Stephen Moss is a naturalist, author and course leader of the MA Travel & Nature Writing at Bath Spa University.
This year he published Skylarks with Rosie: A Somerset Spring (Saraband) and The Swan: A Biography, (Square Peg). Here is his annual round-up of books about wildlife, nature and the environment. @stephenmoss_tv
[Mark writes: where I have read and reviewed books mentioned by Stephen I have linked to my reviews].
Another year, another excellent new crop of books about the natural world and the environment. I’m delighted to report that the proportion of books whose authors are women has risen dramatically: indeed, when reference books such as field guides and handbooks (whose authors tend to be men) are discounted, the proportion of female to male authors is close to fifty-fifty. This represents a major shift in the world of natural history publishing, which is very welcome.
Women were especially well-represented in two fine anthologies: Women on Nature, edited by Katharine Norbury (Unbound, £25), and The Wild Isles, edited by Patrick Barkham (Macmillan, £25). The latter, when non-living authors are excluded, featured more women writers than men; quite an improvement from Granta’s 2008 volume New Nature Writing, which featured just two female contributors out of 25; or a 1930s anthology edited by Henry Williamson, which had just one!
There is also a greater diversity in the subjects being covered, with a clear shift towards the more personal memoir; driven, perhaps, by the huge success of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and, more recently, Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path.
This year’s nature-memoirs (many of them the first published books by their authors) included A Still Life, by Josie George (Macmillan, £16.99), which recounts how the author, who has an illness that confines her mostly to home, still manages to connect with nature in her immediate locality. Earthed, by Rebecca Schiller (Elliott & Thompson, £14.99) deals with the author’s mental health, and how relocating to the countryside is not always as idyllic as it sounds.
Connecting with the countryside is also a theme in the award-winning debut I Belong Here, by Anita Sethi (Bloomsbury, £16.99). This begins with a truly shocking racist incident, following which the author goes on a quest to reclaim her heritage, and explore the connections between nature, place and identity. Identity – and its links with place – are at the very heart of Thin Places, the first book by Kerri Ní Dochartaigh (Canongate, £14.99), which recounts her experiences of growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and seeking solace in the natural world. The connections between nature, health and well-being were also explored in Everybody Needs Beauty – In Search of the Nature Cure, by my colleague at Bath Spa University, Samantha Walton (Bloomsbury, £16.99), which took a healthily critical view of the whole ‘nature cure’ industry, while also examining how nature can help us.
The power of birdsong – especially during that first spring lockdown in 2020 – is the subject of another polished debut, Birdsong in a Time of Silence, by Steven Lovatt (Penguin, £12.99); while Stephen Rutt’s The Eternal Season (Elliott & Thompson, £14.99) paints an evocative portrait of summer and its meaning to those of us who love nature. An original, poignant and often very amusing way of experiencing nature’s year can be found in Light Rains Sometimes Fall: The British Year Through Japan’s 72 Seasons, by Lev Parikian (Elliott & Thompson, £14.99); while Amy-Jane Beer’s A Tree a Day (Batsford, £20) delivers exactly what it promises, with her usual clarity of prose, and some beautiful illustrations. After Jonathan Drori’s previous global quest for 80 Trees, his follow-up, Around the World in 80 Plants (Laurence King, £20), is also packed with intriguing detail.
Two classic birds of spring and summer are the subject of four excellent books. The mysterious airborne lives of swifts are explored in Swifts and Us, by Sarah Gibson (William Collins, £16.99) and The Screaming Sky, by Charles Foster (Little Toller, £15), whose cover, by Jonathan Pomroy, is especially striking. A more elusive visitor is given the biographical treatment in The Nightingale: Notes on a Songbird, by Sam Lee (Century, £14.99) and Nightingale, by Bethan Roberts (Reaktion Books, £12.95) – both of which delve into the cultural, as well as the biological, history of this extraordinary bird.
We learn about another elusive woodland creature in Goshawk Summer, by James Aldred (Elliott & Thompson, £14.99); while the entire hummingbird family is included in Glitter in the Green, by Jon Dunn (Macmillan, £20.00), packed with curious facts and memorable encounters. Much Ado about Mothing, by James Lowen (Bloomsbury Wildlife, £18.99) includes even more species – yet still manages to entrance the reader.
The bigger picture is well represented this year, with When There Were Birds, by Roy and Lesley Adkins (Little Brown, £25), which examines the history and culture of our long and turbulent relationship with birds; and A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds, by prizewinning US author Scott Weidensaul (Picador, £20) – a book full of wonder at this amazing phenomenon. Vagrancy in Birds, by Alexander Lees & James Gilroy (Helm, £40) focuses on another fascinating migration-related subject in forensic detail. Shearwater: A Bird, an Ocean, and a Long Way Home, by Roger Morgan-Grenville (Icon, £16.99) explored the world of these incredible globally-wandering seabirds.
We live in a troubled world, and many nature writers are beginning to deal head-on with the complex issues we now face. The intriguingly-titled Human, Nature: A Naturalist’s Thoughts on Wildlife and Wild Places, by Ian Carter (Pelagic, £16), gives us the benefit of the author’s lifetime experience as a naturalist and conservationist; while natural history producer-turned-conservationist Mary Colwell negotiates the tricky subject of predator control in Beak, Tooth & Claw: Living with Predators in Britain (William Collins, £16.99). Two books lament what we have already lost: Aurochs and Auks: Essays on Mortality and Extinction, by John Burnside (Little Toller, £14); and the quirky but compelling Gone: A Search for What Remains of the World’s Extinct Creatures, by Michael Blencowe (Leaping Hare Press, £18.99).
Perhaps the most original book published this year is Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-human Landscape, by Cal Flyn (William Collins, £16.99), which explores those places around the world which have been abandoned by humanity, after which nature has moved back in. In a welcome development, this extraordinary work has been shortlisted for the highly prestigious Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-fiction.
With such a fascinating array of narrative books, it would be easy to overlook what a decade or so ago used to be the mainstay of this annual round-up: field guides and handbooks. This year has seen some particularly impressive volumes, starting with three must-have titles from Princeton University Press’s superb WildGuides series: the comprehensive and dazzling photographic guide Europe’s Birds (£20), by Rob Hume, Robert Still, Andy Swash and Hugh Harrop; Tomasz Cofta’s extraordinary single-handed labour of love, Flight Identification of European Passerines; and Paul Brock’s equally impressive Britain’s Insects (£25), which really will help you identify almost every insect you are ever likely to come across in the UK.
Another fine series, the British Wildlife Collection from Bloomsbury Wildlife, kept up its usual high standards with volumes 9 and 10: Heathland, by Clive Chatters and Butterflies: A Natural History by Martin Warren (£35 each), both of which sported stunning covers by Carry Akroyd. The Collins New Naturalist series published just two (albeit very good) volumes this year: Ecology and Natural History, by David M. Wilkinson, and The Peak District, by Penny Anderson (HB £65, PPB £35). And if you are a book collector, or simply want to re-read some classics, Little Toller has reissued four seminal books by the godfather of British nature writing, Richard Mabey, in a stunningly designed box set for £75. Once again, this small but influential independent publisher continues to innovate and impress.
With such a brilliant array of writing, covering so many subjects, and in such varied ways, making a choice for my favourite book of the year has been even tougher than usual. In the end, it came down to three volumes, from three very different genres: young adult fiction, poetry and memoir.
Twitch, by M.G. Leonard (Walker Books, £7.99) is exactly the kind of book I wish I had read when I was a teenage birdwatcher: with a compelling plot, believable central character, and a real sense of why we love birds. The Heeding, written by Robert Cowen and illustrated by Nick Hayes (Elliott & Thompson, £12.99), is a collection of wonderfully human and accessible poems, mostly written during that first, strange lockdown; while On Gallows Down: Place, Protest and Belonging, is a wonderfully accurate, powerful and funny memoir of rural life by another debut book writer, Nicola Chester (Chelsea Green, £20).
I can’t decide between any of these delightful, life-affirming and often very moving books, written by three such kind, generous and talented authors. So, in the spirit of this new, collaborative world, they are all worthy joint winners of my 2021 Nature Book of the Year.