Monday, August 2, 2021

The Eternal Season - Stephen Rutt

I'm late reading this and unsettled by how quickly this year, and especially this summer, is passing. Walking the dog for my mother this weekend the sloe bushes that seemed to be a mass of frothy blossom only a couple of weeks ago now have berries on them - still green, but probably ripe by the next time I'm likely to be out that way on a couple more weeks. The damson tree by Barrow on Soar train station is covered in ripe fruit, and dropping them onto the platform - although the tree itself is frustratingly out of reach for foraging purposes, and if last year was strange, this one seems stranger still to me. 

My copy of 'The Eternal Season' is an uncorrected proof with a short list of selling points printed on the back, including the assertion (which I absolutely agree with) that Rutt is 'Widely acknowledged as one of the brightest young stars writing about the natural world, gathering increasing support and recognition'. I'm tempted to make some sweeping generalisations about nature writing here, but I don't read quite enough of it to be sure of my ground. what I do know is how accessible and inspiring I find Rutt's writing. 

One part of the reason for this is that he so often focuses on the local, and obviously, even more so for a book written during Covid and lockdowns, the bigger part is that he writes really well. But the local matters - for all sorts of reasons local is all I, and most of us, have reliable access to, and we all need to think about it a little bit more. I'm lucky in that my part of the city has some good green space that isn't over manicured and is in its way reasonably wildlife-friendly. It could be so much more though, and as books like this make clear, it needs to be.

There are a lot of stark and worrying figures in here about the depletion in numbers of once-common species, as well as the spread of new to us species, some benign, others a threat to our native wildlife. Global warming and global trade are the forces behind this, and I guess the overall message of this book (and James Rebanks English Pastoral) is to think and act globally as well as locally. They were interesting to read together as there's a good bit of overlap in thinking, but for me, The Eternal Season was the more useful book* - it covers more that I didn't know or was only dimly aware of and gave me more to think about.

I hadn't, for example, really considered what the change in seasons means for the food supply of birds who need to time their egg-laying to catch peak grub season, and that they might not be able to keep pace with the insects on that. It's also been easy to think about the damage to habitats here, but forget where they live the rest of the year. That's the oversimplified version, this really is a good place to start learning and thinking more about the everyday effects of climate change.

It is in the end quite a hopeful book too. Things are bad, but there are things we can do now before they get worse if there's a will to do so. This should be, could be, a powerful moment for change too - we've had 18 months in which to really appreciate how much nature can help us on a day to day basis, to realise its value to society, we've learnt that we can adapt, change our behaviour, and give up certain habits if we need to. I don't know how optimistic I am that it'll happen, but at least I'm not totally without hope, and that's very much because of the growing number of books like The Eternal Season. I'm thinking of Stephen Moss' The Accidental Countryside particularly, as well as English Pastoral, and there are others.

The thing they all have in common is a call for a collaborative approach, and asking us to notice what we've got before it's gone. To value what's on our doorsteps as much as we might do the more obviously rare and charismatic species, and to understand something of how big the systems we all live in are. 

Beyond all that, this book is also really good company. The balance between being informative and chatty is just right, it doesn't lecture, but it provides endless avenues to follow - some of them truly unexpected. It's also an excellent book about what 2020 was like, good bits, bad bits, strange bits, but the thing that resonated with me most was this paragraph about wildness:

The wild is subjective and hard to define. But it's important for me to be somewhere open, somewhere our physical influence recedes and the lives of other species play a bigger role; to feel as if I am in a place that is shared, not dominated. It is good for us and good for everything else here..."

*I do mean for me, and useful rather than better - this isn't a comparison of their relative merits.

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