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

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.


For further reading

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