Posts tagged ‘Travel writing’

January 16, 2022

Islands of Abandonment – Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn

by Team Riverside
Islands of Abandonment book cover.  A house on stilts stands in the sea

Paperback, William Collins, £9.99, out now

I read Islands of Abandonment in hardback during one of the lockdowns last year.  I was transported to wildly different newly-wild places around the world, even as I couldn’t stir much from home: a former military base on a Scottish island; an abandoned agricultural institute in the Tanzanian mountains; the drowned homes and fields of the Salton Sea in California.  Flyn explores what the natural world can do when left mostly alone by humans.  She focuses on places that were once hubs of human activity, where decaying buildings and landscape changes are the inheritance of the land. 

The book features evocative colour photos, including a series of four Google Earth shots showing the transformation of a regular suburban home in Detroit into a ruin with trees growing through it alongside disappearing sidewalks.  It made me think of the loss of people’s homes and communities, alongside the resurgence of other kinds of lives.  Flyn’s descriptions are as vivid as the photos.  She visits an abandoned canteen near Chernobyl: “The whole room is dominated by an enormous stained-glass scene that takes up the entire far wall: a moon rising in the west, into a sky of electric blue and crimson; and in the east, a burning sun, haloed in purple and orange and gold.  Around and between, four godlike women rise, in simple robes, cups over each breast: the seasons”.

The attention and respect Flyn gives to non-human life reminds me of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s transformatory book Braiding Sweetgrass (see https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2020/07/14/braiding-sweetgrass-indigenous-wisdom-scientific-knowledge-and-the-teachings-of-plants-by-robin-wall-kimmerer/).  Flyn’s attempts to see the whole of the life, both non-human and human, in the places she visits echoes Robin Wall Kimmerer’s approach.

Often in these ostensibly abandoned places, some people remain.  They might be caretakers, witnesses, those in search of a different way of being on earth.  For example, former lab technician and current informal caretaker Martin Kimweri attends the former science facility in Tanzania, and looks after the many white and black mice whose ancestors were kept by the scientists.  Flyn also comes across those who have stayed in their homes as other people left and the world changed utterly around them, as well as people who travel out into these spaces looking for something new.  She is sensitive to these stories, which are necessarily those of outsiders.

As a woman who likes exploring places on her own, I appreciate Flyn’s solo venturing.  Islands of Abandonment can be read as nature writing, adventurous travel, conservation literature or reflections on how cultures deal with the end of civilisations.  It’s no wonder that authors including Kathleen Jamie and Adam Nicolson have praised Islands of Abandonment (the hard to classify nature of the work reminded me of both these authors, see https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2020/08/24/surfacing-by-kathleen-jamie/).  Flyn’s thoughtful responses to what and who she sees make this a thoughtful and strangely positive read. 

Review by Bethan

November 15, 2021

Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght

by Team Riverside
Owls of the Eastern Ice book cover

Paperback, Penguin, £10.99, out now

Ice, snow, owls: sold.

Naturalist and PhD student Slaght goes to Primorye in remotest Russia in 2006 to research and protect the world’s largest owl, the Blakiston’s fish owl (see excellent pictures in Helen Macdonald’s rave review, here – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jul/22/owls-of-the-eastern-ice-by-jonathan-c-slaght-review-an-extraordinary-quest).  Slaght describes it: “Backlit by the hazy gray of a winter sky, it seemed almost too big and too comical to be a real bird, as if someone had hastily glued fistfuls of feathers to a yearling bear, then propped the dazed beast in the tree.” 

This is an account of work at the sharp edge of conservation and research.  Slaght is working at a time when local economies are changing rapidly.  Logging and free market ventures are expanding into areas of remote and limited fish owl habitat, and it becomes imperative that conservationists work out what the threats are, and what opportunities exist to protect the owl.

This is travel writing as much as nature writing.  Slaght conveys how quickly the ancient forest and surrounding environment can change, from conditions that are beautiful and wild to extreme and life-threatening.  There are rivers and pools warmed by radon, Amur tigers hunting, hermits and wilderness.  Endurance is required to get through the hardships he and his colleagues face in finding, tagging and relocating the owls over several years.

Literally toxic masculinity features, as hunters and others working in the area sometimes engage in extreme drinking to forge trust with strangers like Slaght, who not only is an outsider but also an American and an ornithologist.  Several times he’s part of a party that must not break up until the vodka bottle is empty, and sometimes the ‘vodka’ is ethanol.  But he gets to work alongside committed lifelong conservationists and assistants, and finds that people will often help him and his colleagues when they need it most.

The owls are known locally as “the owls who ask for a fur coat”.  In Russian when a pair sing to each other, it sounds like each is saying “I want a fur coat”.  Owls of the Eastern Ice is a truly engrossing and transporting book.

Review by Bethan

August 24, 2020

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Sort Of Books, £9.99, out nowKathleen Jamie SURFACING.png

My favourite in this collection of essays is ‘In Quinhagak’, where Scottish nature writer and poet Kathleen Jamie travels to a small village by the Bering Sea, mainly home to Yup’ik people.  She makes genuine connections with people she spends time with there, noticing different ways of experiencing time, and alternative ways of relating to history and land.  She finds the Yup’ik people’s ownership of their land, and care for it, intriguing, contrasting it with the almost total private ownership of land in Scotland (p. 89).

In ‘Links of Noltland 1’, working alongside archaeologists on remote Orkney, Jamie gets to see Neolithic treasures near their original sites, including the famous Westray Wife (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westray_Wife).  She is invited for dinner with a group at a colleague’s house.  After dinner, “…the others were sprawled on their orange sofas watching some old Quentin Tarantino film on Netflix.  They looked like the seals hauled out on the weedy shore.  If seals could watch Netflix, they would” (p. 154).  The humour throughout the book reminded me how much I loved her raucous poem The Queen of Sheba (https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/queen-sheba).

Inevitably, the climate emergency shadows everything.  Jamie is thoughtful about it, and is not defeated.  She notes impacts observed by people living on land they have been familiar with for generations.  “We all know it.  We can’t go on like this, but we wouldn’t go back either, to the stone ploughshare and the early death.  Maybe that’s why the folk here don’t embrace their Neolithic site much.  It’s all too close to the knuckle.” (p. 156).  Early trips to Tibet, and memories of her mother and grandmother, make this a wide-ranging and always interesting collection.

As a huge fan of her previous collections Sightlines and Findings, I had asked for this for my birthday and was delighted to get it.  Reflective, enjoyable, and enlightening.

Review by Bethan

December 3, 2019

A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Pushkin Press, £9.99, out nowChristiane Ritter A WOMAN IN THE POLAR NIGHT

I fell upon this book at The Book Hive in Norwich, and read it immediately.  This beautiful new edition of a 1934 is a fresh and joyous account of a woman wintering over in the Arctic. She says everyone should spend a year in the Arctic to get their priorities right.

Christiane Ritter, a visual artist from Austria, spent the winter in an extremely isolated small hut with her husband and another hunter in Spitsbergen/Svalbard.  She was often alone, and her writing about this is some of my favourite in the book.  At one point, she spends nine days on her own trying to stop the hut being entirely buried under snow and ice.  After the storm is over, peace reigns.  “But it is as though things up here have acquired a light of their own, as though they themselves emitted rays of the most beautiful and mysterious hues.  All the mountains, tremendous in the foreground and sharply edged in the distance, are glassy-bright with rigid ice, glass bright the foreland and glass bright the cliffs along the shore that, transfigured by frost and surf into high, round domes of ice, drop steeply into the sea”.

Her experience of loss of self and sense of connection to all other living things at this point reminded me strongly of a beautiful moment in Alan Lightman’s book Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, where he feels a connection to “all of nature, and to the entire cosmos” (see https://www.brainpickings.org/2018/03/27/alan-lightman-searching-for-stars-on-an-island-in-maine/).

The three hunt, clean and repair the hut, and undertake perilous journeys.  To have a woman’s perspective is intriguing, including on how she is treated by the men, and how she observes her own responses to extreme conditions.  Her particular version of rar (Arctic insanity) involves trying to clean the hut’s floor. It turns into an ice rink.

The hut is not a pure escape from the world.  Some chilly blasts of news from rare visitors remind us that this is the 1930s and a worrying time: one of them asks, is there a war yet?  More cheerfully, when the group visit their neighbour Sven (who is in fact very far away), they are impressed by his two charming dogs.  Whenever the people are talking, the dogs wag their tails.  Christiane realises that as it’s usually just Sven and the dogs, they are used to him talking just to them – so they assume this is what he is doing now, and reply.

There is a brilliant sharp foreword from Sara Wheeler, another author who writes beautifully about cold places (see the excellent Terra Incognita).  A real treat.

Review by Bethan

December 2, 2018

The Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Scribner, £14.99, out nowNancy Campbell THE LIBRARY OF ICE

The list of places Nancy Campbell covers in researching The Library of Ice was enough to make me keen to read it.  Upernavik Museum in Greenland, Vatnajökull in Iceland, Walden Pond in Massachusetts, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam…

Campbell is an artist, writer and poet, and The Library of Ice could be considered travel writing, cultural history, nature writing, or memoir.  It’s not necessary to pick these bits apart: the book as a whole works well as a meditation on ice.  She is an engaging guide, and her curiosity leads to adventures in the archives and outside.

The book is full of intriguing and pleasing facts and stories.  I was pleased to learn of the origins of Torvill and Dean’s immortal Bolero skating performance, and of Robert Boyle’s attempts to research the phenomenon of cold and his irritation at the difficulty of his experiments.

Despite my longstanding Antarctic obsession, I did not know that George Murray Levick of the Scott expedition in 1912 was so horrified at what he found to be the ‘hooligan’ and ‘depraved’ behaviour of the penguins that he censored his scientific reporting on the Adélies.  In the Natural History Museum archive survives a copy of a report Levick wrote for colleagues, limited in circulation and with a note on the front saying: ‘The sexual habits of the Adélie penguin, not for publication’.

Campbell’s awareness of damage from climate change informs much of the book, and her accounts of traditional knowledge of ice reminded me of some of the testimony from Mary Robinson’s excellent book Climate Justice (https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2018/10/08/climate-justice-hope-resilience-and-the-fight-for-a-sustainable-future-by-mary-robinson/).

If you enjoy good books about cold places, such as Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita or The Magnetic North, this will be a chilly pleasure.

Review by Bethan

July 11, 2016

Skyfaring – A Journey with a Pilot, by Mark Vanhoenacker

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Vintage, £8.99, out nowMark Vanhoenacker SKYFARING

The cover of this book makes me want to jump on a plane and fly off somewhere.  As someone who likes flying, despite serious concerns about climate change, I thought I might like this book.  I was wrong.  I love it.

If I’m looking for escape in a book, I’m most likely to find it in one concerning a subject completely new to me which is explained with style and generosity.  Skyfaring meets these criteria effortlessly.  Vanhoenacker is a deeply enthusiastic, knowledgeable and thoughtful guide to the several worlds of aviation.  The book is stuffed with excellent facts and anecdotes (I was delighted to learn that when friends or relatives of airplane crew are passengers on a flight with them, they are often fondly referred to as ‘Klingons’).  For a taster of his prose and some lovely pictures, see http://www.vox.com/2016/5/2/11520288/pilot-airplane-photos and http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/25-incredible-views-from-plane-passengers-windows-collected-by-an-airline-pilot.

Sometimes the book feels very personal, as when the author talks about why he became a pilot, or when he provides a personal gloss on a feature of flight that might seem at first sight mundane or technical.  He is not afraid of bringing art, philosophy or emotion into a scientific subject, or of relating all of these to real life: “Georgia O’Keeffe was afraid of flying but obsessed with the clouds she saw from aeroplanes, which she painted with an all but religious devotion…  I try to remember, when I haven’t flown for some time, and the handles of the bags of food shopping which I’m carrying though a cold and rainy November dusk are about to break, that such a lake of light may be over the clouds that rest above the street”.

For me he has brought a sense of wonder back to commercial flight, something that can seem tedious and constrained.  I feel transported, refreshed, and ready to pay attention.  A lovely book.

Review by Bethan

June 8, 2013

Patrick Leigh Fermor – An Adventure: Artemis Cooper

by Andre

Paperback now available

Artemis Cooper PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR - AN ADVENTURELike any worthwhile biographical subject, the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor was a bundle of contradictions. A garrulous, worldly adventurer who secluded himself in French monasteries; an urbane clubman who yearned for the Greek countryside; and a bon vivant and seducer who built his life around one loyal woman. The excitable young Paddy (as everyone called him) might well have been insufferable but his story is one of rare gifts for writing, heroism and comradeship revealed in tumultuous times. An 18-year-old with a chequered schooling, in 1933 he decided to forsake career plans and set off on a walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Leigh Fermor wasn’t rich but there were always amiable aristocrats willing to open their doors to a venturesome young man.

He’s been blessed with another amiable aristocrat in Artemis Cooper – the Hon. Alice Clare Antonia Opportune Beevor, to use her full title – who’s written a sympathetic account spiced with the sort of racy details that prompted Somerset Maugham to upbraid Leigh Fermor for being “a middle-class gigolo for upper-class women”. Cooper diligently reveals the drama and romance that Leigh Fermor found on his life-changing walk, including details he left out of classic memoir A Time of Gifts, published 40 years later.

After witnessing the rise of the Nazis on that walk, Leigh Fermor’s own run-in with the Germans occurred a decade later on Crete, and Cooper captures the detail of the thrilling operation to kidnap a Nazi general, along with the strife of competing resistance movements, with admirable clarity. The later years are just as engrossing, particularly his friendship with Bruce Chatwin, and you have to applaud Leigh Fermor’s disdain for deadlines. His life was a very English adventure that makes for a remarkable biography.