Rosamund Young Recommends the Best Books About the Countryside
A encouragement to stand and stare, our Non-Fiction Book of the Month for November, The Secret Life of Cows, considers the world with a cow’s eye view. Its author, Rosamund Young understands better than most the need to protect and preserve our valuable natural environment. Here, in an exclusive article for Waterstones, she recommends some favourite countryside reads for your Christmas list this year.
Land and scenery of a rural area, land that is away from towns and cities: just two of many definitions of countryside. And in my own little world, the place where I have been lucky enough to live my life: surrounded by cows, endless oceans of grasses and flowers, intricate and ancient hedges and the birds that lodge in them, inviting horizons and nature’s bounty.
I loved hockey, athletics, tennis, dancing, but the dark skies at home and the absolute friendship of the fields was and is a magnet of unequalled strength. My book of observations of bovine behaviour I hope, demonstrates the incontestable necessity of treating all animals with kindness, and respect for their individuality, but I cannot claim to have had that aim in mind before starting to write: it had not occurred to me that everyone didn’t already know.
In recommending books on the countryside I can never stray far from John Clare who Roger Deakin quotes in Wildwood, A Journey Through Trees (Hamish Hamilton 2007) : ‘ I found my poems in the fields and only wrote down what I saw’. This straightforward sentence of Clare is for me, what links all the writers on the countryside with whom I feel an affinity. Wildwood is in its own way a kind of poem: Deakin’s moving interpretation of the magic of trees.
Instinct, the twin of observation in writing about the countryside is vitally present in Patrick Barkham’s newly published Islander, which captures the mood of the indescribable uniqueness of the lives of inhabitants of small islands. The particular way the restrictions of size and accessibility act on those who belong, cannot be recreated by a casual visitor, and yet Barkham’s immersed empathy gives the reader a passkey to a glorious experience: sharing the views as if we had undertaken the pilgrimage with him.
Up with the Lark by Joan Bomford is biography: page after riveting page of plain truth, which is evocative and addictive. It supplies a privileged narrative of the everyday life of a farmer’s daughter but it is far more than that: it is a happy read and a valuable historical record of an admirable way of life.
One could easily argue that in order to write about the British countryside one needs appropriate language: Uncommon Ground by Dominick Tyler provides just that: a significant and soaring contribution to ‘a database of landscape language’. It is a beautiful, tactile volume of (almost) forgotten words describing landscape features, all of which should be remembered, or learnt anew.
Yesterday I was handed a copy of https://www.waterstones.com/book/do-grow/alice-holden/9781907974021 by Alice Holden, which, one might think does not quite fit the theme here. Not so. My own conviction that the way all food is grown is intricately and indivisibly connected to and is indeed the driving force of health is echoed throughout. The power of this book lies in its author’s appreciation and understanding of the importance of organic farming and growing and in her courage in taking and sharing that knowledge in towns. Many volumes have been written about growing but this one has the virtue of accessibility, optimism and practicality.
I have read The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks more than twice. It informs, entertains and surprises, illustrating the passion of no-matter-how-hard-a-shepherd’s-life with words that carve their meaning in printed granite.
And now, quite late, I have discovered John Lewis- Stempel and The Running Hare: a glittering prize at the end of a hard day on the farm and so many more of his books to look forward to. This one has the suspense of a thriller and the delicate keenness of true affinity with his subject. Mmmm…