Malcolm Tait is the editor of Going, Going, Gone? (Think Books), an illustrated compilation of 100 animals and plants in danger of extinction, and the author of Animal Tragic (Think Books), a collection of common misunderstandings about the natural world.
“There’s a tendency among some to think of wildlife writing as being a waffly little affair that rambles on about otters or daffodils or babbling brooks, while the rest of us get on with something a good bit meatier like a juicy novel or a well-researched biography. How wrong that thinking is. It is our relationship with the natural world that over the millennia has formed us, informed us, and shaped the way we live and, when we are disconnected from it, we are left with a hollow void into which pour stress, depression and a vague sense of meaninglessness. Good wildlife books don’t just tell us about wildlife, they tell us about the people who wrote them, and most importantly, they tell us about ourselves.”
1. Nature Cure by Richard Mabey
If the best wildlife writing reveals as much about the writer as the wildlife itself, then this is the best of them all. Mabey is brutally frank and honest about his own life, his depression, and his fear that nature may no longer hold the answers for him. The more he tries to engage with it, the more disconnected from the world he feels. But the book charts his path out of despair, as he finds a way to let nature back in and fire up the wild bits of his imagination. It’s an inspiring book, written in Mabey’s richly evocative language, and it’s painful too: probably the best understanding of ‘biophilia’, mankind’s innate relationship with nature, out there.
2. The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
Kipling, I think, was where much of it began for me. I adored his animal tales as a lad, such as the idiosyncratic, rocking-chair-by-the-fireside fables of the Just So Stories and the heroic and suspense-filled Rikki-tikki-tavi. But it was The Jungle Book that really gripped me, a rite of passage yarn in which the vicissitudes of life were represented by the forces of nature. Of course, I didn’t understand all this at the time – I just loved reading about Baloo, Bagheera and all and singing along to the songs of the Disney version – but I now realise that I grew up with Mowgli, and that I’ve been going back to the jungle ever since.
3. How to be a Bad Birdwatcher by Simon Barnes
You know the feeling: you’re reading a book, and as you turn every page you’re nodding in agreement, as if the writer has popped into your head and committed your own thoughts to paper. This is one of books. It’s about being a normal birdwatcher, reasonably knowledgeable, constantly passionate, but often a bit confused as to what you’ve seen or heard, and with the vague feeling that everyone else you’re with knows so much more. It’s the book for those of us who find birdwatching pleasurable, not competitive, and it’s terribly funny to boot. I always smile, now, when I see a sparrowhawk. I urge you to read this book to find out why.
4. Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Great Britain and Northern Ireland by Steve Brooks and Richard Lewington
You can’t have a list of wildlife books without including a guide book although, with my shelves groaning with them, which one to choose? I’ve gone for this excellent little number, partly because it’s clearly written and well laid out, partly because it’s superbly illustrated, partly because it’s published by the excellent British Wildlife Publishing team – but mainly because a whole new world has opened up for me since buying it. If you’ve never looked closely at dragonflies before, this book will set you in the right direction, and I guarantee that as you get to know these fascinating creatures you’ll have new marvels to understand and enjoy every time you take a summer walk.
5. Birds of Heaven by Peter Matthiessen
A master writer, probably best known for his treatment of the snow leopard. Yet this book about cranes, which he studied during a global tour, is possibly even greater. The book captures the majesty, elegance and plight of the birds, complete with Matthiessen’s extraordinary eye for detail and ease of communication. The best way to sum up this book is to use his own words. “Perhaps more than any other living creatures,” he writes, cranes “evoke the retreating wilderness, the vanishing horizons of clean water, earth, and air upon which their species – and ours, too, though we learn it very late – must ultimately depend for survival.”
6. Nature’s Numbers by Ian Stewart
“If you think you hate maths,” wrote a reviewer of this book, “let Professor Stewart convince you otherwise.” Very true. Here’s a great little book that explains mathematical patterns in the natural world in an easy way to follow, and reveals plenty of natural wonders in the process. Using maths to explain biodiversity, chaos, and even the numbers of petals on flowers, it’s a good read, constantly informative, and a fine example of how different disciplines come together to give a clearer view of the world – a process named consilience by that great naturalist EO Wilson.
7. The Future of Life by EO Wilson
Talking of Wilson, here’s a fascinating book that he brought out in 2002 which is a great example of conservation-based writing. The ecological debate will always rage on – should mankind continue to experiment with new sciences and discoveries, or are we destroying our world and ourselves in the process – and Wilson gets to the heart of the arguments superbly, driven by a constant love of the animals with which we share the planet. Agree with him or not, he’s a stimulating writer and this is a stimulating book.
8. In Pursuit of Spring by Edward Thomas
More a travel book than a wildlife book, the text is nonetheless greatly formed by the encounters with nature that Thomas experiences on his trip from London to the Quantocks nearly a century ago. An aesthetic, observant writer, Thomas is heir to a long tradition of thoughtful British naturalists from Gilbert White in the 18th century onwards. And he’s such a sweet man. Of the many books that have been published that cross nature-writing with travel-writing, I choose Thomas for his simple strength of character, his dedicated love of his family and the world around him, and for the poignancy of his death. Having feared for the future of the natural world, his own life was snuffed out a few years later in the first world war.
9. The World’s Vanishing Animals by Cyril Littlewood and DW Ovenden
An unashamedly nostalgic choice. Published in two volumes (mammals and birds) in 1969, this was my introduction to the idea that extinction wasn’t just for dinosaurs and dodos. I used to pore over Denys Ovenden’s illustrations of familiar polar bears and black rhinos, and less familiar takahes and nyalas, and wonder whether I could do anything to help. Published by the Wildlife Youth Service, part of Peter Scott’s WWF, it was a call to action for young folk. Trouble is, we haven’t fully listened to it. The book’s dustjacket records that about 1,000 animal species were faced with extinction at time of publication: today, the World Conservation Union’s Red List of animals about which to be concerned contains over 16,000 entries.
10. The Peregrine by JA Baker
The last in my list is, perhaps oddly, a book I haven’t yet read. I’ve included it because I’ve only recently heard about it, I can’t wait to read it, and I don’t see why I can’t find something new in this list, as well as you. By all accounts, the book is a reminder of the wildness of England (it was published in 1967), and a tour de force of language as Baker explains over and over again, yet grippingly and compellingly, the daily hunts of a local falcon. Eventually, apparently, one gets the sense that he and the falcon are as one. Sounds superb. And which book did I bump to get The Peregrine on the list? Darwin’s The Origin of Species. It’s a great and important book. But then, you already knew that.