Tag Archives: Nature Writing

June Reading – Funny Weather by Olivia Laing and The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison

I have two books to share with you today – both non-fiction, both highly recommended – the types of books that lend themselves very well to being read in short bursts, especially if time is tight.

Funny Weather by Olivia Laing

I loved this – a fascinating collection of essays, articles and mini-biographies which explore the importance of art in politically unsettled times.

This is the third book I’ve read by Olivia Laing, and it’s just as absorbing as the others despite the brevity of the individual pieces. (If it’s of interest, my mini-review of The Lonely City, Laing’s beautiful meditation on the experience of loneliness in a busy urban environment, is here.) As a writer, she is someone I’m happy to follow, just to see where the path takes me, such is the quality of her writing.

Several of the pieces included in the collection were initially published, often in different forms, in newspapers and journals such as The Guardian, frieze and the New Statesman. There are glimpses into the lives of leading artists – David Hockney, Joseph Cornell and Jean-Michel Basquiat, to name but a few; interviews with four highly talented women – Hilary Mantel, Sarah Lucas, Ali Smith and Chantal Joffe; and columns for frieze, a leading magazine of contemporary art and culture.

The frieze pieces are particularly interesting as they allow Laing free rein to cover a wide variety of subjects relating to art – from political protest (e.g. the practice of lip-sewing amongst migrants and refugees) to literary appreciation, with columns on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels and Anthony Powell’s Dance series. 

One or two of the essays revisit familiar areas of interest for Laing; Drink, drink, drink, for instance, on women writers and alcohol, a mini-sequel of sorts to The Trip to Echo Spring. Marguerite Duras features quite heavily here, as do Patricia Highsmith and Jean Rhys, two of my favourite female authors. Laing is incisive in her analysis of Rhys’ early novellas, viewing them as depictions of loneliness and depression. These stories feature impoverished women on the edge who struggle to get by and are often brushed off by ‘respectable’ society with its class-conscious snobbery.

In the unstable Good Morning, Midnight she makes a case for why such a woman might turn to drink, given limited options for work or love. At the same time, and like her near-contemporary [F. Scott] Fitzgerald, she uses drunkenness as a technique of modernism. The novel is written in a flexible first person, slip-sliding through Sasha’s shifting moods. ‘I’ve had enough of these streets that sweat a cold, yellow slime, of hostile people, of crying myself to sleep every night. I’ve had enough of thinking, enough of remembering. Now whiskey, rum, gin, sherry, vermouth, wine with the bottles labelled “Dum vivimus, vivamus…” Drink, drink, drink… As soon as I sober up I start again…’ (pp. 213–214)

In other pieces, Laing offers her reflections on specific books ranging from Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living and Sally Rooney’s Normal People. I love this observation on the latter, which feels absolutely spot on.


What’s remarkable is the pitch of Rooney’s writing, the way it shimmers and quivers with intelligence. Each sentence is measured and unobtrusive, and yet the cumulative effect is a near-unbearable attentiveness to the emotional dimension of human lives, the quick uneasy weather. (p.289)

Through the myriad of perspectives in this endlessly fascinating book, Laing makes a clear case for the power of art (and its creators) in a dynamic, politically turbulent world. While art can be a source of joy and beauty for many of us, Laing seems more interested in its potential as a form of resistance and stimulus – something with a sense of agency to protest and repair. And yet, despite the clear political overtones in some of these articles, they never feel overly forced or preachy. This is a beautiful collection of pieces characterised by this writer’s thoughtful, erudite style. Very highly recommended indeed.

The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison

This is such a thoughtful, beautifully-written book that it’s going to be hard for me to do it justice in a few short paragraphs. Nevertheless, I shall endeavour to give you a sense of it, albeit in brief.

The Stubborn Light of Things is a collection of Harrison’s monthly columns for The Times ‘Nature Notebook’, which began in the summer of 2014. The articles are presented chronologically, with the first half of the book focusing on London, where Harrison lived until December 2017, and the second half Suffolk, where she resides today. Collectively, they chart the author’s passion for the natural world, the changing of the seasons and a growing sense of engagement with her surroundings – be they urban or rural.

Harrison extols the benefits of reconnecting with nature by overserving and ‘tuning in’ to what is happening in the environment – activities aided by her thoughtfulness and innate sense of curiosity. One of the most striking things about the London-based columns is just how much wildlife there is to observe on our doorsteps, irrespective of our location. In the ‘City’ section of the book, there are sightings of short-eared owls, migrating nightjars and red kites, alongside the more frequently observed squirrels and urban foxes.

There are pockets of South London that seem utterly rural; paths edged with cow parsley and dog roses and overhung by oaks through which the sunlight filters down, green-dappled and shifting. I can walk from one blackcap’s song to another’s, no buildings or roads in sight, breathing in the smell of spring and green growth. At this time of year everything seethes with life: the nettles are thick with aphids, pollen rides the warm June air, the undergrowth is busy with baby birds and cuckoo spit froths overnight. It feels intoxicating. (pp. 44– 45)

There are pieces too about various rewilding and conservation projects, many of which tap into Harrison’s interest in the fragility of the natural world. For instance, she rightly bemoans the trend towards over-tidiness whereby hedges are regularly ‘topped’, effectively rendering them unsuitable as ‘wildlife habitats and corridors’. If only we could tolerate a degree of messiness, then it would help nature to flourish, rewarding us with richer environments in which to live.  

As in Surrey, this mania for tidiness is eradicating wildflowers, butterflies, insect- and seed-eating birds, hedgehogs and a whole host of other creatures we profess to love. So why are we letting it happen? I think it’s crept up us slowly, so that we simply can’t see the harm we’re doing. Just as we believe the number of insects around us is normal, rather than terrifyingly depleted, it looks right to us now for verges to be razed rather than riotous, and for farmland hedges to look ugly and smashed. We’ve also been slow to wake up to how crucial these vestiges of habitat have become for wildlife, as pressures on the wider countryside have invisibly mounted up. To turn things around requires a paradigm shift: can we tolerate an untidier, bushier, scrubbier environment to help bring nature back? (pp. 174–175)

When Harrison moves to Suffolk, her connection with nature deepens, furthering her bond with the rhythms of the seasons – her home is an 18th-century cottage situated in a small village surrounded by arable land. Here, the nightingales come to breed each spring, when linnets and yellowhammers can also be found, singing from the shrubs and hedgerows. It feels like a natural evolution for the author, which mirrors her development as a writer with a growing body of nature writing to complement her novels.

A gorgeous, evocative book, full of level-headed reflections on the natural world.

Funny Weather is published by Picador and The Stubborn Light of Things by Faber; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing reading copies.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Time didn’t run forwards any more. It was a solid thing you could press yourself against and feel it push back; a thick fluid, half-air, half-glass, that flowed both ways and sent ripples of recollection forwards and new events backwards so that new things I encountered, then, seemed souvenirs from the distant past. (pg. 16, Jonathan Cape)

H is for Hawk is one of those rare books that come along every so often that have the potential to resonate with many readers, perhaps even changing their outlook on life in some small way. An ingenious blend of memoir and nature writing, an intelligent, multi-layered and humane work, H is for Hawk is one of my favourite books of the year.

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When Helen Macdonald, a Cambridge historian, writer and illustrator, loses her father to a heart attack, she is devastated. Throughout her life, she has looked up to her dad with the two Macdonalds sharing several qualities and personality traits. Helen, a watcher by nature, is fascinated by birds of prey and an experienced trainer of falcons. Her father, a press photographer by profession, grew up watching birds of a different kind. By spending his childhood spotting and recording details of planes, he honed the observational skills and patience that would serve him well in his future career as a photojournalist.

Broken by grief and a deep sense of emptiness, Helen Macdonald latches on to the one passion she believes may help her fill the void left by the loss of her father: a quest to raise and train a young goshawk. Despite her vast experience with falcons, this endeavour represents quite a challenge for Macdonald as goshawks come with a reputation for being notoriously difficult to tame. Nevertheless, she presses ahead and takes delivery of the bird on a Scottish quayside for £800 in twenty-pound notes in a scene that she readily admits feels ‘like a drugs deal.’

When she arrives back in Cambridge, Macdonald fills the freezer with hawk food, unplugs the phone and begins the process of bonding with the hawk whom she names Mabel. (The name derives from the Latin ‘amabilis,’ meaning ‘lovable’, or ‘dear.’) It’s an intense process, one that requires great patience, delicacy and solitude, and in an effort to gain Mabel’s trust, there is a sense that Macdonald must make herself seem invisible. Only once Mabel is focused on eating can Macdonald remind the bird of her presence. As long as she takes it slowly, very slowly indeed, the decisive moment will come:

Regarding the room with simple curiosity, she turned her head and saw me. And jumped. Jumped exactly like a human in surprise. I felt the scratch of her talons and her shock, too, cold and electric. That was the moment. Until a minute ago I was so terrifying I was all that existed. But then she had forgotten me. Only for a fraction of a second, but it was enough. The forgetting was delightful because it was a sign that the hawk was stating to accept me. But there was a deeper, darker thrill. It was that I had been forgotten (pg. 73)

On one level, H is for Hawk is the story of how Macdonald chooses to deal with the process of bereavement by training a goshawk. There is a sense that she is trying to rebuild herself by investing her energy and love in the hawk. A deep relationship develops as she watches Mabel (like a hawk!) and becomes attuned to the smallest of cues and changes in the bird’s posture, feathers and eye movements. All of these actions act as signals thereby enabling Helen to read and anticipate the bird’s mood. As the days pass, Mabel comes to represent everything Macdonald wishes to be, self-assured and released from the weight of grief:

I’d flown scores of hawks, and every step of their training was familiar to me. But while the steps were familiar, the person taking them was not. I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.

I was turning into a hawk. (pg. 85)

When the time comes to take her hawk outside (and unhooded) for the first time, Macdonald also appears to be seeing the world afresh as if she is viewing everything through Mabel’s eyes. We follow Helen as she introduces Mabel to a new environment and teaches her to take flight, an activity that emphasises the bird’s capacity for living in the present moment, something Macdonald wishes she could mirror.

H is for Hawk is a multi-layered book, and alongside her quest to train Mabel, Macdonald reflects on the life of T.H. White, author of the Arthurian novels, The Once and Future King. White also penned The Goshawk, a book that captured his own attempts – ill-judged in this instance – to tame and train a young German goshawk named Gos. It’s a text that Macdonald read as a young girl with a developing interest in birds. This could have been jarring, but she skilfully weaves these observations on White’s troubled existence (and passages of White’s writing) alongside her own story to form a richly textured and connected narrative.

In an attempt to suppress his homosexuality, White had tried to conform to the conventional rules of society at the time, to fit in with everyone else, but to no avail. His years as a schoolmaster at Stowe and a fear of war had pushed him to breaking point, and he saw Gos as the living embodiment of all the dark desires he had tried to repress for years:

He had refused humanity in favour of hawks, but he could not escape himself. Once again White was engaged in a battle to civilise the perversity and unruliness within himself. Only now he had put those things in the hawk, and he was trying to civilise them there. He found himself in a strange, locked battle with a bird that was all the things he longed for, but had always fought against. It was a terrible paradox. A proper tragedy. No wonder living with Gos brought him nearly to madness. (pg. 80)

Throughout the course of H is for Hawk, we also learn a great deal about hawks, the history, heritage and myths surrounding falconry, and a sprinkling of the terminology used to describe goshawks. For instance, we discover how a hawk will ‘bate’ by exhibiting ‘a headlong dive of rage and terror’ as it leaps from the fist or perch in wild bid for freedom; how a goshawk in a state of readiness to hunt is in ‘yarak’; how its prey is termed ‘quarry.’

The writing is excellent: vivid and evocative in its description of landscape and nature, informative and engaging on falconry and White. Ultimately though, it is Macdonald’s relationship with Mabel which forms the beating heart of this book. Once the bird takes flight, the sense of relief Helen feels when Mabel returns to her fist is like a balm, something to help ease the pain of grief.

Those of you who know me well may realise I had to pick the right moment to read H is for Hawk – I’ve wanted to read it for months, but I knew it would be an emotional read for me. Here’s the thing…both my parents died suddenly: my father when I was eleven, my mother fifteen years later. I can’t recall much about the years following my father’s death (there was school to deal with), but I was in a very dark place for a year two after my mother died of a brain haemorrhage. I’m not saying that training a hawk would have helped me to cope with my own grief crisis, but I can relate to Helen’s need to have a focal point in her life. Something to help her through that period when she probably felt numb and gripped by a strange kind of madness (she talks about this in the book). I think this is why H is for Hawk resonated so strongly with me as I could relate parts of it to my own life experience. 

Irrespective of this, H is for Hawk is a wonderful book, and I’m glad I finally found the right time to read it. I’d like to finish on an upbeat note, so here’s a passage on Mabel at the height of her powers in flight:

I let her go. Her tactical sense is magnificent. She drops from the fist, and sets off, no higher than a hand’s width above the ground, using every inch of the undulating relief as cover, gathering speed until the frosty stubble winks and flashes under her, and she curves over the top of the hill. Then she sets her wings and glides, using gravity and momentum to race downhill, flash up over the top of the hedge in a sudden flowering of cream and white, a good hundred yards away, and then continue down the hedge’s far side, invisible to me. I’m running, all this time, my feet caked with mud, feeling earthbound but transported at the same time. (pgs. 234 – 5)

Claire at Word by Word, Naomi at The Writes of Women, Belinda at Bii’s Books and Eric at Lonesome Reader have also reviewed (and loved) this book.

H is for Hawk is published in the UK by Jonathan Cape. Source: personal copy.