Armchair Travel: 10 Books for a Wild World

For the second edition of my Armchair Travel series, I’m going back to nature.

Inspired by the Wildlife Trust’s #30DaysWild campaign, I’ve been thinking about some of the nature writing that has inspired me over the years. Not just to travel and spend time outdoors, but in my chosen career: I’ve worked in wildlife and nature conservation as a ranger and environmental education officer for several years.

So lace up your hiking boots and grab your field glasses, in this instalment we’re heading for a close encounter with ten books to go wild with…

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  • The Wild Places – Robert Macfarlane

Macfarlane pleads the case for wildness in our lives, from wide-open spaces, mountain peaks, and remote islands, to a just a bit of time to stop and stare, at the birds flying overhead, moss growing from a crack in the pavement, the small things. The things that make us feel most alive. Find it here.

  • Ring of Bright Water – Gavin Maxwell

I watched the film one rainy weekend at my grandparent’s house in Caithness, and I fell in love with the otters. The book is even better, capturing the delight, sadness, and sense of awe that comes from living close to wild animals without being overly sentimental.  You can buy it here.

  • The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples – Tim Flannery

Though the title sounds like this might be a textbook, the subject matter dense and the scope epic, Flannery is an engaging writer with a deep understanding of the topic. The second part of the book is challenging, sometimes uncomfortable reading, but provokes the reader to consider their own relationship to the natural world.  Get the book here.

  • Orison for a Curlew – Horatio Clare

I’m a bit of a birder, a beginner still, but I’m growing to know more and more. This slim book seemed to jump out at me on my last trip to the bookshop, and I was spellbound by the first page alone. The slender-billed curlew is rare, perhaps only a rumour, and in beautiful writing Clare examines the meaning of extinction, and how some species can be gone before we know they really exist. You can find it here.

  • The Outrun – Amy Liptrot

It’s often said that nature is the greatest healer, and this book is a celebration of the windswept nature of Orkney and the balm it provides Liptrot on her road to sobriety. It’s also a meditation on leaving behind the familiar, and returning home after a long exile.  Buy it here.

  • Gorillas in the Mist – Dian Fossey

Fossey was a challenging and uncompromising woman, and pioneered the study and conservation of the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire). It’s a hard book to read with the hindsight garnered from 30+ years since her murder in 1985, but ultimately rewarding in providing context to bucket-list dreams of mountain gorilla encounters.  Find it here.

  • Winter Count – Barry Lopez

This beautiful collection of short stories are so grounded in the natural world, I didn’t realise they were works of fiction on my first reading. A collection of stunning writing and evocative images that contemplate the relationship between people and nature.  Get the book here.

  • Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie

Another collection of short works, this time inspired by Scotland and Scandinavia, too beautifully written to be called essays and too sharp and insightful to be called reflections, which conjures up something wafty and vague to my mind. I wish I could write like this.  Buy the book here.

  • The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia – Piers Vitebsky

I love reindeer; like really, really love reindeer. Enough to holiday north of the Arctic circle in February, and to visit the Cairngorm herd every time I’m in the area. This book is a beautiful account of people, animals and place; a classic of ethnography.  Get it here.

  • My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell

No list of books about wildlife would be complete without Gerald Durrell, and this is the book that introduces most people (including me) to his, er, well… adventures. So laugh-out-loud funny in places, it’s almost rude to read it in public. If you don’t read any of the other recommendations in my list, you must read this one.  Pick it up here.

Do you have a favourite piece of nature writing you can recommend to me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
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Armchair Travel: 10 Books about the North

Welcome to the first instalment of my Armchair Travel series!

In this occasional series I’ll aim to bring you inspiration for your travels, and transport you away from everyday life, through some of my favourite books. Like a wee holiday, but without leaving the comforts of your home.

For me, reading has always provided so many of the things I get from travelling: being exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking; an insight into an unfamiliar culture; being part of a challenging adventure; or complete and total escapism.

Books, like a sailing ship, could take you anywhere. So throw off the bowline and let yourself be transported with ten of my favourite books to take you in to the icy north…

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  • Arctic Dreams – Barry Lopez

I love books like this, ones that outwardly take a single topic, but are packed with everything you can think of. History, geography, science, natural history, spirituality, indigenous culture, adventure, travel; all drawn together in Lopez’ beautiful prose. To be dipped into again and again.  Find it here.

  • North Star of Herschel Island: The Last Canadian Arctic Fur Trading Ship – R. Bruce Macdonald

Sailing ships might become a bit of a theme through this blog. This is the story of the last of the ships trading in the Canadian Arctic, and a record of a way of life changed forever.  You can buy it here.

  • Dark Matter – Michelle Paver

A chilling horror story set in a scientific research base in an abandoned mining camp in Spitzbergen, just before the outbreak of WWII. The waning of the moon in the depth of the polar night plunge Jack into full-blown terror.  You can find it here.
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  • Far North and Other Dark Tales – Sara Maitland

A deliciously dark collection of short stories that draw inspiration from fairy tales, bible stories and traditional myths, with a strong focus on the female experience. The title story is a reworking of an Inuit legend.  You can get it here.

  • The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen – Stephen R. Brown

We tend to know Amundsen as “the one that got there first”, thwarting Scott’s attempt at the South Pole, but the Norwegian was the ultimate polar explorer. Inspired by Nansen and learning skills from indigenous peoples in the Arctic, he was leader of the first voyage to traverse the Northwest Passage, navigated a route through the Northeast Passage, and crossed the North Pole in an airship. He disappeared on a mission to rescue the crew of another airship returning from the Pole. Get the book here.

  • The Long Exile – Melanie McGrath

The documentary film Nanook of the North revealed the lives of Unagava Inuit to the world. This book reveals the dark aftermath; the forced relocation of Inuit families to the barren shores of Ellesmere Island. A shameful episode of recent history, the shockwaves of which echo through the generations to today.  You can find it here.reading_for_a_cold_day_1

  • The Northern Lights – Philip Pullman

The first part of the Dark Materials trilogy (also known as The Golden Compass in North America), this is the north of dreams and fantasy. Ice bears in armour made from sky-iron; lying, tale-telling Arctic foxes; ancient witches flying of sprays of cloud pine; fierce Tartars scouring the tundra with their wolf dæmons; and the mysterious and terrible aurora. Get it (and the rest of the trilogy) here.

  • To Build A Fire – Jack London

I read White Fang when I was about twelve years old, and Call of the Wild not long after. The wild and brutal Yukon setting burned into my imagination. To Build a Fire is just one of the greatest short stories ever written. Find it here.

  • Farthest North – Fritjof Nansen

I have a massive crush on Nansen; there’s no denying it. I’m fascinated by so much about him; all his adventures, his thirst for scientific knowledge, and his humanitarian work. This is the story of the Fram expedition, to take a ship through the polar sea locked in the ice, and reach the top of the world. And on the way, demonstrate excellent leadership and establish the science of oceanography. Get the book here.

  • The Blue Fox – Sjón

Fabulous, in the original sense of the word, and beautifully poetic, the atmosphere of this novella is as dark and chilling as the Icelandic winter in which it is set. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it will transport you to a different world.  You can find it here.

 

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Which of these books have you enjoyed? Do you have any North themed recommendations for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.

Photo Story: Greenland Tundra Hike

I’ve long had a fascination with the far north.  This short hike near Qaqortoq, in southern Greenland, is a classic introduction to a tundra environment yet not too remote and challenging given the location, and ideal for a solo hike.  A circular route of around 12km, there are plenty of diversions to take in the tops of surrounding hills for outstanding views to the iceberg-littered outer fjord and inland, through rocky spires to the distant ice sheet.

Qaqortoq_0_smallThe colourful wooden cabins of Qaqortoq cluster around the harbour on the edge of the fjord, spreading up the surrounding hills where bare rock slices through thin vegetation. Beyond the city (in Greenlandic terms this settlement of around 3000 is still a city, and the largest in the southern part of the country) a hiking trail marked with cairns leads around Tasersuaq, the lake providing the settlement’s fresh water supply.

The pronunciation of Qaqortoq has been something of a debate with the others in my group, but eventually we’re coached towards something like Ha-HOR-tok, with a throaty  H sound, like that in loch or Javier.

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We will always be rewarded if we give the land credit for more than we imagine, and if we imagine it as being more complex even than language. In these ways we begin, I think, to find a home, to sense how to fit a place.

Barry Lopez

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The trail skirts a dusty road along the western shore of the lake to start, before crossing a rocky rise where ravens circled over me, then scrambling back down into the edge of a heathery bog.  This isn’t true tundra, as the relatively mild oceanic climate of the region prevents the earth from freezing in winter, but similar enough; like the vast mountain moors of the Cairngorms I’m familiar with at home in the UK.

At first glance the tundra is scant patches of dry grass and stunted shrubs sprouting from the thin crust of soil held in hollows of the bare rock. Not quite enough to draw your eye down, away from the epic scale of the surrounding landscape. Sweeping scree slopes rising to high peaks, the oldest rocks in the world, overlooking the slate grey waters of the fjord and the shattered fragments of a dying iceberg.

tundra_1_smallThere is another beauty here, but you must look more closely at the land. Bright green sprigs of crowberry, hiding glossy black berries beneath needle-like leaves. Gnarled and twisted wood of slow-growing, stunted shrubs. Delicate saxifrage, fast flowering in the brief Arctic summer. Sleek silver-grey creeping willow catkins and branching reindeer lichens. Sphagnum moss, crisply dried without recent rain.

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I stop on the edge of the lake and spot a school of tiny fish in the shallows. Fooled by the warmth of the summer sunshine on my back, I kick off my shoes and trousers and wade into the water. I endure the fierce cold of the water until I reach knee deep, then give up, wading quickly ashore. Lying on my back in the moss, I listen to the crackling calls and rippling whistles reveal the locations of snow buntings, redpolls, and wheatears feasting on the insect life in the tundra around me.

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What I’ve loved this winter

Well hey, fellow vagabonds. I hope that you’ve managed to make it through our recent cold snap with a smile on your face.

The unexpected sub-zero temperatures, ice and snow over the past week (even here on the Isle of Wight, where THE SEA ACTUALLY FROZE), have been very much in-keeping with what I’ve been up to over the rest of the winter.

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Travels

I had a trip up to Scotland to spend Christmas with my family, where I was able to go for long walks along the Angus coast, followed by lounging around in front of the log burning stove in my pyjamas with a selection of Scottish gins to try.

In early January I went to catch Death in the Ice, an excellent exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, presenting the story of the lost Franklin expedition to search for the Northwest Passage. It presented items recovered from the shipwrecks of the Erebus and the Terror, as well as artefacts and testimony detailing Inuit experience of life in the high Arctic, contrasting the European perspective of a bleak and empty landscape with one that is familiar, that provides, that is home.

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Death in the Ice at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

I managed to fit in a couple of days exploring Cambridge while on a project management training course, where I visited the Polar Museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute. It houses a detailed collection of equipment and artefacts charting the history of polar exploration, including some personal journals kept by expedition crews, both successful and tragically unsuccessful.

Then at the end of the month, I had a few days visiting friends in Cornwall and working on the restoration of their new (more than a hundred years old boat), the Irish Mary.  She’s currently lying up in the edge of a saltmarsh in a hidden creek in the River Tamar, near a collection of other traditional wooden boats.

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In February I took a day trip off the island to see the Royal Dockyard in Portsmouth, to visit the museum housing the Mary Rose shipwreck, and take a tour of HMS Victory, two of the most famous ships in British history.  It’s been a very nautical winter, and it’s starting to look like spring might be very similar.

 

Adventures

I’ve been out and about exploring the Isle of Wight over the winter, discovering new walks up on the downs and walking in the footsteps of dinosaurs at Compton Bay.

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Another highlight has been meeting up with an awesome group of ladies through the Love her Wild facebook group for a couple of hikes, and to make plans for some wild camping adventures in the spring.

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Passing Times

Winter is always a good time to enjoy the pleasures of curling up with a book, film or podcast by the fire while the rain beats against the window. Here’s my current obsessions:

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What I read: The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, as part of a cosy Midwinter Eve read-along on Twitter, prompted by Robert Macfarlane and Julia Bird.  Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling by Philip Pullman. A collection of essays, talks and articles on the power of a well-told tale by one of my favourite authors.Maker:S,Date:2017-9-29,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-ve

What I listened to: The Wine and Crime podcast. Three sassy lassies from Minnesota telling tales of drunkeness and cruelty, paired with a fine wine so you can drink along at home.

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What I watched: Oran na Mara* (Song of the Sea). We have a Scots Gaelic / Gáidhlig television channel in the UK, which I’ll occasionally watch and pretend I understand far more than I actually do. But this beautiful animation has such a compelling story that language isn’t really necessary. *The original Irish / Gaeilge version is called Amhrán na Mara.

What I played: My cousin introduced us to the board game Pandemic over Christmas, as a variation from our usual Trivial Pursuit obsession. After we worked out the aim is collaboration and not cut-throat competition, we really loved it.

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Thank you for bearing with me on These Vagabond Shoes. I’ve had a bit of a faff playing around with the look and feel of this blog, and I hope it will all start to seem worth it over the next few months. You can also keep up to date with my adventures (or meanderings and rambling thoughts as it’s mainly been recently) on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

 

Here’s to spring and the return of the sun!  What have you been up to over the winter?  Let me know in the comments below.