndrome…

🙂 🙂 🙂

the-long-long-life-of-treesIn her short introduction Stafford tells us of her life-long love for trees, and discusses the place they have held through the generations in myth and art. She points to the ambivalence of our attitude towards trees: our love, occasionally even worship, of them contrasting with our continuing destruction of forests. Some of the language she uses is lovely – evocative, lyrical even…

The oak branch is my golden bough, offering immediate safe conduct from one world to another. It transports me to a particular day and tree, and then on to other oaks and their places, some of these known personally, others vicariously through things I have been told, or through poems and stories, photographs and paintings. Sometimes it will take me full circle, from heroes to local histories, tales of magic and metamorphosis, panegyrics and protests, fables of planting and felling, and on through forests of wood carvings, masts, musical instruments, and furniture, until I am back in the same room, surrounded by familiar things. They are never quite the same.

The book then takes the format of a short chapter per species of tree. While many of the trees discussed grow in various places around the world, Stafford sticks for the most part to trees that are native to Britain. Each chapter tells us some facts about the species – its lifespan, how it propagates, etc. There are snippets from poems and literature, showing how the tree has been seen symbolically over time – again, largely British literature. Stafford discusses how the trees have been used by humanity – what uses the wood of a particular species has been put to, whether the tree produces food or has been used for medicinal purposes and so on. She looks at the impact of our activities on the environment and discusses threats to the species’ survival where relevant.

Some of the factlets are interesting; for example, that holly trees were around in the age of the dinosaurs, or that “In medieval Europe, the demand for longbows led to the destruction of European yew forests, in an early version of the arms trade – with all its ironies. Yew wood imported from French forests might well return home to launch deadly arrows at the very people who had felled it.” Stafford also mentions superstitions relating to particular trees, such as rowan trees being seen as giving protection from witches. And where species have great longevity, such as the yew, she tells of specific trees that have found their own place in history – or perhaps legend would be more accurate – like the yew tree at Fortingall in Perthshire, still surviving today, under which, it is said, the young Pontius Pilate played when visiting Britain with his father.

The Fortingall Yew
The Fortingall Yew

So there is plenty of interest in this book. However, apart from the introduction, it is written in a workmanlike style, almost like reading entries from a well written and researched encyclopaedia. The first line of the blurb claims it is “a lyrical tribute to the diversity of trees, their physical beauty, their special characteristics and uses, and their ever-evolving meanings.” I’d have to argue with the word “lyrical” – the lyricism that flares up briefly when Stafford talks of her own relationship to trees in the introduction disappears entirely once she begins to discuss the species separately. It’s fact-filled and clearly well researched, but impersonal and with little or no emotional content. The blurb also claims it is “beautifully illustrated” and again I fear I must disagree. It has many pencil drawings, but rarely of the trees under discussion. So there can be an entire chapter, such as the holly, for example, where there is no picture of a holly tree at all, nor even a drawing of one.

Fiona Stafford
Fiona Stafford

Unfortunately it was the promise of lyricism and beautiful illustrations that drew me to the book, meaning that I found it disappointing. I feel it’s a victim of misleading blurb syndrome – had it been described more accurately, my expectations would have been quite different going in – in truth, I probably wouldn’t have been attracted enough to read it. And yet it does what it does very well indeed – it provides a lot of interesting facts about trees and man’s relationship to them over the centuries. But for me nature writing is more about the beauty of the language and the author’s personal, emotional relationship with her subject, and I didn’t find that here. Hence my rather low and possibly unfair three star rating for a book that probably deserves more – the blurb in this case having led to a mismatch between book and reader.

* * * * *

FF’s Second Law: Blurbs should accurately reflect the contents of the book to ensure they attract the right readers.

* * * * *

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

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Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man by Nina Lyon

Mushrooms and tree-hugging…

😦 😦

uprootedThe book starts with Lyon being intrigued by the proliferation of the Green Man and other obviously pagan carvings on early churches. Making the point that early Christianity needed to incorporate some aspects of existing spiritual beliefs in order to attract adherents, she then goes on to speculate that worshipping, or at least respecting, the natural world and assuming it has some kind of power is at least as rational as contemporary conventional religion. So she decides to start a sex cult.

There is a vein of humour running through the book, which sometimes works but more often makes it difficult to know exactly how seriously Lyon expects the reader to take her arguments, such as they are. She’s clearly superficially knowledgeable of both nature myths and philosophy, and in the early chapters she uses this knowledge quite effectively. She’s humorous about being unable to find willing participants for her sex cult, but is incredibly dismissive of Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular. At first, I admired the writing and intelligence, though I felt from a very early stage that she hadn’t really thought through what, if anything, she was trying to say.

As the book progresses, she takes superficial looks at various aspects of things that she seems to associate with paganism or nature cults; for example, witchcraft, shamanism, Alesteir Crowley’s beliefs, etc. Half the time I wasn’t even convinced of their relevance to the argument she seems to be attempting to make – namely, that conventional religion is on its way out and we need to revert to some kind of paganism, a belief in a single consciousness, from which some kind of mystical power does (or perhaps doesn’t) derive. It’s possible that I’m over-simplifying – I did lose the will to live fairly early on – but I don’t think so. It all has a hippy, undergraduate feel – drugs and drink seem to feature quite heavily at the points of her ‘insights’. She cherry-picks the bits of philosophy that she thinks give some intellectual grounding to her rather unstructured rambling, but they really don’t. The whole thing is too sloppy and unfocused to shed much light on anything. And, being honest, I never felt she was convinced of her own arguments.

The Green Man at Kilpeck Church, where Lyons journey began...
The Green Man at Kilpeck Church, where Lyons journey began…

I wondered, fleetingly, at the fact that the two people I have known reasonably well who have been diagnosed with psychotic disorders were, variously, raised by academic metaphysicians or philosophy students at the time of diagnosis. Perhaps overthinking makes you mad. Perhaps mad people are merely thinkers.

Ignoring the clumsiness of the sentence structure, this is her reasoning for why people with psychotic illnesses should seek treatment from shamans rather than conventional resources. One wonders if she considered the possibility that, since she’s spent her life in and around academia, she probably meets a disproportionately high number of academic types, perhaps just possibly skewing the results of her in-depth survey.

Partly, the problem is that she makes assumptions to suit her agenda with no corresponding evidence. For example, she makes a big point about how conventional religion has destroyed the traditional way in which early pagans actively joined in with ritual celebrations (though how she knows they did this is an unexplained mystery – time travel? Mystical messages from the great beyond? Perhaps a tree told her…), so that now they tend to be made up of performers and audience, rather than participants. She, of course, sees this as a loss, so much so that she assumes that’s unarguable.

Still from the movie "The Wicker Man" Brrrrr! No wonder the director let them keep their undies on...
Still from the movie “The Wicker Man”
Brrrrr! No wonder the director let them keep their undies on…

But I reckon that even if, for the sake of argument, one accepts her assumptions about pagan rituals, lots of people would argue that sacrifices and orgies might not be such a loss, and perhaps our more reserved behaviour is a sign of civilisation – or in Scotland, perhaps just a response to it rarely being warm enough to encourage us to get our kit off outdoors. Also, she frequently repeats that she is an atheist which, therefore, would obviously make her feel like an onlooker at a Christian ceremony. (I’m trying so hard not to say “Duh!”) I’m an atheist, too, but I’m willing to bet that true believers probably feel like participants in their religious practices rather than audience members.

Nina Lyon is currently completing a PhD about nonsense and metaphysics at Cardiff University. It figures...
Nina Lyon is currently completing a PhD about nonsense and metaphysics at Cardiff University. Yeah, figures…

As the book wears on, Lyon rambles around England and bits of Europe in a totally unstructured way, going to visit tree-hugging shamans and attending festivals at Stonehenge and other such trite remnants of hippy culture, where she learns that apparently the best way to celebrate life is to get stoned out of your head. When she started nostalgically bleating on about how Ecstasy had been a brilliant thing in the ’90s for bringing young people together in shared experiences, I realised with a twinge of pity that she really didn’t have a clue it’s the youthfulness that achieves that, not the drugs.

In conclusion, good prose style, some averagely decent nature writing, occasional shafts of humour, but the bulk of it is basically twaddle. As she neared the end, Lyon admitted she’d kind of lost interest in her original aim of creating a new Green Man sex cult. She wasn’t alone.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Faber and Faber.

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Gods of the Morning by John Lister-Kaye

gods of the morningA Highland year…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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.

Aigas Field Centre
Aigas Field Centre

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’.

John Lister-Kaye feeding a wildcat
John Lister-Kaye feeding a wildcat

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.

Buzzard at Aigas Photo: rutlandjan via tripadvisor.co.uk
Buzzard at Aigas
Photo: rutlandjan via tripadvisor.co.uk

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.

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The Coming of the Fairies by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

the coming of the fairies“If you believe in fairies, clap your hands…”

🙂 🙂 🙂

In this short book, Conan Doyle tells the story of the famous ‘Cottingley Fairies’ – 5 photographs taken over a three-year period purporting to show fairies and gnomes sporting in a valley in Yorkshire. The photos were taken by two young girls, but it was only when Conan Doyle got his hands on them that they became a cause célèbre.

By the time the first photos surfaced in 1917, Conan Doyle had already become a firm supporter of spiritualism and, while he makes it clear that he doesn’t consider the existence of fairies to be directly related to people communicating from beyond the grave, he expresses his hope that this ‘proof’ of one thing thought to be a myth might open people’s minds to considering the truth of the other. In short, he was motivated to accept the photos as genuine and to dismiss any other explanation. And sadly, that’s exactly what he does.

cot fairies 1

‘Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’

Unlike the revered Mr Holmes, Conan Doyle decided to believe the improbable by assuming that it was impossible for the girls to fake the photos. Fortunately, by the time the girls admitted that the fairies were copied from a magazine, cut out from cardboard and held in place by hatpins, Conan Doyle had long since died – though of course one of his medium friends may have passed on the shock news.

cot fairies 4

“We received [psychic] communications from a fairy named Bebel several times, one of them lasting nearly an hour. The communication was as decided and swift as from the most powerful spirit. He told us that he was a Leprechaun (male), but that in a ruined fort near us dwelt the Pixies. Our demesne had been the habitation of Leprechauns always, and they with their Queen Picel, mounted on her gorgeous dragon-fly, found all they required in our grounds.”

Extract of a letter from one of Conan Doyle’s ‘witnesses’.

cot fairies 2

The book itself is less interesting than I hoped. Conan Doyle includes his own magazine article and copies of the correspondence between himself and Edward Gardner, the man who carried out the investigation. But he also includes copies of lots of correspondence he received from other people also claiming to have seen fairies and his acceptance of even the tallest of these tales becomes somewhat uncomfortable after a time. There’s also a long chapter in the form of a report from a clairvoyant who sees so many fairies, goblins and gnomes cavorting in the valley that it’s hard to understand how a man of Conan Doyle’s undoubted intelligence couldn’t see it for the sham it so clearly was. Unless, of course, you believe in fairies…

cot fairies 3

(It’s OK, Lady Fancifull – I’ve finished. You can stop clapping now… 😉 )

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Cat Sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed by John Bradshaw

cat senseStepford Cats…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Bradshaw starts his story of the domesticated cat by taking us back to 10,000 or so years ago, explaining that probably the relationship between man and cat began when humans started to store food, thus requiring rodent control. He discusses the ongoing genetic links between domestic and wild cats and suggests what steps may have taken place over the history of the cat to lead to today’s level of domestication. He regularly informs us that his views are often no more than educated guesswork, since far less research has been done on the cat than the dog.

In the last few chapters, Bradshaw discusses the place of the domestic cat in today’s world, suggesting that the cat will have to change if it wishes to survive in an increasingly urbanised society where many people see cats as wildlife-murdering pests. He points out that most pet cats, especially males, are neutered before breeding (with the exception of pedigrees) and that this may have the unintended consequence of demand for kittens being met by rescued feral litters or by mating between wild males and domestic unneutered females. He proposes that in fact cats should be bred carefully for personality and trained to live happily, either as indoor cats or as non-hunting outdoor cats. He makes valid points about the lack of territory available to each cat in an overcrowded world and about the increased levels of anxiety this can cause.

Tuppence says: Go on, tickle my tummy! I dare you...
Tuppence says: Go on, tickle my tummy! I dare you…

While there is a lot of interesting stuff in here, there are a couple of things that prevent me wholeheartedly recommending the book. I found the presentation of the first section about the history of the cat quite dry and often repetitive – it may be of more interest to someone with a scientific interest in the subject, but for this casual cat-loving reader there was too much concentration on genetics, while there was little new in the tale of how the cat became a domestic pet.

The second section was more interesting to me, but here I found I disagreed fundamentally with the thrust of his argument – that we should be trying to breed cats to be more domesticated. He makes the point himself that cat owners love them because of their independence and relatively easy care, while suggesting that that independence should be bred out of them and that they should be subjected to intensive training. I would suggest that, in that case, might as well get a dog. As someone who’s not very keen on selective breeding of any (domestic) animal, I was also uneasy about messing with the breeding to produce something that would really end up looking like a cat but not behaving like one. If we as a race decide cats are not suited to our environment (and I don’t accept that) then surely better to stop keeping cats rather than to play god. When one considers some of the horrors that selective breeding has produced in both dogs and cats, can we really want to go further down that route?

Tommy says: Why would anyone want to change us? We're perfect...
Tommy says: Why would anyone want to change us? Don’t you love us just the way we are…?

So Bradshaw’s assumption that this is the way to go meant that instead of, as I had expected, giving us advice on how to make sure our existing cats are well cared for, in fact he seemed to be suggesting the demise of the cat as we know it to be replaced with designer Stepford Cats. A reasonably interesting read but, for me, more of a warning of why scientists should never be allowed out without a bell on their collar than a convincing argument for the future of the moggie. And Tommy & Tuppence agree with me…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding by George Monbiot

feral‘A raucous summer…’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In the past few years, I feel I have been observing a welcome note of commonsense and even optimism creeping into the arguments of some of our leading environmentalists. In this book Monbiot, while proposing ambitious and doubtless controversial ideas, confirms that impression.

Feral is his story of why and how he has come to believe that the future for nature conservancy is to stop conserving – to sit back, release the brakes and go on a wild ride with nature in the driving seat. He calls this process ‘rewilding’.

‘Rewilding recognises that nature consists not just of a collection of species but also of their ever-shifting relationships with each other and with the physical environment. It understands that to keep an ecosystem in a state of arrested development, to preserve it as if it were a jar of pickles, is to protect something which bears little relationship to the natural world.’

He scared me in the first couple of chapters. It seemed as if he had turned into a mini-Welsh version of Crocodile Dundee (Grass-snake Aberystwyth?) as he regaled us with tales of tracking and killing his prey with his bare hands and then eating it raw – it was a mackerel! When he set out to harpoon flounders with a trident, I genuinely thought he’d lost it; and when he became mushily sentimental over initiation rites for an African tribesman that involved tormenting and killing a lion, I nearly gave up on him.

wolfHowever, the point that he then went on to make eloquently and convincingly is that humanity has lost something precious by its disconnect with the wild world and that we in the UK have taken that disconnect to further extremes than most. He isn’t arguing for a return to the world of hunter/gatherer (although the first couple of chapters made it seem as if he was about to). But he is arguing for the return of at least parts of the country to true, unmanaged wilderness status and for the reintroduction of some of the top predators – wolves, for example – arguing that trophic cascades mean that such predators can have often unexpected effects on biodiversity and environment and thus are an important part of any rewilding project. However he maintains a sense of realism and commonsense, making it clear that his suggestions should only be implemented with the informed consent of the people, and wryly admits that his attitude towards the introduction of top predators may not be universally shared.

‘The clamour for the lion’s reintroduction to Britain has, so far, been muted.’

Along the way, Monbiot gives us a history of why our landscape is as it now is. He blames sheep-farming for the bareness of our hills and points out that the sheep is a non-native species to the UK. He talks about the vested interests of farmers and landlords and how these seem to be given excessive weight, considering the comparatively small numbers of people employed in farming and the huge subsidies required to make it economical. He points to the somewhat symbiotic relationship between farming organisations and government and suggests this leads to suppression of real debate around the subject of land use. And his anger shows through as he discusses how the subsidy schemes of the EU continue to distort and warp the productivity of the land.

George Monbiot
George Monbiot

There is so much packed into this book that I can only give a pale impression of its scope in this review. Monbiot discusses the damage that an uncontrolled red deer population is doing to the landscape in the Highlands of Scotland; the adverse effect on childhood health (not to mention imagination) of the more indoors, sedentary lifestyle of today’s child; the reasons for the growth of the myth of big cat sightings around the country; the Nazis’ adoption and corruption of the concept of rewilding. He explains the effects that Shifting Baseline Syndrome has had on the debate over the years – that because ‘the people of every generation perceive the state of the ecosystems they encountered in their childhood as normal’ then attempts are made to conserve back to a state of nature that was already seriously degraded.

Towards the end of the book he extends his arguments for rewilding to include the seas, building on the arguments put forward so impressively by Callum Roberts (whose Ocean of Life I heartily recommend) that areas set aside as protected zones actually lead to greater fishing productivity rather than reducing it. And as he set off in his kayak in the final chapter to hunt the newly returned albacore, I no longer felt that he’d ‘lost it’ but that, perhaps, if we listen to what people like Monbiot and Roberts are saying, there’s still hope that the rest of us may ‘find it’.

‘Environmentalism in the twentieth century foresaw a silent spring, in which the further degradation of the biosphere seemed inevitable. Rewilding offers the hope of a raucous summer, in which, in some parts of the world at least, destructive processes are thrown into reverse.’

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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The Politics of Climate Change by Anthony Giddens

A clear and accessible summary…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

the politics of climate changeIn this book, Giddens firstly urges us to accept the overwhelming consensus of opinion amongst scientists that climate change is real and caused by the actions of humanity, and then goes on to consider what actions will be required if we are to overcome this global threat.

Over the first few chapters, Giddens looks at where we are now. He starts by giving an overview of the scientific evidence and discusses the counter-arguments of sceptics and radicals, concluding that the science strongly supports the position that climate change is happening, is caused by human activity and is likely to have catastrophic consequences if action is not taken quickly. He looks at the availability of oil, gas and coal and how their production and use have shaped and changed international relationships and policy since the Second World War. He goes on to discuss the rise of ‘green’ politics and whether they offer any real solutions to the problems facing us.

74142052RO035_Despite_High_

In the next few sections, Giddens lays out his stall for the approaches he thinks are required. He argues strongly for a lead to be taken by governments of nation states individually (rather than waiting for the outcome of lengthy international negotiations) to develop policies that will encourage reductions in emissions – particularly through the use of the tax system and the encouragement of technological innovation. He highlights that climate change questions have, to some degree, become seen to be a ‘left-wing’ concern and points out that it is essential to success that all-party support is given to measures if they are to be accepted by those who will be affected. He urges strongly the principle of ‘polluter pays’ and suggests this should be extended to look at the developed world’s responsibility to ensure support for developing and undeveloped countries in combatting climate change and in adapting to its effects.

Anthony Giddens (guardian.co.uk)
Anthony Giddens
(guardian.co.uk)

Finally, Giddens looks at how international co-operation has developed to date and how he sees it progressing. He suggests that, as well as the various groupings of countries that are coming into being to tackle the issues regionally, the UN still has a vital role to play in monitoring and holding states to internationally agreed targets.

The book is well written and aimed at a general audience. It is a succinct account of where we are now and provides food for thought on how we might progress. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the on-going climate change debate (and, as this book makes clear, it affects us all). I found it a clear and accessible summary of the main arguments.

polarbear01
NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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Looking for the Goshawk by Conor Mark Jameson

Is it a bird?

😦 😦

looking-for-the-goshawkThe goshawk was the first raptor to become extinct in the British Isles but in the last few decades it has reappeared in very limited numbers. This book is Jameson’s tale of how he set out to discover if it had returned to his own area, somewhere around Bedfordshire, I think. I say ‘I think’ because Jameson has a very annoying habit of not revealing locations – he hints that this is to stop people being able to track and kill the goshawk, which would be both understandable and admirable if in fact he only did it in places where the goshawk has been found. At one point, he refuses to name a village in which he found a stuffed goshawk in the back of a shop – one can’t help but feel it is in very little danger of worse happening to it now…

As part of his search for the elusive ‘gos’, he visits various places where they are in residence – Germany, Scotland, the US – and speculates as to why the bird is successful in these places but still so rare in his area. He talks about why they became extinct and why they have reappeared and much of this is interesting. He also discusses habitat, breeding patterns, hunting methods, etc., but all in passing – there’s no clear structure or thrust to the book. He starts sentence after sentence with ‘I wonder…’ and then doesn’t go on to answer the question he has asked. Many times he sees a bird, fails to identify it and then ‘wonders’ if it might have been a goshawk. And then he casually disputes evidence without any alternative to put in its place. For instance, when seeing a gamekeeper’s records of the number of goshawks killed over a period of four years in the mid-1800s, he dismisses these with a casual disbelief that the figures could be so high, and says the gamekeeper must have mistaken other raptors for goshawks. Where’s the evidence for this? It’s certainly not in the book.

Female Northern Goshawk (www.bbc.co.uk)
Female Northern Goshawk
(www.bbc.co.uk)

I may have been able to live with the lack of structure and evidence had the writing been good enough to lift the book. But no. Three-word sentences. Frequently. Without verbs. Why? “This is outdoors as room. Padded. Comfortable and comforting. Mild and wild. ‘Semi-natural.’ Sauvage, in a second-hand way.” It’s not all like that but it is written in an amateurish style that I assume is meant to make us feel that this is a friend chatting to us, rather than an expert informing us. So, to be fair, some of my irritation with the book may be down to personal preference. I like factual books to make an argument and back it up with evidence; and I like the conventions of grammar and writing style to get at least a nod. But perhaps this may appeal to people who like a more relaxed, informal and unstructured style.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts

‘There is a tide in the affairs of men…’

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Ocean of LifeIn this book, Callum Roberts sets out to argue the case that man is damaging the oceans of the world in ways that may be irreversible if not addressed quickly and determinedly. Prof. Roberts’ track record as a marine biologist and environmentalist is impressive – as well as a Hardy fellowship in conservation biology at Harvard University, he was awarded a fellowship by the Pew Environment Group, (one of the organisations behind the setting up of the new Global Ocean Commission) in marine conservation.

Roberts starts with a history of the oceans since the planet was formed, showing how previous episodes of warming, changes in acidity levels, etc., have had huge effects on the animals that live there. He then gives a very detailed account of the history of man’s interaction with the sea, through fishing, shipping and pollution amongst other things. As he piles detail on detail, his argument that we are causing major and probably irreversible damage is completely convincing and thoroughly depressing.

Tyre ‘reef’
(Source: Wikimedia)
Some of the images he provides, of mass piles of discarded plastic gathering in the ocean gyres, of dead zones caused by chemical pollution, of coral reefs bleaching and dying, of life at the bottom of the seas being destroyed by trawling, are stark and horrifying. Of course we knew all this, but Roberts pulls it all together for us and shows us the consequences, so that no-one reading this book could be left feeling that this is a problem that can continue to be ignored.

It is only in the last couple of chapters that Roberts offers solutions and not unsurprisingly these are fairly straightforward – to set up protection zones, to reduce the flow of chemicals and rubbish into the seas, to combat global warming. Straightforward but not easy, though Roberts also gives examples of some major advances that have been made over the last decade or so. (Who would have expected George Dubya to come out of a book like this as one of the heroes? Apparently he set up huge protected zones before he left office.) Roberts finishes the book by listing some of the many organisations working towards marine preservation and giving an idea of the approach each organisation is taking.

Callum Roberts
I did not find this an easy or enjoyable read. It was hard work in places as Roberts piled on more and more evidence to back his arguments, sometimes with greater detail than I felt necessary. However, the message of the book is a vitally important one and Roberts has succeeded in getting that message across. I would highly recommend this to anyone with an interest in environmental matters – and that should really be everyone, shouldn’t it?

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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The Kingdom of Rarities by Eric Dinerstein

Kingdom of Rarities“To be a Naturalist is better than to be a King”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This book has taken me on a joyous jaunt round the world in the company of some amazing creatures and a guide whose enthusiasm and love for his work shines through every word. A storyteller of extraordinary skill, Dinerstein could make the smallest, greyest rodent fascinating if he chose. But since he has a world full of rare species to tell us about, instead we are treated to tales of the golden-fronted bowerbird, the scarlet minivet, the red panda, the jaguar, Mrs Gould’s sunbird…

Mrs Gould's Sunbird
Mrs Gould’s Sunbird

There is a serious purpose to this book: to look at why rare species are rare and to determine what intervention is required to conserve them and their habitats. Dinerstein shows us the effects of Big Ag in the rainforests of South America, of war in Vietnam and Cambodia, of species invasion in Hawaii, and speculates on the possible effects of global warming on these threatened rarities. Sometimes such books are read with a sense of duty and a heavy heart – but not this one. All through Dinerstein highlights the positives as much as the negatives, offers solutions, tells us of the amazing things that are already being achieved both by nature and by man; and left this reader, at least, with an enormous sense of hope.

Red Panda
Red Panda

Generously Dinerstein name-checks many of the naturalists and ecologists, past and present, who have and are doing so much to reverse the trend towards extinctions, and plays down his own role as a leading conservationist and Lead Scientist at the WWF. The sciency stuff is slotted in so seamlessly amidst the glorious descriptions of flora and fauna that it’s easy for a non-academic to absorb – especially if a dictionary is close to hand! Dinerstein’s writing style is natural and flowing, sometimes ascending to the lyrical – it’s like listening to a friend tell you all about his greatest enthusiasm, with his thoughts, passion for the subject and plenty of humour all on display.

One-horned Rhino
One-horned Rhino

The book has some lovely little pencil drawings of some of the species discussed and maps of the various regions visited. I would have loved there to be more pictures, but so many wondrous things were discussed I could see the impossibility of having pictures of them all. A combination of Google Images and youtube filled that gap, though it slowed my reading rate to a crawl as every chapter is crowded with rare, fascinating and quite amazingly beautiful things. I feel as if I’ve had a glorious holiday and come back relaxed, refreshed and with a sense that the future for these fragile rarities is in the best of hands. Highly recommended as an informative and wonderfully enjoyable read.

This book was provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.

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