I once wrote a post on nature in literature (here) and this is something of a follow-up to that. Wildlife these days is perhaps too much seen through a scientific, factual eye; there are numerous recent non-fiction nature works out in bookshops covering all manner of topics and pressing conservation issues. Yet wildlife also stirs the imagination, it can be woven into a story, an adventure so that we can read ourselves into an exciting fantasy world that contains familiar animals we see in the real world. It says a lot that many classic children’s novels feature animals, plants and wild landscapes – children love nature and to them it is full of mystery and magic, they can easily mix real birds and butterflies with fairies and wizards. It also says a lot that there is little to no adult fiction which uses wildlife as a main component of its characters or story.
These are just some of my personal favourite books, rather than a definitive list, you may be very familiar with a few and you may not have heard of others. Either way let me know if you love any of these books or have any similar recommendations.
- Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame)- probably on everyone’s list, this is a classic for a reason; it deftly combines adventure, hilarity, memorable characters, moral lessons, spirituality, fantasy and facts with an incredible description of the English countryside and the animals and plants that live in it.
- Watership Down (Richard Adams)- A long novel but one which keeps your attention all the way to the end. It may have a lot of sub-text but what really sticks in your mind is the intimacy with the landscape and the authors clear knowledge and love of wild plants and animals. Being on rabbit-level throughout gives the story an atmosphere of vulnerability, immediacy and a close connection with the land.
- Swallows and Amazons (Arthur Ransome)- Not obviously a nature novel but nature is about more than just bugs and hedgehogs, this is a novel where the landscape is a character in itself; the islands, the lake, the mountains, the woods and the weather are second only to the children who explore and enjoy the riches of the wild.
- Just So stories (Rudyard Kipling) – lyrical, funny, mythical, inventive and with the logic of a child (in a good way) these tales give us the origin stories of well-known animals (and the alphabet) in clever and memorable stories that make you grin and make you think – I love the cat story best.
- The Little Grey Men books (by ‘BB’) – Both the original and the sequel are simply fabulous. This is the English countryside portrayed in a unique way; the detail of every flower, tree, bird and mammal, the landscape and the weather is exquisitely described. They follow the journeys of England’s last gnomes through a changing countryside, the author creates an intimate world that is both fantasy and reality – you won’t look at your local river the same way again.
- Brendon Chase (BB) – This is a more realistic tale than The Little Grey Men, following as it does three children who run away to live in a wood on their own for 8 months in the 1920’s. It is an adventure and survival tale with the constant presence of wildlife throughout, portrayed as affectionately and knowledgeably as you would expect from the author. Be warned though – the boys collect eggs and shoot/trap all manner of bird and beast (only for the pot or for their skins mind) but it is set in another era and is necessary for the story.