Tag Archives: nature

Raw Nature

Two very different novels that pit humans against the forces of nature.

FerencikThe first is a rather melodramatic adventure story.  Four women, who have been friends “forever”; led by Pia, they embark on a wild river adventure into the wilderness of Maine. Pia is always the leader on these occasions and on this one she has excelled herself. So, in spite of misgivings on the part of the other three, they set off to meet their guide.

The first meeting is not encouraging, but now they are committed.  So the next morning they pile into the off road vehicle to get to the river. The road, which the guide, Rory, finds astonishingly muddy after two weeks of rain proves challenging enough, but then there is a long hike through difficult terrain to the first camp site…

The group fragment somewhat before they have even hit the river, as for the first night in their tents, three of the women are subjected to the full opera of a sexual fling between the fourth women and Rory. So sizzling with a mixture of contempt and envy the first full day starts rather badly, not least because racoons have got into some of the provisions…

It gets worse and instead of being about sniping at each other, it becomes a trial of strength as to which of them will survive. Think The River Wild, a film in which Meryl Streep takes on a white water adventure with two escaped convicted murderers & extract the convicts.

Did no one realise that a river swollen by two weeks of rain might be dangerous?

Erica Ferencik is a screenwriter and novelist based in Massachusetts.

TreloarThe second novel is set in South Australia, always my beloved country.  It flips between Hester Crane, neé Finch, now living in Chichester, England in the 1860s and her memories of a hard and difficult life on Salt Creek some ten years earlier. The Finch family take up a lot on The Coorong, a lagoon some distance from Adelaide on the southern coast. Led by their father from the settled life in an almost civilised city, they arrive to find a shack built from old ships’ planking, branches and mud daub.

The facts are slowly revealed, the patriarchal Finch is a loser, gambling on making money from one scheme after another, he has failed and this is the last ditch attempt to regain everything.

So Mama, four boys and two girls are towed along in his wake. His rectitude or hypocrisy knows no bounds and extend outwards towards the Aboriginal families that live on the land already. He aims to civilise them…

The family he meets and mixes with include a young man who they name Tull, although not specifically clear, it can be assumed that Tull or Tully is a half caste. As with all interventions and relationships between the white settlers and the original dwellers there is the inevitable conflicts, including: disease, depredation of the land and the watering holes. But Tull, who speaks English already, and his mother, Rimmilli, who also speaks English, are different and Tull gradually joins the Finch family, learns to read and flourishes.

There are some lovely passages in this book, beautiful descriptions of the land and the light but the story itself is a harsh and unforgiving look at parental control and downright cruelty. The Finches perch on the land, taking from it in ways that are incomprehensible to Tull and to his family, and he wavers between the two different cultures. We do not see his life with his natural family, but only learn that he often goes away for several months.

Meanwhile, other relationships are few and far between and of those that exist in such an unpopulated area, some are of more consequence than others…

This is Lucy Treloar‘s first novel, though she is already well known for award winning collections of short stories.


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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 5

Sometimes you open a book and are astonished, every page has something to delight, interest and intrigue. This may be the style, as in Lincoln in the Bardo, or the narrative as in The Underground Railroad or it may be a combination of the two as in Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor.

McGregor has twice been nominated by the Man Booker, for his debut novel If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things and one other, he has won many prestigious awards: The Betty Trask Prize, the Somerset Maughan Award and the IMPAC Dublin Literature Prize, so it is hardly surprising that he is once again on the longlist of the Man Booker.

Reservoir 13This lyrical, pastoral novel reads somewhat like the journals of Gilbert White of Selbourne, in the sense that the whole novel covers a period of 13 years, each chapter beginning at the start of the New Year, or a bit after.

The opening chapter starts with the search for a thirteen year old girl, Rebecca. The family have been to the area before, once in the summer and again for the New Year (though never actually named, it is clearly the Peak District because there is a tradition of Well Dressing, which I believe to be unique to Derbyshire). The Shaw family stay in a converted barn belonging to Stuart and Jess Hunter. In the opening scene, the villagers and townspeople are gathered together waiting to be instructed on how to fan out, look out and search into the hills where Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex was last seen.

The other reason that I suspect that it is Derbyshire is the use of some dialect language, clough being one such dialect word and meaning ‘steep valley or ravine’.

The whole book is divided into chapters that are one year long. Each paragraph is exceptionally long, just as is a journal.  There are repetitions of festivals, especially the well dressing, about which we learn a great deal in some detail; Mischief Night, bonfire night, the cricket match against Cardwell, usually lost and New Year. There is also a considerable amount of natural observation, swallows coming and going; blackbirds mating, bringing off chicks, singing; firecrests, buzzards and other birds; foxes and badgers create dens, mate, have cubs and go foraging which is why I likened this novel to Gilbert White. All this integrates with the lives of the townspeople and their children, their doings and undoings, loyalties and betrayals, successes and failures.

August was hot and slow. The seed-heads of cow parsley and thistle blackened in the field margins, collapsing in the early dew. The river was clear and slow and the sun struck it hard. There were brown trout teeming thickly through the water. In the evening Ian Dowsett set up in the shade of a beech tree and tried dropping a few different mayflies but nothing was right for the rise. He could hear voices from someone’s back garden at the top of the steep bank and the air was still. In Cardwell the cricket was drawn for the second time in three years and some of the younger players started to talk confidently about a turn in the tide. In Fletcher’s orchard the blackbirds were fattening on the early windfalls, lazy about territory and forgetting to sing. Sally watched them from the kitchen window while she made an omelette for dinner. She folded half of it on to a plate for Brian to have later. He’d left a note on the table to say he’d be late back from the parish council. […] There were springtails in the old hay at the back of the lambing shed, feeding and laying eggs and hatching out, and at the end of a long stem a single male sat poised with his tail hooked to his belly, ready to spring into the air for the first time of his life. There was a moment’s hesitation. Overnight the heat broke into heavy rain but by late morning the ground was dry. In his studio Geoff Simmons turned the new pots on the wheel, using a narrow knife to cut a bevelled edge at the base and a leather to work the rough patches smooth…

There is quite a cast of characters and occupations: the sheep farming family of Jacksons; the dairy farm of Les Thompson; the stonemason Sean Hooper and his son, Liam; the solitary potter, Geoff Simmons; the school mistresses and Jones, the caretaker; the Vicar, Jane Hughes and a great many others, all play their parts in the life of the town, taking it in turns to do the display at Harvest Festival and of course, the well dressing and simply living with and amongst each other.

Rebecca’s disappearance never goes away, the case remains open. The local reservoirs fill, run over and dry up seasonally, as does the river; heather, willows and the other vegetation flower, fruit and wither in their seasons.

This is quite magical writing, it sounds odd the way I have presented it, but reading it is like reading someone’s private journal, as if they have just sat down with an over-seeing eye and recorded all that is around them, all of it integrated, connected and of equal importance, whether human or natural and drawn us into the narrative, so that we like them are on the look-out for Rebecca, or remember her and wonder where she is.

We, in real life, know the trajectory of this sort of situation: mass interest and media attention; a dropping off and a revival when the fifth anniversary passes; another similar incident somewhere else. What this novel tells us though, is about the underlying scar that such an event leaves on the people and the landscape where the disappearance occurred; there is never an ending unless there is resolution…

Not everybody admires this wide-angle lens look at life, a regular criticism is of Jon McGregor’s lack of focus, the inconsequential details along with the ones that move the story on, but isn’t that what life is actually like? Anyway, I love it and would like to see him win, but suspect that it is not adventurous enough, even in this exceedingly unadventurous longlist.

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O the joy of a well chosen present!

Christmas was an abundance of wonderful new titles to get me started for the New Year. And one is an absolute treasure trove of delight.

WulfThis is the winner of the Costa Prize Biography Sector 2015 and I am not surprised, the award was announced the other day before I had started reading.

Who knew what a marvellously eccentric and imaginative person Alexander von Humboldt was? I think my knowledge was limited to Humboldt’s Current and yet he has more plants and geographical features named after him than anyone else. He was the first person to visualise the relationship between temperatures and expressing it graphically – he invented the isotherm; he also observed the relationship between plants on one continent and at one elevation and another, creating a graphic picture of something he called the Naturegemälde – this doesn’t have an easy English translation but roughly means a “painting of Nature”.

Humboldt produced his first sketch of the Naturegemälde in South America and then published it later as a beautiful three-foot by two-foot drawing. To the left and right of the mountain [the volcano Chimborazo – which in his day was thought to be the highest in the world] he placed several columns that provided related details and information. By picking a particular height of the mountain (as given in the left hand column), one could trace connections across the table and the drawing of the mountain to learn about temperature, say, or humidity or atmospheric pressure, as well as what species of animals and plants could be found at different altitudes. Humboldt showed different zones of plants, along with details of how they were linked to changes in altitude, temperature and so on. All this information could then be linked to the other major mountains across the world, which were listed according to their height next to the outline of Chimborazo.

As well as this uniquely sympathetic view of global relationship, Humboldt also observed the effects that Man was having on the climate, as early as 1800 in South America he had observed that deforestation altered the rainfall, it also meant greater loss of top soil as the lack of trees and undergrowth caused flooding which swept away layers of soil; he observed subsequently in Russia that the burning of trees and coal altered the clarity of the air, causing air pollution – though he did not call it that. But he did warn anyone who would listen (and this sounds horribly familiar) that these deleterious effects would come to haunt us.

As a polymath, he mixed scientific observations with a close study of indigenous peoples, he witnessed the slave trade at close quarters and was an abolitionist as early as 1799, a lone voice crying in the wilderness – relating colonisation and the “evil trade” immediately. His observations included a serious study of the effects of cash crops (monoculture) largely produced by slave labour and subsistence farming, where food supplies produced locally along with a small proportion of cash cropping was better both for the people and for the soil.

The list of people that Humboldt met during his lifetime is staggering: Wolfgang Goethe, Simon Bolivar, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Lyell, Charles Babbage, kings, queens and politicians of all stripes and countries (to name but a few); other scientists flocked to see him when he was visiting or living in Paris, London, Berlin or St Petersburg; his lectures, which he gave for free, were packed especially with women who were not able to study at universities, and his many publications read by everyone.

His Personal Narrative was one of the only books that Charles Darwin was to take on the Beagle, and Humboldt’s style of writing and description were hugely influential.

To say that this was a man ahead of his time is a magnificent understatement. Nearly everything that we now accept as fact – the movement of tectonic plates, the formation of mountains, the global inter-relatedness of climate to ocean temperature, land temperature and therefore weather, and also connection between land mass in Africa and South America was all there in his writings and observations. Climate-change was something he foresaw in 1800. His influence on later thinkers, Darwin and Lyell among them, is massive – in fact Darwin probably would not have arrived at the theory of evolution without it, Humboldt opened the door wide enough for Darwin to burst through.

Andrea Wulf has done a marvellous and welcome job of bringing to life this engaging, inventive and influential man, The Invention of Nature is quite astonishing and delightful.

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TTWWD – my encounter with wild life

My first one to one encounter with Australian wild life was with a large spider which crawled out of the wood fire when we lit it on arrival at Macedon. I am not kidding when I say that it’s body was the size of a quail’s egg.
There are masses of exquisite birds, honey eaters, ibis, crimson rosellas, a green one and sulphur crested cockatoo. The magpies are quite different to ours in the UK. Then the voracious and talkative wattle birds
And the ants, the garden ants in Western Australia are tiny but people are discouraged from destroying them because they are holding the line against the hyper-destructive white ants. In contrast there are the bull ants
There have been dead animals…a fox and a couple of rabbits – one rabbit living on campus at Victoria University. So far, though looked for, no possums, no koalas and no roos.

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