It has been said more than once in the recent past that we appear to be in a golden age of nature writing, that is, of explorations of the natural world and our relationship to it – a development which perhaps has been prompted by the growing sense of just how threatened the natural world is becoming. And there is certainly support for that idea if we look at the books about nature published in the past year, many of which are distinguished. So as a final aid to Christmas shopping, if you like, here is my own short catalogue of some of the best nature books of 2014.
Heading my list is Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk (Jonathan Cape, £14.99), which in November carried off the Samuel Johnson prize and was thus officially crowned as the best British non-fiction book of the year – and worthily so.
It is a quite remarkable story of how a woman falconer attempts to cope with the grief of her beloved father’s death by losing herself in training a goshawk, one of most difficult birds in falconry to cope with; but effortlessly blended with these two powerful themes of death and of wildlife is a third, a striking biographical sketch of T H White, the often-tormented writer who produced the celebrated novel sequence about King Arthur’s court, The Once and Future King.
Why? Because White himself tried to train a goshawk and wrote a book about it; but he merely attempted to break the bird’s will, and failed disastrously. Helen Macdonald, however, a falconer since her teenage years, and immensely knowledgeable, gets inside the spirit of her own bird and they become almost as one.
The combined drama of these three rotating themes, her grief, her goshawk, and her predecessor’s failure, is wholly novel and is compelling; the portrait of her hawk, the exquisite, deadly killing machine which gradually becomes her partner, is enthralling; the lyricism infusing the whole work is enchanting. The book is unforgettable.
My second choice for the year is A Message from Martha by Mark Avery (Bloomsbury, £16.99), the story of the extinction of the passenger pigeon in the US, which had probably been the most numerous bird in the world in the mid-19th century, its flocks numbering in the billions and taking days to pass a given point; yet by 1914 it was reduced to a single bird (named Martha) in Cincinnati Zoo, which died on 1 September of that year.
National Geographic photography contest 2014
National Geographic photography contest 2014
1/17 Nature Winner
Jump of the wildebeest at the Mara River. Photo Location: North Serengeti, Tanzania
Photo and caption by Nicole Cambré
2/17 Nature - Honorable Mention
On a windy day right after a Cyclone passed the far northern Great Barrier Reef I took some friends out to the reef. Never before I saw that many glass fish on this particular coral 'bommie'. Just when i setup my camera, this Napoleon Wrasse swam right through the school of fish building a living frame. Photo Location: Cairns, Great Barrier Reef, Flynn Reef, Australia
Photo and caption by Christian Miller
3/17 Nature - Honorable Mention
Honorable Mention: Stag Deer Bellowing in Richmond Park. Photo Location: Richmond Park, London, UK
Photo and caption by Prashant Meswani
4/17 Nature - Honorable Mention
A wild short eared owl completes a shoulder check in case something was missed. Northern harriers were also hunting in the field and these raptors will often steal a kill from the owls. Photo Location: Boundary Bay, BC, Canada.
Photo and caption by Henrik Nilsson
5/17 Nature - Honorable Mention
This playful fight amongst two young sub adult Tigers was indeed a brilliant life time opportunity, that lasted exactly 4-5 seconds. The cubs were sitting in the grass as dusk approached when suddenly one of them sneaked up behind the other and what happened next is captured in this image. This playful fight amongst the siblings is what prepares them for their survival in the wild. The sheer power of the Tiger is beautifully captured in this image and portrays the sheer muscle power that these magnificent cats possess. Photo Location: Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India.
Photo and caption by Archna Singh
6/17 Nature - Honorable Mention
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, is the world's largest inactive volcanic caldera. It is a collapsed volcano that harbours a range of African wildlife that live in relatively close proximity and competition of each other. Zebras are amongst the most common animals in the crater along with wildebeest, gazelles, hyenas, and lions. On a clear day, a 360º view of the crater rim can be seen whilst being inside. Photo Location: Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania
Photo and caption by Zik Teo
7/17 Nature - Honorable Mention
Ice art on the window. Photo Location: Estonia Tabasalu
Photo and caption by Maie Kirnmann
8/17 Grand-Prize Winner and People Winner
In the last ten years, mobile data, smartphones and social networks have forever changed our existence. Although this woman stood at the center of a jam-packed train, the warm glow from her phone told the strangers around her that she wasn't really there. She managed to slip away from "here" for a short moment; she's a node flickering on the social web, roaming the Earth, free as a butterfly. Our existence is no longer stuck to the physical here; we're free to run away, and run we will. Photo Location: Hong Kong
Photo and caption by Brian Yen
9/17 People - Honorable Mention
Disabled children living in Syria war. Photo Location: Syria - Termanin
Photo and caption by Abdullah Alghajar
10/17 People - Honorable Mention
Our road trip down to Miami traversed this outlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We rested on this ridge overlooking the mountains. Though we argued consistently throughout the journey, here we were reminded of our brotherhood. Photo Location: Blue Ridge Parkway
Photo and caption by Tyler G
11/17 People - Honorable Mention
The chef of Ramnami people in Chhattisgarh,India. Ramnami tattoo the name of the lord “Ram” on their body. Their entire focus is on the name of Ram, the name of God that is most dear to them. The Ramnami Samaj is a sect of harijan (Untouchable) Ram. Formed in the 1890s, the sect has become a dominant force in the religious life of the area. The tattoo is the result of their devotion and also, a gift and an acknowledgement from Ram. Photo Location: India, Chhattisgarh
12/17 People - Honorable Mention
Seekers of eternal youth coat themselves in mineral-rich mud, at the Dead Sea in Israel. Photo Location: Dead Sea, Israel
13/17 People - Honorable Mention
He was waiting on the bed, lost in thoughts, while his wife was preparing the bread to be blessed for the orthodox Eucharist. Photo Location: Village of Sarbi, Maramure, Romania
14/17 Places Winner
The thermal spas in Budapest [are] one of the favorite activities of Hungarians, especially in winter. We were fortunate to gain special access to shoot in the thermal spa thanks to our tour guide, Gabor. I love the mist, caused by the great difference in temperature between the hot spa water and the atmosphere. It makes the entire spa experience more surreal and mystical. Photo Location: Budapest, Hungary
Photo and caption by Triston Yeo
15/17 Places - Honorable Mention
During I was taking photo with my nephew, the storm came and I caught this beautiful moment. Photo Location: Kocaeli, Turkey
Photo and caption by Aytül AKBAŞ
16/17 Places - Honorable Mention
Birds fly over the destroyed houses in Khalidiya district in Homs, Syria. In the vast stillness of the destroyed city center of Homs, there are large areas where nothing moves. Then, suddenly, wind blows a ripped awning, or birds fly overhead. Photo Location: Homs, Syria.
Photo and caption by Sergey Ponomarev
17/17 Places - Honorable Mention
I was up at an ungodly hour to make it to the Tsukiji Fish Market, in Tokyo. With so many amazing things to see in the city, I had hardly slept, and managed to get off at the wrong station. Wave after wave of people kept coming through the station passageway. I spied a coffee shop with a vantage point and managed to snap a free shots, camera resting on the ledge. After the caffeine kicked in, i was ready to brave the river of people... Photo Location: Shinagawa Station, Tokyo, Japan
Photo and caption by Peter Franc
Avery’s story, written for the 100th anniversary of the species’ extinction, documents in riveting detail the mass slaughters by commercial hunters which immediately precipitated the passenger pigeon’s collapse, but also looks for deeper reasons for the bird’s decline, and finds it in ecology: the disappearance of its habitat, America’s old-growth forests, and its dependence on the size of its flocks for defence against predators, so that the decline became self-reinforcing.
His account is gripping and ends with an ominous British parallel – the much-loved turtle dove, which itself appears to be heading for extinction here. Required reading for all nature lovers.
My third choice is Claxton by Mark Cocker (Jonathan Cape, £14.99), a vivid exploration of the wildlife surrounding the eponymous village on the edge of the Norfolk Broads over the course of a year. There is an established British tradition for doing this, from Gilbert White’s A Natural History of Selborne onwards, but Cocker departs from the normal narrative manner and his portrait is made up of short, vibrant, impressionistic sketches about the wild geese, the otters and the foxes, the peregrine falcons and all the other stunning life of his damp corner of Norfolk. The detailed observation is often breathtaking; the language sometimes verges on the Shakespearean (“A great floating slobber of spawn lolled in the shallows.”) Memorable.
There are other books I would mention but can only do so briefly. Those who enjoy H is for Hawk may well enjoy A Sparrowhawk’s Lament by David Cobham, with illustrations by Bruce Pearson (Princeton University Press, £24.95), a very detailed and engrossing account of the health or otherwise of Britain’s birds of prey, and fans of A Message from Martha will enjoy The Passenger Pigeon by Erroll Fuller (Princeton, £19.95), a much shorter account which is, however, sumptuously illustrated; while lovers of lepidoptera will be much taken with Seeing Butterflies by Philip Howse (Papadakis, £16.99), a butterfly guide not like all the others.
Finally, a book I have much enjoyed myself has been My Year With Hares by Martin Hayward Smith, (£27.95), full of enchanting photos of one of my favourite wild animals.
It is beginning to look like a golden age for nature writing, indeed.Reuse content