The Stubborn Light of Things: A Nature Diary, our November Book of the month, charts Melissa Harrison’s move from south London to the rural Suffolk countryside. Katherine Venn reviews.
‘I met an English elm this week, quite unexpectedly, in a new neighbour’s garden.’
The Stubborn Light of Things is a book that allows surprising encounters like this to bump up against the ordinariness of daily life and its constant shiftings; shiftings that mirror the quiet change of the seasons. It’s a compilation of Melissa Harrison’s Nature Notebook columns in The Times, mapping not just the passing of almost six years, but the author’s move from London to Suffolk – which turns out to be one of the central concerns of the book: the untruth of setting the countryside above the city as a place to encounter nature, explicitly rejecting the ‘classic “nature-starved Londoner makes new life in rural idyll” narrative’.
As a tree-loving Londoner myself, often these days asking if the city is ready to let me go, I found myself nodding along with Harrison as she points out that London is, in fact, a paradise for nature lovers. But even still I was amazed to read that two thirds of London’s landscape is made up of gardens, parks, woods and water; and a much more diverse habitat than I’d realised, including
acid and chalk grasslands, grazing marsh, heathlands and reed beds. It may seem surprising, but many parts of the capital are more wildlife-friendly than traditional farmland, where non-organic agriculture can create monocultures in which little else thrives.
The Stubborn Light of Things is charged with the nature that’s on so many of our doorsteps – it begins, in August, with the ‘outlaw plants’ that take ‘tiny, unsanctioned purchase’ in pavements – and delights in such ordinary pleasures as shaggy ivy, the foxes that are London’s genii loci, pollarded fists of plane trees, the beetling gait of clockwork-toy ladybirds, aquatints of ash trees, the bright gapes of crocuses… Harrison has an easy, conversational style that offers up these gems in a way that somehow matches their easy beauty.
I wasn’t sure, initially, that it would work to read these monthly columns in book form; wouldn’t reading about spring unfurling into summer while, outside, autumn progresses, feel a little odd – and not just once, but again, a few more times? In fact there was an intriguing time-lapse effect in spooling through the monthly updates, the years. We revisit places, track building work, share Harrison’s sadness when swifts lose two nesting sites.
Harrison’s a deeply friendly presence in the book. In the introduction she writes that her hope is to ‘engender a connection to the natural world that feels as rich and rewarding’ as it does to her: and part of that connection is made by the way she offers up small glimpses of herself, how, like those weeds and wildflowers, the natural world has sprung up in and around her life, and how she’s learnt to pay attention. The Stubborn Light of Things is a book that invites all kinds of connections: as I read, I found myself in its pages, delighting in the places I knew, the recognition of the magic trick of learning birdsong, collecting places to visit and, surprisingly, being drawn in by the very circularity I wasn’t sure would work: I kept reaching back to remember what had been going in my life in the months she writes through. And of course the spectre of the pandemic, and lockdown, looms as 2019 ticks over into 2020.
The second part of Harrison’s hope for her writing is that any connection her readers feel goes on to inspire them to protect the natural world; and so this is a concern that crops up again and again as she flags various projects across the capital, invites readers – wherever they are – to log sightings of species. The very down-to-earth world of surveys and projects engenders its own kind of connection, building a sturdy bridge for those who might otherwise find nature writing overly romantic. There’s a lovely sleeves-rolled-up, get-stuck-in vibe to these invitations, which counterbalance beautifully the more arresting encounters with trees, birds, remains of animals.
About two-thirds of the way through the book ‘City’ gives way to ‘Country’ as Harrison moves to Suffolk (while still living in London part-time). Although she has already given the lie to the fact that nature and wildlife can’t be found in cities in general and London in particular, the move seems to intensify things, as though the volume is turned up – even as she writes beguilingly and invitingly of the fact that she has ‘come to a place of extraordinary silence’: a silence that feels pregnant, rich.
Birds seem, above all, to be Harrison’s listening apparatus, and we are treated to her rapturous meetings with a barn owl, then a nightingale:
Hearing a nightingale sing is like briefly falling in love, so utterly intense an experience it is; given their rapid decline it also provokes the same half-stifled sense of precariousness and loss. When at last I managed to tear myself away – joy-struck, heartsore, flooded with feeling – everything around me appeared even more beautiful than before.
This sense of decline, flagged throughout the book, also amplifies in Suffolk; on just the next page, it’s swallows that sound Harrison’s alarm. ‘Something in the intensity of the relief I felt at their return gave me pause’, she writes; ‘how much longer can we keep expecting the natural world to bounce back?’
And this is a profound benefit of the columns being collected together like this: it’s impossible to ignore the repeated alarm call of the crisis we’re facing. ‘Human lives are short and we take too much for granted’. As beautiful as this book is, it’s not an unambiguously comfortable read. Getting to its last pages is to feel the full force of the current terrifying decline of habitat, wildlife, nature itself. Similarly it was also impossible to read The Stubborn Light of Things – as increased restrictions began to be put in place around the country – without feeling as though it is haunted by the spectre of coronavirus: waiting for the coming pandemic to be mentioned at the end of the book, knowing that it’s just over the page. Harrison captures the strange comfort of this year’s spring:
For some, spring is making confinement feel worse; but I find it immensely comforting to sense the seasons’ ancient rhythm, altered but as yet uninterrupted, pulsing slow beneath our human lives. Suffolk’s nightingales will return, and if none sing near enough for me to enjoy them this year, of course I’ll be disappointed; but the natural world exists in spite of our requirements and our depredations, and it’s in precisely this that lies its enduring strength. Onward spring romps, as miraculous and dizzying as ever, whether humans are there to witness it or not.
Miraculous and dizzying; this is a book that encourages such encounters, as well as the tuning in to the slower, gentler pulses of connection that undergird our lives, wherever we live. Melissa Harrison is a gift of a guide, and a gift of a writer, and I hope that this book will, in myriad ways, prove to be a gift to many readers. If she succeeds in her hopes, it may also end up being a gift to the natural world she so treasures.
The Stubborn Light of Things is published this Thursday by Faber. Order your copy here, priced £14.99.