I was fortunate enough to get a copy of Vesper Flights for Christmas. It is a collection of 41 essays, and Helen Macdonald writes “I hope that this book works a little like a Wunderkammer. It is full of strange things and it is concerned with the quality of wonder.” Many of the essays have an autobiographical component. Several moved me to tears.
A Wunderkammer painted by Domenico Remps around 1695 (click images in this review to zoom)
The essays in the collection are:
Nests – a reflection on bird’s nests
Nothing Like a Pig – coming face-to-face with a wild boar
Inspector Calls – a beautifully written and touching account of an autistic boy meeting a parrot
Field Guides – a visit to Australia, and praise for field guides
Sex, Death, Mushrooms – “Many toxic fungi closely resemble edible ones, and differentiating each from each requires careful examination, dogged determination and often the inspection of spores stained and measured under a microscope slide.”
Winter Woods – walking through woods in the winter
Swan Upping – swan upping on the Thames as social commentary
Nestboxes – are they for the birds, for us, or both?
Deer in the Headlights – this essay highlights the problem of deer-vehicle collisions (the UK gets about 1 per thousand people per year); Australia has a kangaroo-vehicle collision problem of similar magnitude, but that issue is perhaps viewed a little differently
The towers of the decommissioned Poolbeg Generating Station in Dublin, with a magnification of the western (leftmost) tower. These towers, around 207 m high, are home to the peregrine falcons described in essay #20 (photo credit)
The Arrow-Stork – the arrow-stork and the study of bird & animal migration
Ashes – on tree diseases
A Handful of Corn – as a famous song says: “Come feed the little birds, show them you care, and you’ll be glad if you do; their young ones are hungry, their nests are so bare, all it takes is tuppence from you.”
Birds, Tabled – a fascinating exploration of the morality of bird-watching versus bird-keeping and the class conflicts involved (a number of reviewers online have taken issue with this chapter, specifically)
Rescue – a beautiful account of bird rescue and wildlife rehabilitation
Dispatches from the Valleys – a heavily autobiographical chapter, raising all kinds of spiritual questions (but not really answering them)
The Numinous Ordinary – “I kept trying to find the right words to describe certain experiences and failing. My secular lexicon didn’t capture what they were like. You’ve probably had such experiences yourself – times in which the world stutters, turns and fills with unexpected meaning.”
What Animals Taught Me – “When I was a child I’d assumed animals were just like me. Later I thought I could escape myself by pretending I was an animal. Both were founded on the same mistake. For the deepest lesson animals have taught me is how easily and unconsciously we see other lives as mirrors of our own.”
Not surprisingly, about half the chapters in this book are about birds, in some way or other:
At its best, this book is as good as the superb H is for Hawk, but is not consistently so (indeed, it scarcely could be). While some of the chapters are truly wonderful, others have a moralistic tone that I thought was a little more heavy-handed than it needed to be, and which became a little repetitive after a while. In the last chapter Helen Macdonald offers a corrective: “These days I take emotional solace from knowing that animals are not like me, that their lives are not about us at all.” Or, as C.S. Lewis once put it:
“Come out, look back, and then you will see … this astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas: this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes and toads. How could you ever have thought this was the ultimate reality? How could you ever have thought that it was merely a stage-set for the moral drama of men and women? She is herself. Offer her neither worship nor contempt. Meet her and know her. If we are immortal, and if she is doomed (as the scientists tell us) to run down and die, we shall miss this half-shy and half-flamboyant creature, this ogress, this hoyden, this incorrigible fairy, this dumb witch.”
Helen Macdonald has a genuine talent for showing the reader what she saw, and the reader of a book like this will feel appropriate things in that situation. Perhaps the more moralistic tone is the inevitable, and possibly appropriate, nature of an essay written for a newspaper or magazine. The fact that this book is a collection of such essays would then explain why it feels a little repetitive at times.
My recommendation: buy this book, but only read a few chapters each week. And think about them.
Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling by John Muir Laws
Having written before about nature journals, a while ago I purchased the Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling by John Muir Laws of johnmuirlaws.com. This is a wonderful guide to both the scientific and artistic aspects of keeping a nature journal. There are chapter on how to observe as well as chapters on how to draw flowers, trees, and other things. Laws provides three useful observation cues: “I notice,” “I wonder,” and “it reminds me of” (click page photographs to zoom):
This wonderful book is full of practical tips, both on the scientific side and the artistic side. I particularly liked this little curiosity kit:
I myself was fascinated by the jellyfish in the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but I did not fall in love with jellyfish the way that Juli Berwald did. This book does not quite do the job either, perhaps because of the distractions of the (not all that compelling) autobiographical material. It also seemed difficult to reconcile the author’s concerns about global warming with her high-carbon lifestyle.
Sea nettles at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (photo by “Omegacentrix”)
Still, this book is well worth a read. Other reviews of the book are linked from the author’s Wikipedia article.
Having said something about phenology wheels, I thought that I should mention nature journals too. Some years ago, I blogged about the professional aspects of this, but nature journals are a powerful educational tool, because of the way that they focus observational attention. John Muir Laws has good advice on getting started, including “Do not focus on trying to make pretty pictures. That just leads to journal block. Open your journal with the intention of discovering something new. Use the process to help you slow down and look more carefully.”
Mother and child nature journaling examples from Nature Study Australia Instagram and website
Nature journaling example from Paula Peeters, who runs workshops around Australia
Nature journals need not only contain pictures and text: a spiral-bound sketchbook will easily accomodate flat objects such as leaves, pressed flowers, feathers, and sun prints. Drawings are an essential aspect, however.
The California Native Plant Society offers a superb nature journaling curriculum for free download. It includes the observational prompts “I notice… I wonder… It reminds me of…” It advises parents and teachers not to say things like “that is really pretty” or “what a good drawing,” but instead to say things like “Oh, you found a spider on top of the flower! Great observation.” It also provides excellent practical advice on drawing, poetry, and other activities.
With so many excellent guides to nature journalling, why not get started on your own?
Recently, somebody pointed me at phenology wheels, which are a popular tool for nature study among teachers and homeschoolers. Nature study is all about careful observation and finding patterns, and phenology wheels help with both. Every month, students draw a picture of what they see in the garden or on a nature walk, and the completed phenology wheel then shows an annual pattern. Other activities are possible – see this University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum document.
The picture below shows a pair of partially complete mother/daughter phenology wheels from the very useful Nature Study Australia website (they are using the central circle to show indigenous seasons). It is helpful to outline each month’s section in felt-tip pen:
Credits: lavender watercolour painting by Karen Arnold, sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh, butterfly from here, font is Jenna Sue, wheel constructed using R (with DescTools::DrawCircle, rasterImage, and the showtext package).
On October 8, teams in the World Solar Challenge begin their race from Darwin to Adelaide. Here are 10 things for travellers across Australia to look out for.
1. The Magellanic Clouds
The Magellanic Clouds are two small galaxies – at 160,000 light-years and 200,000 light-years, the nearest visible galactic neighbours of our Milky Way. They can be seen in the Southern Hemisphere, away from towns. The Australian Outback is the perfect place to observe them.
The Magellanic Clouds (photo: ESO/S. Brunier)
2. The Southern Cross
The Southern Cross (Crux) is a constellation appearing on the flags of many countries in the Southern Hemisphere, including Australia. It consists of four bright stars, with a fifth being visible to the naked eye in good conditions. The constellation can be located with the aid of the pointer starsAlpha Centauri and Beta Centauri. It can also be used to determine the South Celestial Pole. The star at the “top” of the Cross (Gamma Crucis) is a red giant. The fifth star (Epsilon Crucis) is an orange giant.
The Southern Cross, pointers, and Magellanic Clouds (image: Michael Millthorn)
3. The wedge-tailed eagle
The wedge-tailed eagle (Aquila audax)) is Australia’s largest bird of prey, and a national icon. It can be seen around Australia, either in the sky, or snacking on roadkill.
Wedge-tailed eagle (photo: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos)
4. The red kangaroo
The red kangaroo (Macropus rufus) is the largest living marsupial, and is found throughout central Australia, in areas with less than 500 mm rainfall. It is an Australian national icon, as well as being a major traffic hazard at dawn and dusk.
Red kangaroos (photo: Jenny Smits)
5. The sand goanna
The sand goanna (Varanus gouldii) is a large monitor lizard, growing to about 1.5 metres. It is found across much of Australia.
Sand goanna (photo: Alan Couch)
6. The thorny devil
The thorny devil (Moloch horridus) is found in arid, sandy areas of western and central Australia. It lives mostly on ants.
The thorny devil (photo: Bäras)
7. Magnetic termites
Magnetic termites (Amitermes meridionalis) are one of two Australian termite species building mounds that align north–south. They can be found in the vicinity of Darwin. The mound orientation appears to be a temperature-control mechanism.
A magnetic termite mound (photo: brewbooks)
8. Sturt’s desert pea
Sturt’s desert pea (Swainsona formosa) grows in arid regions of Australia. It is the floral emblem of the state of South Australia.
Sturt’s desert pea (photo: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos)
9. The desert grasstree
The desert grasstree (Xanthorrhoea thorntonii) is a grasstree found in arid regions of western and central Australia. Like the other 27 species of grasstree (Xanthorrhoea spp.), it is endemic to Australia, and a symbol of the Australian landscape.
The desert grasstree (photo: Mark Marathon)
Opal is a gemstone form of hydrated silicon dioxide. The town of Coober Pedy in South Australia is a major source.
The Pink Floyd pistol shrimp, Synalpheus pinkfloydi (above, photo by Arthur Anker) is a recently described alpheid shrimp. As with other shrimp in this family, the snapping sound produced by the large claw is loud enough to kill small fish. The shrimp is described in a Zootaxa paper, which contains this wonderful line:
“Distribution. Presently known only from the type locality on the Pacific side of Panama; likely more widespread in the tropical eastern Pacific, but unlikely to occur on the Dark Side of the Moon due to lack of suitable habitat.”