Hunting Big Game in the City Parks by Howard G. Smith

This post is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.

This wonderfully titled book is a field guide to hunting for insects in the urban environment. Each chapter focuses on two or three species and the chapters have equally wonderful titles: The Tyrannosaurus Rex of the Flower Garden, Ruthless Bandit Kings and Hungry Tigers, Man-Eating Kangeroos and Music-Playing Warriors. With a keen sense of curiosity and wonder and a lot of patience Smith explores urban parks, swamps and his own back garden to uncover the often hidden and rarely seen lives of wasps, bees, ants, grasshoppers and beetles, amongst others. His adventures are beautifully illustrated by Anne Marie Jauss.

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From Prague to Budapest and home again

My partner and I spent the last two weeks cycling through Europe – specifically, we cycled from Prague to Budapest, via Vienna. Outside my familiar milieu of Amsterdam, work and chores, time seemed to stretch. The two week gap between finishing work and today somehow feels looser, as though time were a straight line that suddenly became a puddle.

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A Kestral for a Knave by Barry Hines

This post is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.

N.B. Possible spoilers.

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Enjoying ‘A Kestral for a Knave’ on the train

A Kestrel for a Knave tells the story of Billy Caspar, a young boy living in a South Yorkshire mining town referred to only as the the City. This unnamed City lurks at the edges of the book but Billy’s life is dominated by home, school and the fields in which he trains his kestrel, Kes. I was torn as to whether this book is in fact urban nature writing since urban nature is not really a focus of the book, however, something Hines notes in his afterword intrigued me.

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The Natural History of a Yard by Leonard Dubkin

This post is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.

In The Natural History of a Yard Leonard Dubkin provides his observations on the natural life of his yard in Chicago over the course of three summers. Dubkin describes the yard thus:

…a little plot of grass bordered by a privet hedge. A high iron fence separates the yard from Sheridan Road… Just behind the iron fence on either side of the driveway is a forsythia bush, and in the rear of the yard, before the entrance to the hotel, is a tall, stately elm tree. That is really all there is to it.

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The book is beautifully illustrated by Carl Kock

However, through Dubkin’s probing and close attention, we are shown that there is in fact much more to the yard than that. We meet a whole cast of characters – Dubkin’s daughter Pauline, Emil the gardener, Nutsy the squirrel, families of robins and screech owls, flocks of pigeons and sparrows, and a colony of carpenter ants – as well as various other insects and plants. Dubkin brings the yard to life with his stories about these animals (human and non-human) and plants. He is often ignorant (he readily admits to not being able to name most of the insects in the yard) and always curious, and his spirit of inquiry is infectious.

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The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay

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Rosebay Willowherb (Image used under a CC 2.0 BY license)

This post is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.

The World My Wilderness is set in 1946 and tells the story of 17 year-old Barbary Deniston, who has been living in Provence with her mother, Helen Michel, for the last seven years. Helen left her husband, Sir Gulliver, and son, Ritchie, in London. She later divorced her husband and married a Frenchman, who was accused of being a conspirator with the Nazis and killed by the French Resistance. The novel begins with Barbary moving to London, at the request of her father, to live with him and his new wife, Pamela, and to study painting at the Slade. Barbary’s stepbrother, Raoul, also moves to London to live with his uncle.

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Adventure Lit Their Star: The Story of an Immigrant Bird by Kenneth Allsop

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I love the cover on my edition of the book.

This post is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.

Adventure Lit Their Star: The Story of an Immigrant Bird tells the story of the little ringed plover[1], and one little ringer plover in particular, as the species attempts to breed in England for the first time. The first pair known to breed in England arrived in 1938.  They bred at a reservoir on the border of Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire. But it was from 1944 onwards that their numbers began to rise. Kenneth Allsop was a keen ornithologist and first sought out the little ringed plover in 1947. He found two nesting pairs, one in Wraysbury and one at a reservoir in Staines. Of these birds he writes in the book’s Foreword:

I was immediately arrested by the dramatic circumstances within this crowded and dingy stage-set, and gradually there grew upon me the urge to write the story of these pioneers. This I have tried to do. The result is a combination of personal observation, recorded data and imagination. Imagination was sparingly used, for I wanted the account to be truthful and factual, wild life as seen through binoculars’ lenses.[2]

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Birds in London by W.H. Hudson

Hudson_William_HenryThis post is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.

W.H. Hudson’s The Shepherd’s Life has been on my ‘to read’ list for a while, so I wasn’t expecting my first foray into Hudson’s work to be a book about London’s birds. The stated aim of Birds in London is to furnish an account of the London wild bird life. The book begins with an overview of various birds in London, including chapters on London’s corvids (crows, jackdaws, and rooks), recent colonists (wood-pigeons, moorhens, and little grebes) and London’s small birds (including sparrows, blackbirds, and robins). Hudson then goes on to give a detailed overview of London’s parks and their wild bird life. Lastly, there are chapters on how London’s parks could be improved to increase the number of birds breeding in them.

I found the many passages about London’s sparrows particularly poignant. As I mentioned in my previous post in this series, London’s sparrows have declined dramatically over the last few decades. But the London that Hudson inhabits is still one of abundant sparrows.

So common are the sparrows that Hudson imagines them to be his accomplices in writing the book:

At times the fanciful idea would occur to me that I was on a commission appointed to inquire into the state of the wild bird life of London, or some such subject, and that my fellow commissioners were sparrows, so incessantly were they with me, though in greatly varying numbers, during my perambulations.[1]

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On journaling and past and future selves

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In my bedroom at my mum’s house there is a cardboard box filled with my journals. Over the years I’ve filled (or partially filled) at least 40 notebooks. I started keeping a journal when I was 9 and my grandma bought me a page-a-day diary with a floral patterned cover. Perhaps I would have started a diary at some point regardless, but that diary catalysed my love affair with journaling and I’ve never stopped since. I don’t write in my journal everyday. At times I go months without writing a single word, at others I write two or three times a day.

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London’s Natural History by R.S.R. Fitter

IMG_20160214_125355This post is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.

London’s Natural History charts the natural history of London from its pre-historic, geological formation, through the Romans, the medieval period (when kites were a common London bird), the expansion of the city from the fifteenth century onwards, and on to its final bursting point in the mid-nineteenth century. It then looks at the various human impacts on the city’s flora and fauna in the present day (the present day being 1945), including the influence of traffic, refuse disposal, agriculture and the recent war. Whilst the history of London is interesting, it is the snapshot of London in 1945 that I find the most fascinating. For example, Fitter mentions the abundance of sparrows in London, according to Fitter they are the only London bird considered to be a Cockney. Since then the number of sparrows in London has drastically declined – by 60% between 1994 and 2004 according to the RSPB. On the other hand, he mentions the recent increase in the number of gulls in London, a bird that is still increasing in urban areas.

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Why are you learning Dutch?

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Me, being Dutch

I get asked that question a lot, especially by Dutch people – even by the Dutch person who is supposed to be teaching me Dutch. At this point I have a set of pre-prepared answers I can rattle out: because I think it’s rude to live in a country and not make an effort to learn the language; because despite repeated assertions from Dutch people that everyone here speaks English, everyone in fact speaks Dutch; because I’d like to be able to understand the announcements on the train; because I thought it would help me find a job. All of these reasons are true, but at this point I don’t think they are the reasons that motivate me to keep trying.

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