Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: No backbone but teeming with life

A A A

Who buys encyclopaedias these days? I am old enough to remember the encyclopaedia salesman, a stoical figure who went hopefully from door to door trying to get sceptical householders to purchase all the world's knowledge, leather-bound in 24 volumes, on the instalment plan; the selling point was that this would help get little Johnny or little Jane through their school exams and into university.

We have no more need of that, thanks to the Net and the all-conquering Wikipedia, which can not only be consulted, but downloaded straight into Johnny and Jane's essays. Yet proper encyclopaedias, the bound volumes, were not only useful, they gave a particular pleasure, especially to anyone with an enquiring mind, as their great landscapes of fact could be wandered through at will. You could lose yourself in browsing them, moving seamlessly from Norman Conquest (1066 invasion of England) to Norman Conquest (thriller writer).

I have rediscovered that pleasure with a big fat book which does something new: it gives proper recognition and due prominence to our very small creatures. Peter Marren's Bugs Britannica is a 500-page encyclopaedia of Britain's invertebrates, the creatures without backbones, which are overwhelmingly insects, but also spiders, snails, woodlice, worms, lobsters, oysters, sea anemones, jellyfish and many others. If you consider that we have fewer than 80 native mammals in Britain and only about 225 breeding birds, the fact that we have 4,034 species just of beetle, and 40,000 species of invertebrate in total may make you realise that most of the life in the world around us exists at a lower, less visible level. But a no less fascinating one, as Marren makes abundantly clear in a book which is as much about people as it is about bugs: it is about our reactions to them, in fact, in folklore, in literature and in legend.

In this it follows the pattern set by Richard Mabey, whose best-selling Flora Britannica in 1996 established a new sort of book about the natural world: it was a cultural flora rather than a botanical one. Mark Cocker's Birds Britannica in 2005 triumphantly repeated the trick for the bird world, and now Peter Marren has done it for creepy-crawlies. (Richard Mabey's name is also on the cover as inventor of the model, so to speak, and adviser, but Marren is the sole author.) Flora and Birds were both outstanding books, but it seems to me that Marren's is the greatest achievement, for wild orchids and eagles naturally inspire many thousands of people, but how many are inspired by woodlice? Yet to learn the literary associations of woodlice left me fascinated: Thomas Carlyle, Flaubert, Tennyson, Swinburne, TF Powys and Iris Murdoch are just a few of the writers who have taken notice of these not entirely charismatic crustaceans.

Marren, in fact, lights up every invertebrate family, writing with zesty humour and sympathy about the scourges of mankind, through a five-page apologia for cockroaches, an even longer and quite unputdownable cultural history of fleas, and a riveting account of the differing aspects of flies, including both "the divine purpose of flies" and "the worthlessness of flies". (And wait till you read him on maggots). He produces an appealing essay on oysters and a book within a book on spiders. He explains how "the mild, damp climate of Britain is one of the most earwig-friendly on earth" and how honeydew, with its name so decorous, comes "dropping like sugary rain from the bottoms of vast numbers of tiny aphids feeding in the foliage." And of course, he dilates at length upon the insects to which we are naturally drawn, the ladybirds, the dragonflies, the damselflies, and most of all the butterflies and the moths, the moths with their mystery if anything drawing his sympathy even more than the butterflies with their beauty.

It's a quarter of a million words. You can't possibly read it through in one go. You're not even meant to. It's a compendium you're meant to refer to and browse, like people used to, and as you turn the sumptuously illustrated pages, the world of small things unfolds for you in ways you might never have imagined. It is quite magnificent. No one who is seriously interested in the natural world in Britain should miss it.

Stopped in our tracks on a Normandy road

On a brief half-term trip to Normandy early this week, the hay meadows were bright with buttercups (they still have old-fashioned grasslands over there), chaffinches and blackcaps were singing in the orchards and the cuckoo was calling. (In France they say that if you have money in your pocket when you hear your first cuckoo of the spring, you will have money all year round. I didn't have a thing.) But the highlight was something else – a dark shadow crossing our path.

It was on a country road about 100 yards ahead of us and my wife said: "What's that?" For a second I thought it was a crow, but as we approached I briefly saw it in silhouette, an animal like an elongated fox with a long dark tail, and I realised that it was a beast unknown in Britain: la fouine, the beech marten, a relative of our pine marten, hated by French farmers for the raids it makes on their chicken runs. It was only the size of a small dog, yet the sight of it excited me almost as much as the first time I saw a wild elephant in Africa. It was something to do with its unfamiliarity, a new animal, and also that silhouette, which in its sharp intent had "predator" written all over it, splendidly sinister.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

For further reading

'Bugs Britannica' by Peter Marren (with Richard Mabey) Chatto and Windus, £35.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
This weekend's 'Big Hero 6' by Disney Animation Studios
arts + ents
News
i100
News
Budapest, 1989. Sleepware and panties.
newsDavid Hlynsky's images of Soviet Union shop windows shine a light on our consumerist culture
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
News
In humans, the ability to regulate the expression of genes through thoughts alone could open up an entirely new avenue for medicine.
science
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Transport Administrator / Planner

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Associate - London

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL FIRM - A...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Law Costs - London City

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - EXCELLENT FIRM - We have an outstandin...

Austen Lloyd: In-House Solicitor / Company Secretary - London

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: IN-HOUSE - NATIONAL CHARITY - An exciting and...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee