Simon & Schuster, £14.99
The Beauty in the Beast, By Hugh Warwick
From studying toads to liberating beavers, these enthusiasts show the human face of 'biophilia' in Britain
Saturday 12 May 2012
A few years ago, Hugh Warwick achieved a modest success with A Prickly Affair, a charming if slightly batty book about hedgehogs and people who like hedgehogs.
With The Beauty In The Beast, he expands this basic idea to take on 15 wild creatures and their experts – people who have taken "one or two steps outside the bounds of what most people consider normal". He hopes they will convince him "of the beauty locked away within their chosen beasts", whether bats or dolphins.
Anyone expecting to find a Gerald Durrell-like gallery of eccentrics will be disappointed. Most of Warwick's animal "ambassadors" are "worryingly normal". True, they include a spiritualist whose approach to amphibia is to "open myself to toad spirits". But most of them are more like Denis Summers-Smith, who has a doctorate in uranium metallurgy and whose approach to house sparrows is impeccably scientific.
Several experts have unlikely day jobs. When we first meet the robin expert Andrew Lack, he is playing solo violin in The Lark Ascending. The head of the Whitchurch Community Water Vole Project is none other than the successful novelist Kate Long. Paul Ramsey lives in a castle and gives his captive beavers the run of his estate. Some fell in love with their favourite creature from the moment they set eyes on it as a child. Others got caught up in recording schemes, or conservation, or cutting-edge science. David MacDonald turned his PhD thesis into a brilliantly accessible book, Running With The Fox.
Much of this book is straightforward natural history. The enthusiasm of these animal ambassadors is catching, at least when related in Warwick's easy, sympathetic and humorous style. Not all of the encounters with animals are successes. The weather is often cold and wet. A strenuous evening of moth-hunting results in just a single dull and bedraggled specimen. In a spirit of kinship with the animal world, Warwick decides to have one of the beasts tattooed on his leg to keep his hedgehog company. The chosen one, surprisingly, is the toad. Warwick admires the way toads have stayed more or less the same since they "pulled themselves out of the gloop of the mid-Paleozoic" (which is not strictly true – they evolved much later). For him, part of the appeal of toads is that it is impossible to sentimentalise them. The toad's jewelled eyes look back at you without expression, but without the alienation either that you feel when eyeballing, say, a dragonfly.
This entertaining book is really an extended study of the concept of biophilia. The love of nature lies at the heart of things. As Stephen Jay Gould warned: "We will not fight to save what we do not love." The message is that you do not acquire it by watching Attenborough on the telly (all right as far as it goes) but by going out and getting your wellies wet.
Sympathetic contact with wildlife is "not just looking, not just seeing, but being completely aware of what is around you". Each animal, bird or insect "can act as a gateway through which we can learn to see more clearly the world around us".
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