Sunday book review – the Sacred Combe by Simon Barnes

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Simon Barnes’s new book is a very readable collection of stories, memories and short essays on places that are important to him – all with a strong link to the natural world. I enjoyed reading them. And I enjoyed the illustrations by Pam Guhrs-Carr too.

I wasn’t completely convinced that the book deserved the handicap of the subtitle ‘A search for humanity’s heartland’ though it was also something of a relief that the book wasn’t that pretentious.  We are offered the thought that we all have a special place which is secret and special, hidden and enclosed and that to love such a place is part of being human. I doubt it actually. I’m pretty sure George Osborne doesn’t have one – if he does I wonder what it looks like. Are its birds ‘slightly more exotic, slightly more confiding’? And is ‘the grass greener and the fruit sweeter’?  No, and that’s the trouble, some wouldn’t recognise a sacred combe if they stumbled across one: and if they did, they’d probably build a supermarket on it.

But Simon Barnes does get nature in a deep and passionate way, and he writes about it with both knowledge and feeling, and he writes with clarity and humour too.

Do you know the song of the Willow Warbler – no, really know it? And have you walked too close to lions or stamped muddy footprints over the carpet because you had to hurry to get your binoculars to look at Cranes flying over? Have you sat and watched a pack of African Wild Dogs at home as some set off for a hunt?  If you have, or if you can imagine doing these things and know that they would be important to your life, then you will like this book, I believe.

The Luangwa Valley with its large cats, elephants and exotic birds is Barnes’s sacred combe.

The Sacred Combe by Simon Barnes is published by Bloomsbury.

 

Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.

Behind the Binoculars: interviews with acclaimed birdwatchers by Mark Avery and Keith Betton is published by Pelagic – here’s a review.

A Message from Martha by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.

 

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8 Replies to “Sunday book review – the Sacred Combe by Simon Barnes”

  1. ‘’…..it was also something of a relief that the book wasn’t that pretentious.’’
    Are you saying then, it was therefore slightly pretentious or am I misreading you?

    Not that it matters, I’ve read some of his other stuff and it’s good.

    It seems that with nearly all nature writing, especially these days, the reader just has to take a number of deep breaths and wait for the things to pass. Usually it does and the author regains his or her senses.
    What has happened to the profession of editing?

    George’s sacred combe? How about the grounds and playing fields of Eton for a start? OK, not very combe-like, but it's certainly a God-given font for high-born privilege and enchanted self-entitlement.

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  2. As a child, there were times I needed to escape from my mother. There was a small wood – small even to a six year old - with a gnarled hawthorn, which I used to climb and sit in, feeling safe and watching the wildlife beneath. That was my nemeton: like Barnes’s sacred combe.

    I think that for those of us involved in conservation and protection of nature, we can, in this urgent need, be in danger of forgetting nature's magic: forgetting how it can heal us. Not necessarily from deep childhood wounds, but simply from the stresses and strains of everyday life.

    This is not a viewpoint that suits everyone, I know, and certainly not one that will get the funding, for whatever project. But it's just a reminder… take a lovely deep breath of nature's air out there, and get on with your life with thanks.

    Thanks for the review, Mark. It sounds like my kind of book. Barnes’s Birdwatcher books certainly helped me in my bird-learning.

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      1. Murray, you are welcome. There are some lovely words from the old Celtic languages that are hardly ever used these days - many of them relating to nature in one way or another.

        But then, given that the Oxford University Press has removed words like catkins, chestnut and clover (and many other nature words) from the new edition of the Oxford Junior English Dictionary, I don't think we'll be seeing many Celtic ones appearing at any Key Stage!

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  3. I much look forward to reading Simon Barnes’ book on the South Luangwa National Park. Thanks for flagging up his book on a very special place in Zambia which I also have been privileged to visit a number of times. It is wildlife sanctuary that might hold lessons for conservation in a wider context and in other places.
    The South Luangwa National Park was set up by a visionary conservationist Norman Carr (father of the artist and illustrator of Simon's book, Pam Guhrs-Carr) whom my wife had the privilege of staying with in South Luangwa in the early 1970s - 45 years ago. Norman Carr had the foresight to realise that conservation would be most likely to be successful if the locals who lived amongst the wildlife, could gain economic advantage from employment in his then new development of game tourism in a country emerging from colonial rule. And hence he established safari camps giving employment to many locals both in the camps and as guides. (As an aside, as there is a very apparent glass ceiling for wildlife guides in Luangwa, for several years we flew over a different local guide from Zambia to our Elmley reserve in North Kent where within a few hours of setting foot in Elmley, they were able to demonstrate their very real field craft skills by finding breeding wader nests including those of the cryptic redshank.)
    But South Luangwa National Park has not been a total success – all the rhino have been totally wiped out by highly motivated (for economic gain) poachers, despite Norman Carr also being a founding father of Save the Rhino Trust.
    So what is the answer? Perhaps a project in Namibia points the best way forward. I have just returned from that country which appears to be unique in Africa as their big game (wildlife) is reportedly increasing whereas in just about every other African country it appears to be decreasing. In Namibia an inspiring conservationist, Owen Garth-Smith has taken Norman Carr’s Luangwa model to a new dimension by setting up a project known as the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) which is self-explanatory. Instead of the “Fortress Conservation” African model where national Governments' declare a National Park, put up a fence, kick out the locals and employs armed guards to shoot (and kill) the locals who not surprising have little regard for Government property (wildlife) and spend their time poaching what we call game and they call food. And then move up the scale, to do it for huge financial gain by poaching rhino – reportedly over a thousand rhino poached in the Kruger alone last year.
    The key to the IRDNC initiative in Namibia is that the land management and wildlife management rights have been given back to the indigenous people which has resulted in more than 80 conservancies being set up and run by the locals which ensures good buy in by the locals to the conservation objectives.
    The IRDNC model is being transferred to other countries in Africa. And not before time. Having watched children in the Luangwa valley playing in the dust a few years ago and being told by Adrian Carr (Norman’s son) that these children would never have tasted legal protein made me think – what would readers of your blog have done if these were their children in these very same circumstances?

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    1. Thanks a lot for a very interesting and heartening story.
      Sublime solutions of the sacred and secular sort.

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    2. Sorry should quoted this first, before my comment:
      ‘’The key to the IRDNC initiative in Namibia is that the land management and wildlife management rights have been given back to the indigenous people which has resulted in more than 80 conservancies being set up and run by the locals which ensures good buy in by the locals to the conservation objectives.
      The IRDNC model is being transferred to other countries in Africa.’’

      Thanks a lot for a very interesting and heartening story.
      Sublime solutions of the sacred and secular sort.

      Likes(1)Dislikes(0)

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