Elliott & Thompson, in partnership with The Wildlife Trusts 2010; hbk, 288 pp, black-and-white illustrations; ISBN 978-1-9040-2794-2; Subbuteo code M20686; £18.99 Recently, as part of the explosion of 'nature writing', there have been several anthologies of such prose from newspaper articles, books or diaries. For me, at any rate, the best of the genre combines great writing with a certain scientific rigour, and an emphasis on personal observation. Many of the diverse pieces in this book, published in conjunction with The Wildlife Trusts, fit this bill. They are all relatively short, most of them extracts from books or other already published work, but also including some pieces specially written for the anthology. Ranging from just over a page to eight pages long (with most at about two to four pages), they are ideal for dipping into as a bedtime read. They generally stand up well in isolation, but can also serve as introduction to an author's larger body of work or a reminder of its quality, as with the two pieces by the Scots writer and celebrator of the Cairngorms, Nan Shepherd, which sent me to the higher reaches of a bookcase to ferret out a copy of her excellent The Living Mountain, part of The Grampian Quartet, which my brother had given me several birthdays ago. Among the authors included here, spanning some 300 years, there are many who will be well known to most readers - from Gilbert White, John Clare and Charles Darwin to Richard Mabey, Mark Cocker and Roger Deakin. But although I knew of most of those anthologised, there were also some pleasant discoveries, such as Steve Backshall, Colin Elford, Jules Pretty and John Woolner: the last named being the winner of The Wildlife Trusts' new writing competition for unpublished authors. My favourites include the posthumously celebrated J. A. Baker, with a typically intense passage from The Peregrine, Mark Cocker's beautifully crafted celebration of north Norfolk goose flocks, a memorable piece on Islay by Paul Evans, an erudite, wide-ranging essay on shells and other natural seashore trove by Geoffrey Grigson, Tim Dee's dramatic and lyrical evocation of a flock of Common Starlings Sturnus vulgaris, Richard Mabey's wonderful exploration of The Anger of Hornets and two fine prose extracts from a man better known for his poetry, Edward Thomas. Given the high profile that birds hold in our collective consciousness, it is not surprising that many pieces deal mainly or entirely with them, such as Rooks by Charles Waterton, Swifts at the Nest by David Lack, Cuckoo by Miriam Rothschild or Trunk Calls (about Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers Dendrocopos minor) by Dominic Couzens. And there is much ornithological content even in those with titles that might not suggest it, such as Henry Williamson's witty The Old Trout, almost half of which is about Grey Herons Ardea cinerea. For me, it was also interesting to find a few writers that I had not associated with birds or wildlife generally, such as the seventeenth-century antiquary John Aubrey, whom I had previously known only from his famous and witty Brief Lives, and who writes on Wiltshire birds. As always with such collections, it's easy to think of omissions (for me these would include Jim Perrin, Conor Jameson and Eric Simms), but books are finite, selections are always (to some extent at least) personal, and this contains a generous 55 writers and 60 pieces. The editors of this one established pretty precise rules for what to include: 'the story was to be based on an encounter in these British islands; it was to be a prose tale and of a length which would allow a wide representation across the centuries.' Given this, the subjects, style of writing and viewpoint are varied, from the factual, elegantly expressed extract from Darwin on earthworms or one from 1802 by the meticulous George Montagu (not on the harrier that bears his name but on the Goldcrest Regulus regulus) to the lyrical journal entries of Gerard Manley Hopkins or the humorous contribution from Bill Oddie. Following the brief Foreword by Sir David Attenborough and a short Introduction by the book's editors, the anthology is divided into nine chapters: In the garden, On the wing (which is the longest), By river and sea, Past the hedgerows, Under the trees, In the wild, From my window, Nature trails, and Words and nature. In several places, lapses with proofreading have resulted in spelling errors, and the otherwise pleasing design and easy-on-the eye typography includes frequent blank pages, but otherwise this is a well-produced book, with simple, bold, striking black-and-white illustrations by one of our most original and thoughtful wildlife artists, Carry Akroyd. Jonathan Elphick Buy this book from the British Birds bookshop which is run by Subbuteo Natural History Books This means that 5% of all sales generated by British Birds subscribers, whether it is books reviewed in the journal, featured on its book page or listed on the Subbuteo website, will be paid to British Birds - and will directly support the production of the journal. To browse the British Birds bookshop, please click here
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