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19186368.jpgA Buzz in the Meadow, Dave Goulson (Jonathan Cape 2014)

A book that is both a rhapsody and a threnody: Dave Goulson celebrates nature and laments what we’re losing of it. This is what he says in the preface:

In 2003 I bought a derelict farm deep in the heart of rural France, together with thirteen hectares of surrounding meadow. My aim was to create a wildlife sanctuary, a place where butterflies, dragonflies, voles and newts could thrive, free from the pressures of modern agriculture. In particular I was keen to create a space for my beloved bumblebees, creatures I have spent the last twenty years studying and attempting to conserve. (pg. ix)

Bumblebees were the subject of his previous book, A Sting in the Tale (2013). I haven’t read that, but if it’s half as good as this I will certainly enjoy it. Perhaps it’s better: Goulson is a biologist who can both educate and entertain. Expect the unexpected here: he writes about bumblebees and wild-flowers with the same enthusiasm as he writes about cheese and wine.

He’s also good at using the particular to illustrate the general. You’ll learn a lot about science and the scientific method here, from the “robotic beetle drum” he used to study death-watch beetles to the creation of “mathematical models” for predicting outbreaks of flies at a landfill site. Biology is full of puzzles and solving one often creates another. Not that they are always easy to solve: failure and frustration are part of science too and Goulson is happy to admit his own.

But he isn’t happy about the loss of wild habitats and the quickening pace of extinctions. Homo sapiens could also be called Homo exterminans:

New Zealand was colonised much more recently, about 1,000 years ago. As there were no mammals apart from bats, giant birds evolved there, including at least eleven species of moa, the largest of which stood 3.6 metres high, the tallest bird ever to live. They must have been terribly easy to track and kill, for carbon-dating of Maori middens suggests that all eleven species were driven to extinction within just 100 years of man’s arrival. (ch. 15, pg. 242; his emphasis)

It’s a long way from French meadows to Maori middens, as the crow flies, but similar themes apply: humans have exercised power over nature without proper thought for the consequences. Science is giving us more power all the time, but will it kill us or cure us? Dave Goulson is a scientist who increases my hope of the latter.

He also links apparently disparate parts of biology: parasites are part of both botany and entomology. Yellow rattle is a hemi-parasitic plant that exploits grasses and the bumblebees that visit it are parasitized by mites. The world is a web in more ways than one and many aspects of the web are described in this happy, hopeful and highly enjoyable book.

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Harrap's Wild Flowers by Simon HarrapHarrap’s Wild Flowers: A Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland, Simon Harrap (Bloomsbury 2013)

The botanist Simon Harrap photographed every plant in this book but for one: the Cornish heath, Erica vagans, on page 399. That’s an impressive achievement. An enviable one too, because he had to combine a lot of expertise with a lot of travelling. On page 70, for example, there are chalk milkwort, Polygala calcarea, and mountain avens, Dryas octopetala. The milkwort is found in southern England and the avens in northern Scotland, as you can see at a glance from the map that accompanies each flower.

The scientific name of the avens means “the eight-petalled wood-nymph”. Botany doesn’t just please the eye and nose: it’s fun for the tongue too, even if you don’t eat anything of what you see. The milkwort and avens please the eye on page 70 and so do the “frothy, creamy-white clusters” of meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria, on page 71. Meadowsweet also pleases the nose: its flowers are “heavily scented, recalling musk or honey”.

But Harrap says that its “name refers to its use in flavouring mead and other drinks, rather than a predilection for meadows”. Information like that is rare. Even though he isn’t trying to be comprehensive, he has a lot of plants to cover and usually limits himself to the botanical minimum: descriptions of appearance, habitat, growing season and any similar species. This is a field guide, after all: “take the book to the plant, not the plant to the book”, as he says in the introduction.

The bigger and heavier the book, the harder that is to do. But I’d call Harrap’s Wild Flowers a work of art and not just a field guide. It’s well-designed and a pleasure to leaf through, full of attractive colours and interesting shapes, and the photographs seem like little windows on spring and summer. But summer can be sinister: the section devoted to the Orobanchaceae family (pp. 241-6) has the strange parasites known as broomrapes and toothworts. Their stems jut from the ground in almost predatory fashion, coloured in putrefactive browns, yellows and purples. You could imagine them growing in Clark Ashton Smith’s “Garden of Adompha”, fertilized by corpses. And the flowers of purple toothwort, Lathraea clandestina, look like a convention of hooded priests, conspiring together in a graveyard. It has “no aerial stem, the flowers arising in clusters directly from the underground rhizome”.

However, the beauty of flowers like peach-leaved bellflower, Campanula persicifolia, outweighs the beastliness of the broomrapes, and this book is a sunny read. I would make only two changes to it. First, the maps use dark green dots to indicate where a particular plant has been recorded. That’s fine when it grows inland, where the green stands out against white, but when it’s a coastal species the green is sometimes hard to make out on the black line of the coastline. A different colour or lighter green would have been preferable.

Second, Harrap doesn’t always record when a plant is poisonous. Monkshood, Aconitum napellus, and deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna, get info boxes about their deadliness, but hemlock, henbane and thornapple don’t (Conium maculatum, Hyoscyamus niger and Datura stramonium, respectively). Nor does hemlock water-dropwort, Oenanthe crocata. These omissions save space but make the plants less interesting to the uninitiated. I don’t think anyone will be put in danger by not being told about henbane, thornapple and company – poisonous plants generally look unappetizing – but you look at a plant in a new way when you know it’s poisonous and a little symbol like a skull-and-crossbones could have been added if there wasn’t room in the text.

But these are minor flaws. Harrap’s Wild Flowers is delightful to look at, easy to use and deserves a place on every British botanophile’s bookshelf, whether you’re interested in avens above or helleborines below.

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Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons RobertsEdgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (Chivers 2011)

Many people will open this book and think: Ballardian. I certainly thought that. But I also thought: Simplish. That’s an adjective for something reminiscent of the Telegraph columnist Peter Simple, who wrote about the “mysterious urban poetry” of litter-choked ponds and abandoned power-stations. So do Paul Farley and Michael Roberts. They write about literal poetry too, quoting Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes to illustrate their ideas about the places that exist on the edges of towns and cities, that service our civilization while being ignored, overlooked or despised: industrial estates, cooling towers, rubbish dumps, mines, reservoirs, sewage works, recycling plants, warehouses, self-storage depots, airports, conference centres, and so on.

These are places that are often deserted by night or visited rarely by day, that sometimes shelter wild animals, birds and plants, preserve out-dated machinery and out-moded fashions, provide spaces for roaming children, inspire artists, poets and writers. J.G Ballard was one of those writers: Crash (1973) is a book about edgelands, both literal and psychological: airport hotels, mecho-fetishism. But Ballard was writing about edgelands from the beginning of his career, returning again and again to crumbling buildings and obsessive lives:

Outside his room, steps sounded along the corridor, then slowly climbed the stairway, pausing for a few seconds at every landing. Bridgman lowered the memo-tape in his hand, listening to the familiar tired footsteps. This was Louise Woodward, making her invariable evening ascent to the roof ten storeys above. Bridgman glanced at the timetable pinned to the wall. Only two of the satellites would be visible, between 12.25 and 12.35 a.m., at an elevation of 62 degrees in the south-west, passing through Cetus and Eridanus, neither of them containing her husband. Although the sighting was two hours away, she was already taking up her position, and would remain there until dawn. (“The Cage of Sand”, 1962)

So this from Edgelands is like one of Ballard’s short stories come to life:

One of the strangest encounters we had in the edgelands was following a visit to a breaker’s yard on an industrial estate near Morecambe. … We found a man standing by his car looking into the evening sky with binoculars. The sky to the west was still a bright indigo, touched with reds and turquoises, the last embers of a typically spectacular west-coast sunset. But this man wasn’t interested in sunsets. Or birds.

He had come to watch for an Iridium flare. Iridium satellites are a constellation of relatively small communications satellites, set in low earth orbit for over a decade. They have highly reflective, silver-coated panels that can catch the sun’s light, producing a reflection tens of kilometres wide at the earth’s surface, and if you’re standing at the right spot, they’re often easily visible. (“Cars”, pg. 26)

You can buy an iPhone app that tells you where and when to watch for one. The authors stand with the man and see “a slow and languorous brightening … flashing suddenly into brilliance for a moment, before fading away.”

Ballard would also have liked the section about “golf driving ranges”, where people pay to hit balls out into an open space. This “silent ritual” is odd by day, even odder after dark: as rain pelts down on a corrugated roof above the club-swingers, “out there, slow white bullets trace an arc across the sky, spinning right to left or left to right, crossing each other in the air. Six, seven, ten at a time, out into the night” (pg. 299).

An abandoned factory

An abandoned factory

The book is full of oddness like that, describing strange situations and surreal juxtapositions, mixing obscure history and miniature travelogue, introducing you to artists and writers you’ll want to investigate further, celebrating technology and questioning it. The writing could easily have been pretentious and Guardianista, but it never is. Perhaps that’s because Farley and Roberts are both northern and both poets. That doesn’t guarantee graceful or down-to-earth writing, but you’ll find both here. They can discuss horror vacui and industrial pallets with equal ease, celebrate the pleasures of tree-houses and the beauty of wild flowers.

And not-so-wild ones. One section I particularly enjoyed was their description of how English cities, homogenized by big business, are still distinguished by the flora that grows in their edgelands. Bristol is a “Buddleia city”, Swansea is “dominated by Japanese knotweed”; Sheffield is home to garden escapees like “feverfew and goat’s rue, tansy, soapwort and Michaelmas daisies”, Swindon has “extensive stands of St John’s wort, with wild carrot, welted thistle, great burnet, crow garlic and ploughman’s spikenard” (pg. 185-6). But in every city there are “branches of Starbucks, Carphone Warehouse, WH Smith, Dixons, Currys and McDonald’s”.

That commercial list becomes a refrain, a banal repetition heightening the richness and strangeness of the flower-names filling the spaces in-between. But then they’re talking about CCTV or floodlighting and finding something rich and strange there too. I learnt a lot from this book and re-thought some of my ideas. I enjoyed it a lot too. If you’re a fan of J.G. Ballard or Peter Simple, so might you.

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