A wild goose chase

New job and a review of The Snow Geese

Hi! I’m Hannah James, journalist, writer and editor, and this is where I review nature books, and think about nature-related topics out loud. Thanks for reading!

Connecting to nature

I’ve been hiking a lot recently as it’s my last week of drifting freedom before I start a new job (official announcement to come - I’m very happy about it!). On Tuesday I left it a little late in the day to start a walk in Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park. I wandered happily down the hill to Elvina Bay, stopping to look at wallabies and wildflowers, and to fantasise about living in the tiny community that’s accessible only by boat or the vertiginous goat track I walked down. That meant that by the time I got round to toiling back up the hill, I was chasing daylight. Thankfully I made it back to the car in good time, and got to revel in the golden late-afternoon light slanting through the trees and haloing the boronia and healthy parrot peas. Spring has definitely sprung for the wildflowers.

What I’ve been reading

First, what I plan to read: the Wainwright Prize, an annual UK nature-writing prize, has released its 2020 shortlist and provided us nature nerds with a lovely fat reading list. My only complaint is that I don’t think I can get through them all before the winner is announced on 9 September. I’ll have a go, though!

Online, I’ve been reading about wildflower watching in lockdown in Emergence magazine, wild animal watching in lockdown in the Los Angeles Times, and how lockdown is both connecting us to nature and disconnecting us from nature.

UK Vogue’s editor Edward Enninful picked his favourite nature covers (as mentioned in a previous newsletter). And some inspired weed warriors (subject of last newsletter) are chalking plant IDs on pavements in Canada:

But on to William Fiennes. If the name sounds familiar, yes, he’s part of the family that’s produced explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and acting brothers Ralph and Joseph Fiennes. The fact that the actors’ surname is actually Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes gives you some indication of the family’s social standing (i.e. they’re proper posh). Knowing that William Fiennes grew up in Broughton Castle, which has been in his family since the 14th century, lends extra gravitas to The Snow Geese’s softly wistful meditation on the concept of home.

The book tells of a time in Fiennes’s early twenties just after a prolonged hospital stay (he’s written an extraordinary piece about his Crohn’s disease here). He has been desperately homesick and convalesces under his parents’ care in the aforementioned castle (which he refers to only as “the old ironstone house”), but soon yearns to escape. He decides to follow the path of six million snow geese as they migrate north from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada’s Hudson Bay for the summer.

So it’s a travel book, and a nature book. But the narrative is also threaded through with explorations of nostalgia and homesickness in all their forms:

“Road signs emerged from the fog like things I was remembering. Many bore the names of English towns: Bath, Bristol, Andover, Stratford. Migrants had travelled with proper nouns as though they were personal effects. The names were tokens of home.”

Fiennes is particularly good at pen portraits of the people he meets:

“A short, almost spherical man, sixty-odd, in an olive anorak, neatly creased charcoal trousers and shiny black leather shoes… He sat with proprietorial confidence, as if he owned the entire building.”

This is Marshall, whom Fiennes encounters on the overnight train from Winnipeg to Churchill, Canada. Marshall turns out to have been a teenage runaway who tells wild tales of hobo life. (He also possesses a stately 54-inch waist, saying good-humouredly, “When the good Lord made me, he just didn’t want to quit.”) Fiennes is obviously an excellent listener with an eye for an eccentric, and writes about his travel companions with a non-judgemental affection that’s the polar opposite of the Paul Theroux school of irascible intolerance.

But I read this, of course, for the nature writing, and Fiennes’s clean-lined but memorable prose doesn’t disappoint.

“Suddenly, as if detonated, the flock took wing. Thirty thousand geese lifted off the ice in front of us, wingbeats drumming the air, goose yelps gathering to a pounding, metallic yammer, the sound of steel being hammered on anvils, in caverns. The ice thrummed and sang with it. The exploded flock filled our fields of vision, a blizzard of birds... The flock kept wheeling round and round, swirling with eddies and countermotions, a salt-and-pepper chaos of blue-phase and white-phase birds, lit by quick lamé sparklings of white wingbacks catching the sunlight.”

In the alien, silver-tinged light of the far north, Fiennes ends up hunting snow geese with an Inuit mother and son, and realises he’s finally ready to go home again - but knows he must somehow move on, too:

“Nowhere was my sense of belonging as complete or unambiguous as it was in my childhood home, but if I saw that sense of belonging as something exclusive to the ironstone house, then I would never really leave, never grow up, never look for my place in the world… The yearning had to be forward-looking. You had to be homesick for somewhere you had not yet seen.”

I can’t think of a better description of growing up.

The Snow Geese was my 74th book of 2020. In the past two weeks I’ve also read:

  1. Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close

  2. David Mitchell, Utopia Avenue

  3. Jessie Tu, A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing

  4. William Fiennes, The Snow Geese

See you in two weeks!

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