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 here).
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 here).
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.