Stephen Rutt takes his title from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, where ‘Summer’s lease hath all too short a date… but thy eternal summer shall not fade.’ He is writing 400 years later, in the second Elizabethan age, where climate change is an undeniable reality. The premise of his book is that summer’s lease now runs year-long and we are living in an eternal summer, even in the depths of winter.
His narrative begins with warblers in winter – a Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita in a Cornish snowstorm and a Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla in a Liverpool garden – the now-familiar phenomenon of summer migrants that have gained an evolutionary advantage from milder winters by staying close to their breeding grounds rather than migrating south to the shores of the Mediterranean.
Rutt actually intertwines two narratives in his exploration of our changing island and its birds: this book was written in 2020, and is a lockdown memoir as well as a description of the losses (Corn Crakes Crex crex, Northern Lapwings Vanellus vanellus, Wood Warblers P. sibilatrix among so many others) and gains (Little Egretta garzetta, Great Ardea alba and Cattle Egrets Bubulcus ibis) that have resulted from our shifting seasons and profound changes in farming and land management over the past 50 years.
When lockdown was imposed in March 2020, Rutt was with his in-laws, 500 km away from his home in Dumfries and Galloway. His daily exercise walks took him around the local fields, but even here he could draw solace from a solitary pair of Lapwings clinging on in a former lowland stronghold. On those walks, he mused on formative birdwatching experiences, like his search as a teenager for the Holy Trinity of Wood Warbler, Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca and Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus at Coombes Valley RSPB, Staffordshire. The westward drift of these three species in recent decades to the wetter fringes of Britain introduces the topic of phenology and the disconnect between the arrival dates of these summer migrants, their race to lay eggs and hatch young and the ever-earlier emergence of the caterpillars on which their young are fed. Locked down in southern England, he uses Google Street View to navigate to the Wood of Cree in Galloway to imagine a spring spent with those three species of western oak woods.
Rutt is an accomplished nature writer; he combines erudition and scientific research with acute observation of the natural world. The story he tells in The Eternal Season is a familiar one to readers of this journal but this is not a ‘misery memoir’ – if anything, it celebrates the resilience of nature and our need to cherish every contact with the natural world. As last year proved, when our exposure to the outside world is rationed, we are so much the poorer for it.