The week in radio: Radio 4's walk on Iceland's wild side isn't full of the joy of nature


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The Independent Culture

Nature? I don't see a lot of it these days, at least not beyond the sad pot plant in my bathroom and the seagulls that drag bits of old rubbish on to my roof under the pretext of building a nest. I grew up surrounded by nature in the depths of the West Country and, after a childhood spent literally up to my elbows in sheep, I can safely say I've had my fill.

Hearing nature on the radio, though, that's a different thing altogether. Who doesn't love the sound of creatures in their natural habitat doing whatever it is that creatures do? The only problem is that the natural world so rarely sounds how you imagine it to.

Take this week's episode of Nature on Radio 4, which was the first of a new series. Glossing over the problem of the title, which has always struck me as though someone couldn't be arsed coming up with a name and just wrote "Nature" on an early reel, this first instalment found the wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson inspecting the multifarious wonders of Iceland and, specifically, the island of Surtsey, which he had been given special permission to visit.

I was curious about this island that emerged out of the ocean just over 50 years ago off Iceland's south-west coast after a volcanic eruption and has since been protected, providing biologists with a pristine laboratory in which to observe the process of colonisation by plants and animals.

But first, Watson wanted to introduce us to the Iceland known in tourist brochures as the "land of ice and fire," which grows by 2cm every year and is twice the size that it was 10 million years ago.

His description of this "evolving and often hostile landscape with its vast groaning glaciers, spouting geysers and erupting volcanoes" was compelling, allowing the listener's imagination to do the work. But then he stuck his microphone near one of said spouting geysers and the magic was gone. It sounded exactly like a carwash.

Watson went on to rhapsodise over the spectacle of a waterfall and my mind's eye did its best to get into gear, despite the fact that all I could hear was a jet spray. Then he decided to go for a walk.

"I think you can get a lot of the character of the landscape at this altitude just by listening to how it sounds as you walk across it," he said, a note of awe in his voice. No we can't, Chris, we can hear shoes crunching on stones. For all his exotic travels, he could have been marching across his front drive, or in a sound booth jumping up and down on a tray of cat litter.

On Surtesy, we heard the distant call of lesser black-backed gulls (not my favourite sound given the roof situation, but I won't blame Nature for that) and the crashing of waves, but the spell had already been broken.

This is the problem with the world's most wondrous landscapes – you need to see them for yourself, if not directly then on telly, ideally in wide angle with David Attenborough somewhere in shot declaiming about the disintegration of the planet.

If you want nature piped direct to your bedroom, Radio 4's early-morning Tweet of the Day is a far better proposition. Before dawn on Monday, I heard the irritable call of the grey heron, introduced by Chris Packham who gave us the minute-long lowdown on the bird's character and habits. Simplicity and brevity is key here.

There was no grand landscape to breathe in, just the single squawk of a hungry bird in winter. That's enough nature for me.