Tuesday, 4 December 2012

A week of books from 2012 - Day #4

Day four of my seven favourite nature-related books of 2012.  If you've missed the first three, you can catch up with them here (day 1; day 2; day 3). Each book is presented alongside a 'perfect partner', so please scroll right down the page to read both.

And since you'll be thinking about Christmas presents, don't forget that you can order a copy of my colourful British Wildlife calendar here.

As before - direct links are given to online bookstores, but please don't forget to support your local, independent bookshop - they need you this Christmas!

Day 4 - Book of the Day

As You Like It (Norton Critical Editions)
William Shakespeare (edited by Leah S. Marcus)
Published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2012

Available from Amazon and Waterstones 

Are you completely mad?! (Probably). Shakespeare?!? (Please, call me Kris). I thought you said all these books were published in 2012!  And you said they were all nature related!
...I did. Let me explain:

While Shakespeare’s play may be a classic of 17th century drama, this Norton edition is new as of 2012.  I’m a big fan of Norton books, which reproduce not only a classic literary text with a wealth of interesting annotations, but also provide an additional anthology of literature, historical and modern to set a context for the main work, all in one volume. 

And I’ve spent much of this year with my nose in this book.  Shakespeare’s play is a classic of Pastoral literature (although the debate still rages as to whether he was composing true pastoral, or merely parodying the style as anti-pastoral), asking many questions about the interaction between man and the natural world; is life in a civilised society in the city (or in the court) really an improvement over the simple life lived foraging in the woods; does man have the right to leave the city and trespass upon the home of wild animals, killing them for food? Do animals have consciousness that makes them prone to suffering in a way we humans might understand.  Shakespeare balances the dialogues so skilfully that the play provides a debating ground for the characters (and audience) without ever settling the debates one way or the other.  Meanwhile, this book also presents a great many additional articles and chapters  for the modern reader to consider on the subject of man’s relationship with nature.

Alongside the play, the editor has reproduced a wide range of historical and modern articles which set the context for the debate and show its continuation into the modern age.  Thomas Lodge’s prose romance Rosalynde, on which Shakespeare based his play, is printed here and can be read alongside the play, but there is much else to deepen the readers involvement in the debates.  Among the highlights for me are George Gascoygne’s poem of 1611, ‘The Woeful Words of the Hart to the Hunter’, a four-page anthropomorphic plea (in the words of a deer) which appeals to the hunter for understanding of the pain and suffering of hunted beasts and Montaigne’s classic text on the place of humans in relation to animals (‘When I am playing with my cat, who knows whether she have more sport in dallying with me than I have in gaming with her’). More modern extracts include those by Keith Thomas on ‘Boundaries between Animal and Human’ (taken from his great book Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800, a brilliant book worth a read in full), and Gabriel Egan’s essay ‘Food and Biological nature in As You Like It’, from Green Shakespeare: from Ecopolitics to Ecocriticism.  There are plenty more.

For those readers interested in the historical considerations of man’s place in nature, his relationship with animals, and the nature (and unnaturalness) of civilisation, this is an enlightening anthology that will have pride of place on the shelf to be brought down for many readings.

Perfect Partner

Walden, Civil Disobedience and Other Writings (Norton Critical Editions)
Henry David Thoreau (edited by William Rossi)
Published by W. W. Norton and Company, 2008

Available from Amazon and Waterstones

Those wanting to get their fill of Shakespeare this Christmas won’t be surprised to learn that I considered making Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale the (somewhat predictable) partner of As You Like It.  Nevertheless, Norton has not yet published an ‘anthologised’ edition of the play (although the Arden Shakespeare edition does contain useful discussions of ‘Pastorals’ and ‘Nature and Art’ within the lengthy introduction which I recommend for general interest).

Nevertheless, the chosen partner today is Norton’s edition of Henry David Thoreau’s classic Walden, an account of the author’s experiment over the course of three years to live a life in an area of Massachusetts woodland in the 1840s.  Alongside Thoreau’s great rumination on the burdens of 19th civilised life, this volume also contains his personal journal from the Walden years, as well as many other great texts, including ‘Walking’, ‘Wild Apples’, and ‘Civil Disobedience’.

At almost 700 pages, this is quite a sizable volume for discovering Thoreau for the first time, and much as I love it, I still seek refuge in my well-thumbed Oxford edition of Walden (no extras here, except for the editor's introduction and some very good endnotes), a much more portable volume for general reading and travelling with (my copy also happens to contain several years’ worth of my own loving annotations and underlinings which make it irreplaceable, and of the several copies I own, is still the first edition I turn to for Walden itself).

Monday, 3 December 2012

A week of books from 2012 - Day #3

So, the blog continues - my favourite seven nature books of 2012 reviewed over the first seven days of December.  If you've missed the first two, you can catch up with them here (day 1; day 2).  Each book is presented alongside a 'perfect partner', so please scroll right down the page to read both.
If you're looking for a Christmas present, these would be ideal, but please don't forget that you can order a copy of my British Wildlife calendar here
Right, no more plugs, I promise.
As before - direct links are given to online bookstores, but please don't forget to support your local, independent bookshop - they need you this Christmas!

Day 3 - Book of the Day

Waterfall: Nature and Culture
Brian J. Hudson
Published by Reaktion Books, 2012

Available from Amazon and Waterstones

Earlier this year, I made the bold move of getting down on one knee (yes, folks, I did it properly – no messing about) and asking the love of my life to marry me.  What’s more, I chose a waterfall as a suitable place to pop the question.  Had I read Brian J. Hudson’s book in advance of making this move, I might have thought my choice of location was a little contrived—it turns out that waterfalls are one of the most popular places for such declarations of love—but I hadn’t, so I didn’t, and so I did it – if you get my drift (there was a joke that surfaced, pardon the pun, soon after that I had threatened to push her in if she’d said no – I hadn’t made any such threat, but thankfully it didn’t come to that anyway).  The place was Lodore Falls in England’s stunning Lake District, a waterfall much loved and written about by Lakeland poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, both of whom make appearances in Hudson’s book.

Waterfalls carry a great number of associations; not least are they an essential part of the cycle of life on earth, but they are memorable, beautiful, awe-inspiring, dangerous, places that lovers are drawn to, as well as being places that are often chosen by people wishing to ‘make their quietus’.  In short, waterfalls are the stuff of life, both in practical and in emotional terms.
In this book (which is one of Daniel Allen’s Earth Series) Brian J. Hudson, takes on the challenge to provide some sort of chapter-by-chapter narrative that incorporates each of these aspects, discussing waterfalls as geological formations, places of allure, sources of inspiration for artists and writers, models for landscape gardeners, sources of power generation and destinations for tourism.  A final chapter discusses the future of threatened waterfalls today and the future facing them.
It is a noble task to take on, and Hudson acknowledges early on that as a geographer, the book as taken him into areas outside his specialism, but such a caveat proves to be unnecessary.  Each of the chapters is dominated by a great deal of research, woven together by a narrative of clear (and deep) understanding, with a keen interest in all aspects of the study in each area.  Not only is there a wide range of impressive research within the text, but the book is lovingly illustrated throughout with at least one picture, often more, on every opening of the book with few exceptions.  These include not only photographs of waterfalls from around the world, but also historic paintings, classic film stills, engravings and Chinese ink drawings.  This really is a feast of waterfalls for the eyes as well as the mind.

I came to this book with a particular interest in waterfalls as a source of artistic inspiration, not only due to my activities in nature photography, but also in teaching cultural histories to undergraduate students over the last ten years or so, discussing Goethe’s representation of water and waterfalls, and depictions of nature in the 18th and 19th centuries.  I was interested to read Goethe’s depiction of the waterfall in the second act of Faust wound so deftly into a discussion of European creative minds.  In expressing the waterfall’s ‘mirrored hues’ in which ‘we have our life and being’, Goethe was not alone in likening the flow of water to a man’s life (elsewhere, he once wrote that ‘The soul of man is like water’).  Many writers in the age of Romanticism would personify waterfalls in a similar vain.  John Ruskin features heavily within the discussion here, with a bold characterisation of the waterfall, as painted by Turner, as a living being:

‘Where water takes its first leap from the top,. it is cool, and collected...but it is when it finds that it has got into a scrape, and has farther to go than it thought, that is character comes out: it is then that it begins to write, and twist, and sweep out, zone after zone, in wilder stretching as it falls...’

Within the first half of the book, we hear from key figures in this discussion of landscape; Edmund Burke, William Gilpin, as well as Wordsworth and Turner.  Hudson has many interesting comments to make on bringing this material, not least in the observation that, whilst Milton was writing Paradise Lost, the paradise of his mind was a flat, smooth landscape in which mountains were seen as nature’s deformities.  In the age of Romanticism, the new views of Arcadia and Elysium so often expressed by poets begin to romanticise the mountainous landscape in which waterfalls are abundant, and so the emotions begin to surge forward alongside the waters themself. 
It wasn’t just these figures in the arts who felt this emotional allure around waterfalls, however.  In chapter 3, Hudson quotes Charles Darwin’s account of a childhood holiday in Wales, ‘I remember...a waterfall with a degree of pleasure, which must be connected with the pleasure from scenery, though not directly recognised as such.’  The account is certainly more sober than Goethe and Ruskin, and we’re unlikely to aspect anything else from the great naturalist, but the unfathomable, sublime allure is still clearly evident.  It is a sense of allure that is discussed by Hudson not only with reference to the representational qualities of waterfalls, but also their appeal to all the human senses (of course, you don’t just see and hear a waterfall, but smell and taste it as the spray rises).
Whilst Hudson’s book makes reference to a huge array of waterfalls all over the world, there is a useful bias for the British reader to great waterfalls in Britain.  I read the book whilst on the Isle of Mull, and took time out to visit the great Eas Fors on the Western coast of the island which is both pictured and discussed in the book.  There are many other falls familiar to me discussed too, not only Lodore falls, but Kinder Downfall in the Peak District, but the book also whetted my appetite for visiting a great number of other waterfalls round Britain that are pictured and described so vividly.  Readers elsewhere should not find this slight bias problematic, since the theme of the book is certainly to account for the ideas surrounding waterfalls internationally in all cultures through time.

More scientifically-oriented chapters provide brief overviews of the various formations of waterfalls, in addition to the great array of wildlife that can be found around them.  In addition to species such as the dipper, a bird that is favourite of photographers at waterfall sites in Britain, an intriguing example Hudson gives is the Australian waterfall frog.  This little fella is specially adapted to withstand the torrent without being dislodged, and is able to use hide behind the flow of water if disturbed.

It’s impossible in this short review for me to acknowledge all aspects of this wide-ranging book.  Nevertheless, the most impressive fact remains that Hudson has successfully woven the great variety of information together, often cross-referencing points to provide a book which is not simply a progression of various chapters, but a continuous narrative that deepens the readers’ understanding of waterfalls.  The broad scope of this study also lends great appeal to the Earth Series in general, which will grow to feature similar titles on a whole range of features of our natural landscape – it’s a series well worth looking out for.

 Perfect Partner

Selected Writings
John Ruskin (edited with an introduction and notes by Dinah Birch)
Published by Oxford University Press, 2004.
Available from Amazon and Waterstones

Brian J. Hudson’s book above covered so many areas of thought connected with the natural world that I went back and forth between various choices for a perfect partner.  The closest also ran was William Gilpin’s classic Observations on the River Wye of 1770, a central text for the study of the Picturesque depiction of nature which became so popular within the 18th and early 19th centuries, and to which Hudson devotes a chapter in his Waterfall book.  This is available in a very slight paper back, like a bookish-person’s stocking filler.  Nevertheless, Dinah Birch’s selection of John Ruskin’s writings for Oxford World’s Classics has won over by the narrowest margin.  As referred to in my review, Ruskin is another figure who features significantly in Hudson’s book, and this book contains many of the most important texts for the reader to get a good grasp on Ruskin’s ideas on art and nature, among other subjects.  It contains the three small essays from the first volume of Modern Painters (1843) on water, space and sky as well as his essays ‘Of the Turnerian Picturesque’ and of Turnerian Topography’ from volume 4 of the same work (1856).  Further selections included here are his lecture ‘Sesame and Lilies: Of Queens’ Gardens’ (1865), ‘Prosperina: The Flower’ (1875) and his first lecture from ‘The storm-cloud of the Nineteenth Century (1884).   And for nature enthusiasts, central to the book is Ruskin’s celebrated essay ‘Of the Pathetic Fallacy’, in which he challenges the general received notion that objects of nature hold within them emotional significances that may be read by humans (‘we may go on at our ease to examine the point in question,—namely, the difference between the ordinary, proper, and true appearances of things to us; and the extraordinary, or false appearances, when we are under the influence of emotion, or contemplative fancy; false appearances, I say, as being entirely unconnected with any real power or character in the object, and only imputed to it by us.’).  This is an interesting area to debate, since not even Ruskin is infallible to the fallacy, as can be noted in the quotation in the review of Hudson’s book above. 
This is a selection which offers a superb introduction to the writings of Ruskin on art, architecture and nature, and will also serve as a good general reference for anyone with an interest in the area of 19th century interpretations of nature.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

A week of books from 2012 - Day #2

Every day during the first week of December, I’m reviewing one of my favourite seven nature books published in 2012. Each book will be presented alongside a ‘perfect partner’, a book that might appeal in case you have a nature-loving friend who’s eager for two books in their stocking this Christmas. The books are reviewed in no particular order (although I am saving my overall favourite right till the end too, just to keep you guessing). The books draw together a wide selection of subjects including zoology, geography, mythology, poetry, history, art, philosophy, storytelling and drama (something for everyone, I hope), each with a strong nature theme.

Please use the comments box to say what you’ve been reading this year, and what books you might recommend on the subjects of wildlife, nature, or plants and animals in general. Or if you’ve got any comments on my selections, join in that debate too! 
Direct links are given to online bookstores, but please don't forget to support your local, independent bookshop - they need you this Christmas!
For yesterday's review, click here.

Day 2 - Book of the day:

Why Animals Matter: Animal consciousness, animal welfare, and human well-being.
Marian Stamp Dawkins
Published by Oxford University Press, 2012.

Available from Amazon and Waterstones.

This is a short book with a big punch.  Upon noticing a book entitled Why Animal Matter, you might be forgiven for thinking that Marian Stamp Dawkins is preaching to the converted (would you read this book if you didn’t think animals and animal welfare are important?), but this is a real polemic that seeks to challenge the way in which many people think about animals, and challenge their reasons for thinking of the importance of animals.

In general, Dawkins challenges most people’s anthropomorphic view of animals – that is, the view that animals’ thoughts and feeling are in some way comparable to human thoughts and feelings, a view which might cause us to argue for high standards of animal treatment based purely on our emotional response. The trouble is, we have no evidence that animals feel anything.  We have no evidence that any animals have conscious experience, and while many appear to us as conscious beings, this may in fact be due to us thrusting our experience onto them as a result of their behaviour.

Now, before you get annoyed and throw the computer out of the window and insist that ‘of course they are conscious – it’s obvious’, these ideas and their benefits to animal welfare need some clarification.  Firstly, the author gives hints throughout the book that she is not a cold-hearted, hard-nosed scientist with no compassion or feeling for animals – she tells us, for example that she is a dog-lover (and has a good deal to say about the welfare of dogs in the later stages of the book).  Most importantly, she argues in general that protecting the animal for the sake of its conscious experience is ‘soft’ welfare – not least because it will only appeal to those who care for the conscious experience of animals, and not for those who don’t.  What we need instead is a set of arguments for animal welfare that are scientifically rigorous, and therefore irrefutable.  Scientists who refuse to acknowledge the possibility that animals are conscious are not ‘killjoys’ as they are often termed: some animals, maybe even all animals, might well have some conscious experience, but that isn’t the point.  For all that anthropomorphism may improve people’s compassion for animals, it can only impair scientific method.  More important arguments can be made for their welfare that take into account the practical implications of mistreating animals:
If you are human, there is no escape from animal welfare. Almost all the goals that the human species is now setting itself—feeding a rising human population, reducing pollution and greenhouse gases, conserving habitats—depend either directly or indirectly on other species and their health. To believe that any of these goals could be achieved without taking into account the well-being of animals is to misunderstand our dependence on them. Their health affects our own health, our food, the medicines we have, and the ones we need, as well as making the earth a good place to live...But if, as seems likely, animal welfare turns out to be one of the best defences we have against diseases that affect humans, its whole status will have to change. Animal welfare will no longer be the poor relation, begging to be noticed. It will be there, centre stage, in discussions on the future of human food production and disasters caused by a blinkered pursuit of efficiency at all costs. [page 124]

If this sounds like a selfish, human-centred attitude towards animals, it is not; in the book’s final pages, for example, Dawkins lists the challenges that we face in campaigning for animal welfare as including ‘culture, religion, and a widespread and deep-seated conviction among people that humans are much more important than any animal’ (my italics).  For those scientists who remain ambivalent to the question of animal consciousness are in no way taking away from the values of those who fight for animal welfare on the grounds of animal consciousness.  Quite the reverse:
It’s important to emphasize...[that] by linking animal health to human health and human well-being, animal welfare is given a powerful, new set of arguments for why it is important. Nothing has been taken away. Those who believe that animals are conscious and should be treated ethically for that reason are still able to go on supporting animal welfare for that reason. It’s just that some new recruits have joined the ranks. Those new recruits—the consciousness-free brigade—are bomb-proof in the face of attack by the killjoys. [page 121]
Arguing for the human benefits of animal welfare is simply a means of arguing that the natural balance of healthy life, all lives, needs not be disturbed, and that an imbalance created in one place through mistreatment of animals can ricochet right through the order of life on earth. 

The final message of the book is that good animal welfare relies on satisfying an animal’s ‘wants’ as well as its ‘needs’.  This is not to say that animals need to be mollycoddled to have all their needs met all the time.  Looking to healthy animals in the natural world reminds us that most are ‘a bit hungry, a bit thirsty, a bit fearful, a bit too hot or a bit too cold for most of the time’, but are able to keep a healthy compromise between each of these wants and needs within their environment.  Nevertheless, this provides a strong argument against the rather narrow idea (all too present much of modern farming) that in order for an animal’s needs to be met, it must simply be provided with the food it needs.  Both wants and needs should be considered together in order for animals to be healthy; simply considering one or the other cannot result in good welfare. 

It’s a strong argument, and one which ends up incorporating a consideration for all aspects of an animal’s existence and welfare, rather than simply following the anthropomorphic stance of an animal looking and behaving in a manner which a human would recognise as constituting happiness.  It’s a book which is intended to provide a challenge to your current thinking without providing a difficult read.  And if you are principally interested in welfare due to your own feelings for animals and nature, this is a book which can only sharpen your mind and deepen your understanding in perhaps the most important areas of the debate for good animal welfare.

Perfect Partner

Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism
Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman
Published by Columbia University Press, 2005

Available from Amazon and Waterstones.

The arguments of Marian Stamp Dawkins against attitudes of anthropomorphism are strong indeed, and very convincing, but all arguments should be viewed from both sides.  Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism speaks from the other side, although I don’t imagine that this is not a side of the argument that Dawkins would necessarily take a strong stance against.  Whilst anthropomorphism might well have limitations when arguing for animal welfare, it certainly finds many uses in modern life (as it has throughout history) and this book explores those uses in a series of chapters, written by a wide range of authors.  As the editors put it:
This is a book about the fact, not the value of anthropomorphism. From a variety of viewpoints—philosophical, historical, cross-cultural, political, economic, scientific, medical, and artistic, the authors explore what might be called the practice of anthropomorphism.
These different aspects are approached under four different headings  - Thinking with animals in:
 1) Other times and places (including ancient India and Victorian Britain);
2) Evolutionary Biology;
3) Daily life (including the human-pet relationship and the advertisement industry); and
4) Film (including the media of science, politics and conservation).
All in all this book makes for very interesting and varied reading, and offers the other side of the argument to Dawkins’ Why Animal Matter, without one book necessarily disputing the central argument of the other.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

A week of books from 2012 - Day #1

Every day during the first week of December, I’m reviewing one of my favourite seven nature books published in 2012.  Each book will be presented alongside a ‘perfect partner’, a book that might appeal in case you have a nature-loving friend who’s eager for two books in their stocking this Christmas.  The books are reviewed in no particular order (I’m starting with one of my top choices, although I am saving my overall favourite right till the end too, just to keep you guessing).
The books draw together a wide selection of subjects including zoology, geography, mythology, poetry, history, art, philosophy, storytelling and drama (something for everyone, I hope), each with a strong nature theme.
Please use the comments box to say what you’ve been reading this year, and what books you might recommend on the subjects of wildlife, nature, or plants and animals in general.  Or if you’ve got any comments on my selections, join in that debate too! 

Direct links are given to online bookstores, but please don't forget to support your local, independent bookshop - they need you this Christmas!

Day 1 - book of the day:

Tim Birkhead
Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird

Published by: Bloomsbury, 2012

Available from Amazon and Waterstones.

How would it feel to be a bird? Never mind just feeling, what would the world look like? How would it smell? How would it sound and taste? If you wanted to navigate your way around the world as part of a mass migration, how would you go about it? What would be your impulse?

These are all difficult questions to answer and ask us consider the classic problems such as whether or not birds have consciousness and whether they experience true emotions.  In the hands Tim Birkhead (author of the brilliant and hugely successful The Wisdom of Birds, a tough act to follow!), whose career as a Professor of Zoology at the University of Sheffield has been spent being engrossed in researching such matters, these questions unravel in a book of strong, authoritative but clear sense (and Birkhead reminds us that there are many questions which remain unanswered in these difficult areas). 
The book is divided into seven chapters, corresponding to the seven senses that are up for discussion.  The first five senses are those we humans recognise as our own: 1) Seeing; 2) Hearing; 3) Touch; 4) Taste; and 5) Smell.  In addition to this, there is a chapter on magnetic sense, and another on emotions.
There are lots of surprising and fascinating things I learned from this. He tells us that nightingales in the noisy, urban environment of Berlin sing 14dB louder than their rural counterparts, and sing more loudly on weekday mornings during the rush-hour.  By contrast, Great tits do not adjust the volume of their song, but change the frequency and pitch of their song to ensure that they are heard in an urban setting.  Singing is of course a bird’s way of claiming its territory for the breeding season, and its silence at other times of year isn’t just behavioural but biological.  For male birds, the part of their brain responsible for singing shrinks at the end of the breeding season, growing again in time for spring (incidentally, the same is true of their gonads). Migrating birds that rely on the earth’s magnetic field as their GPS will completely lose their sense of magnetic direction if fitted with an eye patch over their right eye, but remain unaffected if the patch is placed over their left eye.
Not only is it a fascinating read, but it’s also very amusing.  Along the way, we not only learn about the extraordinary capabilities of many birds, but were introduced to a large number of human characters: mad scientists and amateur mavericks who have carried out all manner of crazy experiments on birds over the centuries in an attempt to untangle the unfathomable wonders of various species.
There is great humour and clarity throughout, all performed without irreverence for the subject and him without patronising the reader.  Birkhead has a great affection for his subject which never descends into revere, but remains firmly in the realm of the fascinated scientist who has lost none of his curiosity from years of research, and who’s able to communicate his infectious fascination in this highly readable book.

Perfect Partner

Karen Shanor and Jagmeet Kanwal
Bats Sing, Mice Giggle: the Surprising Science of Animals’ Inner Lives

Published by:Icon Books, 2009

Available from Amazon and Waterstones

Unlike Bird Sense, this book provides gems of insight to many species of animal which are cherry-picked for interest from across the world.  Despite this general appeal, both authors write with great experience as academics in their field; Shanor is neuroscientist having worked at Nasa’s Life Sciences department, including many other positions; Kanwal is professor a Physiology and Biophysics.  The book is in three parts: Sensing, Surviving and Socialising, with an Epilogue on ‘Human Nature’ Reconsidered.  The authors do seem very keen to make this an ‘easy read’, and so the tone of the book is rather on the simplistic side, although the great array of facts put forward will certainly be of interest to most general readers.
In the course of the chapters, we encounter accounts of coyotes with regional accents (including those in the mountains which, having learnt by ear, incorporate the mountainous echo into the calls), polar bears who can smell a meal up to 20 miles away, and charming stories such as the rooster that learnt to deceive by pecking at bare ground in order to find himself surrounded by large numbers of hens (they’d previously ignored his mating call, poor boy).  Even when the writing is at its most lightweight, there are some fascinating facts that will make your eyes water.  Cockroaches, we are told, can have up to two million ‘babies’ a year (I’m not sure what a young cockroach is called either, but I can’t help thinking they’re rather too small to have babies); they can live for up to two weeks after being decapitated (the authors remind us kindly that this means they’ve had their head chopped off); and they can withstand about 100,000 times the level of radiation as humans (‘It has long been said that if humans are ever stupid enough to destroy our planet, it would be the cockroaches that would survive and start a whole new zoological cycle.’).

Much as it is a lightweight, easy read, it’s an entertaining read, and certainly a book that would make a good present for young readers as well as adults.  It is certainly one of the most quotable books for grabbing people’s attention in an instant...if you’ve already tried pecking at the floor, that is.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Best Nature Books of 2012

Have you noticed how cold it’s got over the last couple of days? As December is pushing itself into view our the window, and the icy temperatures have their foot in the door like an unwelcome salesperson, you might be in need of a good book or two to get you through the dark, winter nights in front of the fire.

Over the first seven days of December, I’ll be recommending and reviewing my favourite seven nature-related books that were published in 2012.  You might be on the lookout for a Christmas present for a friend, or you’re finishing off your own list to send off to Santa.  Either way, there’ll be something for everyone here.  The range of books represents my own wide interests in reading and each day, the featured book will be recommended along with a ‘perfect partner’, so you should find more than one book to interest you.  In total, I will be recommending 15 books over the course of the week, which will cover areas including zoology, geography, mythology, poetry, history, art, philosophy, storytelling and drama; each of them featuring a strong nature theme (incidentally, there will be no photography books).

So please come back and visit – feel free to leave a comment to let me know your views on any of the books that you’ve read, and tell me what else you’ve been reading this year.  Which books would you have preferred to see on my list, and what will you be recommending for your wildest, wild friends?

The reviews will be posted every day from 1st-7th December.  See you then, but in the meantime, wrap up warm!!

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Mobile Phone Nature Photography

All photos on this blogpost were taken with my iPhone4 and are presented without post-processing.

I was a rather late convert to photography.  I bought my first camera as a present to myself for my 30th birthday (an early mid-life crisis, and I couldn’t afford a Porsche).  The same is true of mobile phones – I bought my first mobile rather late, well into the naughties, and long after they’d been adopted as a supposedly essential item by many.  I’ve never been a great lover of technology, and I’ve always been attracted to the simpler, more primitive, more immediate ways of living life.  The shady woodland canopy and burbling waters are far preferable for me to the tall towers and moaning traffic of the city; the scratch of pencil crafting words on paper is a much more enjoyable way to write than the regular, monotone stabs at the computer keyboard (every letter of the alphabet with the same dull thud, anonymous and indistinct); I prefer acoustic music to electronic or amplified music (and I don’t think of myself as a classical fuddy-duddy, but I just think there’s more immediate expression if you can feel your breastbone vibrating with the resonance of another, real, human voice – as with all the arts, we don’t just hear music: we feel it too).

So it’s perhaps a surprise to me that I now engage in nature and express my love of it in carrying around heavy, modern, digital camera equipment which turns the natural image into numerical data in a form that would have perplexed even Pythagoras who spent his life arguing in the beauty of mathematics in doing the very same.  Even more perplexing that I have recently found myself engaging further in the world of simplicity by using my mobile phone to photograph nature, rather than drawing it (pencil of course), painting it, or photographing it on a film camera.  But to me, the engagement with the natural world represents a much more honest way to spend a life than much of the offices and board rooms in which I’ve spent many years and grown to resent. 

Okay, so I must fess up that I spent this afternoon reading Shakespeare’s As You Like It for the 20 somethingth time this year, the pastoral play in which a life in the woods and in nature is compared with life of corrupt civilisation and the court.  Shakespeare very skilfully makes the argument well balanced as to which life is better, but personally I will always fall down on the side of the woodland.  Having also taken a morning stroll today in Sherwood Forest, just a couple of miles up the road from where I live, and come back to read the description of Shakespeare’s Duke living ‘in the Forest of Arden and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England...as they did in the golden world’. Pastoral literature from the ancients to the 16th century so often calls up images of a golden age, but with the forest now exploding into Autumnal colours, you could be forgiven for experiencing an attraction to this ‘golden world’ in another sense, with great immediacy, here today.

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Shake it up baby now, twist and shoot!
Life is full of contradictions, and photographing with an iPhone4 and posting the pictures and writing about them on a Google blog is about as far removed from the natural life as we can get, but it’s the end that I’m interested in, rather than the means. There is great simplicity and honesty in mobile-phone photography, a sense of honesty in the image, and a contract between photographer and audience that is still in tact today (I think) after some viewers will understandably question the truthfulness of so many modern photographic images.  The images I take on my phone represent my encounters with the natural world as honestly as my work with the digital SLR, but taking pictures with a mobile phone helps to reinforce the point.  The photographs are exactly the image that appears on the screen before your press the button to capture it – only a fool would photoshop mobile phone images; for anyone else, it just wouldn’t be worth it.  And so perhaps these images might persuade others whose only camera is the built-in automatic job on their phone, that nature photography is an art which they might like to join in with as a way of discovering nature.  People might realise more fully the immediacy of these images – this is what the natural world actually looks like through a mobile phone (so what are you waiting for? get outside and take a look!!).

Exposure and White Balance locked for the moody, blue cast.

So, having only dabbled in mobile-phone photography before I decided to venture out for a couple of mornings and try to push my camera-phone as far as I could and see how it would perform in the light just before and just after sunrise.  I was out on a series of dawn shoots with the big camera, but the iPhone was out of my pocket and in my hand alongside the SLR, and I was surprised with just how well it handled some challenging conditions for photography.

The final shot.
This may seem a gimmick of an experiment, but it is not.  I’ve heard many professionals bemoaning the fact that everyone now seems to have the equipment to let them take really good photographs (I cannot see why that’s a bad thing, but they seem to think it is) and I can’t think of a better way for the next generation to learn about nature and enjoy spending time with it.  It’s also easy as a photographer to feel too comfortable with your equipment, to the point at which you stop trying to figure out how to do new things, and just slip into well-tried routines and angles.  I can only speak for myself here, but battling with the mobile phone, thinking hard about how I could get the exposure or focus to behave in certain unusual ways really made me think my way right around each image before taking it.  It’s a breadth and depth of that which, if reapplied to my SLR photography, could really help me to raise my game.

More than anything, however, it’s fun. These wee five-megapixel images are just an opportunity for me to get out and have some fun in the natural world without stones of judgement chained around my neck.  They’re just pictures that I enjoyed taking. That’s all. It’s immensely liberating, and it allows you to have fun in the natural world without disturbing it or destroying it.

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If I was late to adopt the mobile phone into my life, it’s because I had something of an aversion to it.  And, to be honest, I still do.  This hasn’t got anything to do with the fact that I prefer trees to transmitters or any other anti-techno argument; it is simply the image of the mobile phone user that Dom ‘HELLO!!’ Jolly attempted to ridicule into silence, but simply made more prominent.  That bellowing businessperson or screeching socialite connected to goodness only know who goodness only knows where, whilst disconnected from the people and the world around them; at best they appear to be oblivious to their surroundings; at worst, they are ignorant of them. 

All this talk of phones helping us connect, and yet for these people they cause them to lose connection with the world around them, giving attention only to a person from whom they are removed, a far-off reality in which they will never be able to immerse themselves fully or even mindfully.  It would be a mistake to blame the technology for this – it is always the person behind the din that is responsible.  In fact, the technology itself can help to reverse the problem, connecting us with greater attention to the world in front of our eyes by looking and taking photos.

It’s such a simple approach, it hardly needs such advanced modern technology for us to make it happen, but the technology can help bring us back when we’ve lost our way.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Essex Lion and Ancient Indian Wisdom

There’s a lion on the loose in Essex…or so I’ve read in the news, and as has been reported by a growing number of witnesses.  The police’s response (like most people’s) has been one of wavering confusion: armed officers and experts deployed, followed by the dismissal of the incident as a hoax, followed by the deployment of more armed officers and big-cat experts upon each new sighting.  It’s a doubtful situation that we cannot afford to doubt, and who knows what the truth will turn out to be?

So often we hear of such sightings of big cats in Britain which are often never fully resolved.  What is it about big cats that provide such a spectacle to entertain our imaginations? Is it simply the danger, or the exoticism, or the strange, almost supernatural sense of disbelief that accompanies such stories. 
I find myself sympathising with those on both sides of the mystery.  I remember myself seeing what I thought to be an unusually large black cat after dark in Lathkill Dale in the Peak District. It stared at me from some distance, and each time I half-pressed the shutter button on my camera to focus on it, its eyes lit up with a bright orange glow (which I still cannot explain).  It was an eerie, experience, almost in the realm of the Hound of the Baskervilles.  In that story, Dr Watson perhaps distrusts his own flights of imagination, counting on Holmes’s unswerving, rational judgment to find solve the mystery.  Despite what crazed imagination you might glean my own sighting in the Peaks that night, I hold no belief whatsoever in the supernatural, religion, the afterlife, or mythical creatures.  To my mind, some rational series of circumstances most likely have caused the illusion - the human eye can have especial difficulty judging distances and perspective after dark (oh no, did I really fall for the old Father Ted joke of the small cow and the cow that is far away?).  It’s also worth remembering that in Hound of the Baskervilles, like so many of those 19th-century Gothic novels which no doubt influenced Conan-Doyle in writing it, there was a rational reason for the bizarre but consistent sightings of the dog which glowed in the dark appeared to be breathing fire (it was a hoax, played out in order to re-enact an old legend and cover up a crime). All very Scooby Doo.
But it is the way in which animals act as a trigger to the human imagination that interests me, whether or not the Essex Lion turns out to be genuine or a hoax.  False and unconfirmed sightings of big cats in the landscape have been a source of fear and wonder for millennia, and as the speculation rises around this series of events in Essex, the reports reminded me of an ancient Indian folk tale which appears in The Pañcatantra, a collection of allegorical tales that date from around 300BC, which teach principles of successful governing in the form of animal stories:

Once there was an ass belonging to a certain washerman.  Worn out by carrying heavy loads of clothes, the ass had become emaciated.  The washerman, hoping to fatten up the ass, covered him in a leopard’s skin and turned him loose at night in the cornfield belonging to some man.  The ass began to eat the corn at will, and, thinking it was a leopard, no one dared to go near him to keep him away from the corn.
One day a farmer who was out keeping watch over his field happened to see the ass.  Thinking, ‘It’s a leopard! I am as good as dead!’, the farmer covered his body with his grey blanket and, crouching low and holding the bow with his upraised hand, began to stealthily slip away.  The ass, who had become plump and had recovered his strength, seeing the farmer from a distance, mistook him for a she-ass and, since his end was near, started to run after her at full speed.  The farmer, for his part, ran even faster. The ass then began to think: ‘Seeing me covered in a leopard’s skin, maybe she does not recognize me for who I am.  So I will take back my own identity and captivate her heart with my braying.’ With this idea in his head, the ass began to bray.
When the man who was guarding the fields heard that, he recognized from the braying that it was an ass. He turned around and killed the ass with an arrow.
(From Book 3 of The Pañcatantra, translated by Patrick Olivelle)
The story anticipates so many ideas of later story telling: it provides a perhaps more ironic twist than Matthew’s warning in the New Testament of false prophets which may appear as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, while the mistaken identity of both characters in their unwitting dressing up anticipates Shakespeare in its comic conception (was Shakespeare aware of this story when writing All’s Well that Ends Well, I wonder?).  Perhaps there’s a lesson here in us being genuine when representing ourselves, or in representing nature, or perhaps a lesson in how we engage with other natural beings.
For these reasons, the story of the Essex lion would almost be more interesting if the reports turned out to be false – it tells us a great deal about how our imagination interprets nature and creatures in the landscape, at a time when such engagement it waning.  Either way, stories of big cats have been in the human imagination for thousands of years, and we have not seen the last of them yet.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Another side of Mull: Illness and fatigue vs peace of mind.

Photographing Eagles at dawn (mobile phone shot) - I was treated to some beautiful sights of both Golden and White-Tailed Eagles in the beautiful dawn light.

I’ve just come back from a trip up north to my second home on the Isle of Mull.  A big thanks to Scott and Dianne Gates and Scoor House (the only place I stay on Mull, with good reason) for the usual warm welcome and advice on the local wildlife that gets me out and about.  It’s such a great area to stay for wildlife, and I found that this time more than ever, establishing a rather unusual routine which led to me photographing a number of new species in new ways.

My routine upon arrival started fairly normally – go to bed the first night, setting the alarm clock for 4am, which is tough the first day, but after a few days of going to bed at 8pm, the body clock alters just as it would if you’re travelling to another time zone.  Then, straight down to the coast in time for dawn and start work hoping to photograph the otters. 

Only this year was different. First morning, 4am, the alarm goes off. It’s dark outside and I’ve not yet fully come round from the long drive the day before that had me fixed in a tiring spell of concentration (last time I was up here I had a nasty car crash, so I’m now more wary and deep in concentration than ever when I drive, and that quickly saps my usual Super-Ted strength).  Add to that the fact that the otters up here are having a quiet year; this was just starting to become clear last time I was up here in February: I was straight out of hospital, and yet I still found myself on my belly, sliding over rocks with my neck pulled up to look through the viewfinder.  If you’ve never tried photographing otters whilst suffering from whiplash, don’t – the experience is probably akin to swallowing whole, raw nettle stalks whilst head-banging to The Ace of Spades (and if you’ve never done that, then neither have I).  I did get a few shots, although it was extremely painful and I quickly resigned myself to the fact that it wasn’t working, so I lay still and watched the otter work its way up the coast, further and further away from me, until the coast was (literally) clear for me to get up and leave.
Loch Scridain in February.

These days, I’m much kinder to myself than I have been in the past.  I no longer pull myself out of bed at all costs if I’m exhausted or ill.  I know that I won’t produce good work unless I’m feeling well in myself, and I run the risk of making a mistake and scaring an otter if I’m not fully alert.  So on the first day I lie in (till 6:40am!)  and head down to the shore for a few hours.  Wildlife tour guide Bryan Rains of Wild About Mull shakes his head when I look at him inquisitively as we pass on the road for the millionth time in our lives (‘Very quiet’ he says after winding down the window of his minibus; ‘one or two sightings if you’re lucky, early morning…but only if you’re lucky.’).  When my fiancée Katherine and I invite John and Janis Allen round to dinner, the same is confirmed.  John and Janis have an incomparable knowledge of the otters on the island, and photos and footage to prove it - not to mention the fact that they are terrific company of an evening.  Despite their advice that the otters are not all that active in many locations, John whips out his iPad after dinner and shows us some of his latest work at a difference site, and I melt with affection for the otters and in particular the behavioural shots of young cubs that he's photographed so brilliantly (see their superb website here). John ribs me when I say I’d like to take the opportunity to spend some time photographing wild flowers and landscapes while the otters are quiet - I’m keen to get out and see so many other aspects of wildlife on Mull that I’ve never made the time for previously.  On the one day that I do try to stalk an otter, I end up pressing myself up against one side of a large boulder with an otter snacking away round the other side.  I’m not sure I’ve ever been so close before probably less than a meter, but I daren’t peer round for fear of giving the poor thing a heart-attack, so I sit tight and let it finish its meal.  I come away with no pictures and a clear conscience.

Loch Scridain in August (mobile phone shot).

All in all, it doesn’t seem to be the right time for me to be photographing otters just at the moment, and I have that shaky feeling in my bones which tells me I need a holiday (the two activities aren’t compatible).  So there are lots of pyjama days, many books read, walks down to the beach (super sunshine!) and only a handful of outings with the camera.  But Mull is a wonderful place and a few hours out with a camera can be more productive than days spent elsewhere.  In the third week, I walk up a small hill out the back of the house.  Scott and Dianne at Scoor House are always very keen to encourage me to spend time in the immediate area of the house (‘before you go running off to your otters’), as there’s so much wonderful stuff to photograph within walking distance.  This is brought home to me on my walk: despite wearing trainers, jeans and a colourful hoodie, standing next to a trig point (could I be any more conspicuous?) and only having a short telephoto lens on my camera (70-200mm), I manage some frame-filling shots (with eye contact) of a Golden Eagle that appeared to fly over to take a look at me.  Later that week, a trip out to photograph a landscape one evening results in a tip-off that there are Basking Sharks in the area.  So the final week is filled with Eagles and Basking Sharks; my Super-Ted strength is regained, and the camera is rolling. 
Photographing Basking Sharks last week (mobile phone shot).
I’m not travelling all over the island as I often have in the past; I’m only photographing wildlife on the doorstep (this is what I enjoy doing most, wherever I am – and what a doorstep!) and I’m only getting up early to do dawn shoots when I’m feeling good about it.  And yet by this point, I’m feeling really well rested and at home so the work I’m producing is up there with my best.  My favourite photo of the whole trip is an action shot of a humble rock pipit – a very common bird in Mull, but one of my favourite things in photography is showing the extraordinary in the ordinary.  The weeks of resting and relaxation have paid off – I could not be so productive if I had simply started this trip by beating myself up with dawn shoots the moment I arrived.  Now, everything feels right to be out and about.

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Back home in Nottinghamshire, I switch on the desktop computer, eager to download my pictures and view them on the computer-screen (and I keep my fingers crossed that my favourite rock pipit is sharp – judging pictures based upon their appearance on the back of the camera so often is always a dangerous game).  Within seconds, the computer feels the strain of its rude awakening and dies.  My back-up hard-drives (which I always take away with me) are attached, and I feel sick to the stomach at the thought that it might have caught a virus and taken my entire catalogue and back-up drives to computer heaven.  Thankfully this is not the case.  The back-ups are intact, although the computer will need to be sent away for repair – it will be a few weeks before I can view the pictures and start to display them online (hence all the mobile phone shots in this blog)…that’ll be quite some wait. Is this what it used to be like with film? 

I do hope my rock pipit is sharp.

Mull in the mirror at twilight (mobile phone shot).