The island of Coll is breathtakingly beautiful. The sort of place where you leave a little piece of your heart behind when you finally bring yourself to leave.
The turquoise waters of the Sea of the Hebrides washes up on sweeping silver-white beaches backed by lofty, marram-clad dunes, reaching over 50 metres high behind the strand at Feall. Between the coastal bents and the bogs and bare rock inland, is a rare place; machair, a habitat unique to the Hebrides, the fringes of north western Scotland, and western coast of Ireland.
In her 2018 book Wilding, Isabella Tree reconts a number of alarming statistics about the state of nature across the British and Irish Isles, including the fact that around ninety per cent of wildflower meadows have been lost since the Second World War. This has had a devastating knock-on effect on invertebrate fauna, and the birds which depend on them.
The machair of the Western Isles is a last stronghold, lavish with wildflowers through the spring and summer. Common species like red and white clover, buttercups, daisies, wild thyme, ladies bedstraw, and bird’s foot trefoil carpet the pasture, with a scattering of rarer species like the Hebridean spotted orchid and Heath orchid. The area around Hough Bay is a hotspot for bloody cranesbill.
Sea pinks (thrift) and stonecrop find refuge among the rocks. Ragged robin, meadowsweet, and beds of yellow flag (iris) define wetter areas, and provide the preferred hiding spots for crackling, croaking corncrakes, often heard but rarely seen on their summer sojourn from southern Africa.
The drowsy, blossom-sweet scent of the machair charges the air on a warm day in June, enough that passing ships catch a draught on the breeze, like a half-remembered afternoon from childhood. From the beginning of May to midsummer, the machair belongs to the skylarks, singing more than 18 hours a day, from dawn to dusk, and rare bees, bumbling through the flowers, honey-drunk on nectar.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have spent almost all of the spring and summer of 2019 working as a deckhand and wildlife guide on board Irene of Bridgewater, a traditional gaff ketch with over a hundred years of history, exploring the stunning coastline and islands around the British and Irish Isles, with occasional trips to the other side of the channel too.
I know I’ve already presented you with a selection of sailing adventures in this Armchair Travel series, but I just can’t stay out of the ocean. So here are some of the books that have excited and inspired me about the sea.
Seven Tenths: the Sea and its Thresholds – James Hamilton Paterson
A series of essays making a luminescent meditation on the meaning of the sea. Stories of swimming, shipwrecks, salvage, memorials, and unsustainable development form the bones for ideas of anthropology, science, history, and philosophy unveiled in beautiful literary prose.
The Whale Rider – Witi Ihimaera
Past and present, myth and reality, wild nature and human lives flow together in this beautiful but challenging retelling of a Maori legend. Two narratives weave together: Kahu, a young girl seeking recognition from her grandfather, an elder of the tribe; and the poetic migration of the whales reliving the legend of Kahutia Te Rangi, the whalerider. Thoughts on race and prejudice, and the balance between preserving tradition and moving with the times in indigenous cultures makes this much more than an average young adult read.
Under the Sea Wind – Rachel Carson
Most of us will know of Rachel Carson from her seminal work Silent Spring, documenting the environmental crisis arising from the indiscriminate use of pesticides. But her first and most enduring passion was marine ecology, brought vividly to life in this work by creating a personal connection to individual creatures inhabiting different niches in the marine and coastal environment. This is a beautiful book to share with young people.
The island lay in shadows only a little deeper than those that were swiftly stealing across the sound from the east. On its western shore the wet sand of the narrow beach caught the same reflection of palely gleaming sky that laid a bright path across the water from island beach to horizon. Both water and sand were the color of steel overlaid with the sheen of silver, so that it was hard to say where water ended and land began.
The Kon Tiki Expedition – Thor Heyerdahl
This is the account of Thor Heyerdahl and his companions sailing a balsa raft more than 4000 miles across the Pacific from Callao in Peru to the remote Tuamoto archipelago. I don’t know if it’s possible to convey just how influential its been in my life. I first read it when I was around 10 years old, and fell in love with the idea of living a life filled with adventures; with learning about sailing and navigation throughout history and human migration and movement; with studying marine ecology and oceanography. I even have a copy in the original Norwegian which has helped me with learning the language.
The Highest Tide – Jim Lynch
A summertime coming-of-age novel where the protagonist, nature obsessed 14 year old Miles O’Malley, discovers a giant squid washed up in Skookumchuk Bay, and accidentally becomes a prophet for a local cult. A beautifully written book that captures both the mystery of the ocean and the uncertainty of adolescence perfectly.
RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR – Philip Hoare
Another swirling and surging work examining how the sea shapes our lives and our sense of otherness. Personal experiences and travels lead to thoughts on swimming, poetry and literature, and philosophy connecting notable characters from Byron to Bowie, Melville to Woolf. I read this while landlocked through the winter, in between signing off from one ship on the Algarve and joining another in Devon, and it kept the salt air in my hair and sand between my toes.
The Silent World – Jacques-Yves Cousteau
A classic book by a pioneer of underwater exploration. This is Cousteau’s autobiographical account of the experiments and trials leading to the development of SCUBA equipment, or aqualung, along with Phillipe Tailliez and Frédéric Dumas, and their transformation into “menfish”. It’s the reason why my internal voice while I’m diving has a French* accent.
*goood moaning. I didn’t say it was a good one.
The Sea Around Us – Rachel Carson
There cannot be too many books by Carson on your TBR list, but I’ll hold myself back by only recommending these two. In this she tells the story of the oceans, from their geological origins and the beginnings of life, through early exploration and discovery, increasing scientific understanding of processes and systems, to the impact human activity is having. The dawning of the Anthropocene. It’s hard to grasp that this book was written in 1951, nearly 70 years ago, given the prescience of the writing, and is just a fresh and relevant today.
Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie
A collection of travel and nature essays crafted on journeys around the coast of the British and Irish Isles and Scandinavia, though that word doesn’t quite feel right for describing the pieces of poetic reflection and personal remembrance that shine like wet pebbles picked from the shore. A masterclass in the art of observation.
Keep looking. Keep looking, even when there’s nothing much to see. That way your eye learns what’s common, so when the uncommon appears, your eye will tell you.
The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s are One – Sylvia Earle
A familiar figure to many from her TED talks, National Geographic articles, and Mission Blue movement, Earle has a depth and breadth of knowledge equal to her subject matter. The writing is straightforward and accessible, and her passion shines through in every page as she details all that ails the oceans. But what is most shining about this book is that despite the overwhelming negativity of the content (overfishing; resource extraction; pollution; biodiversity loss and species extinctions; habitat degradation and destruction; plastic contamination; and how the health of the ocean is vital to our own), the message is that there is still time to take action.
Which of these books have you enjoyed? Do you have any Ocean themed recommendations for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
For a few hours in October 1938, the world was gripped by mass panic. The stoic voice on the wireless set narrated events apparently unfolding on the edge of a small New Jersey township; flares in the night sky, falling stars, strange objects filled with otherworldly creatures, intent on our destruction. The beginning of our human battle for survival; the eve of the war.
The immediacy and horror of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of H. G Wells’ The War of The Worlds, transposed to the USA, captured the imagination of many at the time, but it isn’t only adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel. The original story is set in the leafy suburban towns surrounding late-Victorian London, like Woking where Wells lived in 1895 and explored the nearby countryside on his bicycle.
Much closer to the closer to the original story, although with the flourish and excess of 1970s prog-rock, and by far my favourite version, is the musical by Jeff Wayne, with the solemn voice of Richard Burton narrating the story. If you’ve never heard it, I insist you treat yourself to all of its epic awesomeness.
The double cassette of the album was our family “car tape”, the soundtrack of many childhood road trips through the Scottish highlands with our caravan in tow. Just hearing the opening chords evokes memories of empty roads skirting the sides of sea lochs and the flanks of mountains, to end at vast beaches where my sister and I had the whole summer to explore. I think of picnics by the side of the road, of dairylea sandwiches, monster munch crisps, and um-bongo juice boxes; the adventure of being outdoors.
So this small corner of Surrey heathland, near the commuter town of Woking, has a bit of a special draw for me. It’s here, on Horsell Common, that cylinders fired from the surface of Mars in flares of luminous green gas first fall to earth, landing…
…not far from the sand pits. An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and half away.
The sandpits are a wide bowl in the heath, edges scalloped from years of aggregate quarrying rather than an extra-terrestrial impact. On the crisp January day that I visited, the shallow pond in the centre was frozen, and footprints are set fast in the icy orange sand. Like a child, I have to plant my footprints in the spot where the Martians landed, before continuing onto the heath.
The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one. But still they come.
The open heathland rolls away into dark pine woodland, frosted heather and bracken a patchwork of green, brown and gold, framed by the reddish trunks of the Scots pine and paths marked out in the burnt orange of fallen needles and sand. Silver birches, with papery white bark, catch glittering dew drops on their dark ruby twigs, flashes of light in darker corners. Bright yellow gorse flowers among the mass of spines are a reminder of the mild weather that makes this frozen day an exception this winter. Its a landscape to be viewed leisurely, at different scales, both close-up and in sweeping views into the distance.
Lowland heath, like Horsell and other nearby areas in the Thames Basin, is not a remote forbidding planet where no living thing could survive, but a rare and vital habitat. Globally there are more hectares of tropical rainforest, and like rainforest, the diverse botany of lowland heath makes a rich environment for insects and spiders, lizards and snakes, which in turn support a range of birds, just as rare as Martians might be. In the summer heathland is used by ground-nesting species, like curlew, woodlark, and nightjar, which are extremely vulnerable to disturbance from walkers.
Much of the remaining areas of lowland heathland are found in densely-populated, highly urban landscapes like South East England and much of the Netherlands, where pressure on them for leisure and recreation is high. Careful management by organisations like the Horsell Common Preservation Society and Thames Basin Heaths Partnership work to balance the pressure of visitors against the conservation of the habitat.
We stay as long as cold toes can take, before heading to nearby Heather Farm, an area of wetland regeneration adjacent to the common, that was until very recently the site of a massive mushroom farm. Reedbed-fringed lakes and scrapes are found where there was once concrete hard-standing and a series of corrugated tin hangars filled with fungi. Even better is the new café by the water’s edge, where birdwatching can be done with a mug of hot chocolate to hand.
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…
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..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
There 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.
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.