Spring Reading 2021: Birdsong, Cherry Blossom & More

It’s been a gorgeously sunny spring here – how about where you are? Although there have still been some frosty nights troubling the gardeners among us, it’s been warm in the daytime and the flowers and blossom are coming on apace.

Recently I’ve read a couple of books reflecting on the spring of 2020, specifically the opportunities it offered to reconnect with local nature at a time when we were isolated and couldn’t travel.

I’ve also been feeling nostalgic for Washington, D.C. and the Maryland suburbs, where I grew up. It’s been two years since my last trip back, but I’m holding out hope that I can make it over in June for a family wedding.

Rounding out my selection of “Spring” titles is an offbeat Japanese novella.

 

Looking back to the coronavirus spring:

On Thursday evening I watched “The Act of Nature Watching,” a special Earth Day Zoom talk for West Berkshire Libraries by local nature writer Nicola Chester, whose memoir is coming out in the autumn. The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries, she lamented. We are hardwired to watch and love nature, she noted, yet have never been more alienated from it. Reading from her columns and anthology contributions (as well as the Lovatt, below) and giving tips on recognizing birdsong and mammal signs, she spoke of nature-watching as a form of mindfulness – an approach that chimed with the first three books I feature here.

 

Birdsong in a Time of Silence: An Awakening by Steven Lovatt (2021)

During the UK’s first lockdown, with planes grounded and cars stationary, many remarked on the quiet. All the better to hear birds going about their usual spring activities. For Lovatt, from Birmingham and now based in South Wales, it was the excuse he needed to return to his childhood birdwatching hobby. In between accounts of his spring walks, he tells lively stories of common birds’ anatomy, diet, lifecycle, migration routes, and vocalizations. (He even gives step-by-step instructions for sounding like a magpie.) Birdsong takes him back to childhood, but feels deeper than that: a cultural memory that enters into our poetry and will be lost forever if we allow our declining bird species to continue on the same trajectory.

Mentions of current events are sparse and subtle, so the spring feels timeless, as it should. I worried there might be too much overlap with A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth, but there’s room for both on your shelf. Lovatt’s writing is introspective and poetic, delighting in metaphors for sounds: “The song of a turtle dove is like the aural equivalent of a heat-haze, the gentlest corrugation of air, always just on the edge of your hearing.”

 

Skylarks with Rosie: A Somerset Spring by Stephen Moss (2021)

Lovatt must have been a pupil of Moss’s on the Bath Spa University MA degree in Travel and Nature Writing. The prolific Moss’s latest also reflects on the spring of 2020, but in a more overt diary format. Devoting one chapter to each of the 13 weeks of the first lockdown, he traces the season’s development alongside his family’s experiences and the national news. With four of his children at home, along with one of their partners and a convalescing friend, it’s a pleasingly full house. There are daily cycles or walks around “the loop,” a three-mile circuit from their front door, often with Rosie the Labrador; there are also jaunts to corners of the nearby Avalon Marshes. Nature also comes to him, with songbirds in the garden hedges and various birds of prey flying over during their 11:00 coffee breaks.

His speaking engagements and trips cancelled, Moss turns to online events instead. Twitter serves as a place for sharing outrage over UK politics and world events like George Floyd’s murder, but also as a welcoming community for sharing nature sightings. As the lockdown come to a close, he realizes that this time has had unexpected benefits: “Having to press the pause button … has made me rethink my life, in a good way.” He feels that, for once, he has truly appreciated the spring, “rediscovering the joys of wildlife-watching close to home”. This made for perfect reading in Somerset last week.


Also recommended: The Consolation of Nature by Marren, McCarthy and Mynott

 

Remembering springs back home:

Spring in Washington by Louis J. Halle (1947)

“The discovery of spring each year, after the winter’s hibernation, is like a rediscovery of the universe … knowledge of spring gives me the freedom of the world.”

For Halle, who worked in the State Department, nature was an antidote to hours spent shuffling papers behind a desk. In this spring of 1945, there was plenty of wildfowl to see in central D.C. itself, but he also took long early morning bike rides along the Potomac or the C&O Canal, or in Rock Creek Park. From first migrant in February to last in June, he traces the spring mostly through the birds that he sees. More so than the specific observations of familiar places, though, I valued the philosophical outlook that makes Halle a forerunner of writers like Barry Lopez and Peter Matthiessen. He notes that those caught up in the rat race adapt the world to their comfort and convenience, prizing technology and manmade tidiness over natural wonders. By contrast, he feels he sees more clearly – literally as well as metaphorically – when he takes the long view of a landscape.

I marked so many passages of beautiful description. Halle had mastered the art of noticing. But he also sounds a premonitory note, one that was ahead of its time in the 1940s and needs heeding now more than ever: “When I see men able to pass by such a shining and miraculous thing as this Cape May warbler, the very distillate of life, and then marvel at the internal-combustion engine, I think we had all better make ourselves ready for another Flood.”

This was a lucky find at Hay Cinema Bookshop back in September. For me it was the ideal combination of thoughtful prose and vicarious travel, though I imagine it might not mean as much to those without a local connection. The black-and-white in-text illustrations by Francis L. Jaques are a particularly nice addition.

 

Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been? I’ve been to Washington, and guess what I’ve seen… by Russell Punter and Dan Taylor (2019)

More cherry blossoms over tourist landmarks! This is part of a children’s series inspired by the 1805 English rhyme about London; other volumes visit New York City, Paris, and Rome. In rhyming couplets, he takes us from the White House to the Lincoln Memorial via all the other key sights of the Mall and further afield: museums and monuments, the Library of Congress, the National Cathedral, Arlington Cemetery, even somewhere I’ve never been – Theodore Roosevelt Island. Realism and whimsy (a kid-sized cat) together; lots of diversity in the crowd scenes. What’s not to like? (Titled Kitty cat, kitty cat… in the USA.)

 

And, as a bonus, some fiction in translation:

Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki (2014; 2017)

[Translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton]

Like a Murakami protagonist, Taro is a divorced man in his thirties, mildly interested in the sometimes peculiar goings-on in his vicinity. Rumor has it that his Tokyo apartment complex will be torn down soon, but for now the PR manager is happy enough here. “Avoiding bother was Taro’s governing principle.” But bother comes to find him in the form of a neighbor, Nishi, who is obsessed with a nearby house that was the backdrop for the art book Spring Garden, a collection of photographs of a married couple’s life. Her enthusiasm gradually draws Taro into the depicted existence of the TV commercial director and actress who lived there 25 years ago, as well as the young family who live there now. This Akutagawa Prize winner failed to hold my interest – like The Guest Cat, it’s oddly preoccupied with architectural detail, a Japanese fascination that doesn’t translate so well.

 

Have you been reading anything particularly appropriate for spring this year?

22 responses

  1. I too have just read and enjoyed the Lovatt. I don’t know that I learnt a lot, as I did when I read the Smyth, but I simply enjoyed his writing, and sharing a set of seasons which in some ways so closely resembled my own. Maybe I’ll look out the Moss too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I saw that you’d recently read it, too! I enjoyed journeying through the birdsong of the season with him. I think his book is rather more impressionistic than the Smyth, which was looking for answers as to why birds sing. But both were very enjoyable for English nature book lovers.

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      1. Yes, they weren’t trying to do the same thing. But both hit the spot!

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  2. I need to get the first two for certain – they’re on my Upcoming Splurge wish list. I’m feeling ready to face the odd pandemic-inspired book now, esp if they cover other interests of mine, too.

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    1. I think you’d enjoy them both, especially the Lovatt — he only mentions The Situation in an occasional line here and there.

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  3. What a lovely selection of seasonal books you’ve highlighted here. I’ve not myself read any nature-oriented books recently (though tempted by Dara McAnulty’s award-winning Diary of a Young Naturalist); instead we’ve been extending our walks in the Usk valley during this fine weather after my partner’s successful hip operation in January, and enjoying the birds visiting the bird feeder by the kitchen window — several kinds of finches and tits, blackbirds, siskins, sparrows; and ground feeders such as dunnocks, robins and wrens. The birdsong on our walks has at times been deafening, blackbirds and robins particularly!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The McAnulty is a must, not least for the autism factor. I ended up reading loads from the Wainwright Prize shortlists last year (https://bookishbeck.wordpress.com/2020/07/29/reading-from-the-wainwright-prize-longlists/) and hope to do so again this year. There can be so much wildlife even in the average suburban garden, but it can also be great to get out further afield when that’s possible.

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  4. I’m not very good at seasonal reading, it never occurs to me. So, I think I might plan to read a book for each equinox/solstice for the rest of the year. I shall go and find something summery to read for June 21.

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    1. That’s a fun idea! I have a nice little stack of summer books at the ready. I’ll list them here just in case you own one and want to do a buddy read: Staring at the Sun (Barnes), Three Junes (Glass), Dreams of My Russian Summers (Makine), Among the Summer Snows (Nicholson), A Shower of Summer Days (Sarton).

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      1. Sadly I have none of those!

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      2. Oh well! I may come up with some more books that have summer settings but nothing obvious in the title. I’ll be keen to see what you choose.

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      3. I was thinking of Love in Idleness, Amanda Craig (inspired by Midsummer Night’s Dream), and my Ladybird book of ‘What to Look Out For in Summer’ for starters!

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      4. Fun! I’ll likely read a different one by Craig, The Golden Rule, later in the year.

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  5. Stephen Moss is already a favourite although I wasn’t aware of this one by him. (Currently enjoying his swallow ‘biography’.) I shall look out for the Lovatt.

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    1. He publishes so much, it would be easy to lose track of all he’s written! The only other book I’d read by him was Wild Hares and Hummingbirds, also celebrating his local area.

      I think you’d enjoy the Lovatt.

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  6. I like the idea of a diary format of the lockdown. I wonder how many people have been keeping a journal of the pandemic…

    We don’t have all the flowers and leaves yet, but it’s a beautiful day here today. I’m out on the deck right now without a jacket!

    I hope you get to go home for a visit soon. xo

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think this was the seventh book I’ve read so far that was reflecting on 2020 (though some of those were by doctors, so the focus was very different). That suggests that a lot of people took the opportunity to record what happened during a very unusual year.

      That sounds pleasant! Although it’s very sunny here today, it was only in the 40s F when we cycled up to church. Shade and wind can still make it feel chilly on some days.

      I’d almost certainly have to quarantine for seven days on arrival, which isn’t so convenient when I only want to go for about two weeks. At least that means I could continue my freelance work on a laptop during those days stuck inside, and then try to pack in the errands and visits and activities the rest of the time.

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      1. That might still be worth it, as long as you don’t mind that extra week!

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  7. Spring Garden has such a pretty cover. Shame it didn’t work for you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not managing to read much lit in translation this year, so at least it counts towards that goal.

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  8. The Steven Lovatt sounds wonderful. I became very attached to the wildlife in my backyard due to the quarantine period last Spring. I’m still maintaining my awareness and affection, so that’s a blessing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It seems like a lot of people have reconnected with nature to an extent — one unexpected bonus of the lockdowns!

      Liked by 1 person

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