25TH FEBRUARY 2022
A confession… For me, writing a book is mostly an excuse for finding stuff out. If, in the process, I actually manage to write a book others might enjoy, so much the better. But the fun part is the finding out, not the writing.
That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the challenge of trying to distil a complex mishmash of ideas into a coherent narrative. The golden rule is, if I can’t explain a concept in straightforward language to an intelligent reader, it’s likely I don’t understand it well enough. The problem with this rule, of course, is it gives me the perfect excuse to go back and find out even more stuff.
A less enjoyable part of trying to distil my research is deciding which bits to leave out. I have literally hundreds of interlinked notes in my research app of choice. Not all my nuggets can make it into the book.
Last week, for example, I finally completed the first draft of a chapter about the evolution of the eye. As I neared the end of the chapter, I decided I needed to do some retrospective research about irises (the things in your eyes, obviously, not the flowers). In the process, I unearthed an interesting new study investigating why some animals have horizontal slits for pupils, while others have vertical slits. This sort of nugget would normally be a shoo-in, but I couldn’t sneak it into my chapter without making an unnecessary diversion in an already lengthy narrative. So I reluctantly filed the article away in my notes for possible future use. Then it occurred to me one good use for it would be to share it in a newsletter…
Some stuff I thought worth sharing:
- Revealed: why animals’ pupils come in different shapes and sizes
An interesting new study on the visual benefits of vertical and horizontal pupils.
- ‘I wanted to put the sex into nature writing’
My near(ish) neighbour and pal Amy Liptrot interviewed about her forthcoming memoir The Instant , which is out next week (you should all pre-order a copy, by the way). Amy recently tweeted the bombshell announcement that her brave and surprisingly uplifting debut memoir, The Outrun, is to be made into a film starring Saoirse Ronan. I literally w00ted!
- Moths and bats have been in an evolutionary battle for millions of years—and we’re still uncovering their tricks
Yet another example (see previous newsletter) of an interesting new story on a topic I’ve already written a chapter about for my Darwin book. I also spoke about this topic in a short bats podcast piece a couple of years back.
- Have we forgotten how to read critically?
A thoughtful article on how, thanks to social media, many readers treat every published piece of writing as a conversation opener, demanding a bespoke response. I’m tempted to contact the author to ask her to elaborate on one or two points.
- Like a Flamingo: Viking Treasure
A nice piece about the Galloway treasure hoard. It touches on a number of topics that interest me: the P- and Q-Celtic languages (as discussed in my book On the Moor), place names giving clues to history (ditto), ancient British peoples, St Cuthbert (who ought to be England’s patron saint), and Vikings. What’s not to like?
- Bird Island
A new essay on South African cape gannets (and humans) by top bird-man Tim Dee. I once spoke briefly with Tim. I remember our words as if they were uttered only yesterday: “Sorry, mate,” I said, getting out of his way. “Thanks. No worries!” he replied. One to file away for my autobiography, perhaps.
Thanks, as always, for making time to read this newsletter. If you have any feedback, please drop me a line. And, if you have any friends you think might like it, please forward them a copy, suggesting they might like to subscribe.
Keep safe, and I’ll see you next time.