When spring ain't spring
I get grumpy about European seasons and read Richard Mabey's biography of Gilbert White
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!
It’s been a month since I last wrote an update, apparently. It feels like 10 minutes and also 17 years, so yes, I guess a month might be about right.
My phone has reminded me we were supposed to be camping at Putty Beach this weekend - it was a rare moment when all the stars aligned and all our friends could come along. It would have been great. It’s a small loss, but it’s so exhausting mourning all these small losses, then feeling compelled to remind yourself that it could be worse. Of course it could, but it’s still a bit crap. I am allowing myself sadness today. (Miss you, Besties.)
On the other hand, even if you are a terminal pessimist and heartless cynic like me, Nature keeps insisting on cheering you up. Rude. Nature and the bulbs I bought on the internet, that is, which have miraculously come up - daffodils, jonquils and a shy solo anemone are now adorning our backyard. I feel a sense of pride that’s frankly unwarranted, considering all I did was jam them in pots (then look at the instructions, take them out and jam them back in the right way up) and water them occasionally. Flowers - turns out they’re quite nice. Recommend!
But Nature itself is also quite cheering. The weather has been incredible! And Wednesday was 1st September, which everyone keeps telling you is the first day of spring in Australia. This is of course nonsense. The four seasons are a British import which barely relate at all to the realities of the weather in Australia (let alone to the wildly varying seasons across the entire vast continent). It’s one of those very sticky colonial artifacts it seems impossible to unpick from our conception of Nature in this country. Considering the wildflowers have been bursting out all over for at least a month, and the wattle blossom is practically over (at least where I live), the idea that we’re just coming into spring blossom season simply doesn’t make sense. (Plus it’s 24 degrees today, which I think may be unheard of in an English spring!)
According to the Bureau of Meteorology, here in Sydney, on D’harawal country, we are coming into Ngoonungi, the season that covers September and October. It’s a time of ceremony, when the flying foxes appear and the Miwa Gawaian (waratah) comes into bloom. I think it’s important to learn about what’s actually happening where we live, rather than view Nature through the cobwebby veil of historic homesickness.
What I’ve been reading
A beautiful reflection on time. For a longer read on time that tends more towards the polemic, try Pip Pip by the sublime Jay Griffiths. I am actually deliberately not reading the only one of her books I haven’t yet devoured - saving it for some sort of Griffiths-craving rainy day.
An obituary of the artist Mandy Martin by the wonderful Tom Griffiths that’s pulsing with love and knowledge and insights about landscape painting.
Bear with me but this is great: Australian Plants Online’s weekly newsletter. I’ve bought plants from them many times and they always arrive in excellent condition (and their bulbs actually came up, which is an improvement on the Bunnings ones I got last year). Plus they have a super-informative, brightly written newsletter that is literally the only brand newsletter I read regularly. Copywriters, take a look! (Scroll to the bottom of the page I linked to sign up.)
I also read Richard Mabey’s biography of Gilbert White. First published in 1986, it’s a delicious telling of the events (or non-events) of the parson and naturalist’s life that also offers a deeply informed reading of his 1789 book The Natural History of Selborne, which I wrote about here. Mabey is himself a glorious nature writer, who wrote one of the first nature memoirs I ever read entitled Nature Cure, detailing his recovery from a severe bout of mental illness. It’s much less personal than the title might suggest, and a far cry from the very autobiographical nature books that were to follow (he published his in 2005, before the current flush of nature memoirs). I love it and I love him (I wrote about his book Weeds here, and have queued up Beechcombings) and so it would have been a bit of a shocker if I didn’t like Gilbert White. I did.
It’s a deeply engaged and engaging behind-the-scenes look into the creation of The Natural History, which was the pinnacle of White’s quiet, unassuming life. Mabey treats White’s early years with just as much respect as he does the writing of his pioneering book, detailing the eccentric curate’s almost obsessive love of the village in which he was born and died. It’s not so much that Selborne’s wildlife was extraordinary, but that White’s close observation made it so.
What I found most interesting was the revelation that the book was a far more deliberately crafted work of literature than I’d imagined. Presented as letters between White and prominent natural historians, the book’s various sections were in fact heavily edited versions of the original correspondence, and in some cases were created solely for publication. I love the idea that even the father of natural history had an eye to what the public would buy - plus ca change…
Gilbert White was book 75 for 2021. Since early August, when I last wrote, I also read:
Lotte Möller, Bees and their Keepers
Candida Baker, The Heart of a Horse
Alice Richards, Small Joys of Real Life
Fiona Mozley, Hot Stew
Andrew Simonet, Making Your Life as an Artist
Kyo Maclear, Birds Art Life Death
Lev Parikian, Into the Tangled Bank
Carrie Gracie, Equal
Tom Carment, Womerah Lane: Lives and Landscapes
Richard Mabey, Gilbert White: A Biography of the author of The Natural History of Selborne
Lucia Osborne-Crowley, My Body Keeps Your Secrets
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