Published by Transworld on May 22nd 2014
Genres: Gardening, General, Nature, Science, Earth Sciences, Seasons, Ecology, Ecosystems & Habitats, Wilderness
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WINNER OF THE THWAITES WAINWRIGHT PRIZE 2015
What really goes on in the long grass?
Meadowland gives an unique and intimate account of an English meadow’s life from January to December, together with its biography. In exquisite prose, John Lewis-Stempel records the passage of the seasons from cowslips in spring to the hay-cutting of summer and grazing in autumn, and includes the biographies of the animals that inhabit the grass and the soil beneath: the badger clan, the fox family, the rabbit warren,the skylark brood and the curlew pair, among others. Their births, lives, and deaths are stories that thread through the book from first page to last.
This lovely book made me feel I was in the company of the author while he was walking around or sitting in his nature-rich meadows in Herefordshire for a year.
I found myself laughing at some of his descriptions. “The river shouts with the abandon of a football crowd”. Bees feed on red clover stalks “with the desperation of Titanic survivors clinging to life rafts.” A jay flits into the thicket, “its progress signalled by its light-bulb rump,” while the bird’s call is “the sound of chalk being pulled down a blackboard.”
Lewis-Stempel is extremely knowledgeable, and shares his knowledge with the reader, but not so much that he overwhelms. Some of his statements are just mind-blowing: “Each acre of the meadow contains several hundred million insects. Together they weigh 0.2 tons.”
And he’s not afraid to be critical when he has to be. A neighbor devotes a field to holiday tipis, which he most definitely does not agree with. He is aware too that it’s too easy to watch nature programmes instead of actually getting outside and watching nature: “Has Autumnwatch not killed the experience of being an amateur naturalist?”
However, could we not argue that Meadowland could kill the experience of being an amateur naturalist? Both a TV programme and a book can either inspire one to get outside and explore nature for oneself, or make you think that because you love watching/reading nature programmes/books, then you “know” the natural world.
I feel another unease too about Meadowland and similar books. Wonderful as they are, they set the bar unrealistically high. We don’t all live near such nature-rich habitats as described by Lewis-Stempel. My local patch consists of highly fertilized and insecticide-sprayed potato and sugar beet fields, that I am sure don’t contain 0.2 tons of insects per acre, and definitely not otters, deer, badgers, etc. Reading of Lewis-Stempel seeing all these animals up-close can be dispiriting, especially when one’s local patch consists of just a handful of crows and lots of wood pigeons.
On the other hand, I can choose to be inspired, so that when I do travel to a more nature-rich environment, I can strive to emulate the author’s patience in just sitting still and observing.