Over the last few years there has been a renaissance in nature writing and, as such, an abundance of excellent books to read. As a result I’ve been unable to pass a bookshop over the last few months without popping in and seeing what they have on their shelves to tantalise my senses.
One of my favourites, which I read this summer, is the rather wonderfully titled ‘The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn’, written by one of the
nature writers, Richard Mabey. He is the author of some thirty books, including
the beautifully written and thought provoking ‘Nature Cure’ which was shortlisted
for the Whitbread, Ondaatje and Ackerley Awards. UK
‘The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn’ is a pocket sized A5 book of six short essays which explore how our sensory responses (sight, taste, smell, touch and sound) influence our interactions with and attitudes towards nature. His aim when writing this book was, in his own words, “to attempt to marry up the Romantics view of the world with the meticulousness of the scientist.”
Like any great nature writing book, not only does it reawaken the reader’s own innate passion for nature - it also leads them on new explorations and discoveries of the natural world. To whet your appetite here are just a few fascinating facts from the book:
The nineteenth century poet, John Clare, objected to the oppression of living things in the name of science. He was always excited to find new species of plant or insect but had no desire to kill the butterfly by sticking it on a cork board with a pin. Instead he would patiently watch it settle and then get nearer to it to see the powdered colour of its wings.
He also had a very visual take on the natural world and insisted that other organisms had perspectives too. On his walks, he would ‘drop down’ peering closely at the earth and scribble notes on old scraps of paper or seed packets. In his poem ‘To the Snipe’ he pictures the snipe from its own point of view – and in doing so captures the boggy habitat of its home.
The American poet, Gary Snyder, in his essay ‘Unnatural Writing’ argues that ‘conventional natural history and science writing are “naively realistic” they unquestionably view nature from the perspective of the front-mounted bifocal human eye.’
Interestingly, in a kind of mirror image of John Clare’s swamp, it was only in the 1980s that a group of French biologists discovered (by looking at it from a different perspective: from above) that the top storey of the rainforest, thought to be seen previously as just a canopy for more important environmental business below, probably contains more than half of all earth’s plant and animal species!
Finally, did you know that the shower of rain on dry earth has a name? Its called ‘petrichor’ and it’s the perfumed essences from such things as flower petals, pollens and resins that are washed into the earth and then absorbed by porous stones and clay. When warm rain falls again this is released back into the air and rekindles our memories of these ingredients.
Natural smells are also all part of a complex messaging system between plant and plant and animal and plant. For example Mopane trees in
Africa (a favourite food of elephants) send
out a warning message to other trees that they are being browsed. However, elephants
are wise to this trick and eat only a few leaves from each tree then move up
wind to new trees. Colin Tudge wrote ‘we can’t hear the trees calling to each
other, but the air is abuzz with their conversations none the less, conducted
in vaporous chemistry.’
In his conclusion to this enthralling book, Richard Mabey, writes “how powerful our unassisted senses are when guided by our imagination and that science and technology can open up new perspectives, but that is our own gift to use these to change our ordinary point of view”.
So next time you go down to your local wood or park for a walk, or pop out into the garden to do some autumn pruning, remember to ‘tune in’ to all of your senses and see what a difference it makes – I know I will!