“After Man” by Dougal Dixon (1981)

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“During the period immediately before and during the Age of Man the principal large-scale grazers and browsers were the ungulates, the hoofed mammals.”

I’ve always had a soft spot for prehistoric creatures. The dinosaurs are amazingly interesting, the evolution of birds and mammals is fascinating, and it’s always cool to see all the weird twists and turns nature took to get us to where we are today. A lot of people seem to treat what exists now as the end point, apparently under the illusion that evolution stops here, and what we have will carry on for the rest of time. Dougal Dixon is not one of those people.

In his breathtaking book After Man, he envisions a world fifty million years after our own, where humanity has died out, taking with it most of the large mammals and familiar creatures of the time. In this new world, where tectonic plates have shifted the continents into unrecognisable forms, animals have done much the same. Gone are the animals we know, but they’ve been replaced by a variety of newcomers, each descended from something we’re used to.

Rabbits have evolved and diversified into the rabbucks; deer-like creatures that now inhabit every major biome. They’ve been followed throughout by the predator rats, who have taken on the roles of the great carnivores of our age. Elsewhere, squirrels have become long and slender, some bats have entirely atrophied their eyes in favour of more impressive sonar, and the large herbivores have been replaced by the genus of gigantelopes, elephantine antelope-descendants with unusual and complex horned structures on their heads.

In the seas, the whales and dolphins are long gone, but fully aquatic and enormous descendants of penguins now fill those roles. Baboon relatives now stalk the plains of, what was, Africa, hunting and scavenging for meat. Rainforest pigs have developed trunks, one of the last cats, the striger, swings from tree branches like our gibbons, when a species of ant evolved to make its nests underwater, the anteater went aquatic and followed them. As usual, on isolated islands, evolution has particularly gone insane, in particular on the islands of Batavia, recently risen from the seas due to volcanic activity and now populated by bats who have evolved to fill every niche, from coastal waters and high branches, and also produced the terrifying night stalker, a one and a half metre tall predator with a curious arrangement of limbs.

The book is nothing, however, without the incredible intricate illustrations, that show the future animals in action, as well as in some more technical, scientific positions. Like all good nature works, we get to see them as real beings, not just stock images. Of course, these aren’t real animals. Not yet, at least. While we cannot predict with any certainty what creatures will survive us and how they will be further shaped, all of Dixon’s suggestions are based on a solid scientific grounding and while it’s not probable any of them will occur, it’s not impossible. He used this knowledge again in the wonderful TV series The Future is Wild, which took a similar premise of future evolution and is well worth a watch if you can find it.

All in all, a fascinating, fun and thought-provoking experiment in evolution.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Being A Beast” by Charles Foster (2016)

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“I am a human.”

Humans have a confusing relationship with every other animal species on the planet. There’s nothing else quite like us, which is either a good or bad thing. Some other animals we’ve domesticated, others we watch with awe, and quite often we anthropomorphise them and give them tweed jackets and a knowledge and society they can’t possibly possess. Charles Foster has decided he wants to get to know animals better and so begins a mission to become something else, as best he can. This book documents his attempts.

To achieve this, Foster must try to think like other species. This is easier said than done, as other animals experience the world in ways we cannot imagine. Some have better noses than us, some are faster, and while the base urges are the same, they differ enough in their methods of completion to make it all a bit futile. Nonetheless, Foster gives it a go, taking on the roles of five different animals.

He digs a hole in the side of a hill and eats earthworms to mimic a badger. He swims through Devon rivers at night catching fish with his teeth to get to know otters better. He raids the bins of East London for leftovers to become a fox. He allows hunters to chase him down across the Scottish highlands to know how a red deer feels, and finally he makes an attempt to become a swift, eventually tracking them all the way to Africa.

As nature writing goes, it’s a very unique piece and there’s no getting away from that, but my primary thought throughout is, “What sort of breakdown is this man having, and why is no one coming to his aid?” Sleeping in bushes and shitting on riversides is one thing, but swallowing mouthfuls of insects from the tops of trees just because he’s seen birds do it, and leaping at voles whenever he sees a tiny hint of movement is not, in my opinion, the behaviour of a man with all his faculties in tact. I don’t think we ever really needed to know in so much detail what worms taste like.

Unfortunately, while I like the concept of the book, I don’t find Foster particularly likeable. Most of this stems from the fact that, for many years, he was a hunter and while he’s now obviously changed his mind on the subject, in the long passage where he’s describing what it’s like to track and kill a deer, there’s a barely-disguised glee regarding the whole thing. I’m not exactly a pacifist, and I’m certainly not a vegetarian, but I’m against killing wild animals for “sport”, and I can find no entertainment in it. Foster must also have a very understanding wife, as occasionally his children join him on his jaunts. One of his sons lives with him in their badger sett, and he also tells all his children that, when they need the toilet, to go and do it on the river banks like an otter would. At one point he doesn’t shave, cut his hair or trim his toenails for months so he can feel more like a deer with matted, mud-filled hair and overgrown hooves.

There are some interesting facts up for grabs about these animals though, and while Foster attempts to refrain from giving them personalities and emotions, some still slip through. However, he’s more objective than many nature writers, and we get a lot of facts and figures about how animals may experience their environments. Much of it, of course, is theory – we can’t really know what happens inside a fox’s brain when it smells a particular scent, or quite how swifts cope living at speeds we cannot imagine.

All in all, I find that a good piece of exploratory non-fiction should come to a fascinating conclusion and teach us something new. Foster basically ends by saying that trying to be an animal is fruitless and we can never know what it’s like to be another species. Which, frankly, seemed obvious from the start and made me wonder what part I played in his mental breakdown by buying the book. Definitely an intriguing concept for nature writing, but worryingly handled.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

Vintage Minis: “Drinking” and “Swimming”

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If you’ve been in a bookstore recently you may have noticed the collection of Vintage Minis. These are twenty tiny books that take selected highlights on full-length memoirs and novels to give you a sample of the writing. All human life is here, and some of the names behind them are particularly notable. Themes include “Home”, “Desire”, “Death”, “Calm”, and “Work”, with writers including Salman Rushdie, Nigella Lawson, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison giving their insights into their area of expertise. Intrigued by the concept, I bought the two that best fitted with my favourite activities. I read the first one a couple of months ago, but I present them both to you here now.

Drinking by John Cheever

“It was Sunday afternoon, and from her bedroom Amy could hear the Beardens coming in, followed a little while later by the Farquarsons and the Parminters.”

Taken from the anthology Collected Stories by John Cheever, this book gathers together all the excerpts that focus on alcohol and what it does to us. In “The Sorrows of Gin”, a young girl steals alcohol from her parents cabinets and lets the staff take the blame.  In “Goodbye, My Brother”, a family gather together and old wounds are reopened, and family is also present in “Reunion”, where a man goes out with his alcoholic, abrasive father for the last time. In “The Scarlet Moving Van” we see how dangerous alcoholism can be, and how it tears families and friends apart when it takes hold.

The pieces are wonderfully moving, and often drinking doesn’t even play a major part in the story, perhaps showing how insidious the habit of reaching for the liquor bottle has become in much of society. Drinking seems to be one of the ties that bind us all together as humans, and a number of us have on more than one occasion, tried and failed to find solace at the bottom of a bottle.

One of the stories, “The Swimmer”, in fact inspired…

Swimming by Roger Deakin

“The warm rain tumbled from the gutter in one of those midsummer downpours as I hastened across the lawn behind my house in Suffolk and took shelter in the moat.”

The excepts from Swimming are taken from Roger Deakin’s book Waterlog. In this, the only book he published in his lifetime, he decides to explore the British landscape by swimming through it. Thus begins a journey through rivers, streams, lakes, lochs and around the coast to experience the island through its’ remarkable waterways.

We are treated to several great excerpts here, such as his dip into the Atlantic Ocean off the Scilly Isles and discussion about what the locals do with shipwrecked cargo, his argument with locals in Winchester who feel the rivers should be off-limits to people not willing to pay for their use, meeting an otter in Suffolk, and a dip in the North Sea on Christmas Day. He has a beautiful way of writing and showing us the true beauty of our countryside. It makes you appreciate our waters and shows the island from a new angle, bringing to the fore some of the most wonderful denizens of the water, including salmon, water voles and even porpoises. It’s actually compelling enough that I’m tempted to buy the full version, proving that these books seem to be doing what they were made to do – get us excited about literature.

Hopefully these quick summaries will inspire you to pick up a Vintage Mini and dive into a topic you’re passionate about. I doubt these are the last ones I read.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Man V. Nature” by Diane Cook (2015)

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manvnature“They let me tend to my husband’s burial and settle his affairs, which means that for a few days I get to stay in my house, pretend he is away on business while I stand in the closet and sell his clothes.”

The world is a weird place. The news is full of things that seem like they’ve been yanked from the pages of fiction, so when you stumble on a book now that seems weird, you know you’ve hit something good. Diane Cook’s collection of short stories, Man V. Nature, are smart and well-written, but above all are weird and unsettling in ways you can’t quite describe.

There are twelve stories here, and each of them is a weird mixture of superbly realistic, and insanely fantastic. More often than not, the backgrounds or specifics of what is happening in each world is never clearly explained. In “Marrying Up”, we are told only the world “got bad”. In “The Way the End of Days Should Be”, there are just two houses left and the rest of the world has flooded, but we don’t know how or why. The first story, “Moving On”, takes place in a world where widowed spouses are put into institutions until they’re wanted again by someone else, though they seem to have little say in who they get to marry. It’s reminiscent of works like The Handmaid’s Tale or Only Ever Yours, where women are still treated as chattel, although some men appear to be in the same position. In “Flotsam”, the oddness is more magical, as a woman begins to find baby clothes in among her washing, despite having no children.

“Flotsam” also seems to be about women’s sexuality, perhaps an acknowledgement of women’s body clocks. Similarly, “A Wanted Man” is about female sexuality too, although seems at first perhaps to be about male sexuality. It features a man who is irresistible to all women and will guarantee them a pregnancy with one fuck. All he wants is someone to love, and to love him back, and he seems to fall in love with every new woman he meets, though they are all uninterested in settling down.

“The Mast Year” is an interesting look at the world. In it, the main character finds herself promoted and engaged in quick succession, and people begin to gather around her home, setting up tents and caravans, burrowing into her lawn, and climbing her trees. Her mother says that she’s experiencing a mast year. This references when a tree produces more fruit than usual, so people gather around it. Jane’s recent luck works as a magnet and the people are gathered around her in the hope that some of that luck rubs off on them. It feels like an extreme version of how we advertise ourselves on social media when things are going well – if you go by Instagram, everyone is currently living their best life – and then what happens when things go wrong and we have to start revealing the truth behind the smiles.

The titular story, “Man V. Nature” is about three men stuck in a rubber dinghy on an endless lake, with barely any food left and no protection from the scorching sun. Pretending that their predicament is a TV show, their bodies, brains and sanity wither away and they turn on one another and begin to reveal harsh secrets, and one of them learns that he’s not considered “one of the gang”, despite his desperate attempts to fit in.

Children are also common to several of the stories. “Somebody’s Baby” brings to life the fear new parents have that their child is in danger by making that danger a man who stands in your garden and, if you lose concentration for just one second, will enter your house and snatch your baby. The main question you’re left with at the end of that story is, “If you could suddenly get back everything you’d already said goodbye to, would you want it?” In another story, “The Not-Needed Forest”, several boys who society has deemed unneeded are sent to be killed but survive in a forest together instead, until the food supply runs low and they begin to compete with one another for survival.

Diane Cook has conjured up a shockingly brilliant collection of tales, each of them slightly unnerving and leaving you slightly unsure as to what just happened. There aren’t many answers, but to provide them would be to ruin the magic. Her stories contain something familiar, but are also like nothing you’ve ever read before. Haunting.

“Where Do Camels Belong?” by Ken Thompson (2014)

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camels“Species are born, and then they die.”

Because of my tendency to read pretty much anything, it does mean that I occasionally read something that’s incredibly niche and won’t be of much interest to many of my readers. I find myself at that position again, but it’s my duty to review as much as possible so here we go with a tale of ecology, biodiversity and Japanese knotweed – Where Do Camels Belong?

Though I’d forgotten his name, turns out I read another book by Ken Thompson five years ago, that one called Do We Need Pandas? He is an ecologist who seems to has written a few books on biodiversity and overlooked aspects of the natural world – one of his books is a study of weeds – but has an informative, accessible style, meaning he’s a great introduction to some of these topics that the layman (such as myself) might not know much about.

It opens with the titular question, discussing where we would expect to find camels. The answer isn’t quite as easy as it first seems. Most people probably associate camels with the Middle East and northern Africa, but Bactrian camels live in Central Asia, the camel evolved in North America, retains it’s greatest diversity in South America, and the dromedary is only found wild in Australia. So which is really its home?

Thompson then launches into a study of invasive species and how animals and plants traverse the world, adapting to new environments and, often in the eyes of humans, doing a lot of damage. There are discussions as to how long something has to live somewhere before it’s considered native, and how that opinion can change depending on how cute it is. For example, rabbits aren’t native to Britain, but we used to have wolves and no one wants to reintroduce them much. Which has the greater right to live here? Do we have the right to make that choice? Humans are, of course, perhaps the most invasive species of all, responsible for many of the particularly bad invaders.

But Thompson argues that, actually, aliens aren’t bad things at all – at least, not all of them. Scientists, helped along by the media, pick and choose the species they want to deem alien and invasive, and ignore some of the facts. Zebra mussels, for example, clog pipes and attach themselves to ships, but they make the water they live in cleaner and increase food stocks for crabs and fish. Tamarisk is a plant that supposedly takes up too much water and dries out river beds, but those rivers are already being over managed by humanity who have the right to more water than even flows in them.

As usual with science, there are a lot of “we just don’t know” moments here, and this leaves us with many questions. Would Britain have been any better if the Romans hadn’t brought along most familiar vegetable species? Should we introduce Iberian lynx to Britain, since they’re dying out where they “belong”, and would help solve the rabbit problem? Why is bracken not considered an annoyance, even though it’s more invasive than most aliens? And how much loss has there really been to Hawaii’s ecosystem?

It’s a really interesting look at an often misunderstood aspect of the natural world, and makes us look at ourselves. We are, once again, asking the wrong questions and seem to have considered ourselves above and outside of nature, which is perhaps one of the most dangerous ideas we’ve ever come up with. Food for thought, at least.

“Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer (2014)

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WTF?!

WTF?!

“The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats.”

Every now and again, you find a book that makes you think, “What the hell?” It could be because it’s so good or clever. Perhaps it stirs up those feelings because you can’t believe it ever got published. And then there are those books that make you think that simply because they’re on another scale of weirdness, confusion and sheer insanity. This brings me to Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, the first of the Southern Reach trilogy.

The story opens with four women entering the quarantined Area X as members of the twelfth expedition. The last eleven have … not gone so well. One ended with everyone committing suicide, another with the survivors all dying of cancer not long after their return. We aren’t given any names, but the four explorers are known by their titles: the psychologist, the surveyor, the anthropologist and, our narrator, the biologist. They make notes in their journals about what they find in Area X, and have been instructed to explore the landscape with particular emphasis given in their training to a lighthouse on a nearby shore.

But there is more than just a lighthouse here. There’s a tunnel for one thing, although the biologist is insistent that it is a tower, despite none of it being above ground. There’s something loud and angry living in the reeds, and there are suspicions that, within hours of the expedition starting, the biologist has been compromised, and not everything they were told during their training is strictly true. For a start, this tunnel (or tower) isn’t on any of their maps, and inside it are words written in a type of living fungus. The four women must try to work out what exactly happened to Area X and the people who have come here before them … if they survive that long.

I’ve been struggling throughout this book to work out what the best word to sum it up is and it’s only upon finishing that I’ve got it: “creepy”. It’s not billed as a horror, but the whole thing is driven by suspense and an urge to turn the page in the hopes that one of the endless questions will soon be answered. Few of them are, so if you’re the sort of reader who likes to understand things, keep away from this book. It is the first in a trilogy though, so perhaps answers are coming, but I somehow doubt it. Paragraphs are long and descriptive, both of the wilderness of Area X and of the feelings that the biologist is wrestling with. We find out a little about her life before signing up for the expedition, but not much. Still, what we know of her is far in excess of what we know of the other three women.

There is very little dialogue in the book; the women are not friends and do not seem to like to talk about their private lives. Maybe this is why they were chosen, or maybe they are under instructions not to. Can they even be sure they’ve all been given the same instructions before setting out? The book contains an endless stream of unanswered questions, and every time you think you’re about to get an answer, you may find another six or seven questions come along with it.

I’ll probably return to Area X for the sequels, Authority and Acceptance because I did enjoy it a lot, but before reading a brief synopsis of the next book, I would have had no idea where this was going, as it ends with a very definite finish. Like I say, if you don’t like being left hanging, then don’t read this, but if you like something that just feels a little bit too strange for comfort, dive in.

“H Is For Hawk” by Helen Macdonald (2014)

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hawk“Forty-five minutes north-east of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much indeed.”

My faith in memoir still hasn’t quite recovered from my last dalliance with it, but I fancied something based in truth rather than fiction. H is for Hawk was a book that bookshops seemed incredibly keen on advertising. Indeed, last summer you couldn’t pass a Waterstone’s without a seeing a whole window dedicated to the book, just as Go Set a Watchman is doing at the moment.

Eventually I succumbed and bought a copy and now urge you to do the same. Helen Macdonald, our narrator, has always been fascinated by raptors and from a young age was keen to become a falconer, despite it traditionally being something that is considered a bit of a “boy’s club” and definitely something linked to the aristocracy. As a child she learnt all the terms and read every book she could get her hands on, and indeed eventually her dreams came true and she started training birds.

Then, quite suddenly, her father dies. She is racked with grief, almost unable to go on, and decides that the only way to keep herself in check is to train a new bird; in this case, a goshawk, one of the most difficult species to tame. On a Scottish dock, she purchases Mabel and the two set about getting to know one another and as time goes on and their relationship develops, they start to learn from each other and the threads of wildness and domesticity begin to tangle up in new and unusual ways.

Not only is it the story of Helen and Mabel, but it’s also a back door biography of T H White, the author of Helen’s apparent birding bible, The Goshawk, but perhaps better known to most of us as the writer behind the retelling of the Arthurian legends, most notably, The Sword in the Stone. Mixing in with the genres of misery memoir, biography and falconry textbook, there is also a vast amount of nature writing, painting the British countryside in wonderfully poetic and descriptive hues.

There is something hugely compelling about the writing. Macdonald is clearly in love with the subjects she tackles and bravely holds forth on memories of such a painful time in her life. There are moments of utter joy, such as when she discovers that goshawks are capable of play, and dreadful sadness when depression sweeps over her and she is trapped in a black fug of grief.

Macdonald never seems to particularly anthropomorphise Mabel, although I’m sure the temptation is there and once or twice she inserts lines suggesting what Mabel might be thinking. However, she also never loses sight of the fact that this is a wild animal, and could easily turn against her and fly off to never return at any time. There’s a wonderful note in the text that even though humans have coexisted with birds of prey for thousands of years, we’ve never been able to domesticate them completely. They remain as unchanged and wild as they were when our ancestors first took an interest in them. They represent something otherworldly, it seems, and Macdonald frequently points out how Mabel is reptilian in many aspects of her appearance and behaviour, a reminder that this is what the dinosaurs turned into.

A captivating and engaging read about what it is to be human, to be wild, to grieve, and to love.