Six Degrees of Separation in March

Blogging challenges, Books and reading

I haven’t yet read the book which starts this month’s Six Degrees of Separation chain for the very good reason that it hasn’t been released in the UK yet.  However, Phosphorescence, by Julia Baird is apparently about finding grace and awe in the ordinary and in the world around us.

So I’ll start with Michael McCarthy’s Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy. How to describe this book? It’s part nature writing, part memoire, part polemic, and a powerful and affecting read. The book first got under my skin when defining ‘joy’, which McCarthy sums up as a moment of true happiness, with a spiritual, selfless, outward looking dimension. McCarthy’s first experience of joy was as a boy, learning to love the landscape and wildlife of the Dee Estuary.  His nature writing is richly observed, pictorial, highly sensory. He is angry at the galloping pace of destruction of so many species and habitats. He demands that we observe too, and experience joy in our own ways as we explore the natural world.

Not the Dee Estuary, but the view from Mutehill, Kirkkudbright.

Richard Smyth’s A Sweet Wild Note: What we Hear when the Birds Sing is a  delightful, idiosyncratic and fascinating book about the place of bird song in our lives. Smyth is a wry, self-deprecating writer who draws not only on his own experience, but on music – all kinds of music from every period, on literature, on social history, on science, on previous students and lovers of birds, on landscape, to develop this entertaining yet well-researched read.

A blackbird singing at West Tanfield one summer evening.

This leads me to my only nod to fiction this month:  Helen HumphreysThe Evening Chorus. I picked this book from the library shelf on a whim. What a gem. Inspired by, though not based on three true events, this lyrically told story sees the war and its aftermath from the perspective of three people, each intimately bound in each other’s lives, but ultimately dealing with what confronts them in their own way, alone. It begins with James in his German POW camp, finding solace in his intimate record of the lives of the birds, the redwings he can just about see from the camp confines. There is Rose, his wife in an English village; Enid, his sister, living and working in London. Constance, Rose’s difficult mother … and the POW camp’s Kommandant. All have their roles in this story in which the actual horrors of war have no place, but which illustrates vividly its power to alter lives, to constrain, and yet to offer hope too.

Redwing: Andreaa Treple, Wikimedia Commons.

From redwings to ravens: A Shadow Above: The Fall and Rise of the Raven, by Joe Shute. Shute loves ravens. I loved this book. Part natural history, part history, part an exploration of the many legends that this bird has fostered, part investigative journalism, part personal history, this is an engaging, immersive read that goes a long way towards explaining why ravens have a special place in our history, and that of many other nations – even giving many locations their place name. It’s beautifully, often poetically written (though it could have had a better proof-reader) as well as being informative. I finished this book with an increased respect for an intelligent, fascinating bird, besides understanding why it inspires fear and loathing in almost equal measure. 

A hand-reared raven guarding Knaresborough Castle in North Yorkshire.

And now from birds to bugs: A Buzz in the Meadow: The Natural History of a French Farm by Dave Goulson.  This book is a delight from beginning to end. The catalyst for writing it is Goulson’s home in the Charente, bought so he could provide home, in the form of an extensive meadow, to a huge variety of wildlife, specifically insects. This is no Aga saga of a Brit in France, but a mixture of reminiscence, hard scientific fact, vivid stories of his own experiments and research, and the work of others. It’s a page turner and a tale well told with humour, and an eye for the telling detail. I’m no scientist, but I was absorbed from start to finish.

A buzz in the garden at Beningborough Hall, North Yorkshire.

 My last book is Irreplaceable: the Fight to Save our Wild Places, by Julian Hoffman. An important book, lyrically written, about our disappearing habitats. Hoffman has travelled the world in search of such places. But whether it’s an Indonesian island with exotic flora and fauna, or a London allotment, the message is the same. Once the habitat has gone, it’s gone. He describes such losses eloquently and movingly. Ultimately though, there is hope. And this hope is vested in ordinary people who care about the piece of the planet that they live on, and who campaign, and simply roll their sleeves up and do whatever is practically necessary to ensure the continuing diversity and richness of the area they know and cherish so well. Some are educated scientists or campaigners, but more are simply citizens, doing what they can to ensure the continued future of the habitat they love. Read this book.

The quite-wild-enough landscape of Angram, North Yorkshire

I didn’t expect to produce a non-fiction bonanza about the natural world, but here we are.  If you never normally choose books like these, I urge you to give any one of these titles a try. They’re each as absorbing as any good work of fiction, and they all tell stories that are important for us, and for the planet.

77 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation in March

  1. I love where Six Degrees of Separation takes you, and this months selection looks most interesting….I really must look some of them up

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  2. I’m not likely to lay hands on any of these, Margaret, because I don’t use Amazon and Kindle but rely on what I find on the shelf. Here in Portugal that is restricted, even when the library is open. But you are good at finding compelling reading. 🙂 🙂 A bright and beautiful weekend to enjoy nature?

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    1. Another Amazon-refuser! Excellent. When we lived in France, I relied on trawling the charity shops for books whenever we were in England, and anything I did want to buy came via the independent bookshop in Ripon. No, it’s grey and very cold thanks. You go off and enjoy the sunshine

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      1. The weather sliding backwards again? I used to hate how it dangled joy (in the form of Spring sunshine 🙂 🙂 ) and then retracted it again. 😦 Himself has dismantled my deck to clean the roof so I’m not sure what to do with the washing this morning.

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  3. Margaret, what a treat of books!! 😀 As I read each beautiful and thoughtful review I was in awe, noting it down … all wonderful and extraordinary in their own way – can’t wait to read some of these … probably starting with The Evening Chorus! Happy Reading!

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  4. The covers alone of these books would draw me in. I’m in a reading slump of late but think The Shadow Above might pull me out, sounds fascinating. I find myself drawn to all things nature, outdoorsy and wilderness at the moment, a reaction to being constrained and locked down, perhaps?

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  5. I’m only just recovering from a reading slump which lasted much of last year. I wholeheartedly recommend all these books, but if you need uplifting, A Sweet Wild Note, A Buzz in the Meadow and the Michael McCarthy are the places to start. And I loved The Shadow Above too, so if that’s the one that appeals, go for it!

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  6. What a fascinating chain Margaret. The bird photos added to the info she shared. Loved the covers too. So many important ecological books to choose from – will definitely check them out.

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  7. Lots of interesting books here, Margaret. I’ve saved this post to come back to when I want some non-fiction nature writing. It’s a treasure trove. I particularly like the sound of the French wildlife meadow book.

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  8. What lovely books and I feel quite uplifted by the photography too! These all sound appealing and I am not the outdoorsy type. I read a book by Helen Humpreys some time ago about a garden that I liked.

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    1. I’d definitely look out for more of her books. I picked it off the library shelf because the cover appealed – I’m glad I did.

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  9. This is an interesting selection of nature titles. I loved doing monthly nature book round ups for a magazine I used to work on back in London. I remember the Moth Snowstorm featuring in one of them.

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  10. That’s an inspired chain, Margaret. And you write them up so wonderfully well. I loved reading your post. I now need to add all of these to my list. Haven’t finished writing my chain yet (or reading it for that matter!)

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    1. Thanks Debbie. You’ll notice that some people haven’t read all the books in their chain, yet they had good reasons for including them. You could do the same?

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    1. In a month? Certainly not! A couple of them almost two years ago. But I review all the books I read on Goodreads, so I can normally pull something out of the bag that way. And these were all memorable. I’m not drawn to the Beard book, but … we’ll see.

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  11. Kudos for this one Margaret, all of the books look wonderful and your images work perfectly with them. I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump during the pandemic. With much more time on our hands you’d think just the opposite but for some reason I find myself unable to focus on stories these days. Hopefully I’ll be back on track soon. I just did read “This Tender Land” by William Kent Krueger which was wonderful, but I only forced myself to start it because it was our local book club’s selection this month. I was really glad I did but it didn’t help me over my reading malaise 😢

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    1. Tina, for some reason it’s been a really common problem during the pandemic. I was dreadful last year, and am only just hauling myself out of it. It will happen when the time is right. Your photography keeps you busy though!

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    1. In fact at least three of these were books I just happened to spot in the library. I hadn’t even heard of them. This has been a real bonus of being a library volunteer. The books you’re supposed to be shelving somehow find themselves going home with you instead.

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  12. I’ve read 4 of your 5 nature picks — A Shadow Above is the one I still need to get out from the library sometime. Richard Smyth has a novel out this year that I’ll try to get hold of for review. It’s named after a bird, but whether it will actually be about birds, I don’t know!

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      1. Indeed! I haven’t seen any reviews yet and I’ll try to keep it that way, to come to it with a completely open mind. Reading fiction from someone who’s only previously produced nonfiction, or vice versa, is sometimes a daunting prospect.

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  13. Thanks for the suggestions. I think the publishing world has detected that opinion is changing and texts that inform us of the great riches of the environment are in a way spotlighting the importance of nature and natural habitats for the survival of humans. On an individual level I can’t imagine a world without birdsong and opportunities for such a fantastic photos like the splendid raven image.

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    1. Yes, birdsong is beginning to kick in properly now. One thing lockdown has done id make us all more aware of what we have around us – even city dwellers. Let’s hope that lasts.

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  14. I am going to start sending Mum your fabulous monthly suggestions as she is always on the look out for more reading – I love the sound of all what you describe but am finding I am needing very light reading at the moment. head a tad stressed with charity stuff. However I am book marking this page to return to in a few weeks 😀 as you never know!

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    1. It’s true one or two of them demand a brain more-or-less in gear, but equally a couple of them are easy reads – the Richard Smyth, for instance, and the Jo Shute. Thanks for sending the suggestions on to your mum – I’m flattered!

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      1. She’s going to be delighted with your list 😀 and thanks for the tip on those two easy reads. I might try as there is only so much Georgette Heyer a girl can take in one sitting!!

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  15. Every one of these titles sounds a real gem, Margaret, and now I’d like to read all of them. The ‘ must read soon’ list just got significantly longer.

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  16. I have read ‘A Sweet Wild Note’ and I have bought (but not read yet) ‘The Moth Snowstorm’. I will add the rest to my long list of books to read. A nicely-composed Six Degrees, Margaret; very tempting, like a menu at a favourite restaurant. Restaurants! We weren’t great eaters-out but I would love to eat at a restaurant again one day. Anxiety- free.
    I hardly read a thing last year – couldn’t concentrate for more than five minutes at a time – but I seem to be getting on a little better this year. Non-fiction easier than fiction.

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    1. I think raised anxiety levels are horribly common, and will remain a feature of our lives for a good while yet. But I hope you enjoy the Moth Snowstorm. It’s beautifully written.

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  17. Margaret, what an awesome list you’ve created here! Also, your reviews are really inspiring. I’ve already begun looking for some of the titles. Alas, so many books, so little time…

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  18. Such an interesting collection of books – I enjoyed the relationships between them and your reviews and the photos and seeing the book covers too. I will make a note of these writers and titles. We also tend to rely on what is available secondhand in the local charity shops so the books we get are somewhat random. My husband reads them all but I am slow and have been a really bad reader of books over the past few years. Blame the Internet!

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      1. The last library I belonged to did not have an inspiring collection and I let my membership lapse. Perhaps I need to reinvestigate. During the worst of the lockdowns libraries were closed. As far as I know libraries are open again with certain protocols in place, and returned books are ‘quarantined’ for three days before being re-shelved.

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