Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Wet summers conceal a terrible surprise

Aerosol is a word most people associate with the bathroom, the kitchen or the garden shed: we tend to use it to mean a spray can, for deodorants, cleaners, weedkillers or whatever. But it has acquired this meaning by extension, and what it originally signified was the fine cloud of particles which come out of the spray can nozzle.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Orchids – the rare, refined beauties of the plant world

Might the day ever come when it would be thought inappropriate to express open and unqualified admiration for an orchid – I mean for its beauty, its elegance and its glamour? Well, stranger things have happened.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The flower whose smell brings back boyhood

Curious that a plant should have two separate smells: few living things present two quite different versions of themselves to our senses. Although I daresay there are more, I can think off-hand of only three which have such double identities – in sound, appearance and odour, respectively.

Nature Studies by Mike McCarthy: Worth being awake at 3am to hear this sound

Of all our imaginings, one of the most resonant is the idea of transformation. We are instantly fascinated by people changing identities, by things becoming different things, by frogs which turn into princes. Perhaps it's because one of our principal holds on reality is our instinctive belief, so hard to dislodge, that form is fixed, not fluid, and so to encounter any fundamental shift in form or nature gives us a jolt. Not that we do come across such shifts much, in the real world – the caterpillar changing into a butterfly is the prime exception – but our myths and legends and stories are chock-fullof them.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Glory in the splendour that is the month of May

Writing about the natural world is of necessity seasonal. Social Studies, say, or Economic Studies need make no reference to the time of year, but when your theme is Nature you can scarcely avoid it. And having now written 51 weekly examples of Nature Studies, beginning in late April last year with reflections on the blackthorn, and moving on through harebells in high summer, sweet chestnuts in autumn and alpine birds in mid-winter, I find myself back where I began, blossom-surrounded and birdsong-showered – knocking on the door of May.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Sweet birdsong that's like blossom in sound

The cottage looks out over a wide sea loch and across to the mountains in the distance. When we arrived, all the hills were hidden in cloud, but towards evening the banks of grey started to lift and first Blaven appeared, a peak as bulky as a prize bull, and then, in the sunset, the Cuillin ridge itself – a great jagged sawblade lit from behind by a blast of yellow light which slanted down onto the loch and turned the flickering waters to gold.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Man is a destroyer but can fix things, too

Our calamitous capacity for damaging and destroying the natural world has become ever clearer in recent years, and is widely remarked on, not least in pages such as these; what is much less remarked upon is our capacity for mending it.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Nothing so magical as the song of the nightingale

Listen to soundclips of the nightingale's song at the bottom of the page

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: We're overcoming a poisonous prejudice

Deep in our tissues lurks a forgotten emotion, forgotten because most of us no longer need it. It is a terrified fascination with our predators – animals whose prey we might be. It is clearly an ancient emotion, and it is clearly potent, and its existence was brilliantly illuminated and tapped into by Steven Spielberg when he directed Jaws in 1975 – creating at the age of 29 what was then the most profitable movie ever made.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Mere science cannot account for beauty

It has been well said that science gives us knowledge but takes away meaning. It certainly obliterates parts of the imagination, and I cannot be the only one who thought something was lost to us when Neil Armstrong plonked his great fat boot down on the moon, even while being in awe of the daring and the technological triumph. Why? Because the mystery was no more.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The bird that offers a clue to mankind's destiny

Anyone contemplating the ravages which humans are going to effect on non-human species in the 21st century should turn their attention to a remote area of southern Ethiopia, and a small plain near the town of Negele. This is the home of a diminutive songbird which the vast majority of people in the world have never heard of and never will, but whose fate nevertheless may mark a milestone in our destruction of the planet.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Why do sparrows thrive in America but not here?

Last spring I spent some time in the US looking at birds in Washington DC and New York City. That's not such an improbable idea as it may seem, for both metropolises harbour parks with wonderful wild bird populations, especially in May, when I was there: Washington has Rock Creek Park, a 2,000-acre stretch of natural forest to the north of the city centre, while New York's Central Park is an 800-acre green glade in the forest of skyscrapers.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The small-leaved lime, lost tree of England

Some myths are so tenacious as to be virtually unshakeable, and one such is that the national tree of England is the oak. There is no Act of Parliament proclaiming Quercus robur to be an official symbol of Englishness, but there doesn't need to be, with a belief which has such deep roots in Middle England's psyche that David Cameron's Conservative Party ditched Margaret Thatcher's red, white and blue "torch of freedom" in favour of an oak tree as the new Tory emblem (although I notice that these days they tend to fill in the tree's outline with the Union Jack, just in case anyone doesn't get the point. Didn't Dr Johnson say that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel?).

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: It's time Man stopped to consider Earth's health

Are there any limits on what humans can do? Asked rhetorically, the question invites the smiling, triumphant answer, No!, complete with happy-clappy exclamation mark. But to ask it the other way – that is, to ask it simply, in all seriousness – seems to me something that doesn't happen any more. In fact, the absence of this question seems to be a great gap at the heart of our current creed, which we might term liberal secular humanism, as we approach one of the climaxes of human history, which is the coming clash between humans as a species, and the Earth which is our only home.

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Why winter is a time to savour small pleasures

One of the compensations of the cold months in this country for anyone who enjoys the natural world is the great arrival from the north of wintering wildfowl, of wild ducks, wild swans, and above all, wild geese. Britain is a winter haven for hundreds of thousands of these waterbirds which breed in what the naturalist and writer Mark Cocker calls "the crown of the planet" – the halo of land around the Earth's northern latitudes, below the Arctic, from Canada, through Greenland, Iceland, Northern Scandinavia, Siberia, and back to Canada again.

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