Richard Carter's meta feed A merged feed of Articles, Sidelines, Reviews and Newsletters from en-gb Richard Carter Book review: ‘The Seafarers’ by Stephen Rutt Mon, 15 Jul 2019 19:45:21 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A journey among birds.
A journey among birds.

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‘The Seafarers’ by Stephen Rutt

Seabirds seem to be a popular subject for new books at the moment. We’ve had Adam Nicholson’s The Seabird’s Cry and Tim Dee’s Landfill (both excellent), and now we have Stephen Rutt’s equally enjoyable The Seafarers.

I very much appreciated the unpretentious nature of this book. Rutt travels around different parts of the UK studying seabirds. In the process, we learn a bit about what makes him tick, and quite a lot about seabirds.

The writing is how I prefer it: clear and uncomplicated, mixing memoir, opinion, nature writing, history, and science. The occasional textual flourishes never seem out of place. Here, for example, is Rutt describing the extended Northern Isles midsummer dusk:

The northwards tilt of the earth is sufficient for the perpetual Arctic summer to bleed south and colour the northern horizon at night with a lingering sunset.

I wish more people would write sentences like that, slipping a little science into their descriptions.

As to the birds, it was refreshing to read a nature writer admit he isn’t really into gulls, and finding the popularity of puffins a little irritating. Rutt also made me feel less of an idiot for struggling to distinguish between common and Arctic terns.

Reading this book made me look forward even more to my annual late-summer holiday on the Anglesey coast. It also made me realise (yet again) that, after a gap of over thirty years, I really should try to get back to Shetland some time.

Highly recommended.

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

Book review: ‘Irreplaceable’ by Julian Hoffman Mon, 15 Jul 2019 19:43:28 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The fight to save our wild places.
The fight to save our wild places.

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Julian Hoffman is a personal friend, whose progress writing Irreplaceable I have followed from afar with interest. Even though I knew a little about its content, I have to say I was taken aback by just how uplifting and positive the finished book turned out to be. I had anticipated something far more gloomy.

Irreplaceable is a wonderful blend of nature writing and journalism, exploring individual battles to save local wild places.

Grand themes are often best illustrated by small, specific examples. There is an undeclared, faceless, global war being waged against the natural world. But, in this beautifully written book, Hoffman keeps things local and personal, describing how apparently powerless individuals are trying to protect their beloved local patches. The loss of a wood, allotment, or small population of lynxes might seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but they can be utter tragedies viewed at a local level.

Why did I find this book so uplifting? It wasn’t simply because, in some of Hoffman’s examples, the little guys win their particular skirmish (for the time being, at least). Far more heartening, however, were the many examples of people who care passionately about their local patches, and who are prepared to stand their ground in the face of apparently insurmountable odds. If local patches are worth anything, they ought to be worth fighting for. This book shows many people think they are.

Inspirational, and highly recommended.

Book review: ‘Underland’ by Robert Macfarlane Mon, 15 Jul 2019 19:41:18 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A deep time journey.
A deep time journey.

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People who venture underground are an odd bunch. I well remember the visiting cavers’ drunken antics at The Old Hill Inn near Ingleton, back in the day. I’ve visited a few show-caves and -mines over the years, but it takes a special form of insanity to enjoy crawling through cramped, wet passageways in the pitch dark. As far as I’m concerned, it’s bad enough going down our cellar for some firewood.

Reading Underland, Robert Macfarlane’s book celebrating subterranean adventurers, brought back two suppressed claustrophobic memories. The first was of the time in Shetland in 1985, when I foolishly decided to crawl through a low, narrow passageway between the twin walls of a prehistoric circular stone tower, known as a broch. I became trapped for a couple of minutes, and had visions of rescuers having to dismantle a protected ancient monument to retrieve a stout archaeology student who really should have known better. The second was of the time I was given a tour of a nuclear-powered submarine berthed at the Liverpool docks. I was shown the small cabin in which, in the event of an emergency, the entire crew was supposed to gather and await rescue through a single escape hatch. It felt pretty cramped with just a handful of us in there. The idea of cramming in the entire ship’s complement seemed preposterous in the extreme. I got the distinct impression the officer showing us around thought so too.

As you might have gathered, my general plan is to remain safely above ground until I no longer have any say in the matter. Which made my enjoyment of Macfarlane’s book such a surprise. I very much admired his previous books, but, due to the subterranean subject-matter, was concerned I might not get much out of this one. My reservations turned out to be groundless.

This is a thoroughly entertaining book. Not least because it isn’t all about squeezing into ridiculously cramped spaces. Macfarlane’s concept of what comprises ‘underland’ is admirably wide. My escapades in the Shetland broch and nuclear-powered submarine might well have counted. In this book he explores all manner of underland, from Greenland glacier-caves to prehistoric burial chambers, from underground rivers to the Paris catacombs, from Norwegian cave-art to subterranean nuclear waste facilities, from tree roots to the search for ‘dark matter’ in a mine beneath the North Sea. It’s all delightfully entertaining and, of course, beautifully written.

More, please.

Book review: ‘Selected Poems’ by Kathleen Jamie Mon, 15 Jul 2019 19:38:49 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A highly enjoyable poetry collection.
A highly enjoyable poetry collection.

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Selected Poems

Kathleen Jamie is one of my favourite writers. I make a point of re-reading her ‘nature writing’ collections every year during my annual holiday in Anglesey. Favourite books for favourite places.

I have a pet theory that poets make excellent prose writers. Not (god forbid!) because they write poetically, but because they are accustomed to writing with precision. Jamie is a prime example. But, it turns out, poets are also pretty good at writing poetry.

This is a most enjoyable selection of Jamie’s poems. I can’t claim to have understood or appreciated all of them, but those that I did I enjoyed very much indeed. So much so that I have even earmarked one of them for possible inclusion at my funeral. (Not that I hope it will ever need to be used, you understand.)

Highly recommended.

11 July 2019 Thu, 11 Jul 2019 18:00:28 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) We’re nearing peak moulting season. We’re nearing peak moulting season. The back lawn had several feathers on it this morning, including a magnificent present from one of the local magpies.

A sparrowhawk flew across the bonnet of my car as I drove home along Height Road. I’d like to say I observed it closely, but I was too busy slamming on my brakes. The only real impression: huge yellow feet!

10 July 2019 Wed, 10 Jul 2019 21:00:43 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A dead swallow. I returned home to find a dead swallow fledgling on the patio. It must have flown into the dining room window. No incredible migration to South Africa for this poor thing. Gone, and never saw a lion.

I scooped its stiff body into the coal shovel, its head flopping to one side, neck broken. Such an incredible beak—so wide! An adaptation for scooping up insects, of course.

I walked over to the garden wall and flung the almost weightless corpse into the field: the poor creature’s brief, final flight.

9 July 2019 Tue, 09 Jul 2019 21:00:48 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Dinner with a friend, and a Dee sunset. [ Wirral ]

A pub dinner in Parkgate with my dear friend Stense. I arrived early, as usual, and parked on the front outside the pub. There was a heron fishing in the big pool on the marsh. I also spotted a mini starling murmuration: fifty or so birds rose from the marsh, flashed back and forth in the sky for a while, then descended on to a chimney stack. A couple of minutes later, a second mini-murmuration, with the birds landing on a different rooftop.

After dinner, Stense and I marvelled at the sun beginning to set over the pool. The heron had left, replaced by the silhouettes of geese and goslings drifting on the glowing water. Stupidly, I hadn’t brought my camera. I took a single snap with my phone, explaining it would be crap. I was wrong. Camera phones have come a long way.

Dee Marshes, Parkgate, sunset
Dee Marshes, Parkgate, sunset

J.M.W. Turner painted a Dee sunset from Parkgate, but, according to the Tate’s website, the watercolour’s whereabouts are currently unknown.

Parkgate’s sunsets are slightly less glorious these days, marred as they have been by hundreds of wind turbines on the horizon.

8 July 2019 Mon, 08 Jul 2019 21:00:55 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A walk on the Moor. It’s was such a pleasant morning, it would have seemed rude not to head up on to the Moor. So pleasant, in fact, that, once I was up there, I decided to take a detour via Churn Milk Joan, Miller’s Grave, Robin Hood’s Penny Stone, and the Greenwood Stone. (I describe making the same detour in a chapter of On the Moor.)

Churn Milk Joan is a famous local landmark: a standing stone erected to mark the boundary between the parishes of Wadsworth and Midgley. Evidently, Joan was also significant in a previous life, as she bears four prehistoric cup marks, carved by our Bronze Age or late Neolithic predecessors for purposes unknown. The Greenwood Stone also marks the parish boundary, but the only carving on that stone is considerably younger, marking the year of its erection (1775, if I read it correctly, although I’ve never been confident of the final digit, which might also be read as a 4).

Like Churn Milk Joan, as its name implies, Robin Hood’s Penny Stone, a large boulder in the middle of nowhere, is a place where locals traditionally left pennies. The tradition continues to this day, although I stupidly left all my cash at home. A short distance from Robin Hood’s Penny Stone lies Miller’s Grave, a Bronze Age burial cairn.

Miller’s Grave
Miller’s Grave

As on the previous occasion I was on the Moor, unusually, I didn’t see a single red grouse, although I did hear one calling go back! from somewhere in the heather. I was also disappointed, once again, not to see any of my beloved wheatears or lapwings. But I did get a few nice shots of meadow pipits, and saw a kestrel being chased off by a rook.

📷 More photos from the Moor walk »

On an errand in the afternoon, I walked down into Hebden Bridge via Nutclough Wood. Butterflies were out in profusion along the bridleway. Not just the usual crowd, either. I spotted and photographed what I later worked out to be a ringlet and a large skipper (being confident of the former, but not of the latter).

There were loads of unripe hazelnuts on the lower branches as I passed through the wood. Presumably, hazelnuts gave Nutclough Wood the first syllable of its name; the clough being the narrow ravine in which the wood is situated.

Nutclough Wood
Nutclough Wood

📷 More photos from the Nutclough walk »

7 July 2019 Sun, 07 Jul 2019 19:12:51 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) An early morning garden visitor. Spotted a young rabbit nibbling clover on our back lawn as I headed downstairs this morning.


Take care, Bugs: killer cats infest the area!

6 July 2019 Sat, 06 Jul 2019 21:00:30 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) An entirely fictional Caught by the River event. Half a dead magpie appeared overnight at the side of the hedge, courtesy, I presume, of one of the local cats. A pair of swallows were flying frantically back and forth, low across the back lawn, gathering insects to feed lazy offspring perched on telephone wires above the gate.

Later, long-tailed tits kicked up a commotion in the trees at the side of the road as I climbed the stile and made my way down through the woods into Hebden Bridge. I was en route to the latest Caught by the River event at the Trades Club.

Caught by the River stage

Today’s event was dedicated to fiction. Despite reading almost no fiction these days, I enjoyed it immensely—especially the sessions in which various pairs of authors had conversations on stage. My favourite quote was a passing  remark made by the author Helen Mort: “It never gets easier; it just gets better.” She was referring to running and rock-climbing, but the writer in me realised it also applies to writing. (Or, at least, I hope it does.)

5 July 2019 Fri, 05 Jul 2019 21:00:44 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Rush Hour in the Yorkshire countryside. Had to pull over into the aptly named Cow Lane to let a procession of cattle pass by this morning.

Rush Hour in the Yorkshire countryside
4 July 2019 Thu, 04 Jul 2019 21:00:53 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) The fields have been mown in my absence. I returned home to find that the fields surrounding the house had been mown in my absence. Unfortunate timing: watching the local kestrels following the tractor as it mows the field is always a thrill—though not for the local rodents simultaneously trying to escape mower blades and kestrel talons.

A lone kestrel hovered above the gate from our back lawn into the side field: a mopping-up exercise.

3 July 2019 Wed, 03 Jul 2019 21:00:34 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A visit to Burton Mere. [ Wirral ]

A briefer than usual visit to RSPB Burton Mere.

A volunteer at the main entrance hide informed me there was a green sandpiper ‘showing intermittently’ on one of the nearby islands. I had a good look, but saw no sign of it. But, as I admitted to another visitor, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t recognise a green sandpiper, even if it bit me. He laughed, being, it turned out, in exactly the same predicament.

I made a quick detour to see if the bee orchids I’d seen the other week were still there, but they had all gone to seed—which, despite my disappointment, was excellent news. Heading back from my detour, I tried to photograph hoverflies hovering in the dappled light beneath a trackside tree. The results might have been more successful had I brought my macro lens.


Avocets, black-headed gulls, hundreds of godwits. Little egret fledglings were fighting boisterously in the tree-tops near the Marsh Covert hide. From the hide itself, I saw seven spotted redshank, all standing on one leg with their backs to me. Not that I recognised them as spotted redshank, you understand: I overheard some expert birders taking about them.

I took a further detour round the mere on the way back to the car. No bird action to speak of, even though the mere was packed full of tiny dark fish, and less tiny striped ones. I haven’t a clue what they were, my fish-identification skills being on a par with my wader-identification skills.

📷 More photos »

29 June 2019 Sat, 29 Jun 2019 21:00:48 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A moth, midges, water-boatmen, and a spider. Our last day looking after Rosie the cocker spaniel. I’ve never known a dog so averse to walks, but I took her for a final drag down the bridleway just to remind her who was boss.

As we emerged on to the main track, I spotted a beautiful small moth flitting about the grass and bracken. It was soot-black, apart from on the extremes of its wing-tips, which were white. The second I stopped to observe the moth, the ever-optimistic Rosie decided I must be turning for home, and headed off back down the track as far as her extended lead would allow. In the meantime, I tried unsuccessfully to capture some reference photos of the moth with my phone. With an excited cocker spaniel tugging on her lead as I did so, this proved impossible. But subsequent Googling revealed the moth to be an aptly named chimney sweeper moth.

Having dropped Rosie off at her home, we drove to Mike D’s garden party in Manchester. The party was officially to launch his new garden pond. Any excuse. Jen and I sat at the side of the pond for half an hour, watching midges laying eggs in the water, while water-boatmen scudded about on the surface trying to capture them.

Later, while sitting on a garden chair, tucking into some excellent pulled pork, I spotted a tiny jumping spider on my trouser leg. I spent a happy five minutes encouraging the spider to jump back and forth between my leg and the arm of the garden chair. Massive leaps for such a minuscule creature.

27 June 2019 Thu, 27 Jun 2019 20:35:04 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Some public-spirited soul has been up to no good. Nearing the end of what the Met Office will no doubt declare ‘the shittiest June on record’, a day of glorious sunshine.

At lunchtime, I took Rosie the cocker spaniel for a walk around the lanes. The bridleway at the bottom of the field in front of our house was looking magnificently overgrown, with only a narrow path winding its way through the grasses, nettles, and brambles. Butterflies and less pleasant insects were everywhere.

Jen, Rosie and I repeated the walk this evening, only to discover some public-spirited soul had passed through during the afternoon and strimmed down most the nettles and brambles. For good measure, they had also clipped back a number of nearby tree branches.

When will people get it into their heads the countryside is not supposed to look like a bloody garden?

25 June 2019 Tue, 25 Jun 2019 21:00:58 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A walk in the rain to examine foxgloves. Heavy rain relieved much of the humid tension left over from yesterday. I waited all morning for it to stop before taking Rosie for a walk. The second we stepped outside, of course, the downpour resumed. But we were out now, so, to Rosie’s consternation, I opened my umbrella and took her for a drag down Burlees Lane.

The rain had brought the swifts low. There were two or three dozen of them circling in a tight group overhead. I’ve been concerned about their numbers this summer, but there were plenty around this lunchtime.

I paused for a while to admire a clump of foxgloves at the side of the lane. I’ve been writing about them recently for my Darwin book, and wanted to double-check I’d described bumblebees’ foraging technique correctly. (Well spotted, once again, Mr Darwin!)

Foxgloves at the side of the lane
24 June 2019 Mon, 24 Jun 2019 21:00:49 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A sticky spell. Thunder and lightning had been confidently forecast for a week, so, of course, there was neither thunder nor lightning. There was, however, hill fog, and the atmosphere was almost unbearably humid, which made walking Rosie the borrowed cocker spaniel sticky and unpleasant.

Hill fog
Hill fog

Foxgloves out in abundance. Cuckoo spit. Vetch. Tormentil. Clover. Magnificent plate-sized clusters of elderflowers in full bloom.

But really, really sticky.

23 June 2019 Sun, 23 Jun 2019 21:00:39 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A topaz treasure, and suppressed claustrophobic memories. Took our houseguest, Rosie the cocker spaniel, for two walks around the lanes today. Approaching home along the bridleway during the morning walk, I spotted something shining electric-blue from a shaded patch of nettles: a topaz treasure in the form of a jay’s feather.

Jay’s feather

We had the patio door open all day so Rosie could go into the garden whenever she liked. This enabled us to hear curlews burbling from the nearby fields throughout the afternoon. There seem to be more of them about this year, unlike the lapwings, swifts, and swallows. And I still haven’t seen a wheatear.

Finished reading Robert Macfarlane’s very entertaining Underland. People who venture underground are an odd bunch. I well remember the cavers’ drunken antics at The Old Hill Inn near Ingleton, back in the day. I’ve visited a few show-caves and -mines over the years, but it takes a special form of insanity to enjoy crawling through cramped, wet passageways in the pitch dark. It’s bad enough going down into our cellar for some firewood.

Reading Macfarlane’s book brought back two suppressed claustrophobic memories. The first was in Shetland in 1985, when I foolishly decided to crawl through a low, narrow passageway between the twin walls of a prehistoric circular stone tower, known as a broch. I became trapped for a couple of minutes, and had visions of rescuers having to dismantle a protected ancient monument to retrieve a stout archaeology student who really should have known better.

Clickimin Broch
Sightseeing at Clickimin Broch, 1985.

The second was of the time I was given a tour of a nuclear-powered submarine visiting the Liverpool docks. I was shown the small cabin in which, in the event of an emergency, the entire crew was supposed to gather and await rescue through an escape hatch. It felt pretty cramped with just a handful of us in there. The idea of fitting the entire ship’s complement in there seemed preposterous in the extreme. I got the distinct impression the officer showing us around thought so too.

21 June 2019 Fri, 21 Jun 2019 21:00:40 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) This year, the summer solstice coincided with the annual visit from the chimney sweep. I seem to have acquired a stinking cold from somewhere, so kept out of his way. In the afternoon, I glanced out the study window and saw a young rabbit hopping about on the freshly mown lawn. Make the most of… This year, the summer solstice coincided with the annual visit from the chimney sweep. I seem to have acquired a stinking cold from somewhere, so kept out of his way.

In the afternoon, I glanced out the study window and saw a young rabbit hopping about on the freshly mown lawn. Make the most of it, Bugs: Rosie the cocker spaniel is coming to stay tomorrow.

It’s been a lacklustre June so far, but the solstice sunset over the garden wall was pretty idyllic. It’s all downhill from here.

The summer solstice.
Book review: ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’ by Charles Darwin Thu, 20 Jun 2019 13:34:16 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’ by Charles Darwin
‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’ by Charles Darwin

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The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

Darwin’s book on emotions is an entertaining read. As ever, he makes many perceptive observations, describing how humans and animals express emotions. But he makes no real attempt to draw the two together

While Darwin gives examples of body-language we share with certain domestic animals, such as shaking or perspiring in fear, he wisely steers clear of making comparisons of ‘higher’ emotions. He doesn’t, for example, attempt to show similarities in body-language between affectionate dogs and humans. (Not least, presumably, because humans don’t have tails to wag!)

Darwin does eventually become a bit bolder when comparing the body-language of humans and other primates, describing how certain apes and monkeys ‘laugh’ when pleased, ‘chuckle’ and wrinkle their eyes when tickled, ‘weep’ when grieving, and ’pout’ when sulking. But he never explicitly presses home an argument claiming we and our fellow simians inherited common facial expressions from a common ancestor. His rhetorical technique seems to be to describe the similarities, but to let the reader work out the implications for themself.

Darwin is far stronger arguing for a common set of expressions across all humans. As someone who believed all mankind was descended from common human ancestors, Darwin thought we would most likely share a common set of emotions. This put him at odds with other evolutionary scientists of his day, who argued different races of humans had evolved from different non-human parent stock. Such arguments were used, along with other specious reasoning, to justify the subjugation of other races by what were assumed to be clearly superior white Europeans. As a fervent opponent of slavery (and, let’s face it, as a far better evolutionary scientist), Darwin had no time for such nonsense.

In one way at least The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals was a thoroughly groundbreaking book: it was the first scientific book written in English to contain photographs. And some of them are absolute belters.

The version of the book I read contained a useful running commentary by the psychologist Paul Ekman. It turns out much, but not all, of what Darwin said about the expression of emotions is still supported by modern experts in the field.

An embarrassment of Richards Thu, 20 Jun 2019 12:56:07 +0100 Richard Carter ( In which my head appears on a spike (six times). Running a Charles Darwin fansite, I’ve received plenty of very odd emails over the years. But none quite so odd as the recent request from ceramicist Jo Pearl for me to pose for a series of tiny sculptures inspired by Charles Darwin’s book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. How could I possibly say no to that?

Six Selfies
Yours Truly expressing a gamut of emotions from A to B.
‘Emotional Field 2’ by Jo Pearl
Emotional Field 2 by Jo Pearl

The above piece is part of Jo’s installation of ceramic heads, currently on display at her degree show at Central St Martins (University of the Arts, London) until this Sunday (23rd June 2019). Opening hours are 12–8pm (12–6pm on Sunday).

Be there, or wear flares!

Book review: ‘Insectivorous Plants’ by Charles Darwin Fri, 07 Jun 2019 15:07:23 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Darwin at his most Darwinian.
Darwin at his most Darwinian.

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Insectivorous Plants

One of Charles Darwin’s more endearing characteristics was the way in which he could become completely absorbed in some apparently trivial side-project. The opening paragraph of Insectivorous Plants describes the genesis of one such project:

During the summer of 1860, I was surprised by finding how large a number of insects were caught by the leaves of the common sun-dew (Drosera rotundifolia) on a heath in Sussex. I had heard that insects were thus caught, but knew nothing further on the subject. […] Many plants cause the death of insects, for instance the sticky buds of the horse-chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), without thereby receiving, as far as we can perceive, any advantage; but it was soon evident that Drosera was excellently adapted for the special purpose of catching insects, so that the subject seemed well worthy of investigation.

Most of Darwin’s book Insectivorous Plants, published 15 years after this chance encounter on a Sussex heath, is taken up with investigating the common sundew. It’s Darwin at his most Darwinian, packed with detailed observations and ingenious little experiments. He devised all manner of tests to investigate the movement and co-ordination of Drosera’s sticky ‘tentacles’; to establish what triggered them; and to show how the plants digest their captured food. Typical of Darwin, some of his tests seem more than a little bizarre. Feeding fragments of a cat’s ear and a dog’s tooth to the plants were two of my favourite examples. But, as ever, there was logic behind his enthusiastic eccentricity.

Darwin himself realised he might be going a bit over the top with his experiments, describing them as ‘twaddle’ to his best friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker. His wife, Emma, even joked to a friend that she supposed he hoped to prove Drosera was actually an animal. She wasn’t too far off the mark: in one or two places, Darwin draws our attention to how similar some of Drosera’s features are to those of animals. For example:

A plant of Drosera, with the edges of its leaves curled inwards, so as to form a temporary stomach, with the glands of the closely inflected tentacles pouring forth their acid secretion, which dissolves animal matter, afterwards to be absorbed, may be said to feed like an animal.

In reality, Darwin seems to have wanted to show how such unusual adaptations (for a plant) function, and how they could have arisen. Darwin was a details man: his wonderful theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection explains the weird, little anomalies, as well as the grand themes.

The later chapters of this book deal with other insectivorous plants such as Venus fly-traps and bladderworts, but Darwin’s beloved Drosera rotundifolia is really the star of the show.

A wonderful read.

Newsletter No. 16: Snippets of nature writing Fri, 07 Jun 2019 13:10:50 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) sidelines · Robert Macfarlane · Julian Hoffman · Amy Liptrot · Little Toller · Sir Thomas Browne · Tim Dee · Adam Nicolson · Julia Blackburn Rich Text

7TH JUNE 2019


I appreciate I promote this as an ‘occasional’ newsletter, but a six-month gap borders on a hiatus.

My planned Darwin book is progressing slowly. Very slowly. But it is progressing, which is the main thing.

In my previous newsletter, I explained I’d been writing regular ‘sideline’ pieces to keep my juices flowing. They’re mostly snippets of nature writing. I finally decided to publish them in a new Sidelines section on my website. Although I swear blind my Sidelines aren’t diary entries, if you’d like to read through them through in chronological order, as if they were diary entries, here are my 2018 Sidelines and 2019 Sidelines.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. My friend Julian Hoffman’s four-part series exploring the history, biodiversity, cultural traditions and associated bird and human migrations of the traditional salt pans of Southern Spain and Morocco: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4.
    Julian’s book Irreplaceable will be published on 27th June. It’s available for pre-order.
  2. (Audio) Landscape painter Norman Ackroyd meets Robert Macfarlane, landscape writer. Two nice chaps talking shop.
  3. Amy Liptrot’s short piece about breastfeeding, Mother Animal. A wonderful example of left-field nature writing.
  4. Pippa Marland of Land Lines’ interview with Jon Woolcott of Little Toller, the marvellous, Dorset-based nature writing publishers.
  5. Katherine Rundell’s fascinating piece on a remarkable creature I’d never heard of, the golden mole.
  6. When I studied physics at university, it was seen as an embarrassment that the kilogram was still defined by something as crude as a 100-year-old lump of metal locked away in a vault in Paris. Finally, at an ‘emotional’ international conference, the kilogram has been redefined.
  7. (Audio) Every so often, BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time seeks listener suggestions for topics to be covered. I invariably suggest Sir Thomas Browne (a name which should be familiar to anyone who’s read my book On the Moor). I was, therefore, delighted to catch their recent programme on Sir Thomas Browne.

Recent Reading

by Tim Dee
A celebration of gulls’ adaptability, and of the urban bird nerds who study them.
The Seabird’s Cry
by Adam Nicolson
An exploration of birds that spent much of their lives at sea, what they get up to, and how we found out.
Time Song
by Julia Blackburn
A personal investigation into Doggerland: the land that once connected Britain to continental Europe, which now lies submerged beneath the North Sea.

More soon

Now I’ve got back into the swing of this newsletter malarkey, expect more (occasional) updates soon.

Book review: ‘The Good Bee’ by Alison Benjamin & Brian McCallum Tue, 21 May 2019 11:21:09 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A celebration of bees and how to save them.
A celebration of bees and how to save them.

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The Good Bee

When I was a young boy, my widowed grandmother’s gentleman friend, Uncle Chuckie, kept bees in his spacious garden. When we visited his house, honeybees would occasionally fly into the living room. To my sister’s and my astonishment, Uncle Chuckie would gently grasp an errant bee between thumb and forefinger, inspect it closely, and, before releasing it back into the garden, announce something along the lines of, “Ah, yes! This one’s named Henry!” My sister and I totally believed Uncle Chuckie could identify his bees individually, not even realising the bee in question was far more likely to be a Henrietta than a Henry.

Beekeeping is going through something of a renaissance at the moment. Everyone seems to be at it. Even my lifelong friend Carolyn, who occasionally used to visit Uncle Chuckie with us. People’s rediscovered interest in apiculture isn’t, as far as I can tell, driven by an increased demand for honey or beeswax. It seems to have far more to do with people realising, worldwide, bees are in trouble, and that, for our own good, we should be doing more to help them.

Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum are one of many couples who have been bitten by the beekeeping bug. Their engaging, charmingly illustrated book is packed full of interesting facts about both wild and domesticated bees. To be honest, I had no idea there were so many types of bee. Thousands of species in fact. In addition to the familiar bumblebees and honeybees, there are, among others, stingless bees, cuckoo bees, carpenter bees, mason bees, leafcutter bees, and ivy bees. I vaguely recalled having read somewhere about sweat bees that obtain moisture and minerals from humans’ and other animals’ perspiration, but vulture bees that make a form of honey from carrion were completely new to me. How long before someone incorporates these amazing creatures into a macabre horror story?

As well as exploring the many different types of bees, their produce, and how we put it to use, Benjamin and McCallum describe the crisis bees and other insects are going through. It’s the same, sad old story: habitat destruction, disease, pesticides, and climate change. They also provide some useful advice about how we can do our bit for bees, and encourage them back into our gardens.

An enjoyable and entertaining read.


Postscript: After I’d finished reading this book, I decided to give my review copy to Carolyn as thanks for all the jars of honey she’s presented me with over the years. I also thought I’d take the opportunity to capture some of her bees on video to accompany this review. The exercise didn’t quite go according to plan…

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

Book review: ‘Under the Rock’ by Benjamin Myers Mon, 06 May 2019 09:31:07 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The poetry of a place.
The poetry of a place.

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Under the Rock

Benjamin Myers lives quite literally in the shadow of Scout Rock, Mytholmroyd, in the steep and narrow Upper Calder Valley. I live on the opposite, sunnier side of the valley. I know Ben, and I love the area, so there was never any chance I wouldn’t enjoy this book. Personal biases aside, it’s damn good.

But how to describe it?

Under the Rock is about immersing oneself in a landscape, in a community. It’s about woodland and millstone grit. Trespassing and wild swimming. Dump-scavenging and guerrilla wood-piling. It’s about the winter blues. Poetry and prose. Weather and walking. Floods and landslides. Moss and mud. History and counter-culture. It’s about Northernness. It’s about reservoirs and dams. Native and offcumden species. It’s about asbestosis and mass-murder. It’s about Jimmy Savile. Throbbing Gristle. Heathcliff the dog. Ted and Sylvia. (Hughes and Plath.)

It’s about 360 pages.

It’s about bloody time you read it.

Book review: ‘Round About Town’ by Kevin Boniface Sat, 04 May 2019 12:56:21 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Diary of a postman.
Diary of a postman.

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Round About Town

Round About Town is a hugely entertaining book. It comprises the diary entries of Kevin Boniface, a Huddersfield postman. It’s packed with observations and overheard conversations. I frequently found myself laughing out loud. (I don’t mean that simply as an expression; I actually did laugh out loud many times.)

Boniface’s words are augmented with equally well-observed photographs gracing every double-page spread.

If Alan Bennett were a postman, his diaries might read very much like this. (And they wouldn’t have all that boring stuff in them about the theatre.)


Book review: ‘The Tree’ by John Fowles Sat, 04 May 2019 12:52:29 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Dissing science (and art) for no good reason.
Dissing science (and art) for no good reason.

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The Tree

Despite this being a truly infuriating book, I know it’s one I’ll return to again and again, just so I can continue to distance myself from its central premise.

This extended essay by the late John Fowles attempts to set science at odds with an appreciation of nature. Anyone who’s read the final chapter of my book On the Moor will understand I hold the truth to be the exact opposite. To shamelessly quote myself:

When did appreciating the world for what it really is become unromantic—or, as some would have it, soulless? […] Darwin hadn’t belittled Nature by explaining how life evolves; he had revealed its true grandeur.

At a number of points in his essay, Fowles goes out of his way to explain he’s not condemning science. He then immediately spoils the conciliatory gesture by setting up yet another scientific straw-man to knock down.

In the interests of balance, Fowles also has a go at art. He argues it’s completely impossible (so pointless to attempt) to convey, say, the ineffable otherness of a wood in either pictorial or written format. But isn’t a major aim in art to convey what an experience meant to the artist? I might never be able to comprehend and describe or depict a tree’s utter treeness, but I can certainly attempt to describe or depict what standing in the middle of a copse felt like to me. I mean, why stop at trees? I might never be able to comprehend a pencil’s utter pencilness, but there’s absolutely no harm in me having a go at drawing one.

Pencil doodle
In yer face, Mr Fowles!

An infuriating but compelling read.

Book review: ‘Time Song’ by Julia Blackburn Sat, 04 May 2019 12:43:05 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Searching for Doggerland
Searching for Doggerland

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Time Song

Time Song recounts Julia Blackburn’s personal investigations into Doggerland: the name coined in the 1990s to describe the land that once connected Britain to continental Europe, but which now lies submerged beneath the North Sea. It was a land inhabited by woolly mammoths and rhinoceroses, Neanderthals, and stone-age Homo sapiens. Evidence for these and other former Doggerland inhabitants continues to be dredged from the sea and washed up on the surrounding beaches.

I enjoyed this book very much indeed, not least because it was written by a non-expert. In many ways, it’s more an account of Blackburn finding out about Doggerland than it is about Doggerland itself. It’s the sort of book that encourages you to go and find out stuff for yourself. I’m all for that.

Interspersed between the account of Blackburn’s investigations is a series of poems: the eponymous time songs. Taking their inspiration from various sources, the time songs explore what life in Doggerland might have been like, and summarising the results of recent scientific studies. It’s an unusual approach, but helps to keep the personal narrative flowing without getting sidetracked too far into published research.

An unusual and entertaining book. Recommended.

Introducing Sidelines Sun, 21 Apr 2019 10:38:56 +0100 Richard Carter ( A new section on my website dedicated to the (mostly nature) writing I write ‘on the side’. Definitely not a diary. Definitely not a blog. In issue 15 of my ‘Rich Text’ newsletter, I wrote:

[T]o keep my juices flowing, I’ve begun writing regular short pieces about things I’ve seen, or stuff I’ve been thinking. I’m steadfastly refusing to call this a ‘Diary’, and it certainly won’t replace my Writing Journal. So, for want of a better name, I’ve decided to call these short pieces Sidelines: lines that I write on the side, so to speak. I suppose they should rightly have been blog posts, but I’m finding writing stuff without the pressure of intended publication rather liberating. Who knows, perhaps some of my Sidelines might make it out into the wider world some day. It seems a shame to write stuff and not put it out there.

Since the newsletter went out, I’ve continued to write my Sidelines, and I’ve continued to wonder what on earth (if anything) I should do with them.

I meant it when I said writing without the pressure of intended publication was liberating. And I definitely don’t want to get into the blogging mindset, publishing each new sideline as soon as it’s written, then moving on. I much prefer to mull things over for a while, and to tinker.

So, by way of experiment, I’ve decided to try publishing my Sidelines retrospectively, in batches, as and when I feel ready to put them out there. I’m thinking, most likely, of publishing them once a month for the month just gone—although this might well change.

Obviously, I have a bit of catching up to do. So, without further ado, let me take you back six months to my very first Sidelines:

Book review: ‘The Seabird’s Cry’ by Adam Nicolson Thu, 31 Jan 2019 17:19:09 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The lives of puffins, gannets, and other ocean voyagers.
The lives of puffins, gannets, and other ocean voyagers.

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The Seabird’s Cry

The Seabird’s Cry is a hugely entertaining book about birds that spent much of their lives at sea. There are chapters on fulmars, puffins, kittiwakes, gulls, guillemots, cormorants and shags, shearwaters, gannets, the extinct great auks and their surviving close relatives the razorbills, and albatrosses.

The prose borders on the poetic in places, and occasionally on the anthropomorphic—although not in an objectionable way. But Nicolson also pulls no punches in describing the less savoury habits of certain seabird species.

There is also a plenty of fascinating science in this book, exploring, for example, how scientists eventually managed to track various ocean-going species’ foraging and migration routes, and gain insights into how they navigate. Indeed, science is pretty much the hero of this book. As Nicolson says in the introduction:

Science, for all that non-scientists disparage it, is dedicated to that urge towards [exploring life], and the astonishing findings of modern seabird scientists mean that a sense of wonder now emerges not from ignorance of birds but from understanding them.

Anyone who has read the final chapter of my book On the Moor will appreciate how heartily I endorse these sentiments.

Highly recommended.