Reading Across the Seasons: England in All Weathers

Recently, I toured multiple seasons via these three pleasantly meandering books for Anglophiles. All:

 

Orchard by Benedict Macdonald and Nicholas Gates (2020)

Bristol friends and BBC colleagues Ben Macdonald and Nick Gates set out to chronicle a year in the life of a traditional Herefordshire orchard that has been managed differently from the industrial norm. Operations are designed to maximize wildlife as well as production, so the orchard has become a bastion for birds and insects. After a brief history of apple cultivation and orchard design, it’s straight into a month-by-month rundown of what can be seen and heard on this particular patch. For the most part, the co-authors trade off chapters. They observe and describe the kinds of behaviours that most of us never get to see. A central section of remarkable photographs, some of them by the authors, illustrates the year as vividly as the passionate prose. (See my full review at Shiny New Books.)

With thanks to William Collins for the free copy for review.

 

Light Rains Sometimes Fall by Lev Parikian (2021)

It was only 2018 that I read Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? but since then we’ve had another three books from Lev Parikian. It’s now hard to imagine a year without one of his genial nature books. Here he adapts Japan’s famous 72 microseasons to an English year, with every five days or so taking on a slightly different character and welcoming in the subtle changes that add up to big ones. Given the Japanese inspiration, it’s appropriate that his entries sometimes read like haikus. Here’s one from the start of 2–7 September: “The streets. Rumble of traffic. Gentle wind in trees. Soft chrrr of blue tit. Furious cawing, stage left.”

Parikian’s patch is South London, specifically his local cemetery – which, since the book starts in February 2020, was closed off to him for a short time a month later when the first UK lockdown hit. This only served to increase his appreciation for the place when it reopened. (Cemeteries are amazing places for wildlife in general, especially the more park-like ones: I can remember seeing muntjac at Cemetery Junction in Reading, and red-tailed hawks perched in the trees in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.) Here, his star sighting was an occasional peregrine on the church tower.

The idea behind this book of mini nature essays is to try to see things again as if for the first time. In the pandemic year, he finds that time is elastic: it seems both fast and slow, and paying close attention is a way of valuing nature and experience. After all, as Parikian quotes from Confucius, “Everything has beauty, but not everyone can see it.” This reminded me particularly of Birdsong in a Time of Silence, but the tone is refreshingly light, as readers will have come to expect of Parikian.

Controversially, because I picked this up in September, I started reading it from the first September chapter, carried on to the end and then began again at the beginning and caught myself up, a strategy I have only ever taken with Mark Cocker’s Claxton (another month-by-month nature diary-type narrative) before. Initially, it was a nice way of following along with the seasons. I kept this as a bedside book and would read a chapter before bed. Most of us live in cities or suburbs, so I particularly appreciated the enthusiastic advocacy for the value of urban spaces for nature. I recommend this one for reading your way slowly and attentively through the seasons.

With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the proof copy for review.

 

England for All Seasons by Susan Allen Toth (1997)

A reread. As I was getting ready to go overseas for the first time in the summer of 2003, Toth’s trilogy of memoirs whetted my appetite for travel in Britain. (They’re on my Landmark Books in My Life, Part II list.) I loved how warmly she invites readers to join her itineraries and shares tips for lesser-known destinations.

This was her third set of England essays, prompted by a question she frequently got from friends and readers: when is the best time to go? Her answer would be to go whenever you can, as often as you can, because rain can be delightful and in the off season you’ll have special places to yourself. I can see that I have this book to thank for the memorable Cornwall vacation I had with my mom and sister in April 2004, midway through my study abroad year: two of the sites she highlights here, St. Ives and the seal sanctuary at Gweek (part of the “Touring England’s Ark” chapter) were among our chosen stops.

Toth is a particular fan of gardens and literary sites, but loves London museums and theatres as much as windswept coastal and island scenery. When in England she lets herself sample multiple desserts from the sweet trolley, fill her suitcase with secondhand books, and pepper her speech with exclamations of “Lovely!” and “Brilliant!” I was relieved to be reminded of her suggested one-hour time limit for any museum – “depart without guilt, as soon as your eyes droop or your feet hurt or your heavy shoulder bag sinks to the floor. When you begin wondering if it is too early for lunch, head for the door.” (I poop out at museums very quickly.) The practical information she includes at the end of each chapter is probably entirely out of date, but her ideas are solid, and a quick web search will update any details.

The final essay, “Travel Time,” perfectly captures the holiday spirit: “Because our travel time is so densely filled, with intense if often quiet experiences, I am always astonished at what has happened—or rather, what has not happened—when we return home. After two weeks of living so vividly, newness in each hour, I feel as if I must have changed in significant ways.” (Free from The Book Thing of Baltimore)

9 responses

  1. Ooh that first one looks excellent! I loved Light Rains and want to read it round with the seasons again, maybe in 2023. The third one made me giggle, given that growing up in the UK you just see everything in the rain and learn not to care. Picnics in the car, looking out at the grey sea beyond the cliff edge, etc., etc. …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’d enjoy Orchard, too.

      You can tell Toth became more ‘English’ as she spent more time in the country, learning to appreciate things in whatever weather.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely selection. I particularly like the sound Orchard. As I tend to wake up early, I often hear Radio 4’s On Your Farm who cover this kind of story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I also enjoyed the trading off of narration duties more than I thought I would.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. These all sound lovely and I suspect I would enjoy these very much. I’ve added the last two to my TBR list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure if Parikian’s books are available in the USA, but all of Toth’s memoirs are wonderful and I would definitely recommend them to you.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. All of these sound interesting! I would probably do as you did with Light Rains Sometimes Fall and start wherever at in the year it would be when I got the book. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  5. We could never travel together: I force myself to drag around the museum until the very last minute because the cost of the ticket makes me believe that I need to see and learn EVERY TINY THING especially if it’s at any great distance from where I live. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha, luckily my stepfather paid the hefty entrance charge to the Pittsburgh museums this time, otherwise I might have felt the same compulsion. As it was, I was ready for a sit down and a coffee after just an hour, but persisted until lunchtime.

      Liked by 1 person

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