Posts tagged ‘At Hawthorn Time’

December 7, 2020

The Stubborn Light of Things: a Nature Diary by Melissa Harrison

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Faber and Faber, £14.99, out now

cover of The Stubborn Light of Things

A kingfisher sat on a riverside branch, so close that I could see blackblue feathers in the early morning light.  I was in a London park, near where I live, last weekend.  I was alone, with no special equipment or expertise, but I was paying attention to the river.  The kingfisher hunched, and tidied itself up, and after a few minutes flew off when a runner came along.

If you have found yourself noticing nature more during this year, this book of essays by Melissa Harrison is for you.  Compiled from her columns in the Times, in the early pieces Harrison is living in South London and gives great descriptions of the nature and wildlife of Tooting Bec Common.  Who knew you could see a hobby flying over Lambeth?  “There are pockets of South London that seem utterly rural: paths edged with cow parsley and dog roses and overhung by oaks through which the sunlight filters down, green-dappled and shifting” (p. 44).

Half way through the book, Harrison relocates to rural Suffolk, and a different kind of natural life.  “There are baby rabbits everywhere right now, and sitting in my oak I watched an alert doe shepherd four kits out from the warren by the path to feed…  The evening sun picks them out as they play, gold-edged and painterly: humble but quite lovely in the low, warm light” (p. 174).  One of the things I love about The Stubborn Light of Things is that Harrison doesn’t say that it is easier or better to be a nature watcher in one place or the other.  Her curious gaze finds things to wonder at in both places, a reminder that we only ever need to start where we are.

As readers of her gripping novels At Hawthorn Time and All Among the Barley will know, she is not afraid of addressing difficult things, and here she references the climate emergency and local campaigns to protect wildlife (for a review of one of her novels, see https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2015/05/24/at-hawthorn-time-melissa-harrison/).

After reading this, I found similar ideas in On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz (which I am half way through).  Horowitz walks round her Manhattan city block with several different people who are expert at different things, and finds out how little we notice in the normal run of things (one of the people is expert at being a toddler and another is expert at being a dog – see https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/08/12/on-looking-eleven-walks-with-expert-eyes/). 

Harrison’s popular lockdown podcast encouraged us to pay attention, and this book helps us do just that.  Joanna Lisowiec’s exquisite illustrations and gorgeous cover art elevate a good read into a beautiful item.

Review by Bethan

May 2, 2016

The Mountain Can Wait, by Sarah Leipciger

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Tinder Press, £7.99, out nowSarah Leipciger THE MOUNTAIN CAN WAIT

A distracted young man, Curtis, is driving along a mountain road at night.  A woman flashes into his headlights, is struck by the truck, and disappears.  He keeps driving.

Curtis’s single father Tom manages planting for logging in the Canadian Rockies.  His teenage daughter, like his son, appears alienated from him.  The children’s mother is gone.  His estranged mother in law seems to live with nature almost like a witch, and his colleagues are seasonal outdoors workers.

A strong story and believably flawed characters give rise to interesting questions.  If a father teaches his children to hunt, shoot and fish, is he caring for them or just getting them ready for his abandonment of them?  Is physical courage in protecting your children enough?  If you have to be absent for work, is it inevitable that you are emotionally absent as well, and how do you know if you are?  How do we live with nature now?  If you have done something bad, must it inevitably catch up with you, and how do you live before you know?

The mountains, lakes and woods inform every part of the story. The mountains aren’t straightforward and reliable though – I was reminded of Annie Dillard writing about Dead Man Mountain: “sometimes here in Virginia at sunset low clouds on the southern or northern horizon are completely invisible in the lighted sky. I only know one is there because I can see its reflection in still water”.  Like Melissa Harrison’s At Hawthorn Time, which I loved (see https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2015/05/24/at-hawthorn-time-melissa-harrison/), The Mountain Can Wait contains evocative and unsentimental nature writing. Swimming alone in an icy mountain lake, Tom “coasted out deeper into the lake, taking mouthfuls of the mineral-rich water and spraying it out again.  It tasted like pine, like iron, a little like blood”. Like a bracing swim in a lake, this cool and sharp book is recommended.

Review by Bethan

May 24, 2015

At Hawthorn Time: Melissa Harrison

by Team Riverside

Melissa Harrison AT HAWTHORN TIMEImagine Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, turned into a novel. British nature features in At Hawthorn Time as a character, as London does for Dickens. Disappearing and forgotten paths weave through the book, and those who remember or sense them often seem to be out of time. Opening with the aftermath of a terrible car crash on a country lane, At Hawthorn Time braids several narratives that give us space to think about the countryside and the natural world. How do we see our countryside now? What is it, and what might it be?

Jack wishes “just to be able to go where I like… Just to live how I see fit. I don’t do any harm, God knows…”. Repeatedly arrested and imprisoned for vagrancy and other things, we join him walking out of London, away from his hostel, and towards the village of Lodeshill where he hopes to find farm work. Howard and Kitty, retirees from London following Kitty’s dream of countryside life, are recent incomers to Lodeshill. The difference in their views of the countryside is just one of their problems. Their young neighbour Jamie has his own difficulties, with an ailing grandfather, and his unsatisfactory job as a picker and packer at a giant warehouse.

Each chapter starts with brief nature notes from Jack’s journal. We may admire or envy his total attunement to nature, as the current popularity of nature writing and television shows suggests. But this does not translate into society tolerating his unconventional way of living. Increasing legislation and surveillance restrict his choices, and his situation makes us wonder what we might be prepared to do to regain the freedoms we have lost.  At a time when street homelessness seems to be everywhere – I have people living in my local park – it is worth thinking about who is allowed to be where, and when, and who enforces this. A timely and compelling read.

Review by Bethan