One of my books of 2020 was Into The Tangled Bank by Lev Parikian. It is a funny and thoughtful meander into how the British experience the natural world. It was published by Elliott and Thompson last week in paperback. As I really liked it I thought that I would tell you a little bit more about the book and then get Lev to answer some questions and tell us a little more about his new (!!!) book that is due to be published in September.
First a little bit about the book, in case you’ve not come across it:
Lev Parikian is on a journey to discover the quirks, habits and foibles of how the British experience nature. He sets out to explore the many, and particular, ways that he, and we, experience the natural world – beginning face down on the pavement outside his home then moving outwards to garden, local patch, wildlife reserve, craggy coastline and as far afield as the dark hills of Skye. He visits the haunts of famous nature lovers – reaching back to the likes of Charles Darwin, Etta Lemon, Gavin Maxwell, John Clare and Emma Turner – to examine their insatiable curiosity and follow in their footsteps.
And everywhere he meets not only nature, but nature lovers of all varieties. The author reveals how our collective relationship with nature has changed over the centuries, what our actions mean for nature and what being a nature lover in Britain might mean today.
And about Lev:
Lev Parikian is a writer, birdwatcher and conductor. His book Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? was published by Unbound in 2018. He lives in West London with his family, who are getting used to his increasing enthusiasm for nature. As a birdwatcher, his most prized sightings are a golden oriole in the Alpujarras and a black redstart at Dungeness Power Station.
Q & A
Firstly are the swifts back with you?
YES! And to much excitement. They were held up by cold weather pretty much everywhere, I think, but we saw our first in rather surreal fashion during a hailstorm on the evening of 5th May. It swooped down out of the gloom, darted around frantically for a minute and then disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, as if through a portal in the sky – it felt like a visitation from another world. It was a few days before the rest of them turned up – we have three or four nesting pairs in the houses either side most years – and now they’re swifting away like anything.
Are you still lounging around on pavements looking at wildlife?
Whenever possible! My most recent ground-level experience was photographing some Egyptian goose chicks (actually they’re more like teenagers now) at Tooting Common. Getting down to the level of the wildlife you’re interested in often gives a different perspective on things, although getting back up again is sometimes problematic!
What everyday creature, would you use to show people how great the natural world is?
For me it would probably have to be a bird – it needn’t be anything exotic – and all I’d do is say ‘look at it fly’. Take pigeons – much maligned, especially our ubiquitous city types, but if you discard prejudice and watch them fly – fast, manoeuvrable, wings held in a sharp V shape as they come into land with unerring accuracy – perhaps that’s a way in to looking at things through different eyes. It doesn’t really matter what it is – everyone has their preference – but I’d say the main thing is simply to develop a curiosity about things you might once have taken for granted. It works for me, anyway!
In between all the lockdowns, have you managed to make it to any nature reserves?
I had a wonderful trip to RSPB Rainham Marshes on my birthday in late April. I love exploring my very local and very urban patch, and have had plenty of opportunity to do so during the pandemic, especially given the subject of my next book, Light Rains Sometimes Fall (see below) – but sometimes it’s good to get away, and after such a long time confined to barracks this was a particularly enjoyable visit to a place I know well.
What was your top sighting in the past year?
Possibly the little egret that flew over the house early one morning quite out of the blue. For many people, who might live near a river or estuary or any kind of wetland, that would be a fairly routine sighting, but over a suburban south London garden it caused quite the stir. And I heard a black redstart singing on Piccadilly the other day – clearly audible over the rumble of traffic and general urban bustle. Terrific stuff.
What sort of kit would you recommend for an absolute beginner to start discovering wildlife in their local area?
Eyes and ears and a keen interest. But also a good pair of binoculars – they needn’t cost the earth – and a camera. With binoculars, it’s easy to be confused by all the jargon, but if you can get to a good optics shop where you can try out a few pairs to see what feels comfortable, that’s a trip worth making. And a good bridge camera will enable you to take some decent photographs – helpful for identification as well as the intrinsic visual pleasure they can give – without the expense and cumbersomeness (if that’s a word) of the long-lens types.
When we can properly travel again, where are you heading to, to watch birds?
I haven’t yet decided, although if all goes well my work as a conductor will take me to Edinburgh, so a trip along the coast to places like Musselburgh Lagoons, Aberlady Bay and Bass Rock might well be in order.
What has been your favourite nature book of the past year?
It wouldn’t be fair to single one out, but I’ve recently particularly enjoyed reading a proof of Steve Rutt’s The Eternal Season, which is out in July. Does Josie George’s A Still Life count as ‘nature writing’? It’s a beautiful and honest memoir, and while there’s so much more to it, her observations on nature are imbued with intelligence and perception. Also, Richard Smyth’s An Indifference of Birds – a very short and fascinating look at how we’ve changed the world for birds.
What author(s) do you buy their books without even reading the blurb?
I actually very rarely read blurbs, especially for fiction – the result of a painful experience some years ago when the back cover blurb gave away (or hinted very strongly at) a plot twist that occurred on page 298 of a 330-page book. But I do rely strongly on the recommendations of people I trust. And when Unbound announced the crowdfunding of a new Douglas Adams book – a neat trick for someone who’s been dead for twenty years, and one of which he would no doubt have approved – you couldn’t see me for the clicking.
What are you currently reading and would you recommend it?
Two very contrasting books: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Richard Fortey’s Fossils, both of which get a strong thumbs-up. I’ve also just finished Eley Williams’s A Liar’s Dictionary and John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – again, they gave me enormous amounts of pleasure in different ways.
Can you tell me some more information about your forthcoming book, Light Rains Sometimes Fall?
With great pleasure! It’s the story of a year spent looking at the nature on my local urban patch in south London. I took inspiration from the traditional Japanese calendar, which divides the year into 72 very short microseasons – about five days each. It occurred to me that this was an excellent way of noticing and charting the small changes in the natural world through the year, as well as an incentive to really pay attention to my local patch. It comes out on 16th September.
Thank you to Lev for answering the questions I posed really quickly. I can recommend following his Twitter and signing up for his newsletter as his deadpan humour is hilarious.