In writing On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk, I set out to show how a routine walk in the countryside is enhanced by an appreciation of science, history, the history of science, and natural history. My aim is to show that there are interesting stories and scientific principles to be found behind pretty much anything we might encounter on such a walk, and that people who appreciate the countryside for purely aesthetic or athletic reasons are missing out on half the fun.
The unifying theme of On the Moor is the walks I've been taking for the last twenty years on a Pennine moor, high above Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire. There's nothing particularly special about the moor in question, but that's the whole point of the book: finding interest in the ordinary, on your own local patch.
Each chapter describes different walks taken on the Moor at different times of year. I then take the opportunity afforded by something I see or am thinking about on my walk to examine such diverse topics as:
- Charles Darwin’s strange experiments on plants;
- the seventeenth-century sceptic Sir Thomas Browne, and the theft of his skull;
- the evolution of the Celtic languages;
- how magnificent creatures such as peregrine falcons and human beings demonstrate kludgy compromise, rather than ‘intelligent design’;
- the reason for the wheatear’s strange migration route;
- a brief history of triangulation and the mapping of Great Britain;
- how Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath fell out over a grouse;
- the link between grouse disease and Scott of the Antarctic;
- the problem of defining a species;
- the courtship flight of the male snipe;
- agreeing standards for identifying species using DNA;
- entropy and the Laws of Thermodynamics;
- the invention of the vacuum flask;
- the science of a fire;
- the Brontës;
- the strange courtship display of the snipe;
- how Manchester (and Planet Earth) got its water;
- Darwin’s mysterious ailments, and the water-cure;
- how a comparison of skeletons demonstrates common ancestry;
- how rooks get their bald faces;
- the discovery of the Greenhouse Effect, and the accidental death of its discoverer at the hands of his wife;
- why the sky is blue and sunsets are red;
- the songs of skylarks;
- the effect of aircraft vapour trails on local temperatures;
- the invention of the weather forecast.
On the Moor spans a number of popular non-fiction genres, showing how nature, science and history interrelate, even at a local level. It mixes grand ideas with quirky trivia, celebrating mankind's (and nature's) imperfections as well as our triumphs. It also maintains an enthusiastic, sceptical tone, encouraging the reader to embrace reality and celebrate the world for what it really is, warts and all, rather than buying into romantic ideas that aren't true.
On the Moor is also a celebration of an area that I've grown to know and love. In recent years, we've seen the publication of many wonderful books about British landscapes, but few of them celebrate the North of England, and fewer still the overlooked hilly gap between the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales. I want to help put my Pennine patch on the literary map.