Stephen Moss is one of Britain’s leading nature writers, broadcasters and wildlife television producers. He was the founding producer of Springwatch, and has written a stream of wildlife books (eg see Tweet of the Day (with Brett Westwood), Natural Histories (also with Brett Westwood), and Wild Kingdom). A lifelong naturalist, he is passionate about communicating the wonders of the natural world to the widest possible audience.
Stephen has written a piece on nature books of the year for The Guardian for many years, but this year they took this task in-house without telling him – so here is what would have appeared in the Guardian! In Stephen’s piece below, those books that have been reviewed on this site have links to those reviews.
Tomorrow, I will tell you which are my top-4 nature books of the year (three of them appear below) and which one of them is my book of the year for 2018.
We, and the rest of the natural world, live in uncertain and challenging times. The concept of the ‘Anthropocene’ – a new Age in which humanity directs the future of life on Earth – has finally taken root in our consciousness.
Yet looking at this year’s crop of books on nature and the environment, you might be forgiven for assuming we are simply carrying on as usual. That’s not to say that there aren’t excellent offerings; simply that few writers are engaging in the urgent issues which face us, and could end up destroying our planet.
Delving into the past can, however, provide a useful perspective on the way we view the natural world, andthis year, ornithological heavy weights rub shoulders with newcomers. In the establishment corner, The Wonderful Mr Willughby, by Tim Birkhead (Bloomsbury, £21) and Birds of the Ancient World, by Jeremy Mynott (OUP, £30). Both are master storytellers, whose immense learning and expertise is worn lightly, creating books that inform as well as entertain.
Newcomer Tessa Boase more than holds her own with Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather, (Aurum, £20), which intertwines the fascinating stories of the women who campaigned for universal suffrage, and those who founded the RSPB. An original approach comes from Paul Thomas, with his graphic book A Tabloid History of Birdwatching, (Paul Thomas, £12.99).
The quest narrative is always popular with readers. Orchid Summer, by Jon Dunn (Bloomsbury, £15.99), and Chasing the Ghost, by Peter Marren (Square Peg, £16.99), both involve the authors searching for Britain’s wild flowers. Larger plants feature in Around the World in 80 Trees, by Jonathan Drori (Laurence King, £17.99), full of quirky details. Laurence Rose pursued spring through Europe in The Long Spring (Bloomsbury £16.99), an elegiac account of the progress of the season. And Birding Without Borders, by Noah Stryker (Souvenir Press, £18), is an entertaining account of a year chasing the world record for seeing the most species of birds.
Practical advice comes from the ever-reliable David Lindo, in How to be an Urban Birder (Princeton, £14.99), while Birdwatching London, by David Darrell-Lambert (Safe Haven, £12.99) provides a really useful guide to the capital’s top birding sites – and for me, as a Londoner, a trip down memory lane.
Some authoritative series maintain their usual high standards. The eighth volume of Handbook of the Mammals of the World (Lynx Edicions, €160) comprehensively covers insectivores and sloths, while three Collins New Naturalist titles (all £50) include such diverse subjects as Beetles (Richard Jones), Hedgehog (Pat Morris) and The Burren (David Cabot and RogerGoodwillie); all written by experts in their field.
Classic nature writing is provided by Miriam Darlington’s Owl Sense (Guardian Faber, £15.99), Mary Colwell’s Curlew Moon (Harper Collins, £15.99) and Tim Dee’s Landfill (LittleToller, £16) – don’t be put off by the title, as this is a delightful paean of praise to those often hated yet charismatic birds, gulls. Seabirds also feature in Far From Land, by Michael Brooke (Princeton, £24.95), the fruit of a long lifetime’s study of these mysterious birds.
The popular ‘nature memoir’ genreis represented by The Salt Path, by Raynor Winn (Michael Joseph, £14.99) a harrowing yet uplifting story of crisis and redemption. Donald Murray also touches on childhood – growing up on the island of Lewis – in The Dark Stuff, (Bloomsbury, £14.99), a compelling mixture of social history and personal testimony, written with a poet’s eye for detail. And Pressing On – A Decade of Linocuts, (Mascot Media, £25) is a feastof wondrous images from the doyen of bird and wildlife art, Robert Gillmor. Simply beautiful.
But my unofficial ‘nature book of the year’ award is shared by two books that bravely address the issues we face, square on. Our Place (Jonathan Cape, £16.99), by one of our best-known nature writers, Mark Cocker, is a thoughtful and disturbing analysis of the plight of our wildlife. Subtitled ‘Can We Save British Nature Before it is Too Late?’, it lays out just where we have gone wrong in our management of the countryside over the past few decades. It should be compulsory reading for whoever is temporarily occupying the post of Environment Secretary.
Wilding, by Isabella Tree (Picador,£20), focuses less on problems and more on solutions. It tells the uplifting story of the Knepp Estate in Sussex, where Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell have conducted a brave and successful experiment by turning a once wildlife-free farm into a paradise for nature – while still making a profit and providing food.
Neither of these books is without its flaws: Cocker can be rather doom-laden and pessimistic, while Wilding is perhaps rather too hopeful and optimistic. Yet together, they explain the issues we face and provide some of the solutions, at a time when humanity – and the rest of nature – need all the help we can get.
Stephen Moss’s latest book, The Wren: A Biography, is published by Square Peg (£12.99)