A Walk In The Woods

A Walk In The Woods – Bill Bryson

First Published: 1997, Doubleday

This Edition: 2015, Black Swan

From the back of the book:  “The longest continuous footpath in the world, the Appalachian Trail stretches along the East Coast of the United States, from Georgia to Maine. At the age of forty-four, in the company of his friend Stephen Katz, Bill Bryson set off to hike through the vast tangled woods which have been frightening sensible people for three hundred years. Ahead lay almost 2,200 miles of remote mountain wilderness filled with bears, bobcats, rattlesnakes, poisonous plants, disease-bearing ticks, the occasional chuckling murderer and – perhaps most alarming of all – people whose favourite pastime is discussing the relative merits of the external-frame backpack.”

Thoughts:  I read this when I needed an adventure, but didn’t have the time off work available to have one. Having finished it, I now want to walk over 2,000 miles through the forests and mountains of the Appalachian Trail. So, this is a dangerous book.

Bryson’s anecdotes filled the pages with stories of Katz’s blunders as they attempt to reach Maine on foot. What Katz hadn’t told Bill on the phone was that since they last met he’d developed an alcohol problem, a strict eating regime and put on a substantial amount of weight. Perfect for trekking half way up the USA, right?

I spent most of the book waiting for them to get eaten by a bear, or fall off the side of a rocky cliff edge, despite knowing that at least Bill lived to tell the tail. I’m not entirely sure how they managed what they did.

In addition to reminiscing about the journey, Bryson introduces us to the wildlife of the Smokies, an unflattering summary of the history of the National Park Service, and some wonderful characters. The most memorable of these for me was Mary-Ellen, and it’s left me quite concerned that she may still be wandering about in the mountains somewhere pestering middle-aged men on a mission.

Edibility Rating: 4 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “Every twenty minutes on the Appalachian Trail, Katz and I walked further than the average American walks in a week. For 93 per cent of all trips outside the home, for whatever distance or whatever purpose, Americans now get in a car. That’s ridiculous.”

Buy A Walk In The Woods Here

The Living Mountain

The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd

First Published: 1977, Aberdeen University Press

This Edition: 2011, Canongate Books

From the back of the book:  “Awe-inspiring, poetic and philosophical, The Living Mountain is one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century nature writing.”

Thoughts: This book is beautifully written. From the descriptions of the scenery to the immersive way Shepherd walks you through the Cairngorms, it’s a delight to read. The only drawback is its brevity, at only 108 pages long, I could have read more. I would, however, skip reading the introduction. It is almost as long as the main text, and although an interesting look into the context of the book, I feel like Robert Macfarlane gives away most of the precious lines before you have a chance to reach them yourself. I’ve learnt my lesson there.

From years spent wandering in the mountains, Shepherd divides her thoughts into logical chapters, from plant-life to the humans that inhabit and appreciate  them. Her observations of the living world are astute yet poetic, and peppered with subtle commentary on human nature that give this book its substance. If I were to spend a week in the Cairngorms now, I would be looking out for the wonderful characters that she meets on her adventures, even though she forlornly added that most had passed away prior to publishing.

Her descriptions of the living world are never dry. When writing about the experience of walking through heather, the scent “like too much incense in church, it blunts the sharp sense of adoration, which, at its finest, demands clarity of intellect as well as the surge of emotion.” Each time a tiny fragment of the scenery is described in this way, I couldn’t help but stop and think ‘wow, I would never have thought to put it like that.’ And so, I spent a lot of time thinking about how clever the writing was, in addition to enjoying the reading.

The manuscript was finished in 1945, but lay unpublished until the late seventies. Whether this was due to a lack of confidence in it, indicated through letters discussed in the introduction, or the lack of market, I don’t know. But I wonder whether she would have attempted publication earlier had she known that The Living Mountain would become one of the true nature writing classics?

Edibility Rating: 4.5 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “But they are not in the books for me – they are in living encounters, moments of their life that have crossed moments of mine.”

Buy The Living Mountain Here

The Magic Of Reality

The Magic Of Reality– Richard Dawkins

First Published: 2011, Bantam Press

This Edition: 2012, Black Swan

From the back of the book: “Magic takes many forms. The ancient Egyptians explained the night by suggesting that the goddess Nut swallowed the sun. The Vikings believed a rainbow was the gods’ bridge to earth. These are magical, extraordinary tales. But there is another kind of magic, and it lies in the exhilaration of discovering the real answers to these questions. It is the magic of reality – science.”

Thoughts: This is Richard Dawkins’ latest attempt to convince the world to replace their Holy Books with a subscription to Nature. He argues his points clearly and comprehensively, explaining ‘magical’ works of nature from rainbows to the origin of man. He does so by first introducing stories and myths explaining these phenomena from ancient and modern civilisations, then flattens them with his usual no-nonsense approach to quashing the ethereal and bulldozing folklore.

I found the first half of each chapter just as fascinating as the ‘scientific bit’. In explanation of the night and day, we are introduced to a legend from south-eastern Australia in which an emu egg was thrown into the sky. The sun hatched from the egg, setting fire to some nearby kindling, and the sky god arranged for this to happen every night, as people found the resulting light of day so helpful!

Each chapter introduced me to stories like these from cultures all over the world. They were so captivating that I found myself disappointed when Dawkins hit the return-key twice, paused in triumphant and dramatic silence, and proceeded to introduce The Real Explanations.

It’s not that I don’t believe him. To the contrary. I’m a biologist by training, and devour scientific literature with great interest and enjoyment. There’s just something about Dawkins’ tone that makes me feel patronised and spoken down to. At times it feels derisive, and I can visualise him sneering as he tells us what actually happened. I have a suspicion that this also indicates that as a reader, I’ve become increasingly incapable of separating my opinions on the author’s social media use from the book in question. It’s something I will have to seriously consider before opening another of his books with the intention of writing a fair review.

The Magic of Reality was written to be easily understood by the younger reader, and I think he has achieved this well. The explanations are complex and thorough, yet illustrated brilliantly, with thought experiments that carefully approach subjects that are hard to initially get one’s head around. I enjoyed walking along my imaginary bookshelf full of photographs of great-grandfathers, all the way back until we reached a fish (I must admit that my fish still had a moustache, but that’s my own imagination blip).

Overall, a good read for debunking myths from every culture on the planet, and the place to go for informative explanations of earthquakes, the seasons, life on other planets and the apparent existence of miracles. But this book has not re-ignited the enthusiasm I felt when first reading The Blind Watchmaker. There’s just a little less…magic.

Edibility Rating: 2.75 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “Nobody would want to call your fishy 185-million-greats-grandfather a man. That would just be silly, even though there is a continuous chain linking him to you, every link in the chain being a member of exactly the same species as its neighbours in the chain.”

Buy The Magic of Reality Here

Being A Beast

Being A Beast – Charles Foster

First Published: 2016, Profile Books Ltd

From the back of the book: “Charles Foster wanted to know what life was really like for a badger, an otter, a deer, a fox, a swift. So he tried it.”

Thoughts: Charles Foster wanted to be five different animals from the British wildlife scene, and he wanted to do so without anthropomorphising. It’s a difficult task, considering that the very nature of trying to contort your lifestyle into that of an animal, means working out how to squash their unique way of life into the somewhat different parameters of your own human one. Trying to be a swift, for example, is going to be a trifle hard without wings. No matter how hard he flaps, his arms are still going to remain human.

Foster is not concerned by such minor setbacks, and happily delves into a hole cut into a hillside with a miniature digger to live as a badger with his son for a while. Quite how long, I’m not sure, and that is something which spoilt the reading for me. I want to know just how long was invested in that hillside eating earthworms, and did he swim as an otter for months on end, or just as an afternoon jaunt one summer’s day?

Being A Beast looks at what separates our experience from an animal’s. Delivery of hot pie from a friend’s farmhouse seems to be one glaring difference, although I’m sure a badger wouldn’t say no to that either. Maybe it’s just a case of availability. Cynicism aside, I have a lot of respect for somebody who sticks out a storm in an artificial badger sett, watching the weather damage your handiwork, only to crawl out in the muddy morning and fix the damage to welcome round two. I would have been in the pub at the sight of the lightning bolt on the BBC Weather App. Perhaps this is why Foster has such a deep respect for the badgers. The otters don’t fare so well.

Otters, it seems, don’t rate highly on Charles Foster’s list of animals. They are described as “jangling, snarling, roaming, twitching bundles of ADHD” and a “pretty shabby evolutionary compromise with a short attention span, poised on the edge of ontological precipice”. And those are the compliments.

Despite his apparent dislike of the creatures, Foster does his best to get into their lifestyle. First on the list is to get his children to poo along a river bank, in an attempt to mimic leaving spraint, and then crawl around with his kids in the coming days, sniffing each others’ faeces. Poo from different kids smells different, and gets less smelly the longer it’s out in the elements. Who knew? I hope this was well thought out, with a plan to reduce any negative environmental impact. Considering that water pollution is touched on in the same chapter, shitting on a riverbank doesn’t seem like the most responsible thing to advocate, whether you think you’re an otter or not.

And then we move onto the foxes. A deep sense of awe starts to shine through again here. Foxes seem to have earned his respect, and a huge amount of effort goes in to replicating their existence. Eating rubbish from the bin bags of London’s East End, creeping out policemen by sleeping under a bush  and declaring he’s a fox, and ruminating on the televisual habits of the human population get him in the right mind set, but the highlight of this chapter for me is a fascinating look at their senses. What does a motorway sound like to a fox? What, exactly, goes through their noses? Or more to the point, how much more colourful is the information once it reaches the brain?

I was so enthralled in Foster’s exploration of the sensory world of a fox, that I felt surprised to then be reading about chasing a cat around his backyard, snarling. It seemed slightly unnecessary. Particularly as he baited it by placing a smelly chicken leg on top of a tarpaulin, then hid underneath just to scare the poor thing off. I’ve seen a lot of foxes, but I’ve never seen one do that. And I’m not entirely convinced that Mr Foster chased the cat along the top of a fence, unless it was an extremely broad one. More like a wall. Or the ground. Maybe I’m just jealous of his supreme athletic abilities.

By the time we reached the chapter about deer, I’m not sure what Foster was trying to achieve. Don’t get me wrong, this book is a fantastic exploration of the hidden lives of some of our wildlife. But as for being a deer, it’s disappointing.

He acknowledges that stag hunting can’t tell you much about what it’s like to be a deer, but you have to read eleven pages of detailed description of the last moments of a stag’s life before we move past it. He then gets chased through some farmland by a dog called Monty, but still, he’s not a deer. Next, he crawls through snow on his hands and knees to some freezing, dying deer that “smelt of pear drops”. It gets cold and dark, and he basically ends up hypothermic (but still not a deer), having a conversation with himself which is recounted with incredible clarity considering the state of delirium he must have been in. Thankfully he survives the night and wakes up surrounded by deer, which carry on being deer whilst he wanders off to warm up somewhere in a not-very-deerlike-fashion.

His next attempt to become a deer involves wallowing in some mud and watching an ant try to crawl up his urethra. This, shockingly, still doesn’t make him a deer, but it’s okay because after all this he surmises that he couldn’t possibly be a deer anyway, because they’re victims. And he’s Charles Foster.

I’ll leave you to make your own mind up about whether he’s successful at becoming a swift.

Edibility Rating: 3 Monster Points

Favourite Line:  “Wetsuits are condoms that prevent your imagination from being fertilised by mountain rivers.”

(Although I also hear they’re quite good at preventing pneumonia – Susan)

Buy Being A Beast Here


Badgerlands – Patrick Barkham

First Published: 2013, Granta Books

This Edition: 2014, Granta Books

From the back of the book: “There are more badgers per square kilometre in Britain than in any other country, yet they are scarcely seen and much maligned. Travelling across our fields and through our woods, Patrick Barkham seeks out these distinctively striped creatures, and the enthusiasts, farmers and scientists who know them best.”

Thoughts: When Badgerlands arrived on my bookshelf, I had already spent the last few years keenly following the controversy over the UK government’s decision to implement a yearly cull of badgers. It is happening as a desperate attempt to eradicate bovine Tuberculosis, a disease that costs the farming industry an awful lot of money and stress. But is it really the fault of badgers or have these iconic mammals become a scapegoat for the problem? Are there other options? Why is the cull continuing despite the lack of any scientific evidence to suggest it may work?

The cull has attracted both fervent supporters and passionate objectors, and the two have come head to head in debates, online and in the dark fields of Britain, trying desperately to kill and protect badgers in equal measure. Patrick Barkham spends time with both and lets us into the picture from several different angles.

In Badgerlands, Barkham investigates not only the current cull, but reminds us of the dark history that this species has faced in our countryside. This is not the first time they have been subjected to persecution, and despite the fact that the badger is a protected species under UK law, it looks like they will be targeted for some time to come. Badgerlands takes a deep breath and asks the questions that don’t come up in the furious online arguments and can’t be found within the DEFRA cull guidelines: What do these animals mean to us as individuals and as a nation? How have they been represented in folklore, popular culture and the media? And who are the people who live deep within Badgerlands, his imagined sphere of badger-y existence?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It appeared to earnestly try and present a balanced picture of the cull, but as with anyone who sticks their head too far down this particular rabbit hole, Barkham’s opinions sneak out more as the pages turn. It is not a lecture though, nor is it aggressive in its approach, and it was refreshing to read coherent and sensible arguments, even those that I didn’t agree with.

The only flaw I could really identify was in one chapter entitled ‘Vermin’ where the figures confused me a little. When referring to the percentage of cattle killed in the UK due to bovine TB it discusses a 10.2% rise between the years 2011 and 2012, but without knowing the actual number of cattle killed in the first year this isn’t helpful in appreciating the scale of the problem. Of the 8.3 million cows in the country, it makes a big difference if 10 cows were killed in 2011, or if 1 million cows were killed. That 10.2% rise would be somewhat more significant if it were the latter!

It is not a book overloaded with facts and figures though, and for those interested in a broad overview of how these nocturnal creatures exist in our landscape it is easy to digest and littered with anecdotes and fun character descriptions as Barkham gets to know badger scientists and backyard enthusiasts, and follows them in their work.

There was one chapter that made me feel very uncomfortable, ‘Lunch’. I did push through it, but it is not for the faint-hearted. So if you have a weak stomach or are a staunch vegan who recoils at the idea of gobbling up wildlife for curiosity’s sake, this might be a chapter to skim read. On the other hand, if you’re the sort of person whose first thought when seeing something new is: “I want to eat that!” then, by all means, knock yourself out and read away!

Overall, this is the best book I’ve read in recent times, and I would recommend it whole-heartedly.

Edibility Rating: 5 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “Most deliciously, above the attractively variegated cast of bungling politicians, pitchfork-brandishing farmers and animal rights nutters, loomed the photogenic hero: the noble, innocent, tragically flawed black-and-white.”

Buy Badgerlands here

A Primate’s Memoir

A Primate’s Memoir – Robert M Sapolsky

First Published: 2001, Jonathan Cape

This Edition: 2002, Vintage

From the back of the book: “Book-smart and more than a little naive, Robert Sapolsky left the comforts of college in the US for a research project studying a troop of baboons in Kenya. Whether he’s relating his adventures with his neighbours, Masai tribesmen, or his experiences learning how to sneak up and dart suspicious baboons, Sapolsky combines irreverence and humour with the best credentials in his field.”

Thoughts: Robert Sapolsky is a biologist. A neurologist, if you want to be picky. Now, he has all the duties and pressures that being a Professor in his field has to offer. This book takes you right back to the beginning, collecting data for his work on the physical effects of stress.

Writing fan mail to primatologists as a child will only get you so far. I should know, I tried it. Sapolsky took it one step further and became one himself, and this retelling of his experiences in the field is both informative and entertaining.  Heading off to Kenya to dart baboons for his research, Sapolsky does a good job of introducing his new subjects, who come across as you would expect a good monkey troop to do. They squabble, they groom, they play, they work their way up the hierarchy, fall down it with a crash, and they forage for lunch. But they also have the dangers of the outside world to face, some of which we encounter in these stories.

One amusing scene documents an absolute nightmare of an attempt to dart a baboon. It’s so disastrous that you can’t help but internally shout “What are you doing? Just give up already!” But as with all comic writing it had to happen in order for us to read about it years later. It certainly makes you realise that even experts have to start out somewhere. I include this here because a friend of mine is brought to hysterics every time she comes across it, contributing to it being her favourite non-fiction book of all time. That’s quite some praise!

Although the baboons are the focal point of this book, the majority of the writing seems to account the author’s travel experiences. This is where his sense of humour comes in, mainly at his naivety and questionable decisions on the move, one of which sees him ordering hundreds of sodas at the hands of a gang who partially kidnap him, seemingly just for fun. These stories provide the substance for most of the middle section of the book, with the baboons taking a backseat to the human primates, but as we re-enter baboon society properly towards the last part of the book things start to get serious.

As disease strikes, the fate of his beloved monkey companions hangs in the balance. Investigating the cause and studying those that are unwell clearly intrigues the scientist in Sapolsky, but he has worked with this troop for two decades, and these animals have become a huge part of his life. This really comes across towards the end of the book, where his writing becomes more fluid, and I couldn’t put it down until I knew how things turned out. This was, for me, Sapolsky’s finest writing, despite his admission that: “These are not a crafted, balanced set of events, and the telling of them will not be particularly crafted either.”

Edibility Rating: 4 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “They seemed like two maddened, paranoid forest gnomes.”

Buy A Primate’s Memoir here