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How To See Nature by Paul Evans

4 out of 5 stars

The closest some people get to nature now days is the motorway verge seen at 70 (ish) mph. Some people don’t even have that opportunity at home, with gardens becoming an outdoor space that the wilder aspects are banished from. It is not a recent problem though as back in the 1940s, Shropshire naturalist and photographer Frances Pitt also wrote a book called How to See Nature, that was aimed at helping evacuees who were encountering the countryside for the first time. Evans, who is the Guardian nature writer, was asked by the same publisher as Pitt, to write a modern version of the book to appeal to people who are as nature deficient as those eighty years ago.

The best place to start looking for the natural world is your back garden, or if you aren’t fortunate to have a garden a local park is a good place. Evans is here to accompany you on the journey back to connect back to nature. He will take us from our local area where you can see all manner of creatures at night if you take the time to look, right up to the wild moors via our hedges, verges and woodlands in the search on our national wildlife. A glimpse of a small mammal that could have been a pine marten, the reality was it was probably a polecat, but Evans had that glimmer of hope. Pine martens were supposed to be only living in the wilds of Scotland but were actually right under peoples noses in select spots in England and Wales.

The point of the book is to get you to reset the way that you look at the world, take the time to step away from the modern distractions and get outside. I liked the list of flora and fauna that you could find in most locations in the UK. It is not an exhaustive list, but enough variety to give you a range of things to see with a small amount of effort. He has similar goals to Simon Barnes in Rewild Yourself, which would be a good companion volume to read with this. Evans has a lovely way of writing, evocative with an eye for the detail in the bigger picture. It has a stunning cover by Harding (The Salt Path Cover) and artwork inside by Maria Nunzia, so will look good on your shelf too.

The Hen Harrier by Donald Watson

3 out of 5 stars

The hen harrier is a ground-nesting raptor that you can find in our upland landscapes such as Scotland,  Wales, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man. The males are grey in colour and the larger females, known as ringtails, are brown with a banded tail. There are sadly very few left birds left in the landscapes of England as this bird suffers tremendous persecution from gamekeepers on large estates where they keep grouse for shooting.

Beginning with a chapter on harriers from around the world and how to identify them, Watson moves on to the history of the bird in the UK with lots of detail on their life cycle from pairing up to the chicks fledging and where they migrate to. The second section of the book covers observations of harriers in the southern part of Scotland on moorland and the few that live in forests. These detailed studies on breeding, nesting, roosting and hunting were undertaken by Watson and other from the 1950s up until 1975.

The book was first published in 1977 and is the culmination of several peoples observations taken over a number of years. This distilled knowledge did get very detailed at times with precise notes on the observations undertaken replicated in here. However, as these were such a long time ago now, it does feel a bit out of date. He is not quite as lyrical as J A Baker, who to be frank, is in a class of his own, however, the narrative is very readable and his enthusiasm for the subject is evident.

I loved the little sketches of the birds he has drawn of the birds that they were observing. Even though the Hen Harrier is a protected species, the issue of them being illegally killed is still an issue, 42 years after this was first written. It is something that Mark Avery, who writes the forward in this edition, is extremely passionate about, so much so that he wrote a book on it, Inglorious, which is in my TBR pile and will be read soon. There are also lots of campaigns to get this practice stopped, and more details can be found here.

Magnificent Women and Their Revolutionary Machines by Henrietta Heald

Welcome to Halfman, Halfbook for my stop on the Blog Tour for Magnificent Women and Their Revolutionary Machines by Henrietta Heald and published by Unbound

About the Book

‘Women have won their political independence. Now is the time for them to achieve their economic freedom too.’

This was the great rallying cry of the pioneers who, in 1919, created the Women’s Engineering Society. Spearheaded by Katharine and Rachel Parsons, a powerful mother and daughter duo, and Caroline Haslett, whose mission was to liberate women from domestic drudgery, it was the world’s first professional organisation dedicated to the campaign for women’s rights.

Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines tells the stories of the women at the heart of this group – from their success in fanning the flames of a social revolution to their significant achievements in engineering and technology. It centres on the parallel but contrasting lives of the two main protagonists, Rachel Parsons and Caroline Haslett – one born to privilege and riches whose life ended in dramatic tragedy; the other who rose from humble roots to become the leading professional woman of her age and mistress of the thrilling new power of the twentieth century: electricity.

In this fascinating book, acclaimed biographer Henrietta Heald also illuminates the era in which the society was founded. From the moment when women in Britain were allowed to vote for the first time, and to stand for Parliament, she charts the changing attitudes to women’s rights both in society and in the workplace.

About the Author

Henrietta Heald is the author of William Armstrong, Magician of the North which was shortlisted for the H. W. Fisher Best First Biography Prize and the Portico Prize for non-fiction. She was chief editor of Chronicle of Britain and Ireland and Reader’s Digest Illustrated Guide to Britain’s Coast. Her other books include Coastal Living, La Vie est Belle, and a National Trust guide to Cragside, Northumberland.


My Review

As World War one started the drain of men to go and fight began to affect the ability of factories to produce the ordinance and supplies that the army needed to fight. They turned to the women to work in the factories, but some would not just do the simple repetitive tasks that are needed to make simple items, they would step up and learn the trade so they could construct places and some went onto design new things.

By the end of the war though, the UK government and unions wanted to return to the previous status quo and parliament was set to pass the Restoration Of Pre-War Practices Bill which would mean that any women employed by engineering companies who had not employed women in that role would have to sack them or face a fine. This went against what was happening in wider society, as some women were just starting to get the vote and play a more meaningful role in a society that had changed after the war.

There were some women who were not prepared to take this, in particular, Katharine and Rachel Parsons and Caroline Haslett, who, in 1919 created the Women’s Engineering Society. They had several aims, but the core focus was to ensure that women’s rights were protected and promoted and they really had their work cut out. The book is mostly about the two main women involved in society and how one became the leading professional engineer of her age and the other whose life ended in tragedy.

However there is much more to this book than just these two characters, there are stories of women who created their own women-only engineering businesses, improved worker safety, became marine engineers and mechanics, pilots and racing drivers and engine designers. It was really hard to make inroads against the status quo, but they stuck at it and with the impending war, they were going to become useful once again.

Henrietta Heald has written a really good book about the history of the Women’s Engineering Society and about two much-maligned sectors of society, women and engineers. It is very readable and full of details and anecdotes about all sort of female engineers and their achievements and it is very timely. My father was an engineer during his career and worked in the navy and was then an inspector for pressure vessels. I am an engineer too having studied, electronic and then mechanical engineering and have worked in defence, hi-fi and lighting industries. For me, this is an important book as my daughter is just about to embark on her apprenticeship as an engineer for a large local company and she will be accompanied by two other girls in this years intake approaching near to the 30% target they have set by 2030.

For those want to see just what women are capable of in STEM then have a look at this thread


Don’t forget to visit the other blogs on the blog tour

Buy this book at your local independent bookshop. If you’re not sure where your nearest is then you can find one here

My thanks to Anne Cater from Random Things Through My Letterbox and Unbound for the copy of the book to read.

Epitaph for the Ash by Lisa Samson

4 out of 5 stars

First, it was the elms, ravaged by Dutch Elm disease their magnificent frames that had punctuated the British countryside, vanished. Now it is the turn of another of our trees that hols a special place if our woodlands; the Ash. These trees are being ravaged by Chalara fraxinea or ash dieback.

The disease was first seen in Poland in the early 1990s and moved across the continent before being spotted in the UK in 2012 in a nursery and a year later was spotted in the wild in the UK. The spores travel easily in the wind and it has spread across the countryside, killing small trees completely and affecting larger trees significantly. It is thought that it will affect all ash trees in the end. There are a few glimmers of hope though, some trees are less affected than others and these are being used to breed resistant specimens.

Way back in 1978, Gerald Wilkinson wrote Epitaph for the Elm, a eulogy to the tree and his niece thought that with what was happening to the ash, she would write a book with a similar premise and that is why we have this book. Her journey around the UK will take her from the aptly named, Ashwellthorpe, the first place the disease was found to ancient forests in Scotland, a visit to Hardy’s Ash and Wenlock Edge to see the ash trees there before the spores blow over. As well as the visits to the notable copse’s of ash, there are cultural and folklore elements to the book too.

Part of the way through writing this book, Samson is diagnosed with a brain tumour. When it was diagnosed, she realised that it explained a lot of the symptoms that she had been suffering from. She came very close to death and even had to stop writing for a long period of time before she was well enough to begin travelling and writing again. Part of this book is about her battle with her tumour but does not take over the narrative, rather it adds a small, but no less significant parallel story, as she fights her own personal battle as the trees succumb to the disease.

Her illness knocked her for six and on the later trips, she is much less mobile and is often accompanied by her husband. I really liked her gentle style of writing, it has a certain amount of anger at the loss of these trees to a disease that could have kept out of the country. The ash coppices are there to comfort her and she uses them for healing and to bring her peace. I can also recommend, The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham and The Man Who Made Things out of Trees by Robert Penn is a book to read to see the number of different objects that can be produced by a single tree if you’re wanting to find out more about these trees.

The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham

4 out of 5 stars

Even though Ash got into the top ten of trees in a survey a couple of years ago, it is not the one that springs to mind for a lot of people. This is why you often find books and prose on the magnificent oak, beech, elm and yew. We don’t as much take them for granted, rather the ash is not visible in our day to days lives, so we tend to never think of it. It has been one of the most common trees, but with the arrival of Ash dieback, this could all change in the coming years.

The tree has a number of qualities that have made this an appealing tree to use since way back in the Neolithic time. It can be coppiced and pollarded and because of its versatility, ash has been used for tool handles, bowls, fodder for livestock, to warm our homes and you can even find it on the back of a Morris Minor Traveller. It is very rarely used in construction. An ash will support a number of species, hosting bats, lichens, and the bark even is a food for all sorts of animals and there are a lot of plants growing in the ground under the trees. In 2012 the first case of dieback appeared in the UK; it was inevitable as it had been tracked across Europe for a number of years, but it has the potential of killing all the ash trees in the country.

Rackham’s book covers all sorts of information about the uses of ash over the past millennia, as well as lots of detail on the disease that they are starting to succumb to. The greater threat though is from the Emerald Ash Borer, another insect that has been brought in to the UK as a side effect of the globalisation and international trade. He writes in a matter of fact style that belies that amount of research that has gone into the detail in the book, but his plea to those that read this book is that we take proper precautions to restrict items that are moved around the globe without any care for the possible damage and also that we start taking the protection of woodlands seriously.

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

3.5 out of 5 stars

Just of the latest boat from the UK in 1746, New York is a Mr Richard Smith. Gaining entry to a counting-house,  he presents the proprietor, Mr Lovell, with a demand for £1000. Staggered by the amount, he is not helping his cause by refusing to explain any details as to why he needs that amount of money and what the purpose of it will be for. Lovell initially doubts its legitimacy but a little more research seems to prove that it is a genuine order, helped by Smith claiming that proof will be following on the next ship due, so they decide not to honour it until that point.

His arrival adds fuel to the fire that there are spying and other nefarious things happening and Smith quickly becomes the centre of attention for all the citizens of the city. This notoriety means that he begins to get into lots of scrapes and suffers the misfortune of being robbed, almost killed, be challenged to a duel and be arrested for fraud. As well as falling in love…

There are several layers and subplots in this 18th-century story. Spufford seems to manage to keep each of the plates for these spinning well, making it quite readable and fairly fast-paced. Smith is an entertaining character, his boldness and naivety make for entertaining reading and he frequently sparks of the other main character, Tabitha Lovell. Liked the setting, New York feels fresh, edgy and slightly dangerous at this time. Very different to his non-fiction which I have read in the past and maybe a book for someone who wants to give historical fiction a go for the first time.

A Claxton Diary by Mark Cocker

5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Every day possible, Mark Cocker has taken a walk from his home alongside the Norfolk Broads National Park, down to the river near his home. These two-mile walks get him outside in the natural world and away from any screens or other distractions. It also gives him time to see the minute daily changes that happen, the imperceptible way that a tree changes from skeletal branches to the first flush of leaves, glimpsing the first of the spring flowers, spotting the first of the butterflies and noticing the arrival of the migrants after their long journeys. These are the things that flit through his vision and are then written about.

We know that at some level there is no such thing as season or month or week or even a day. There is just the liquid passage of time flowing across our lives that we chop and segment with these invented names to give it all clarity and structure.

He has distilled these walks into a series of columns that first were published in the Guardian and have now appeared here in a month by month diary. They are reproduced in day order, so the years jump around, but for me, that adds to the charm. You have the sense that these columns show the way that the world is changing too. His subjects vary from badgers to owls, to bees and flowers, as well as trees, climate, weather, bees, deer, fungi, frogs, oh, and bees again.

He doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life; that the hedgerow full of juvenile birds are more than likely to be the next meal for the sparrow hawk that he has just seen, the spiders catching and wrapping wasps and bumblebees and the swifts cutting through the sky eating the insects that are never going to get out of the way in time. But this is about the beauty of his regular haunts too, seeing the first flush of wildflowers, hearing the dawn chorus and the smell of summer rain. He does occasionally venture further afield and there are columns from Greece, Scotland and elsewhere in Norfolk.

This is another wonderful book by Cocker. He has been writing about the natural world for the past fifty years and while he has seen some of the world great creatures, he gets as much pleasure from the exotica that we can find around us if we care to look for it. It is a worthy continuation to his first, Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet, which I can also highly recommend along with this.

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Lidia Yuknavitch didn’t have a conventional upbringing. She and her sister suffered from verbal, physical, and sexual abuse from their father and sadly her depressed alcoholic mother chose not to intervene. There were people looking out for her though, her swimming coach worked well with her and she began to become and very competitive swimmer. They moved to Florida, with the intention of helping her with her training, but the tormented early life that she had had, caused her to seek solace in drugs and booze.

She was attracted to both men and women and spent a lot of time pushing the limits of her sexual exploration. She had an abortion and sadly a stillbirth, until one day she met a man called Andy and her life began to stabilise and settle with the birth of their son, Miles and a move to Portland, Oregan.

This is her memoir of a troubled early life and how she overcome abuse, drugs and alcohol to become the person she is now. It is quite amazing that she survived her earlier life. It has an unusual writing style, with short punchy sentences and brief chapters that are focused on one detail or episode of her life. The prose has a relentless energy and intensity that I haven’t come across before. If you’re not broadminded before reading this book, you will be after; it is quite some book.

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Life feels like one headlong rush at times. The phone squeaks constantly with notifications, demanding attention now, the 24 hour news fills our lives with politics and despair and yet time goes no faster than it did 5000 years ago. It grinds ceaselessly on, covering memories and objects with its gossamer-thin seconds. To go back in time, we need to unearth our landscapes and memories.

Time is a spiral. What goes around comes around.

The book opens with her in Alaska helping at an archaeological dig in a Yup’ik village. The site is normally frozen most of the year, but in the summer the cold relents, normally allowing the top four or five inches to be uncovered, however, climate change means that the permafrost is thawing to a depth of half a metre allowing more secrets of its hunter-gatherer past to be revealed. The objects that they are finding are enabling the village to re-discover their past. They found dance masks that were discarded after missionaries told them it was devil worship and for the first time in a very long time performed a dance that was pieced together from the elder’s memories.

The landscape was astonishing. There was nothing I wanted to do more than sit quietly and look at it, come to terms with its vastness.

Her next excursion to the past is at the Links of Noltland, up in Orkney. This Neolithic site has been covered by dunes and what they have found here was last seen by human eyes thousands of years ago. The need to excavate and understand just what is there, is urgent as it is subject to erosion from the storms that the Atlantic brings, as well as the other pressure of funding to carry out the work being stopped because of budget pressures. These people were only a step away from the wild and had short brutal lives and yet they were skilled enough to have devised a method when they built their homes to keep out the relentless wind.

They fill your hands, these fragments, these stories, but with a wide gesture, you cast them back across the field again.

Jamie writes of time spent in Xiahe in Tibet in her younger days, at the time of the student protests and the clampdown of martial law in the region and the palpable tension in the area. They explore as much as they can, but because they are foreigners, they have an undue amount of attention directed towards them, including the inevitable night raid by the police. There are other essays in here too, almost short interludes between the longer pieces. She stops her car to watch the mastery an eagle has over the air and consider the timelessness of a woodland. Some of the essays are more personal too, she recalls the moment of her fathers passing and struggles to hear her mother and grandmothers voices in her mind.

A new Kathleen Jamie book is a thing of joy, and Surfacing does not disappoint at all. Her wonderful writing is layered, building images of the things that she sees, until you the reader, feel immersed in the same place that she inhabited. Some of the essays are very moving, Elders in particular, but also The Wind Horse where you sense the tension in the town from what she observes. Her skill as a poet means, for me at least, that her writing has a way of helping you seen the world around in a new and different light, revealing as much from the shadows as from the obvious and this book is no different.

A Raindrop in the Ocean by Michael Dobbs-Higginson

3 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

There are those that achieve one or two notable things in their lifetime, writing a book, standing on top of mountains or some sort of sporting achievement. Given the number of thing that Michael Dobbs-Higginson has achieved, Zen Buddhist Monk, learning to speak Japanese, investment banking career, losing a fortune and gaining a fortune, surviving a encounter with the CIA, sailing the Atlantic, drug smuggling, and travelling all around the world, you’d think that he has lived several lives.

He would have carried on had he not been diagnosed with cancer, and this book is his recollection of the life that he lived. In in he tells the stories of how he became the person he is now, from his earliest days growing up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and the training that he undertook in Japan that gave him the balanced outlook that enabled him to face all that life threw at him with resilience and good humour.

It was an entertaining read, written in a straightforward, matter of fact style. At times it felt exhausting reading as he rushes about here and there, setting up businesses and even at one point designing a car. Even with his illness looming over the future, he still manages to be very positive and I think relishes the life he has been able to lead.

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