9th April 2020

Culture / Featured / Dr. Freddie Baveystock

The Book Doctor Prescribes: 10 Great Books on Nature

18 11 mins 1

DDr. Freddie Baveystock teaches English at Harris Westminster Sixth Form and regularly writes on the books he finds most worth reading. He will be appearing at the next Good Life Experience in his guise as the Book Doctor, prescribing the finest writing known to mankind.

If being locked down in your home and neighbourhood has anything to say for it, beyond the pleasure of spending more time with your family, say, or gorging on TV box sets, it is that it is surely giving us all more time for reading.

But not all books are equally welcome during these times. I have to admit that my regular predilection for contemporary realism has waned massively. I don’t much want to read about relationships breaking down, people dicing with drugs and death, or political intrigue and corruption. Nor do I want anything with a tinge of dystopia to it; weirdly, just as Covid-19 was breaking, I happened to be reading Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel’s post-pandemic apocalypse novel, and it made me positively queasy.

What I am turning to instead are more comforting reads, in particular books which take me out of my immediate headspace into the imaginative expanses of the countryside. Two places in particular I have found very welcoming: first, the familiar and much loved landscape of the British Isles, with its dense networks of fields, canopied woods and craggy coastlines; and the epic dreamscape of the American West, a place known to me more through the media of photography and film than actual experience. These are lovely places to linger in and dream a little of trips to be made in the future, when we can be reunited with the landscapes that mean so much to us.

In that spirit, I offer you this humble reading list of British and American treasures:

J.L. Carr, A Month in the Country
Carr was an idiosyncratic teacher and small-time publisher who spent his retirement writing fiction; he produced this small masterpiece just a year or so short of his 70th birthday. It tells the tale of a damaged soldier who returns from the First World War to take refuge in a small village where he sets about restoring the local church’s medieval wall paintings. Told in retrospect, it’s both profoundly nostalgic and intensely alive, and nowhere more so than in its evocations of the quiet rhythm of country life. It’s also short enough to warrant re-reading every other year or so.

Benjamin Myers, The Offing
A gorgeous coming-of-age tale set in the years immediately after World War Two. Young Robert sets off in search of a richer life than that offered by his coalmining Northern town, and finds it in the shape of Dulcie, a wonderfully eccentric loner who teaches him all about life, food and poetry. Myers’s talents as a poet and nature writer sing out of his glorious evocations of the countryside in summer; this is a novel with a big warm heart that will put a smile on your face. It might even make you want to read poetry again.

Will Cather, My Antonia
A hundred years ago, Willa Cather was a wildly popular novelist and, reading this paean to the tough lives of early Midwestern settlers, you can understand why American readers loved her so much. She brilliantly captures the bittersweet quality of that earthy struggle for survival: a life that in so many ways no-one wanted back — and yet could not but mourn its passing, so rich and intense were the human relationships it gave birth to. An evocative, unashamedly emotional tale of an immigrant generation that is well and truly gone now, but whose descendants cast a long shadow over American society.

Helen Dunmore, Zennor in Darkness
Every other summer or so, I am ineluctably drawn down to Cornwall. If you can get away from the mindless ice-cream munching crowds, you can still feel the ancient pulse of the land at work there — in the sea’s pitiless pummelling, the tireless wind, and the extraordinary calm that settles over its small inland villages on a summer evening. Dunmore’s novel takes me right back there, and back to the time when DH Lawrence and his German wife Frieda lived outside St Ives during the First World War. A lovely atmospheric book about Cornwall when it truly was another world.

DH Lawrence, The Rainbow
Speaking of Lawrence, I feel compelled to include one of his books here, even if he is rather the opposite of a relaxing read. The Rainbow is an extraordinarily intense family drama with a big sweep: opening in the 1840s, it follows the Brangwen family through to the First World War, charting the seismic shifts brought about by industrialisation. While Lawrence’s characters brazenly throb with sexuality, angst and spiritual yearning, the natural world they live within is powerfully evoked in timeless, symbolic terms. If you fall under the book’s incantatory spell, you will find yourself transported into another, otherworldly dimension.

Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways
Subtitled ‘A Journey on Foot’, The Old Ways is justly celebrated as one of the best books ever written about walkers and walking. And surely there can be no-one better to read on this subject than a Cambridge literature don with an addiction to epic walks, as he sees the countryside at once as a vivid physical challenge, and a palimpsest of living history. Armchair travel of the highest order.

Margaret Keeping, A Conscious Englishman
The Edwardian travel writer, naturalist, book critic and poet Edward Thomas is one of Macfarlane’s tutelary gods, so having read The Old Ways odds on you are going to find yourself wanting to know more about him. There are three books that will readily help you do this: Edna Longley’s edition of his Collected Poems; Matthew Hollis’s biographical study of his last years in Now All Roads Lead to France; and this novel by Margaret Keeping. Obviously I recommend all three but this simple, well-researched novel is the easiest way of immersing yourself in Thomas’s largely rural existence, his extraordinary flowering as a poet, and his fateful decision to enlist to fight in the First World War.

Kathleen Jamie, Findings
Whereas Thomas was a nature writer who found his true vocation as a poet towards the end of his short life, Jamie has inverted this by starting out as a poet and, over the last 15 years, revealing her true excellence as a nature writer. This is the first of what has recently become a trilogy of essay collections — Sightlines and Surfacing are the other two — all of which bear witness to her patient observation of the natural world, quietly precise prose, and deep emotional connection with the largely Scottish landscapes and islands she writes about. To read her is to fill your lungs with a deep draught of bracing sea air. It clears the head and fills you with quiet elation.

Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces
Ehrlich was a city girl spending time making a film in Wyoming when she learnt her lover was dying of cancer. She stayed, and never looked back, unless you count the act of writing these robust yet reflective essays on her newly solo life out in the middle of nowhere. Every bit as unloquacious as the generic cowboy — half a decade’s experience is compressed into a mere 130 pages — Ehrlich’s writing sparkles with hard-earned wisdom, a fantastic eye for detail and a wry humour that comes of knowing how very insignificant we all are when faced with the forbidding immensity of the deep time that can be felt out in them hills.

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
I confess I have a sentimental attachment to this book as I read it when nursing my second born. While my wife crashed out early, it was my job to wait up to give my tiny hungry daughter a bottle when she woke around 10PM, and then settle her again. So when I read Solnit, I feel it is dark outside, the world is safely sleeping, and there is just me, the lit page and her voice inside my head. Certainly it’s a very intimate set of autobiographical essays, ranging freely across subjects as diverse as family, living in the desert, and the colour blue. As the world temporarily slows down, and we enter uncharted waters, Solnit’s honest and unflinching reflections on the upside of uncertainty might be just what we need right now.

Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.

Rebecca Solnit

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Dr. Freddie Baveystock

The multitalented, Big Chill DJ, who taught American Literature at Oxford University, worked in branding at some of Europe’s top agencies and now works as a school teacher.

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