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.

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

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.

Continue readingThe World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay

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

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]

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

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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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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Nature Near London by Richard Jefferies

Richard Jefferies

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

Although Nature Near London is maybe more accurately classified as suburban nature writing, the ‘near’ in the title giving it away, it would feel remiss to begin this series with any other book. After all, a genre doesn’t spring up fully formed over night and part of the aim of this series of blog posts is to explore the evolution of urban nature writing as a sub-species distinct from nature writing (and if, indeed, it is possible to define the genre at all). With Nature Near London the seed of an idea was being sown – the idea that it is not necessary to turn ones back on the city to find nature. I also include Jefferies’ book because the city, London, looms large; it is a presence that forms a counter-point to the places Jefferies explores. It also loomed large in Jefferies’ own mind, and magnetised him even as he sought to escape it. Continue readingNature Near London by Richard Jefferies

The war on pigeons

For some reason, my boyfriend and I decided that the end of the summer would be a good time to finally get started on the balcony. In fact, we’ve been meaning to do something about it for the past year and a half, since we moved into our apartment. It’s a great balcony. It’s really spacious and instead of looking out onto a road, it faces onto a courtyard. There’s just one problem: other residents had got there before us. Pigeons. Continue readingThe war on pigeons

Of gibbons and unexpected things

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I woke up this morning at 6, looked out the window, saw a white sheet of cloud across the sky and contemplated going back to bed. I forced myself not too. For a long time I’ve been wanting to get up early and go walking in the city. I had a romantic idea of what it would be like: the morning sun pooling on the old canal houses and in the trees that line the water, steam rising from vents down winding alleyways, shopkeepers lifting shutters and setting out tables, the smell of bread baking in the air, people on balconies with hot mugs of coffee, and a profound sense of peace and calm before the rush of the day begins. Continue readingOf gibbons and unexpected things

A history of urban nature writing

Image from Wildlife in the City by Alan C. Jenkins
Image from Wildlife in the City by Alan C. Jenkins

22 January 2018: I will keep updating the list with new urban nature related books I encounter. However, I have decided from now on to focus in on books that provide a creative and personal response to urban nature. That means I won’t be reading any more guidebooks or academic books as part of this series. No doubt I will get around to owning/reading them because there are many fascinating academic texts exploring a number of urban nature themes and I love the way guidebooks reflect changes in attitudes towards urban nature over time, but the list is getting ever longer and I’d like to finish this project at some point!


Some time ago (I don’t remember when or how – though I can guess that I was probably on a train, which is where I have all my best ideas) the idea popped into my head to read and review every work of urban nature writing ever published, from Richard Jefferies’s Nature Near London, right up to the present day when the genre seems to have exploded. Once lodged in my mind, the idea refused to budge and it has been there ever since. Continue readingA history of urban nature writing

All the wild horses

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I’ve written another blog post for the excellent City Creatures blog, run by the people at the Center for Humans & Nature. The post is about visiting the Oostvaardersplassen, a nature reserve in the Netherlands, and seeing the wild konik horses. It’s also about what it means for an animal to be wild and how visiting the Oostvaardersplassen shifted my notion of how a wild animal should behave.

Here’s a wee extract: Continue readingAll the wild horses