ABook Of Silence

A Book Of Silence – Sara Maitland

First Published: 2008, Granta Books

This Edition: 2009, Granta Books

From the back of the book:  “In her late forties Sara Maitland moved out of the city and fell in love with silence. In this profound and provocative book, Maitland explores this fascination, delving into the darkness and euphoria that silence can bring, and considering its cultural history. She contemplates the experience of silence – from her own nights in the Sinai desert and weeks on the Isle of Skye to the accounts of travellers and mystics – and argues for its importance in a world increasingly addicted to noise.”

Thoughts: A Book of Silence asks the question: Is silence simply an absence of anything else, or is it an entity in its own right? Instead of seeing silence as a negative space that must be filled at all times, Sara Maitland believes it’s a positive experience that should be embraced. Our cultural fear of silence, and the awkwardness may people feel without background noise, incessant chatter or the visual cacophony of social media is, she thinks, counter-productive to society.

It highlights the importance of not only quiet reflection, but also absence of thought. Whereas the temporary process of meditation has picked up popularity again recently, along with colouring books and the invention of Mindfulness, Maitland wants to know what can be gained from long-term silence. What would our minds be like without constant uninvited invasions from the outside world? In trying to answer this question, Maitland researches monks, explorers, sailors, writers and hermits. She climbs mountains, moves to a remote Scottish island, visits the desert, immerses herself in a silent flotation chamber, and lives at the bottom of her parents’ garden.

I’m not sure I’d go to such extreme lengths in pursuit of something which isn’t there, but then I guess that’s the point, she’s convinced that silence is there, and that makes her quest surprisingly gripping. It has so many hallmarks of a good travel story that I’m almost tempted to put it in that category. In fact, I will, as there is travel involved, even though the subject matter is far more a matter of the mind. But the thirst for which she searches for answers reminds me of the drive to reach a physical destination, and the reading she seems to have done on the subject seems on a par with the research undertaken before a lengthy mission overseas.

I felt like I had spent some quality quiet time reading A Book of Silence, but whether or not I think of reading as a silent activity is not as black and white as it once was. Nor, for that matter, is writing. I’m communicating with you now as you read this, and you’re actively seeking out what I have to type, which may be an absence of sound, but certainly isn’t an absence of noise. I should stop breaking your personal silence now, and lock myself in a dark room or something, but I know that it won’t realistically happen, there’ll always be something to distract me with, which does highlight the idea that we can’t ever be truly silent in this hectic world we live in.

Edibility Rating: 4 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “There was no moon but there were shooting stars, random, sporadic, but frequent, and some with long flaming tails like the great dragon of the apocalypse.'”

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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