Richard Carter's meta feed A merged feed of Articles, Sidelines, Reviews and Newsletters from en-gb Richard Carter 23 February 2020 Sun, 23 Feb 2020 12:47:14 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Distracted by fieldfares, and a walk in the sun. Chopping kindling in the garage, I’m distracted for five minutes by a flock of fieldfares that land and frolic noisily in our big sycamore. One of the joys of winter. There were over 200 of them in the field behind our house when I went out to the compost heap earlier in the week. They’ll be gone soon… One of the few drawbacks of spring.

Later, during a break in the rain, Jen and I take a walk around the lanes. Glorious sunshine. Howling wind. Scudding clouds. Some decent weather at last. Wonderful.

A break in the rain.
21 February 2020 Fri, 21 Feb 2020 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A wet hour to kill. An hour to kill in Hebden Bridge while a new tyre is fitted on my car. Bulging skips, steamed-up shop windows, brave thank you notices, and council staff with power-washers bear witness to the recent floods. The floods are also probably responsible for my flat tyre, caused by a large nail picked up somewhere in town yesterday. I pop into the book shop to order Stephen Rutt’s latest book, Wintering: a season with geese. In the process, I pick up an unexpected order for more copies of On the Moor.

Rochdale Canal

The rain is dancing off the canal down by the aqueduct. Through the branches of the trees at the side of the park, I spot two ducks coming in to land on the river. Something about their jizz seems unusual, so I go over to investigate. A pair of goosanders, a male and a female, swimming into the fast current. Along with cormorants, goosanders are the birds whose relationship with dinosaurs seems most incontestable. Not that anyone these days seriously contests that all birds are descended from dinosaurs—or, more accurately, that all birds are dinosaurs.

19 February 2020 Wed, 19 Feb 2020 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Two signs of spring. · Wirral ·

A grim, billowy, drizzle-filled day. No walk on the marshes for me. Instead, I sit in the car and pretend to write. There has been a high tide. Canada geese and lapwings have gathered around the flood-pools, although it’s hard to make them out through the rain.

Later, at the marsh-side car park in Gayton, two unexpected signs of spring: a blackthorn tree full of white blossom—next autumn’s sloes; and a black-headed gull, magnificent in its eponymous summer plumage.

February is by far my least favourite month. This year, to add insult to injury, it’s been given an extra day. But spring can’t be all that far away.

16 February 2020 Sun, 16 Feb 2020 13:21:50 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Browsing your unfrequented bookshelves can be dangerous business. The serendipity of reading books…

Having diligently worked my way through the 900+ pages of The Descent of Man for what I felt was essential research for my ‘Darwin book’, I’d promised myself some non-work-related reading as light relief. Then I remembered that, inspired by Richard Mabey’s Turning the Boat for Home, I’d recently half-promised myself to re-read Ronald Blythe’s similar collection of occasional writing, Aftermath. So I dug in.

Among many lovely Blythe pieces, Aftermath contains one written for Slightly Foxed magazine about the once-popular, pocket-sized, hard-backed books that preceded modern paperbacks. To encourage readers to buy full sets, publishers hit upon the brilliant idea of marketing their individual collections as ‘libraries’, the most famous, perhaps, being the Everyman Library. It’s a trick still being used by the likes of the Oxford University Press with their excellent …A Very Short Introduction series of paperbacks. Reading Blythe’s piece reminded me that I own a small number of second-hand Everyman, and Thinker’s Library, and similar books. One of them, Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle travelled with me to Australia. Others remain mostly unread, but beautiful, on my shelves—although, in my defence, in most cases, I’ve read more modern, larger-print versions of the same books.

Walking into my study just now, I remembered Blythe’s piece and took a slight detour to admire my collection of these classic hardbacks. As you’d expect, there are several by Darwin: On the Origin of Species, two different versions of The Voyage of the Beagle, his Autobiography, and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. I also own a biography of, and a lecture collection by, Darwin’s great friend (and ‘bulldog’) Thomas Henry Huxley.

Top-shelf collection.

As I was browsing this relatively inaccessible section of my bookshelves, my eyes alit on another second-hand book that I had absolutely no recollection of having bought: a 1996 paperback anthology entitled Charles Darwin On Evolution, edited by Thomas F Glick and David Kohn. Intrigued, I dislodged the book from where it had been unceremoniously wedged and dipped inside. To my horror, some Neanderthal former owner of the book had seen fit to mark various passages with pink, red, orange, and blue highlighter pen, and to scrawl the odd comment in the margin. But, to their credit, they did at least seem to appreciate which were the passages that deserved highlighting.

Of course, it immediately dawned on the that this newly rediscovered book, tucked away on a top shelf, might also provide essential research for my ‘Darwin book’. Thanks for nothing, My Blythe!—although I suppose it serves me right for following my nose.

Browsing your unfrequented bookshelves can be dangerous business.

15 February 2020 Sat, 15 Feb 2020 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A new arrival on the Farm. To the Farm to admire the new puppy: a Staffordshire bull-terrier named Frannie:


The Jack Russell terrier was showing remarkable patience with the new interloper, although he absolutely drew the line at being bitten on the penis. My fingers having been on the receiving end of Frannie’s needle-sharp teeth, I can’t say I blamed him.

13 February 2020 Thu, 13 Feb 2020 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Two unexpected mid-February swallow encounters. After a week of truly dreadful weather, the forecast for this afternoon was for a temporary absence of rain, so Jen and I decided to walk down into Hebden Bridge for a pub lunch and a crossword. Little did I expect to encounter a flight of swallows this early in the year, but someone near the infants’ school had added a delightful mural to the outside of their house. Very Hebden Bridge!

Swallows mural

The dehumidifiers were humming with a vengeance in the recently flooded bookshop. Thanks to previous, very sensible flood-prevention measures (installing barriers and a waterproof stone floor), and thanks also to an awful lot of hard graft, the proprietors and their helpers had managed to re-open the shop just days after the latest disaster. I was determined to buy a book, and came away with a copy of local author Horatio Clare’s A Single Swallow, in which he follows the northern migration route of swallows from South Africa back to his native South Wales.

Two mid-February swallow encounters in the space of 20 minutes. If I were into such nonsense, I might read something into them. But I will at least take them as timely reminders that our swallows will be heading back up through Africa right now, to return to Hebden Bridge in a couple of months.

Can’t wait!

Book review: ‘Crow Country’ by Mark Cocker Sun, 09 Feb 2020 23:09:51 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A meditation on birds, landscape and nature.
A meditation on birds, landscape and nature.

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Crow Country

When naturalist Mark Cocker moves to his new home in Norfolk, he witnesses a spectacular display of crows heading off to roost. It’s a life-changing event. Suddenly Cocker has the crow bug.

This book describes six years’ rooking throughout the UK, with brief excursions to mainland Europe. Read it, and you will never think of crows as boring again.

As he becomes more familiar with their habits, Cocker comes up with a number of hypotheses about his beloved rooks. Occasionally, these hypotheses might seem a little odd, but I see no harm in that. What’s the point of studying a species if you don’t describe what you think it is you’re seeing? We’ve all been there.

Crow Country is nature writing at its most enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed its lack of sentimentality. Cocker clearly loves his crows, but he sees them for what they are: fascinating, living and breathing bundles of blood, flesh and feathers. We’ll probably never understand what’s going on inside their heads, but Cocker does at least have a go.

Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘Turning the Boat for Home’ by Richard Mabey Sun, 09 Feb 2020 23:05:58 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A life writing about nature.
A life writing about nature.

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Turning the Boat for Home

I’m a big fan of Richard Mabey’s writing. Indeed, his wonderful memoir Nature Cure introduced me to the genre of ‘nature writing’—whatever that term is supposed to mean.

Turning the Boat for Home is a collection of loosely autobiographical miscellanea taken from Mabey’s occasional writing: radio broadcasts, book introductions, journals, etc. It’s a format I very much enjoy, providing as it does consistent yet unconnected pieces by a single author. This book reminded me very much of the wonderful collection Aftermath by Mabey’s great friend Ronald Blythe.

One thing I’ve always admired about Mabey’s writing is his lack of sentimentality and ‘spirituality’. In his prologue, he writes about his ‘commitment to a materialistic view of nature’, and admits to being ‘suspicious of grand overarching narratives’. Amen to that, Mr M!

There are many fine pieces in this collection. I particularly enjoyed the opening section in which Mabey writes about his early writing influences, and his embracing of reality over spirituality.

Throughout the book, Mabey demonstrates his love for, and commitment to, first-rate, unpretentious writing. As soon as I reached the end, I regretted my self-imposed rule not to read the same book twice in the same year. I suspect it’s a rule I’m about to break. But perhaps I’ll re-read Nature Cure first—and then, maybe, Ronald Blythe’s Aftermath.

Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex’ by Charles Darwin Sun, 09 Feb 2020 17:23:28 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Darwin finally sets out to enlighten us on our origins.
Darwin finally sets out to enlighten us on our origins.

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‘The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex’ by Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin was never one to understate his case. The Descent of Man is a 900-page barrage of evidence and argument, making the case that our own species, just like every other species on our planet, evolved from earlier species. Nobody capable of assessing the evidence now doubts this to be the case, but in 1871 such a view was still controversial with a sizeable portion of the general public, and with the more dyed-in-the-wool scientific establishment.

Famously, Darwin tactfully (and tactically) avoided treating the subject of human evolution in his most famous book, On the Origin of Species, limiting himself to the coy observation that ‘Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.’ In The Decent of Man, Darwin finally sets out to enlighten us on our origins.

Surprisingly, most of The Descent of Man does not directly address human evolution. Instead, Darwin discusses at length his second major theory of evolution: sexual selection. Nowadays, we tend to think of sexual selection as a special sub-set of his more famous theory, natural selection. But Darwin was careful to keep the two separate: while natural selection concerned the differential survival of individuals, sexual selection concerned their differential success at finding, attracting, and keeping hold of mates.

The evidence Darwin presents concerning sexual selection is vast. He systematically describes all manner of secondary sexual characteristics: adaptations evolved to help individuals breed successfully. Such characteristics include features to attract potential mates (alluring songs, sounds, smells, colours, ornaments, etc.), and features to deter or fight would-be sexual competitors (horns and antlers, protective armour, increased body size, and so on). Having been amassing evidence for decades, Darwin brain-dumps on us, presenting example after example of secondary sexual characteristics from throughout the Animal Kingdom. After the first couple of hundred pages, you find yourself waving a metaphorical white flag: OK, Charles, I get it: you’ve convinced me!

Either side of his huge thesis on sexual selection, Darwin discusses human evolution. At times, some of the language he uses is uncomfortable for modern readers. Like almost every other educated Westerner of his day, Darwin was in no doubt that white Europeans were superior to all other ‘races’ of human beings, and that the men of all races were generally more intelligent than the women. But in a number of places, he is careful to point out that he is judging other races by his own culture’s standards, not theirs. Likewise, we should not judge the upright Victorian Charles Darwin’s politically incorrect language by our own twenty-first-century standards. Darwin was a well-meaning man, who believed all human races were closely related and belonged to the same single species, Homo sapiens—a recognition not shared by certain less liberal scientists of his day.

After a relatively brief discussion of the ‘rudimentary’ human organs that provide clues to our ancestry, Darwin turns to the subjects of intelligence, morality, and civilised habits, arguing how something like their precursors is reflected in many other living species. While these topics clearly needed to be addressed, by their very nature they do not leave any physical evidence, so Darwin is forced to make conjectures of varying degrees of plausibility.

Darwin is on much firmer and more comfortable ground when he turns to the subject of our species’ genealogical descent, and our relatedness to other living species. Here, he takes us back in time, describing our increasingly remote common ancestry with apes, other mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and ultimately fish. This chapter (chapter VI) is Darwin at his most compelling. He concludes it with a wonderful passage that had me punching the air in agreement:

Thus we have given to man a pedigree of prodigious length, but not, it may be said, of noble quality. The world, it has often been remarked, appears as if it had long been preparing for the advent of man; and this, in one sense is strictly true, for he owes his birth to a long line of progenitors. If any single link in this chain had never existed, man would not have been exactly what he now is. Unless we wilfully close our eyes, we may, with our present knowledge, approximately recognise our parentage; nor need we feel ashamed of it. The most humble organism is something much higher than the inorganic dust under our feet; and no one with an unbiassed mind can study any living creature, however humble, without being struck with enthusiasm at its marvellous structure and properties.

As the above quotation demonstrates, Darwin writes with considerably more confidence in The Descent of Man than he did in On the Origin of Species. He treats evolution by means of natural selection as a given: a theory that has won the day, and need not be couched in conditionals, subjunctives, and double-negatives. I like this more confident Darwin. Strut your stuff, Charles!

Darwin returns to human evolution after his major detour into the subject of sexual selection. It is now that we finally begin to appreciate the relevance of the detour. Darwin needed to get us on board with sexual selection before he can use it to describe secondary sexual characteristics in humans. A large number of human characteristics, he argues, might well result from human sexual selection. It would seem to explain why men are generally larger (and, he would have us believe, more intelligent!) than women. It might also explain the differing standards of beauty and courtship rituals across different peoples. Ultimately it might even explain different skin colours and body-hair patterns across the ‘races’. As a proud beardy, I was delighted to hear I might owe my abundant facial hair to a long line of European female predecessors who found that sort of thing indescribably sexy—a trait that, sadly, seems to have died out in their less discerning female descendants.

The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex is a colossal and daunting read, but it contains some wonderful observations, and plenty of food for thought, albeit some of the language used is uncomfortable to modern ears.

A really-ought-to-read for all my fellow Darwin groupies.

9 February 2020 Sun, 09 Feb 2020 12:29:36 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) More floods in the Calder Valley. Every morning for the last week, a song thrush has sung heroically from our cherry tree for a good half-hour shortly before dawn. He’s no doubt putting in some practice for the coming spring. Not that spring felt particularly imminent before dawn this morning, as the latest winter storm battered Hebden Bridge and the whole of north west Europe. But still the song thrush sang on, to the accompaniment of flood sirens down in the valley: a strange duet, mixing hope and foreboding.

The upper Calder Valley has flooded badly yet again, with more heavy rain and sleet forecast for the next few days. Those poor, poor people. It must be devastating.

8 February 2020 Sat, 08 Feb 2020 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Roosting jackdaws Took Rosie the reluctant cocker spaniel for a drag up to Crow Nest Wood shortly before dusk. Jackdaws were congregating in one of the beech trees at the edge of the wood. To Rosie’s relief, I decided to stand and watch them for a while, as they chaked and fidgeted. Small groups of new birds flew in sporadically from different directions. As each new group neared the roost, the birds in the tree called out greetings. Then, after ten minutes or so, for no reason I could fathom, an alarm call from a single bird was duplicated and spread in a split second throughout the roost. All the birds took flight, amid a clamour of squarks.

Jackdaws roosting in Crow Nest Wood
Jackdaws roosting in Crow Nest Wood

The flock billowed and split, then re-coalesced and headed off towards more distant trees. But, during the next five minutes or so, they returned in dribs and drabs to their preferred original tree.

6 February 2020 Thu, 06 Feb 2020 23:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A walk on the Moor, and some encouragement from my favourite writer. A delightful morning, with a clear, blue sky and sharp, westerly breeze. So of course I bunked off work and took a walk on the Moor.

Male red grouse
Male red grouse

Up at the trig point, I could see mist rising in the valley towards Todmorden. It thickened as it was blown uphill behind Stoodley Pike monument, becoming a dense bank of fog above Cragg Vale and Blackstone Edge. Bright sunshine on one side of the Calder Valley, thick fog on the other. Local microclimates strutting their stuff.

Fog rising behind Stoodley Pike monument
Fog rising behind Stoodley Pike monument
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In the evening, Jen and I drove to Farsley, a village mid-way between Bradford and Leeds, for a Caught by the River event featuring amusing observations from Huddersfield postman Kevin Boniface, a sonic slideshow from legendary sound-recordist Chris Watson, and Amy Liptrot in conversation with Kathleen Jamie.

As always with these Caught by the River events, I came away inspired, and determined to be more ambitious with my own writing. Kathleen Jamie is my favourite writer. I was encouraged to hear her say she sees the 3,000(ish)-word essay as her natural prose format, and has no desire to have narrative arcs running through her books. My sentiments exactly—even though well-meaning people keep advising me I need to have a damn narrative arc in there… Well, I don’t.

Although I know not to market it as such, my book On the Moor is simply a collection of standalone, 3,000(ish)–word essays set on the local moor. The ‘Darwin book’ I’m currently working on is simply a collection of standalone, 3,000(ish)-word, Darwin-related essays. It turns out the narrative-arc-less, 3,000(ish)-word essay is my natural format too, and I’m sticking with it!

Kathleen Jamie & Amy Liptrot
When Amy met Jamie
29 January 2020 Wed, 29 Jan 2020 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A mesmerising couple of hours on the Wirral. · Wirral ·

To Red Rocks, Hoylake, on the top-left corner of my native Wirral Peninsula. I’d seen that the tide was due in early afternoon, so I’d decided to look for the large flocks of waders I’d spotted from afar last week, to try to work out whether they were knot or dunlin.

I hadn’t been to Red Rocks for years. The views across the sparkling Dee Estuary to Hilbre Island and North Wales were delightful, although the westerly breeze was biting. I took a short walk between Phragmites reeds and wind-coiffured marram grass, admiring beached mermaids purses and razor shells, then returned to the slipway and leant against a rock to wait for the tide to come in.

The tide came in remarkably quickly. Large flocks of small waders covered the shoreline over towards Hilbre. Every so often, as the tide rose, small clumps of waders would take flight to reposition in less deep water. The water’s edge was a swirling mass of waders. After about half an hour, as the birds were forced nearer and nearer, even through my crappy binoculars, I could make out they were mostly dunlin, although I did spot a small number of sanderlings on the shoreline in front.

Dunlin near Hilbre Island
Dunlin near Hilbre Island

Suddenly, all the birds—several thousand of them—took flight as a fat, black labrador padded across the sand towards them. They disappeared around the beach’s eponymous red sandstone outcrop towards Hoylake front. I decided to clamber across the rocks to see what was going on around the corner.

The rising tide suddenly brought new interlopers in the form of kite-surfers. As they rounded the corner from the Dee Estuary into the Irish Sea, they encountered bigger waves and soared into the air, borne by their bulging kites. They went incredibly high. To prevent winter wildlife being disturbed, surfing is banned in zones along this coast. Having consulted a map on the beach-side noticeboard earlier, I would say these surfers were certainly encroaching where they shouldn’t. One of them headed over to a small island that would soon be submerged. As he landed on the island, a group of eighteen brent geese took flight and headed towards me. I fired away with my camera, thrilled they were coming so close. They landed in the sea right in front of me, soon being joined by more and more birds until they numbered around forty. Then one of the surfers came a bit too close for their liking, and they headed off up the Dee Estuary in tight formation.

Brent geese
Brent geese

Despite my gloves, my hands were now bitterly cold, so I decided to return to the car and drive up to Hoylake Promenade to see what was going on up there. More brent geese waddled along the shore. A couple of thousand oystercatchers huddled on the distant water-line, facing into the wind. Shelduck stood around doing nothing much. Occasional formations of dunlin whirred about.

I got out the car to photograph the nearest geese. As I was doing so, I noticed a small, particularly tight formation of dunlin behind them, out to sea. It was so tightly packed, it looked like a bait-ball of fish. Why would they be packed together that close? And then I saw the peregrine…

The peregrine falcon rounded the cluster of dunlin, then jinked towards them. The cluster scattered and reformed. Another jink. The cluster scattered and reformed again. But the falcon spotted a solitary, straggling bird and flew between it and the cluster. Through my binoculars, I watched as the lone dunlin ducked and dived to avoid the peregrine’s repeated attacks. It was utterly thrilling. I was convinced I was about to witness my first ever peregrine kill. But the peregrine was only flying for its lunch, while the dunlin was flying for its life. After thirty seconds or so, the peregrine decided it had expended too much energy on this chase and peeled off. It flew above the promenade directly towards me. I raised my camera, hoping to get a shot of a close fly-by, but suddenly the peregrine banked sharply to the left and shot towards a large group of feral pigeons on a nearby rooftop. More pandemonium, during which I finally lost track of the peregrine.

All in all, an utterly mesmerising couple of hours.

📷 More photos »

27 January 2020 Mon, 27 Jan 2020 19:26:09 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A barn owl silhouetted against the dawn. Opening the driveway gate 20 minutes before sunrise, I glanced uphill and spotted a hovering barn owl silhouetted against the dawn. It was about 200 metres away, at the end of the Farm’s bottom field. It plunged feet first behind the drystone wall, then rose again a few seconds later: a missed strike. It then zig-zagged back and forth, about three or four metres above the field, pausing twice to hover before making a second unsuccessful strike. Then it headed off in the general direction of the farm buildings.

07:40 on a Monday morning. Not a bad start to the week!

26 January 2020 Sun, 26 Jan 2020 22:04:38 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Making our yearly double-batch of marmalade. What has become our traditional wet January Sunday spent making marmalade for the coming year. We seem to have got the hang of it, as it all went very smoothly this year, just like last. The secret is to poach your Seville oranges for at least 2½ hours before trying to remove the pulp, and to hard-boil the final mixture until it reaches 105°C precisely. 104°C is not good enough. 106°C is too much.

Making marmalade is alchemy, turning sour oranges into gold.

25 January 2020 Sat, 25 Jan 2020 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Trees glowing green. Took Rosie the reluctant cocker spaniel for a drag around Crow Nest Wood. The wood is mainly moss-free beech. Those trees that did bear moss glowed bright green. I’m not sure if this means Spring is on the way, but is was very noticeable.

Crow Nest Wood
23 January 2020 Thu, 23 Jan 2020 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A glorious day on the marshes. · Wirral ·

A truly glorious day. More like May than January. Very warm and still. Blue sky. Took another walk along the edge of the marsh to Burton Point. Stonechats, a robin singing his heart out from a hawthorn, rooks tucking into turnips left out for the sheep in the field. Plenty of midges at the Point. A horsefly sunned itself on the toe of my boot. Two more robins as I headed back past the alder carr, one singing, one tutting. A small murmuration of starlings. A female little egret resisting the advances of a male. All very spring-like.

Robin serenading midges

I then moved on to Gayton Marshes, hoping to see the hen harrier that passed by last week. The weather was so glorious, I sat on a bench for an hour—but no hen harrier. Took a little stroll down toward the Phragmites. A small group of redwings and some linnets perched in some willows. A song thrush eyed me suspiciously from the hedgerow. Hundred of wood pigeons out on the marsh. Later, as they headed off to roost, their distant whistling wing-beats made an eerie sound on the edge of my hearing. Hundred and hundreds of birds twisting and turning in ever-changing formation a couple of miles off near the water’s edge: knots most likely. I watched a kestrel make an unsuccessful strike, then chill out for a while atop the red water-channel marker. A solitary long-tailed tit: I’ve never seen one alone before. Pink-footed geese flying by in small formations. One of the most pleasant January afternoons I have known.

Knots (probably)
Knots (probably)

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Postscript: I’ve since decided my ‘knots’ were probably not knots after all, but dunlin.

20 January 2020 Mon, 20 Jan 2020 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A momentary encounter. As I rounded a bend on Height Road early this morning, a flock of about 50 redwings swept into view above the high embankment, briefly considered alighting in a small hawthorn, then turned hard-right and disappeared out of view once again.

Momentary, unplanned wildlife encounters like this are among my favourites. They remind me the natural world is getting on with being, whether anyone is there to witness it or not.

Newsletter No. 18: 169 in giraffe-years Sat, 04 Jan 2020 09:09:37 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Julian Hoffman · CGP Grey · WG Sebald · Kathleen Jamie · Tim Dee · LRB · Alan Bennett · Caught by the River Rich Text



New Year is a time for reflection. This particular new year, I pass a numerically tidy, yet otherwise insignificant personal landmark. Today, I am 20,000 days old. Thanks for the card.

At 08:45 GMT this morning, as all five digits on my personal odometer advanced one click, it was sobering to realise the next time that happens—if I make it that far—I’ll be 82 years old. I certainly won’t see a fourth five-digit turnover.

To quote Philip Larkin in a similar context, ‘It makes me breathless’… Twenty-thousand days! That’s 169 in giraffe-years!

Virgil was right: tempus does indeed fugit. I’d better carpe the diem while I still can…

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. I was delighted to hear my mate Julian Hoffman’s excellent essay on the chambered nautilus, The Spiral Windings, has been nominated for the John Burroughs Nature Essay Award.
  2. The always fascinating CGP Grey points out the importance of posing the right question. In this case, the right question happens to be, Which planet is the mostest closest to the earth? I guarantee you’ll be surprised by the answer.
  3. Episode 105 of the excellent Backlisted Podcast recently discussed one of my favourite books, WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.
  4. During the launch of her latest book, Surfacing (see Recent Reading below), Kathleen Jamie gave an interesting interview with the Herald newspaper. I’m very much looking forward to seeing her in conversation with my pal Amy Liptrot at the Caught by the River event in Farsley in February.
  5. Talking of Caught by the River, Tim Dee provided them with some poignant end-of-year reflections.
  6. As a long-time subscriber to the London Review of Books, I enjoyed this video discussion about its 40-year history by some of those who were there.
  7. The LRB also recently published the latest extracts from Alan Bennett’s diary, entitled What I did in 2019.
  8. Also filed under ‘what I did in 2019’, here’s my ninth annual video slideshow.

Recent Reading

by Kathleen Jamie
A third collection of wonderful essays from my favourite writer.
The Laws of Thermodynamics
by Peter Atkins
I had the temerity to touch on the Laws of Thermodynamics in my book On the Moor. This short introduction covers the subject far better than I could in my single, inexpert chapter.
Notes From Walnut Tree Farm
by Roger Deakin
The ‘jottings’ of a wonderful observer of nature’s minutiae. (I love jottings.)
First You Write a Sentence
by Joe Moran
Excellent advice on how to string a sentence together.

More book reviews »

Book update

My ‘Darwin book’ continues at a pace that makes glaciers look positively hasty. But I guess glaciers have grown pretty hasty these days, so perhaps there’s hope for me yet. The book is about looking at the world through Darwin-tinted spectacles. Lately, I’ve been writing about autumn leaves and dippers (the birds, not the pickpockets). For a Darwin groupie, everything has a Darwin connection. If you’re inexplicably champing at the bit for more of my writing, keep checking out my regular Sideline jottings.

Wishing you all a great 2020.

Book review: ‘Surfacing’ by Kathleen Jamie Thu, 02 Jan 2020 15:20:12 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A third collection of wonderful essays from my favourite writer.
A third collection of wonderful essays from my favourite writer.

Article source:


Kathleen Jamie is my favourite writer, so I looked forward to this third collection of essays with considerable excitement. I re-read its two predecessors, Findings and Sightlines, in Anglesey every September. Favourite books for favourite places.

Surfacing differs slightly from its predecessors in that it comprises three relatively long pieces interspersed between more typical-length essays. In addition, there is less nature and more archaeology in the latest collection—which suited the former archaeologist in me just fine.

Jamie’s no-nonsense, precise prose is as enjoyable to read as ever, whether she’s writing about archaeological digs in Alaska and Orkney, reminiscing about struggling to get to Tibet, or simply describing reflections in a train window. Surfacing also contains a couple moving accounts of personal life-events.

If you enjoyed Jamie’s previous books, you don’t need my personal recommendation. But, for those of you who haven’t yet read her work, what are you waiting for? You’re in for a treat!

2019: a year in photos Wed, 01 Jan 2020 00:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Articles – Richard Carter) My ninth annual video slideshow.
My ninth annual video slideshow.

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For the last few years, at this time of year, I’ve produced a video slideshow of photos to sum up my year just gone. Here’s the 2019 video:

Consistent beyond reproach, as in previous years, this year’s slideshow contains 97 photographs.

The background music, Pizzi-Carter, is also by Yours Truly. I don't have an ounce of musical ability. Thank goodness for Garageband!

See also: Previous years’ video slideshows

Book review: ‘The Offing’ by Benjamin Myers Tue, 31 Dec 2019 12:19:25 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Summer friendship in the North Riding.
Summer friendship in the North Riding.

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‘The Offing’ by Benjamin Myers

The Offing is a gentle novel about the developing friendship between a young man and an older woman. It’s set just after the Second World War near Robin Hood’s Bay in the North Riding of Yorkshire.Summer friendship in the North Riding.The Offing is a gentle novel about the developing friendship between a young man and an older woman. It’s set just after the Second World War near Robin Hood’s Bay in the North Riding of Yorkshire.

The young man, Robert Appleyard, seems destined to work in the Durham coalfields; the older woman, Dulcie Piper, thinks he should show more ambition, and introduces him to literature—and to fine food and drink. The third main character is absent throughout: Dulcie’s former lover Romy Landau, a German poet, whose final unpublished collection Robert uncovers. The collection contains a hidden message to Dulcie.

Unlike Myers’s previous novels, there are no villains, no murders, but plenty of sunshine and friendship. It turns out he’s just as good at ‘comfort reading’ as he is at grim and bleak.

Highly recommended.

Disclosure: I have met local author Ben Myers several times, and we follow each other on various social media.

Book review: ‘The Laws of Thermodynamics’ by Peter Atkins Sun, 22 Dec 2019 12:45:18 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A very short introduction.
A very short introduction.

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The Laws of Thermodynamics

I had the temerity to write about the Laws of Thermodynamics in one of the chapters of my book On the Moor: science, history and nature on a country walk. The Second Law of Thermodynamics gets my vote for the most awesome law in science. I find it perversely comforting: it explains how you can’t get something for nothing, how things wear out, and how, in the long-run, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

Peter Atkins’s introduction to the Laws of Thermodynamics might well be short, but it covers the subject far better than I could in my single, inexpert chapter. He breaks the cardinal rule of popular science writing by including a number of formulae in the text, but he doesn’t expect you to understand them; he simply wants you to get a feel for the factors that need to be taken into account when considering the secrets of the universe.

I would have liked to have seen a few more examples of how the Laws of Thermodynamics apply to the everyday world, beyond the functioning of engines. But Atkins’s prose is pretty accessible for such a difficult subject. So much so that I finally began to understand the subtle distinctions between temperature, heat, and work.

An excellent introduction to an awesome subject.

Book review: ‘Ness’ by Robert Macfarlane & Stanley Donwood Sun, 08 Dec 2019 14:50:25 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A haunting prose-poem (I think).
A haunting prose-poem (I think).

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I’m not at all sure how to refer to this unusual little book. A prose poem, I think. It’s certainly prose, but it’s also bordering on poetry. It reminded me in many ways of Alice Oswald’s book-length poem Dart, which also contains numerous voices and characters, with a strong hint of the mythological.

I have to say, I struggled to understand what the hell was going on at first. It’s one of those books that take you a few chapters to get your head round what the author is playing at—after which it’s best to return to the beginning and start afresh. Which is exactly what I did. I’m glad I did. I’m pretty sure it’s one of those books I’ll keep returning to, getting a little bit more out of it with each revisit.

The Ness of the book’s title is clearly Orford Ness in Suffolk, a former weapons-research establishment, now abandoned to the elements, as famously featured in W.G. Sebald’s masterpiece The Rings of Saturn.

The narrative flips back and forth between ghost-like humans ‘worshipping’ in one of the old research buildings (the Green Chapel—a reference to the Gawain legend, I presume); and sinister(ish) mythological figures representing various aspects of nature (biology, botany, geology, erosion and deposition) gradually moving in to take over. Or, at least, I think that’s what they represent. As I say, it’s one of those books it’s hard to get your head round.

The text is illustrated by wonderful woodcuts by the artist Stanley Donwood, whom I was delighted to see receives equal billing on the cover.

Definitely a book to re-visit.


Book review: ‘Darwin’ by Jonathan Howard Sun, 08 Dec 2019 13:51:31 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A very short introduction.
A very short introduction.

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This useful little book concentrates less on Darwin’s life-story, and more on an explanation of his work, and its implications.

After a very brief biography of our hero, topics covered include: Natural Selection; sex, variation, and heredity; human evolution; the concepts of perfection and progress; and an assessment of Darwin the scientist.

Jonathan Howard’s language is clear and unfussy, and the book is an enjoyable and informative read.


Book review: ‘Evolution’ by Brian & Deborah Charlesworth Sun, 08 Dec 2019 13:49:10 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A very short introduction.
A very short introduction.

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For a ‘short introduction’ to the theory of evolution, this book certainly covers the right kind of topics, including: the process of evolution; evidence that it occurs; adaptation and natural selection; and speciation.

I did however find much of the prose regrettably heavy-going. Even—perhaps especially—when covering complex topics, introductory guides need to use plain language. At times, even though I consider myself relatively well-read for a lay-person on the subject of evolution, I struggled to understand what the authors were trying to say. Their prose is sometimes so succinct as to border on the incomprehensible. I tried, for example, to parse the following passage at least a dozen times, and I’m sure it’s making a very valid and important point, but I still cannot fathom what on earth it’s supposed to mean:

In less extreme cases, gradual geographical changes in traits arise because migration blurs the differences caused by selection that varies geographically, in response to changes in environmental conditions.

An important subject, but a missed opportunity.

Newsletter No. 17: Scoffing all the berries Fri, 06 Dec 2019 12:54:23 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Island Review · Julian Hoffman · John Green · Dorothea Lange · Jonathan Meades · Rebecca Solnit · Willowherb Review · Robert Macfarlane · Dave Winer · Horatio Clare · Mark Cocker · Steve Rutt Rich Text



December… How the did that happen? How can the fieldfares be scoffing all the berries on our hawthorn hedge already? I definitely remember photographing bluebells in April, and being attacked by bees in May, and enjoying our annual week’s holiday in Anglesey in September. But… DECEMBER?!

It’s been a while since my last newsletter. Over the last few months, I’ve been busy gazing into my computer screen, occasionally adding words to the first draft of my next book, then rearranging them several times before taking most of them out again. But I do finally feel to be making some progress. The book is about how Charles Darwin saw the world, and how he enabled us to see it in a new and better way. Well, that’s what it’s about at the moment, but who’s to say how it might evolve over time? (See what I did, there?)

As usual, I’ll be taking some time between Christmas and New Year to make plans for the year ahead. Cracking on with the book will feature prominently, of course, but I’ll no doubt be considering one or two other, smaller projects. Who knows, I might even throw my hat into the ring to play the next James Bond. I have the liver for it, apparently.

How about you?

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

These recommendations go all the way to eleven…

  1. The Island Review: The Writers, The Artist, The Notebooks
    Five writers and artists reveal their note-keeping habits.

  2. Guardian: ‘Extraordinary’ 500-year-old library catalogue reveals books lost to time
    The discovery of a 2,000-page manuscript summarising the library of the illegitimate son of Christopher Columbus provides a fascinating insight into the lost world of 16th-century books.

  3. Beneath the Stream podcast: ‘Irreplaceable’ with Julian Hoffman - the fight to save wild places
    A discussion of threatened places and habitats of the non-human world with my mate Julian Hoffman. (See also Recent Reading below.)

  4. Places Journal: Through Mountains to the Sea
    A journey on the A66 through the Lake District to West Cumbria.

  5. Science History Institute: Ronald Fisher, a Bad Cup of Tea, and the Birth of Modern Statistics
    How a longstanding disagreement about the best way to brew a cup of tea let to an important insight into how to conduct scientific experiments.

  6. The Art Assignment (YouTube): Whose Migrant Mother was this?
    Blog brother John Green recounts the true story behind Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph Migrant Mother.

  7. Meades Shrine
    An unofficial video archive (endorsed by the man himself) of many of the wonderfully erudite and quirky TV programmes made by Jonathan Meades.

  8. Literary Hub: How to Be a Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit
    Excellent advice from one of the best.

  9. Willowherb Review: Issue One: Liminality | Issue Two: Embers
    A new online publication to celebrate and bolster nature writing by emerging and established writers of colour.

  10. Nautilus: Why We’re Drawn Into Darkness.
    Robert Macfarlane on the awe and horror of subterranean places.

  11. Guardian: Happy 25th year, blogging
    I still greatly miss the pre-Twitter and -Facebook days when everyone seemed to be blogging. (Some of us still are!) October 7th, 2019 marked the 25th anniversary of the first serious blog, Scripting News, written by Dave Winer. It’s still going strong. It’s where I got my news on 9/11, when all the mainstream news sites couldn’t handle the traffic.

Recent Reading

The Light in the Dark
by Horatio Clare
A winter journal about trying to be more positive during our most difficult season.
A Claxton Diary
by Mark Cocker
Further field notes celebrating wildlife simply for being wildlife.
by Julian Hoffman
A surprisingly uplifting book about the fight to save our wild places.
The Seafarers
by Stephen Rutt
Enjoyably unpretentious nature writing, travelling to different parts of the UK in pursuit of seabirds.

More book reviews »

Christmas panic?

I’m just back from our local bookshop, where I picked up my Christmas present from my better half: the newly published volume 27 of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin! (No prizes for guessing what my present was last year.)

If you’re in a total panic about what to buy your loved one (or even your mortal enemy) this Christmas, might I shamelessly endorse my book On the Moor: science, history and nature on a country walk? All the cool kids are reading it.

Have a great one, and see you in the New Year.

Book review: ‘Year of the Monkey’ by Patti Smith Sun, 10 Nov 2019 13:43:18 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Further quirky memoirs.
Further quirky memoirs.

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‘Year of the Monkey’ by Patti Smith

Year of the Monkey is the third volume in Patti Smith’s loosely joined memoirs, which began with Just Kids, and continued with M Train.

I very much enjoy Smith’s quirky, often humorous, writing, and this latest volume continues in a familiar vein. There are moving sections concerning the loss of friends, and impromptu musings and excursions, but Year of the Monkey falls short of its two predecessors.

A big problem for me were the dream sequences. Although similar sequences occur in M Train, they are far more intrusive in Year of the Monkey. So intrusive, in fact, that it often becomes confusing about which events are part of a dream-sequence, and which are real. I’m sure this is entirely deliberate, and the segues from dream-sequence to reality (and back again) are cleverly handled. But it felt over-confusing and unnecessary to this reader.

Book review: ‘The Light in the Dark’ by Horatio Clare Thu, 03 Oct 2019 10:00:07 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A winter journal.
A winter journal.

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The Light in the Dark

In The Light in the Dark, Horatio Clare tries to be more positive about our most difficult season. It is a surprisingly moving book. Clare is remarkably candid about his mental-health issues, which can be exacerbated in the dark winter months. This journal marked his attempt to find joy, rather than dread, in the winter of 2017–2018.

Although we’ve never met, Clare and I are fellow offcumdens to Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, so I recognise the landscape and weather he describes so beautifully. I live high on the steep valley side, where there is still a reasonable amount of light in mid-winter; Clare lives in the valley bottom, which, in the winter months, when the sun is low in the sky, can grow almost as gloomy as Todmorden in mid-summer.

Clare’s attempt to be more positive about winter receives a nasty jolt only a few days into his journal, when badger-baiters kill sheep on his mother’s Welsh farm—seemingly in an attempt to intimidate her. There are other dark moments, as Clare struggles with his demons, but there is also plenty of joy. In particular, Clare’s interactions with his young son, Aubrey, left this blissfully child-free reader surprisingly moved.

The narrative sometimes flips into flashback, with reminiscences from Italy and France, and to Liverpool, where Clare lectures a couple of days each week, staying at the legendary Adelphi Hotel, where I once witnessed a colleague so unimpressed with his dinner portion that he went back for thirds.

In the end, Clare is only partially successful at staving off the winter blues, but he emerges into spring more positively than he might have, which I guess would have seemed a more than acceptable outcome at the start of winter.


Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

Book review: ‘A Claxton Diary’ by Mark Cocker Thu, 03 Oct 2019 09:00:22 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Further field notes from a small planet.
Further field notes from a small planet.

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A Claxton Diary

In the introduction to this extremely enjoyable collection, Mark Cocker considers how modern nature writing tends to avoid the somewhat old-fashioned approach of providing simple descriptions of encounters with wildlife. Descriptions are fine, but insufficient. Modern nature writers feel almost duty-bound to include some human element in their stories, describing, for example, how the encounters propelled the author along some narrative arc, or how they provide yet another example of our species’ disastrous impact on the natural world. Oh dear! muses Cocker. He has no problem with the modern approach, but realises his latest collection adopts a more old-fashioned style, sticking mainly to simple descriptions of what the author saw, celebrating the intimacy of the encounters.

I very much enjoy modern nature writing, but I also enjoy this more old-fashioned approach. There has to be a place for celebrating wildlife simply for being wildlife. Not everything has to be about us. Which is perhaps the main reason I so much enjoyed Cocker’s previous collection in this genre, Claxton: field notes from a small planet.

Like its predecessor, A Claxton Diary: further field notes from a small planet comprises a large collection of short articles, the majority of which are taken from Cocker’s entries in the Guardian’s long-running Country Diary column. Most of the articles are set in and around Cocker’s home in Claxton, Norfolk. Once again, the articles are arranged in day-of-the-year order, irrespective of the year in which they were written. This gives the collection more of a flow, as we pass through the seasons of an amalgamated year.

Most of the dated articles are just three- or four-hundred words long, describing a single encounter or thought before moving on to the next. I love the diary format. It’s comforting somehow. Something to savour; to dip into whenever you have a few spare moments, rather than rushing through as if following some narrative trajectory. It’s a format close to my own heart.

As with its predecessor, I thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful book.

A must-read for all lovers of traditional nature writing.