Reading from the Wainwright Prize Longlists

The Wainwright Prize is one that I’ve ended up following closely almost by accident, simply because I tend to read most of the nature books released in the UK in any given year. A few months back I cheekily wrote to the prize director, proffering myself as a judge and appending a list of eligible titles I hoped were in consideration. Although they already had a full judging roster for 2021, I got a very kind reply thanking me for my recommendations and promising to bear me in mind for the future. Fifteen of my 25 suggestions made it onto the lists below.

This is the second year that there have been two awards, one for writing on UK nature and the other on global conservation themes. Tomorrow (August 4th) at 4 p.m., the longlists will be narrowed down to shortlists. I happened to have read and reviewed 12 of the nominees already, and I have a few others in progress.

 

UK nature writing longlist:

The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell: Hoping to reclaim an ancestral connection, Ansell visited the New Forest some 30 times between January 2019 and January 2020, observing the unfolding seasons and the many uncommon and endemic species its miles house. He weaves together his personal story, the shocking history of forced Gypsy relocation into forest compounds starting in the 1920s, and the unfairness of land ownership in Britain. The New Forest is a model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access. (On my Best of 2021 so far list.)

 

The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster: A Renaissance man as well versed in law and theology as he is in natural history, Foster is obsessed with swifts and ashamed of his own species: for looking down at their feet when they could be watching the skies; for the “pathological tidiness” that leaves birds and other creatures no place to live. He delivers heaps of information on the birds but refuses to stick to a just-the-facts approach. The book quotes frequently from poetry and the prose is full of sharp turns of phrase and whimsy. (Also on my Best of 2021 so far list.)

 

Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour: As an aimless twentysomething, Gilmour tried to rekindle a relationship with his unreliable poet father at the same time that he and his wife were pondering starting a family of their own. Meanwhile, he was raising Benzene, a magpie that fell out of the nest and ended up in his care. The experience taught him responsibility and compassionate care for another creature. Gilmour makes elegant use of connections and metaphors. He’s so good at scenes, dialogue and emotion – a natural writer.

 

Seed to Dust by Marc Hamer: Hamer paints a loving picture of his final year at the 12-acre British garden he tended for decades. In few-page essays, the book journeys through a gardener’s year. This is creative nonfiction rather than straightforward memoir. The prose is adorned with lovely metaphors. In places, the language edges towards purple and the content becomes repetitive – a danger of the diary format. However, the focus on emotions and self-perception – rare for a male nature writer – is refreshing. (Reviewed for Foreword.)

 

The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison: A collection of five and a half years’ worth of Harrison’s monthly Nature Notebook columns for The Times. Initially based in South London, Harrison moved to the Suffolk countryside in late 2017. In the grand tradition of Gilbert White, she records when she sees her firsts of a year. I appreciate how hands-on and practical Harrison is. She never misses an opportunity to tell readers about ways they can create habitat for wildlife and get involved in citizen science projects. (Reviewed for Shiny New Books.)

 

Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt: 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, 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. Lovatt’s writing is introspective and poetic, delighting in metaphors for sounds.

 

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald: Though written for various periodicals and ranging in topic from mushroom-hunting to deer–vehicle collisions and in scope from deeply researched travel pieces to one-page reminiscences, these essays form a coherent whole. Equally reliant on argument and epiphany, the book has more to say about human–animal interactions in one of its essays than some whole volumes manage. Her final lines are always breath-taking. I’d rather read her writing on any subject than almost any other author’s. (My top nonfiction release of 2020.)

 

Skylarks with Rosie by Stephen Moss: Devoting a chapter each to the first 13 weeks of the initial UK lockdown, Moss traces the season’s development in Somerset alongside his family’s experiences and what was emerging on the national news. He welcomed migrating birds and marked his first sightings of butterflies and other insects. Nature came to him, too. For once, he felt that he had truly appreciated the spring, noting its every milestone and “rediscovering the joys of wildlife-watching close to home.”

 

Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh: I received a proof copy from Canongate and twice tried the first few pages, but couldn’t wade through the excessive lyricism (and downright incorrect information – weaving a mystical description of a Winter Moth’s flight, she keeps referring to the creature as “she,” whereas when I showed the passage to my entomologist husband he told me that the females of that species are flightless). I’m told it develops into an eloquent memoir of growing up during the Troubles. Perhaps reminiscent of The Outrun?

 

Into the Tangled Bank by Lev Parikian: A delightfully Bryson-esque tour that moves ever outwards, starting with the author’s own home and garden and proceeding to take in his South London patch and his journeys around the British Isles before closing with the wonders of the night sky. By slowing down to appreciate what is all around us, he proposes, we might enthuse others to engage with nature. With the zeal of a recent convert, he guides readers through momentous sightings and everyday moments of connection. (When I reviewed this in July 2020, I correctly predicted it would make the longlist!)

 

English Pastoral by James Rebanks: This struck me for its bravery, good sense and humility. The topics of the degradation of land and the dangers of intensive farming are of the utmost importance. Daring to undermine his earlier work and his online persona, the author questions the mythos of modern farming, contrasting its practices with the more sustainable and wildlife-friendly ones his grandfather espoused. Old-fashioned can still be best if it means preserving soil health, river quality and the curlew population.

 

I Belong Here by Anita Sethi: I recently skimmed this from the library. Two things are certain: 1) BIPOC writers should appear more frequently on prize lists, so it’s wonderful that Sethi is here; 2) this book was poorly put together. It’s part memoir of an incident of racial abuse, part political manifesto, and part quite nice travelogue. The parts don’t make a whole. The contents are repetitive and generic (definitions, overstretched metaphors). Sethi had a couple of strong articles here, not a whole book. I blame her editors for not eliciting better.

 

The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn: I only skimmed this, too. I got the feeling her publisher was desperate to capitalize on the popularity of her first book and said “give us whatever you have,” cramming drafts of several different projects (a memoir that went deeper into the past, a ‘what happened next’ sequel to The Salt Path, and an Iceland travelogue) into one book and rushing it through to publication. Winn’s writing is still strong, though; she captures dialogue and scenes naturally, and you believe in how much the connection to the land matters to her.

 


Global conservation longlist:

Like last year, I’ve read much less from this longlist since I gravitate more towards nature writing and memoirs than to hard or popular science. So I have read, am reading or plan to read about half of this list, as opposed to pretty much all of the other one.

 

Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn: This was on my Most Anticipated list for 2021 and I treated myself to a copy while we were up in Northumberland. I’m nearly a third of the way through this fascinating, well-written tour of places where nature has spontaneously regenerated due to human neglect: depleted mining areas in Scotland, former conflict zones, Soviet collective farms turned feral, sites of nuclear disaster, and so on. I’m about to start the chapter on Chernobyl, which I expect to echo Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse.

 

What If We Stopped Pretending? by Jonathan Franzen: The message of this controversial 2019 New Yorker essay is simple: climate breakdown is here, so stop denying it and talking of “saving the planet”; it’s too late. Global warming is locked in; the will is not there to curb growth, overhaul economies, and ask people to relinquish developed world lifestyles. Instead, start preparing for the fallout (refugees) and saving what can be saved (particular habitats and species). Franzen is realistic about human nature and practical about what to do next.

 

Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake: Sheldrake’s enthusiasm is infectious as he researches fungal life in the tropical forests of Panama, accompanies truffle hunters in Italy, and takes part in a clinical study on the effects of LSD (derived from a fungus). More than a travel memoir, though, this is a work of proper science – over 100 pages are taken up by notes, bibliography and index. This is a perspective-altering text that reveals our unconscious species bias. I’ve recommended it widely, even to those who tend not to read nonfiction.

 

Ice Rivers by Jemma Wadham: I have this out from the library and am two-thirds through. Wadham, a leading glaciologist, introduces readers to the science of glaciers: where they are, what lives on and under them, how they move and change, and the grave threats they face (and, therefore, so do we). The science, even dumbed down, is a little hard to follow, but I love experiencing extreme landscapes like Greenland and Antarctica with her. She neatly inserts tiny mentions of her personal life, such as her mother’s death, a miscarriage and a benign brain cyst.

 

The rest of the longlist is:

  • A Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough – I’ve never read a book by Attenborough (and tend to worry this sort of book would be ghostwritten), but wouldn’t be averse to doing so.
  • Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs – All about whales. Kate raved about it. I have this on hold at the library.
  • Net Zero: How We Stop Causing Climate Change by Dieter Helm
  • Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert – I have read her before and would again.
  • Riders on the Storm by Alistair McIntosh – My husband has read several of his books and rates them highly.
  • The New Climate War by Michael E. Mann
  • The Reindeer Chronicles by Judith D. Schwartz – I’ve been keen to read this one.
  • A World on the Wing by Scott Weidensaul – My husband is reading this from the library.

 

My predictions/wishes for the shortlists:

It’s high time that a woman won again. And why not for both, eh? (Amy Liptrot is still the only female winner in the Prize’s seven-year history, for The Outrun in 2016.)

UK nature writing:

  • The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell
  • The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster
  • Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour
  • Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald*
  • English Pastoral by James Rebanks
  • I Belong Here by Anita Sethi
  • The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn

Writing on global conservation:

  • Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn*
  • Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs
  • Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert
  • Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake
  • Ice Rivers by Jemma Wadham
  • A World on the Wing by Scott Weidensaul

*Overall winners, if I had my way.

 

Have you read anything from the Wainwright Prize longlists?
Do any of these books interest you?

30 responses

  1. You’d make a wonderful judge for this prize – I hope they get back to you. I love the idea of nature writing, but never seem to have the time to read it! I have copies of Featherhood and The Tangled Bank, and am particularly looking forward to reading the former. On the global conservation list Islands of Abandonment particularly appeals as you might guess.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a feeling I’ll have to keep reminding them, but it would be a great opportunity, and the reply at least felt encouraging. I also contacted Costa, Wellcome and Young Writer at the same time, but nothing came of any of those e-mails (though I was assured my message would be forwarded to Andrew Holgate).

      Featherhood is wonderful. It’s a lot like H Is for Hawk, if you’ve read that, but with a strong sense of humour, too. Islands of Abandonment is fab. Glancingly similar in content to the O’Connell, but very different in tone. I’ve gone by what I want to win rather than what I think will. I often think several shortlistees are better than the eventual winner.

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  2. Lots of interesting looking books here! I purchased Seed to Dust on my birthday book haul and haven’t yet read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh neat, I hope you enjoy it. It would be a good one to keep by the bedside and read a little bit of at a time with the seasons — because I had to get through it in a short time for a review, I started to notice some repetition.

      I feel like about half of the books on the lists are available in the USA, though I haven’t checked that.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m always impressed by your extensive nature reading. I was hoping to do more of it now that I’m using audio books, but there’s not a lot available through the library. I will just keep checking! I did read one about octopuses, which I loved.
    On global conservation… The Franzen sounds like an interesting take, but also depressing. I’m reading one now called The Day the World Stops Shopping by J.B. MacKinnon – an interesting thought experiment.
    I really have to read Helen Macdonald. I wonder how long I will be saying that? 🙂

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    1. Let me guess, was it The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery? Or Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith? 🙂 I didn’t find the Franzen depressing, just realistic. Then again, I could be called a pessimist. I like the sound of The Day the World Stops Shopping. Did you also want to read it because it was by a fellow MacKinnon?!

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      1. Yes, it was The Soul of an Octopus! And last night my daughter and I watched My Octopus Teacher, which was also so good. I didn’t know about “Other Minds”!
        Well, of course I like that we share a surname. However, he lives in BC – which makes me wonder how long ago those MacKinnons went west. Or maybe it was just him… I actually read one of his other books over 10 years ago now, called the 100 Mile Diet, which was one of those year long experiments – in this case eating only food that was produced within 100 miles of their home in Vancouver. Back when the local food movement was becoming a thing. Wow, I can’t believe it was that long ago.

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      2. That’s cool, I love year challenge books!

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  4. I hope at some point they do take you up on your offer to judge this prize. The two books that really jump out at me are ‘Fathoms’ and ‘The Reindeer Chronicles’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s very kind of you. I’m looking forward to Fathoms. I remember The Reindeer Chronicles catching my eye pre-release, but I never managed to get hold of a copy. I, too, love reading in-depth books about particular species and their habitats.

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  5. I’ve loved The Screaming Sky, Birdsong in a Time of Silence, and English Pastoral. I think I’d like to try Islands of Abandonment next.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Islands of Abandonment is slow going for me, but very worthwhile. There’s a lot of history and science, but wrapped up in mini travel narratives.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s ordered from the library now, so we’ll see …

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, a rare five stars from you for Featherhood! Sounds like you’d make an amazing judge for this prize. I used to read lots of nature writing but am rather burnt out on it, so the global conservation list interests me more. I’ve meant to read Islands of Abandonment for ages and glad to hear you are enjoying it so much. Ice Rivers also sounds right up my street.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think you liked H Is for Hawk, so I probably wouldn’t recommend Featherhood to you as it’s quite similar. I’m hoping Gilmour will make this year’s Young Writer Award shortlist, too.

      You’d probably enjoy Ice Rivers for the settings — in particular, she spends time in Patagonia as well as Antarctica. You could always skim over the science-y bits 😉 They make me feel a bit dim.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I like a bit of science sometimes – I did chemistry and biology A Levels and am especially interested in biochemistry – but obviously not sure whether the science will be at my level or not!

        I thought H is for Hawk was ok, just a bit overhyped.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Well, my favourite to win (Helen Macdonald) did not make the shortlist! Alas, her book really slots more into global conservation than straightforward UK nature writing because of the essays’ disparate settings and topics; there were some issues with certain books not fitting the categories properly last year, too. I did, however, correctly predict 5 of the 7; of the ones remaining I’d love to see English Pastoral or Featherhood win.

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  8. And I was 4 for 6 on the Global Conservation list.

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  9. You so should be a judge!! And good predicting (I’m so behind on my blog reading *panics*. It’s a shame about the second Raynor Winn but I’m glad of the warning, Best Friend Em and I are enjoying The Salt Path at the moment and want to do that one, too.

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    1. Em is my best friend’s name too! (since childhood from America) You may like Winn’s second book more than I did. I felt it lacked focus.

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  10. Islands of Abandonment is the one that screams to me here (I love those stories)…have marked it at the library. And I’m curious about the Franzen essay, which is collected here, I think, under The End of the End of the World. Even though I am not DISinterested in the others, they just don’t quite align with the slant on eco-reading that I seem to be most curious about right now either, so I can imagine getting to them maybe but not certainly. Also..there are flightless female moths?! That makes me so sad to think about, though obviously that’s a silly thing to say, because they are what they are, and what do I know about the life of a moth, as it’s unlikely they’re skulking about wearing Gloria Steinham T-shirts and longing for a life “beyond”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Islands of Abandonment is beautifully written as well as having an important story to tell. I can see it appealing widely to those who like to read history as well as science and nature.

      This Franzen essay was originally published in the New Yorker in 2019, and is not collected in The End of the End. I imagine there are a few others from the Global Conservation list that would tie into your reading project, e.g. we’ve already mentioned The New Climate War on your latest post.

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      1. Hunh, maybe it’s in the New Yorker Writing on Climate Change collection then. That’s probably it. (And maybe I won’t get to the Franzen collection after all then. *winks*)

        Yes, I’m on the hold list for that one too. This is seemingly going to be an endless reading project for me. *winces*

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  11. Thank you for reminding us of these longlists. Vesper Flights was one of my top non-fiction reads of last year, as was Fathoms.
    And I was pleased to read your thoughts on The Wild Silence, after enjoying The Salt Path so very much I couldn’t get into the follow up at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sad Vesper Flights didn’t make it through. It’s unfortunate that some books don’t perfectly fit into either category and so end up being left behind at shortlist time.

      I felt Winn’s follow-up would have benefited from more time and shaping.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I guess I was wanting more Salt Path & less memoir. A case of my expectation not matching what the author actually wrote 😅

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Fair enough! One lady from my book club was so inspired by reading The Salt Path that she walked the entire South West Coast Path, in bits and pieces, over the past two years.

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  12. I’ll add my raves for Fathoms! It was one of the most beautifully written books that I’ve read. I’m behind enough on posts that you might have read it already.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s great to hear! It’s still languishing in a very tall stack of library loans, but I’m looking forward to it.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. […] I’d read (or skimmed, or decided against) all 13 of the UK nature writing nominees, as well as a few from the global conservation longlist, before the shortlists were announced (see my mini-reviews and predictions). […]

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