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Not having had internet at home since early April until now, I’ve had more time to read than usual.

These books have helped me to change my perspective on many aspects of life in refreshing ways…..

Robert MacFarlane  – Landmarks

Robert MacFarlane’s book is a remarkably moving field guide to the many ways in which we can speak and write about the land we live in.  For this I am ever grateful to the author for this work and to my son (also a Robert) for recommending it to me.

MacFarlane puts us back in touch with several extraordinary people and their writings that were close to languishing on the dusty shelves of second hand bookshops. 

Anna ‘Nan’ Shepherd – The Living Mountain

Anna ‘Nan’ Shepherd produced a masterpiece of nature writing that lay in a drawer for 30 years before being published. She encountered a world of what she called “essential nature” that could be breathtakingly beautiful at times and shockingly harsh at others. To me her book is not so much what she writes but the passion with which she writes about the rocks, rivers, creatures and hidden aspects of what lay on her doorstep – the Cairngorms. 

Roger Deakin – Waterlog (A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain)

In 1996 Roger Deakin, the late, great nature writer, set out to swim through the British Isles. From the sea, from rock pools, from rivers and streams, tarns, lakes, lochs, ponds, lidos, swimming pools and spas, from fens, dykes, moats, aqueducts, waterfalls, flooded quarries, even canals, Deakin gains a fascinating perspective on modern Britain.

Detained by water bailiffs in Winchester, intercepted in the Fowey estuary by coastguards, mistaken for a suicide on Camber sands, confronting the Corryvreckan whirlpool in the Hebrides, he discovers just how much of an outsider the native swimmer is to his landlocked, fully-dressed fellow citizens.

This is a personal journey, a bold assertion of the native swimmer’s right to roam and an unforgettable celebration of the magic of water.

John Alec Baker – The Peregrine

J.A. Baker made an unlikely birdwatcher. He was so shortsighted that he wore thick glasses from an early age, and he was excused National Service own grounds of his vision. But this myopic man would write one of the greatest bird books ever, the fierce stylistic clarity of which must be understood in part as a compensation for the curtailed optics of its author’s eyes.

Richard Skelton – Landings

Richard Skelton is a keeper of lost words.  His book ‘Landings; has been described as “One of the key works of 21st-century English-language landscape art/writing”.  Landscape, language and loss are the three great subjects of his work, and are at its heart because of a family tragedy.

The book is gathered from a diverse array of materials: texts excised from his own notebooks and diaries are combined with excerpts from census and parish records, maps and historical treatises. The result is what Skelton terms ‘mosaic sequences [of] reclaimed fragments’ – discrete but connected strands forming an oblique and poignant testimony to personal grief, a meditation on memory and forgetting, a conjuring of the ghosts and voices of a landscape, and an exposition of the effects of the Industrial Revolution on rural lives.

Richard Jefferies – Nature Near London

The edge lands of London were documented by the journalist and nature writer Richard Jefferies in a series of essays and sketches collected as Nature Near London, first published in 1883.  It is a book fascinated by the strange braidings of the human and the natural that occur when city and country fray into more another, at what Jefferies called the ‘frontier line to civilisation’.

Jefferies was a countryman by upbringing, attracted by London’s energy but repelled by its voracity and greed and wishing – by means of his writing – to alert the city’s inhabitants to the ‘wild life’ that existed alongside their own.

“Why we must have been blind ” declared Walter Besant in 1883 about the experience of reading Jefferies: “Here were the most wonderful things possible going on under our nose, but we saw them not!”.

Jacquetta Hawks – A Land 

Passionate and personal A Land became a bestseller upon publication in May 1951 and remains one of the defining British books of the post-war decade.  It reads now, sixty years on, like a missing link in the tradition of British writing about landscape.

“Hawkes was one of those writers who taught me to see through geological eyes and gave me the urge to read a landscape backwards and perceive something not the earth history that brought it to its present appearance.” Robert Macfarlane

John Muir – The Mountains of California

Once described as “part patriarch, part granite….and mostly tree”, John Muir lived his life as an explorer, mountaineer, geologist, botanist, woodsman, activist and writer.  He relished climbing trees, rock outcrops and on one occasion ‘surfed’ an avalanche.

He wrote: “When the avalanche started I threw myself on my back and spread my arms to try to keep from sinking.  On no part of the rush was I buried though I was tossed here and there and lurched from side to side.”

Muir was the man who in 1903 persuaded President Roosevelt to travel with him in the Sierra Nevadas for three days while he spoke and Roosevelt listened about the destruction of the forests.  The result was the proclamation of 180,000 acres set aside as the Grand Canyon National Monument, followed 5 further national parks, 18 national monuments, 55 bird sanctuaries and 250 national forests.

Deb Wilenski – Fantastical Guides For The Wildly Curious

We live in an era of diminishing childhood content with nature and landscapes outside the urban. Screen time has increased dramatically; environmental literacy has plummeted.  Nine out of ten children can identify a Dalek; three out of ten a magpie.

If you have children or ever plan to write a story for children, this book is an essential resource if only to immerse yourself deep in the many and varied mental perceptions of your future readers.

“Many of the greatest children’s stories involve thresholds, place-warps, time-slips and doorways; access points that lead to experience and danger in defiance of standard geometries, often beyond the guardianship of adults.”

[During the construction of the former HSBC Headquarters in Hong Kong I was asked to comment on one of the architectural guidelines. Pompous phraseology abounded, two memorable descriptions in particular: for a window the phrase “Environmental Awareness Screen” was used; a door was a “Bi-directional personnel mobility facility”. What chance do future generations have?] 

– – – – –

At the end of Landmarks, there’s a particularly appropriate quote from John C. Sawhill (President of The Nature Conservancy):

“In the end our society will be defined not only by what we create but by what we refuse to destroy”.

Lynne Kelly – The Memory Code

How did oral cultures memorise so much information? In ancient non-literate cultures across the globe, tribal elders had encyclopaedic memories. They could name all the animals and plants across a landscape, identify the stars in the sky, recite the history of their people and know the right time to plant crops. Yet today most of us struggle to memorise a short poem.

That described me.  At school my English homework was often to learn and recite some verse. Today I can’t even recall what those poems were.  Until a decade ago I wasn’t able to recognise or name more than a few types of something I’d seen every day of my life – clouds. Embarrassed by my appalling lack of observation I remedied this by joining the Cloud Appreciation Society.  Who’d have guessed the thrill of a speeding cumulus? (…or roarie-bummlers as we Scots would call them).

Memory skills have been allowed to fade from the Western education system, this degeneration starting as far back as the Renaissance. Today skills of recall are used by those wanting to impress us with the many digits of pi and a smattering of people keen to memorise the order of shuffled decks of cards for competitions. For the rest of us our memories have become fallible and we struggle to remember shopping lists and phone numbers.

We need to recall knowledge that benefits our everyday lives. 

It’s often claimed that indigenous people just “know” their landscape or the knowledge is handed down from generation to generation around the campfire or while out hunting; there’s no need to actually work at learning.  No society functions this way. In all cases from Incas and Aborigines to African TRIBES and early European settlers, knowledge is formally taught over many years through levels of initiation through the tribe.

A Coolamon: an Indigenous Australian vessel and memory aid

On a visit to Kakadu National Park (Northern Territories, Australia) in 2014 Phylipa and I were taken to see a variety of Aboriginal ochre rock artworks and bark paintings of scenes that represented the creation of their land.  Images that offered a map of the physical land form and how to navigate through it.  What we didn’t appreciate until it was explained was that often these abstract designs were also used to represent the animals and their tracks, nests, burrows and methods to exploit resources such as how to dig the nests of honey ants.

The chapters of The Memory Code give us a fresh look into how we can re-structure our comparatively poor memories and even give our children a head start.  If the Spice Girls, Ed Sheeran or Adele had brought out a CD in Latin or Ancient Greek, we’d all be linguists!

Tom Brown – The Science and Art of Tracking

Who was Grandfather?

“Grandfather picked up a crushed cigarette butt and held it up to us, “Did a man or a woman put out this cigarette?” he asked. “Were they right- or left-handed? What emotional state were they in when they put it out? How strong were they?”

Grandfather then walked to a nearby tree where he pointed to a cut limb. “Was this cut with a knife, machete, saw or a hatchet?  How sharp was the cutting implement? Was it a man or woman who did the cutting? How tall were they?  How strong were they? Were they right- or left-handed?”

Several months later Grandfather and i were walking along the same hunter’s trail.

I picked up a discarded cigarette butt.  “This was put out by a man who was right-handed and quite strong as you can see from the finger dents and over crushed paper ends. The man was probably wrapped deep in thought about other things for he used more time than necessary to crush the butt which is indicative of a thoughtful state of consciousness.”

I then pointed to the cut limb that Grandfather had pointed out months earlier. “Right-handed teenage boy using a dull saw. He has little experience of cutting of any sort and the limb was almost out of his reach judging from the sloppiness and changing angles of the cut.  These angles depict someone standing on tiptoe and frequently losing his balance.  He is also quite weak for a teenager and probably doesn’t engage much in physical activity. Though, I cannot figure out why he cut the limb in the first place.”

Grandfather smiled with approval and added: “He was using it as a way to mark the trail so he would not get lost. As you can see far ahead, more limbs have been cut and trees blazed to help him find his way back out”.

Tom would leave his house in the mornings and see evidence where raccoons had been in his garden overnight, where a possum had walked across his dustbin lid and where white-tailed deer had crossed the path to his gate within the past hour.

Tristan Gooley – The Natural Navigator

Tristan is the only person to have crossed the Atlantic by boat and by plane without the used of modern navigational instruments.

I’ve attended his courses at West Dean College, walked with him in groups on the South Downs and talked with him at Goodwood.

Get on his email newsletter (scroll to the foot of his contact page) and you’ll receive challenges to work out what directional you face in a particular image.  It always challenges me but I learn something useful every time.

His books include “How To Read Water”, “How to Read Weather”, “How To Read A Tree” and many others.   You can either read them from cover to cover or just pick one up, flick to any page and learn something you didn’t already know.

It’s never too late to start…..anything

Graeme Dinnen

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