Saturday, 28 September 2013

Tense Book Club revisited

Way back in May of this year, I set myself a bit of a challenge when I drew up a list of famous and iconic natural history books that I hadn't read but decided I ought to. I should point out that 'famous and iconic' is defined as 'Tense has heard of them', rather than anything more rigorous and literary.

The blogpost in question was this one, and several commenters pitched in with other ideas for books, so I felt that, all things considered, it was too late to back out even if I could get the Tensemobile into reverse.

To recap, the original list was:

The Natural History of Selborne (1788-9) by Gilbert White

The Origin of Species (1859) by Charles Darwin

Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson

Gaia (1979) by James Lovelock

Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo (2009) by Michael McCarthy

So with several titles tucked into our luggage for the Summer holidays, I began to make good on my promise.

As previously mentioned, the intention was to read these in chronological order. This was based on the notion that some semblance of progress would be seen across the span of  three centuries, with possible changes in biodiversity being more obvious.

Beginning with Gilbert White's tome was a steep learning curve, for several reasons. Pretty much all the books I've ever read have been from no earlier than the Twentieth Century, the few exceptions being from my school days with the likes of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens (and whilst I now know that there are references to Nature in the works of these authors, that wasn't the focus of my attention way back then!). So the use of language was a bit of a challenge.

Also, several species were known by different names back then. Names that other species are now known by! For example, I was well and truly confused by the whole Wood-pigeon and Ring-dove palaver. Mainly because in the UK in this day and age we have the Woodpigeon, Columba palumbus, and the Collared Dove, Streptopelia decaocto. Now I know for a fact that the latter, (Collar? Ring?) didn't appear within these shores until 1955, so what was the dear Reverend on about? It turns out that the Ring-dove of yore is now the Woodpigeon (yeah, ok, it does have a white ring around its neck) and the Wood-pigeon of old is today's Stock Dove. Obvious, if I'd paid more attention to the Latin names.

Gilbert White was rightly credited with distinguishing between the three warblers: Chiffchaff, Willow and Wood Warbler. The received wisdom is that everyone prior to this had thought they were the same species. He also was the first to realise the essential part that earthworms played in maintaining healthy soil, but his deliberations over whether hirundines migrated or hibernated drove me to distraction.

What particularly irked me was that White happily accepted the fact that thrushes like Redwings and Fieldfares visited our shores from Scandinavia in the Winter, but he struggled to grasp that hirundines and other small passerines retreated south from Britain to escape the cold weather, with the reverse happening in Spring. I'm probably being too harsh a judge here, but is it unreasonable to see this as part of the same movement of species? It certainly wasn't for the fact that he took too parochial a view, as he had contacts all over the country and abroad.

It's fair to say that I was a bit miffed with our Gilbert, which just goes to prove what a curmudgeonly old soul I am.

This, in turn, didn't exactly light my fuse to plough straight into The Origin of Species, so to reset my literary compass I opted to ditch the whole chronological malarkey and jumped to 2009 and Michael McCarthy's Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo.

As it happened, this was an enlightened move, because it put the topic of migration into a better context for me. Each chapter of the book looked at a particular Summer visitor to the UK. And I realised that not only did Gilbert White struggle with what happened to Swallows and Turtle Doves and Cuckoos in the Winter - but until the latter part of the Twentieth Century, so did everyone else. In fact, it is only the recent use of satellite tracking of GPS tagged birds that is finally answering these questions.

Sorry, Gilbert.

Michael McCarthy's book also filled in a great deal of the history of ornithological science, name checking most of the other authors on my list and those suggested by the commenters to the original post. A cracking read and one that I would wholeheartedly recommend.

I'm now working my way through Silent Spring. I can say that it is a deeply disturbing book and we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Rachel Carson for writing it. It covers the period up to and including the time when I first appeared on the planet, so I find it rather pertinent in a very personal way. Although after reading of the cavalier and knuckle-headed decisions that were taken to liberally soak our world with herbicides and insecticides, quite how there's a single living creature (including humans) left alive is beyond me. Fortunately, Miss Carson and her ilk highlighted the problem before it was too late and the environmental movement was born. Though I do feel that sometimes we're still learning these lessons and there's a way to go yet.

Effectively, I'm at the halfway stage of the reading list (if I don't count the excellent suggestions of my learned followers), so I will attempt to complete the task before the year is out.

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