Sunday, April 22, 2012

Fresh Woods Pastures New - Ian Niall

Little Toller Books continue to be the find of the year, nature writing can be a tricky thing - I have a stack of books I've failed to get very far with, books without humour but heavy on philosophy and written in an overly lyrical style (books that shall remain nameless here because they deserve no sort of encouragement), but when it's good you can find a book that changes the way you look at the world.

'Fresh Woods Pastures New' is just such a book (or books, originally it was two very short books). Ian Niall was the pen name of John McNeillie who wrote over forty books and contributed 'a countryman's notes' to Country life for many years, so predictably I'd never heard of him but 'Fresh Woods Pastures New' is mostly a look back at growing up in Galloway in south-west Scotland. I don't know Galloway particularly but I love the Scottish borders and that's what attracted me to this one. (I should say - in case it sounds like I have far to much of a fetish for Scottish books going on that whilst I happily pictured the landscape that I know and love whilst reading this, part of it's appeal is that it could have been written about any farm.)

What Niall writes about is his personal Eden - North Clutag farm, as it was when tenanted by his grandfather. Sent there as a boy in the 1920's to escape an outbreak of meningitis in Glasgow it becomes the place where he spends every holiday as he grows up learning the landscape intimately as he does so. The young Niall was a keen poacher so his days are filled with illicit trips into the woods and over the moors in search of every sort of game from eels in the burn to pheasants for the pot. Nobody can know a patch of land like a man whose spent hours hours observing a gorse bush to see where exactly under it a bird has her nest. He knows the rat runs in the farm, where the stoats live in the dry stone wall, and where to find a plovers nest. This is a boy who kept pet hedgehogs and disgraces himself by shooting an owl, one who'll find himself half way across a field before he's really woken up - and only then by the crack of his shotgun after an early rabbit. He's also a man who understands the importance of a whole ecosystem (though that's not the word he uses) and the need to maintain  balance within it.

'Fresh Woods Pastures New' is in part an elegy for a way of life already over by the time it was written - by the 1950's tractors would surely have been the norm, rather than horses, to do the heavy work; a way of farming that had to an extent accommodated wildlife fast being replaced by mechanised efficiency and pesticides. Niall doesn't often explicitly condemn modern methods - for the most part he ignores them choosing instead to recall the past, but he does mourn the loss of woodlands, though even when he does this he manages to avoid being sentimental. This is a book bathed in nostalgia but always grounded by the presence of a shotgun and an awareness of the food chain.

Niall writes beautifully, and according to his son with very little editing or revision - this I can well believe the book reads like a man reminiscing in conversation. It's attractive but calls for sustained concentration - this wasn't a book that I could read for hours, without a narrative my attention wanders and when I'm reading about nature it generally wanders straight out the window to look at a tree or similar - which is part of the pleasure. After reading 'Island Years Island Farm' I ended up buying three copies as presents, by the end of the year it will probably be more, 'Fresh Woods Pastures New' has the same quality - it makes me long to share it with other people.          


  1. This sounds beautiful. My father used to spend his summers on his grandfather's farm (which he farmed with a team of horses up until the 1980s) and has wonderful memories of spending all his time out in the fields and woods with his shotgun, picking off groundhogs and rabbits, watching birds, and generally getting to know every inch of the place. I've always been a little jealous that the same opportunity wasn't open to me but I am perfectly happy to embrace books that capture those memories and experiences.

  2. Claire, the book is basically a Scottish version of your fathers childhood. It is a beautiful book and destined to be many a Christmas present I think.