Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: The Natural History of an English Village by Stephen Moss | Random House | Hardcover | 2011 | 305 pages, b/w illustrations | ISBN: 9780224086721

What the Publisher Says:

Naturalist and author Stephen Moss lives in the longest village in England – Mark, on the Somerset Levels. This watery wonderland is steeped in history: it is the land of King Arthur, where King Alfred burnt the cakes and where the last battle was fought on English soil.

This ancient country parish, dating from before the Domesday Book, has been reclaimed from the sea over many centuries. Today the landscape bears witness to its eventful past, and is criss-crossed with watery ditches and broad droves, down which livestock was once taken to market. These are now home to a rich selection of resident and visiting wildlife: rooks and roe deer; sparrows and snowdrops; buzzards, badgers and butterflies. Amongst these natural wonders are the ‘wild hares and hummingbirds’ of the book’s title: one of our most iconic mammals, the brown hare; and a scarce and spectacular visitor, the hummingbird hawk-moth.

As the year unfolds, Moss creates an intimate account of the natural history of his parish. He witnesses the landscape as it passes from deep snow to spring blossom, through the heat haze of summer to the chill winds of autumn; from the first hazel catkins to the swallows returning from Africa; the sounds of the dawn chorus to the nocturnal mysteries of moths.

But this is not simply the story of one small corner of the West Country; it also serves as a microcosm of Britain’s wider countryside. At a time of uncertainty – as our landscape and wildlife face some of the greatest changes in recorded history – it reveals the plants and animals that will adapt and thrive, and those that may struggle, and even disappear, from our lives.

This is a very personal celebration of why the natural world matters to all of us, wherever we live. Wild Hares and Hummingbirds is nature writing at its finest, expressed through the natural history of one very special place.Fatbirder View

Don’t get me wrong, I like Stephen and know him to have made a significant contribution to natural history over some decades, both as a TV producer and writer. I’m sure this book will sell well and help him go on doing what he does and that is as it should be.

What I am about to write probably says more about overblown publisher’s puffs than it does about Stephen, but this is no Natural History of Selbourne! I just do not see it as ‘an intimate account of the natural history of his parish‘… its more a nature diary, mild polemic and interesting personal account of village life; one that emphasizes the natural. Stephen is erudite – well read and knowledgeable and that shines through. He is also a great populariser of our shrinking wildlife and wild places and I commend him for it.

So what am I whinging about? Wellll… the title for a start. I bet Stephen didn’t come up with it. It’s a title to sell a book, not one to describe it and I hate its misleading edge… I get plenty of people telling me about the hummingbirds they see outside of the Americas, all of which, of course, turn out to be moths. Yet most people refuse to accept that this is what they saw so the title of an English village portrait that uses the term does more to promulgate the misunderstanding than the reading of it will set to rights.

I was also a bit disappointed with some of the language used to. Yes we all use clichés daily, but writers of Stephen’s skill do not need to start chapter one with … ‘As the old year gives way to the new…’ nor the very next section less than a page later with ‘…in the dead of winter…’ using the same phrase a couple of paragraphs later. Describing such a time by talking about what is missing from the landscape is not as helpful to the mostly urban population than describing what is there. I can also affirm that just about all landscapes, save perhaps those created by a recently erupting volcano, are ‘steeped in history’.

Perhaps I should have chosen the opposite side of my bed to climb from this morning, or it might be my dyspeptic personality, but I expected more from Mr Moss and usually get it. Maybe a deadline meant he could not self-edit the beginning off the book. Most of us who write at all tend to launch in, get going and then revise; most often that first lurch forward was necessary to get you going but deserves some later work to tidy it up.

There is still a lot to enjoy about the book, plenty to learn and much to marvel at, most especially when Stephen tangentially calls upon his very deep knowledge to tell as about alternative country names, or simply share his delight when he is actively wildlife watching. So read this book and pay heed to his call to arms, no part of these islands is untouched by man and less and less quiet corners remain – he demonstrates graphically just how much worse the impact has become even in the last two decades.Fatbirder

Buy this book from www.nhbs.com