20 Books of Summer, 6–7: Melissa Harrison & Oliver Rackham

After two days in Inverness, our Western Isles adventure is ready to begin. I’m writing on the ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway (the main population centre on the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland), where we’ll pick up a rental car and head to our Airbnb before exploring standing stones and bird reserves well into the long evening.

On the bus this morning I started Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden, the next in my flora-themed reading. For today, I have brief responses to two books I finished before we left: a genial children’s fantasy novel and an in-depth guide to a tree. Ash is today’s linking word.

 

By Ash, Oak and Thorn by Melissa Harrison (2021)

Burnet, Cumulus and Moss are “Hidden Folk” (like Iceland’s elves), ancient, tiny beings who hibernate for winter in an ash tree. When they lose their home and Cumulus, the oldest, starts fading away, they set off on a journey to look for more of their kind and figure out what is happening. This eventually takes them to “the Hive” (London, presumably); they are helped along the way by creatures they might have been wary of: they hitch rides on deer and pigeons, and a starling, fox and rat are their allies in the city.

This reminded me of Watership Down with the classic quest feel, the many perils faced, and the way the species communicate with each other and are rendered as having different accents. The feasts and creative use of miniature objects recalled what I most love about the Brambly Hedge books. There is an important message about overcoming fear and prejudice, and a warning that Mortals have lost their connection to the Wild World. The hint is that the trio might play a role in helping humans reclaim it – perhaps in the sequel, recently longlisted for the Wainwright Prize (more on which anon).

Although there is a didactic element, with Harrison also commenting on emotions and pointing out natural phenomena for children to notice through the seasons, this didn’t bother me, and – in the Tove Jansson tradition – there are plenty of asides for grown-ups to appreciate, too. I’m unfamiliar with the series that inspired this, the 1930s The Little Grey Men books by “B.B.” (Denys Watkins-Pitchford), so can’t comment on it in comparison to the source material. I’ve read four other Harrison books, nonfiction and adult fiction, but this outstripped them all. (Public library)

A favourite passage:

“Going on an adventure might be exciting, but if you’re a home-loving person, it’s not long until you start wanting to feel safe and indoorsy again.”

 

The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham (2014)

A single-species monograph, this was more academic than I expected from Little Toller – it has statistics, tables and figures. So, it contains everything you ever wanted to know about ash trees, and then some. I actually bought it for my husband, who has found the late Rackham’s research on British landscapes useful, but thought I’d take a look as well. (The rental house we recently left had a self-seeded ash in the front garden that sprang up to almost the height of the house within the five years we lived there. Every time our landlords came round, we held our breath waiting for them to notice that the roots had started to push up the pavement and tell us it had to be cut down, but until now it has survived.)

Topics include the birds and insects the trees shelter, the lichen that grows on them, coppicing and pollarding techniques (“plashing” into hedges, the creation of horizontal seats), and the designation of ancient and veteran trees. Ash dieback disease, a major global issue, is another point for discussion. I found myself skimming through a lot of the detail, especially in later chapters. My favourite bits of trivia were that Yeats mentions the ash the most out of a handful of notable UK/Ireland poets, and that baseball bats are generally made out of ash wood. There are loads of colour photographs to help visualize tree features and locations. (New purchase)

20 responses

  1. Enjoy those long, light evenings, Rebecca.

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    1. We do an outing after dinner most days!

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  2. We’re booked on the same route in September – not been to Lewis and Harris before, so I’ll be interested to hear all about it!

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    1. Fantastic! That was probably a good choice midges-wise (so far they have not been bad enough to wear the Avon Skin So Soft I borrowed from a neighbour). I hope you’ll have good weather. We have had improbably good weather, with a handful of showers.

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  3. I have read The Little Grey Men (though not the sequel) and I suppose there were echoes of it from what you describe. As for the Ash title, when we had a few acres in Pembrokeshire there were a number of mature ash trees around the periphery of the field – from which we would gather fallen sticks and branches since they were good for kindling – but luckily none too near the house. The threat of ash die-back hadn’t yet made inroads that far west when we moved, fortunately.

    Envy you both for your exploration of standing stones and the like, but I don’t envy you the midges!

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    1. I’m not sure to what extent Harrison borrowed from those books. Enough to mention them in her further reading list. I wonder if she had to get any sort of permission?

      We have only noticed the midges on one still afternoon and one evening, and no bites yet!

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  4. Oh. I love Harrison’s writing, but this latest offering isn’t speaking to me at all. I’ll wait until it rocks up at our library.

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    1. This and its sequel are probably intended for middle grade readers — children of 9 or so? Maybe one to read with an older grandchild one day.

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      1. Maybe. We’ll see.

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  5. As I started reading the Oak Ash and Thorn review, I thought, “this sounds like The Little Grey Men” … I guess I was right! I enjoyed reading it with my son some years ago but it has not stuck with us as a repeat read.

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    1. Ah, so the plot was familiar! When the author doesn’t explain in a note, I always wonder to what extent they’ve borrowed from source material.

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  6. By Ash, Oak and Thorn doesn’t sound like my kind of thing, but the cover is lovely.

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    1. The sequel has a cover done in mostly autumnal colors; I like it even more. I hope my library will acquire a copy.

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  7. Enjoy! My aunt lives in Stornoway and loves it!

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    1. Our Airbnb is 15 minutes from Stornoway. It’s a surprisingly big place! But you get not far out from it and there’s barren peat bogs all around. Have you visited her on Lewis? Tomorrow we’re off on the ferry to Berneray, followed by North Uist.

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      1. Yes, a friend and I went all over the Outer Hebrides via a series of minibuses a few years ago! Hope you enjoy Berneray – I found it beautiful but strange. You feel like you’re on the edge of the world.

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      2. What an adventurous trip! Although we used public transport to get as far as Stornoway, we then rented a car for the week. I had visions of getting soaked (which has happened twice so far!) and having to wait ages for buses. It was neat being on an island so small you can easily get from end to end of it.

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  8. I didn’t know that about baseball bats and I’ll give you the factoid I found out today in return: birds don’t urinate!

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    1. My husband confirms: all the waste exits the cloaca together!

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  9. […] By Ash, Oak and Thorn by Melissa Harrison […]

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