The Lit Fix

Finally, a silver lining to this pandemic to bring in the New Year: a new bookshop has just opened in Beaminster. Little Toller Books, brainchild of the eponymous publisher, is a brilliant new addition to the local literary scene. This month’s slim pickings are some of my favourite pieces of nature writing—something Little Toller has championed in the publishing side of its business—and can all be bought from their new bookshop. I urge you to pay them a visit.

Horatio Clare’s Orison for a Curlew may be prose, but his elegiac lyricism makes the pages of this book read like poetry. Clare traces the migratory passage of the slender-billed curlew across southern Europe and the Balkans, as he searches for this possibly-extinct bird. The narrative is darkened by many of the issues that plague modern conservation efforts—habitat destruction, hunting, pollution—but is lightened by exquisite descriptions of ‘dozy dolomitic scenery in ageing lemon sunlight’, clouds of black storks jumping like ‘an ambush of Hussars’ and philosophic musings from the people he meets.

Peregrine by J.A. Baker is over half a century old but remains as gut-grabbing now as when it was first published. An intense, exultant narrative, it follows Baker’s life-long obsession with peregrine falcons in Essex. His imagery is visceral prose: a dead wood pigeon ‘purple and grey like broccoli’, ‘clear black lunar shadows’ and a darkened ridge with ‘a bloom on it like the dust on the skin of a grape’. No less engaging is the author’s consciousness of his own species. ‘We are the killers. We stink of death’, writes Baker of human impact on the natural world. And yet ‘Nothing is as beautifully, richly red as flowing blood on snow. It is strange that the eye can love what the mind and body hate.’

Helen Macdonald’s hotly-anticipated Vesper Flights is a collection of essays. She takes us from the vanishing countryside to the vespers Macdonald chants as she tries to sleep, with one of the best pieces taking us to the very top of a tower block in New York City. This is an intimate portrayal of loss, personal connection to nature and musing on the destruction of our fellow species. The title—relating to evening devotional prayers ‘the last and the most solemn of the day’—was chosen, MacDonald writes, because it’s ‘the most beautiful phrase, an ever-falling blue’. The tone of the narrative is set…

Elizabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a quiet narrative that packs an outsized punch. Suffering from an undisclosed illness, Bailey finds solace in a wild snail, which she keeps in a terrarium by her sickbed. From observations on molluscan anatomy to the snail’s various daily habits, the author falls into the rhythm of its life and movements. The snail helps her find a greater understanding of her own place in the world—with survival sometimes dependent on something as ephemeral as noticing ‘the way the sun passes through the hard seemingly impenetrable glass of a window and warms the blanket.’ A wise, subtle book about living with chronic illness and how appreciation of the smallest details in the natural world can deepen our lives.

Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty was one of 2020’s publishing sensations. The narrative follows a year in 15-year-old McAnulty’s life after his family moved from one region of Northern Ireland to another. Written in diary-form, McNulty explores his connection to wildlife and the way he sees the world; about his dream of ‘enabling our own wildness’ because ‘We need to feel the earth, and hear birdsong. We need to use our senses to be in the world’. McAnulty was diagnosed with autism and Asperger’s as a child; this experience is closely bound with his writing and communion with the natural world.