Book review: ‘The Stubborn Light of Things’ by Melissa Harrison

A nature diary.

‘The Stubborn Light of Things’ by Melissa Harrison

During the 2020 lockdown, Melissa Harrison’s weekly podcast, The Stubborn Light of Things, brought comfort to many people, myself included.

This essay collection, bearing the same name as the podcast, comprises seven years‘ worth of Harrison’s Nature Diary columns for the Times newspaper. It, too, brings plenty of comfort.

What I particularly like about Harrison’s approach, both on the podcast and in this book, is that she doesn’t put herself forward as an expert. She’s just an ordinary person with an interest in nature—albeit an ordinary person with a regular nature diary column in the Times newspaper. She likes to stress she’s learning as she goes along, and there’s no shame in not knowing stuff, or making mistakes about the natural world. That said, Harrison clearly has picked up lots of stuff about the natural world, so there’s plenty of interest to be found in this collection.

The book is split into two parts, marking Harrison’s transition from being mainly London-based to taking up residence in deepest Suffolk. So there’s a pleasing mix of urban and rural nature writing in the collection.

One piece which particularly resonated with me was Harrison’s description of how, on the banks of the River Stour in Dorset, she likes to:

…sit on a little wooden jetty, under an overhanging beech, and do nothing for an hour but watch the water slip slowly by.

Sometimes, something happens: a fish rises and ripples the surface, perhaps a grayling or brown trout; a kingfisher calls peep, then flashes past, glinting; a bright-eyed brown rat investigates the exposed roots of an alder on the bank. Most of the time, though, there is just the cold, slow-moving river bearing the odd dead leaf or feather, the contented notes of a wood pigeon from somewhere high above, and the light sparkling on the water and dappling the undersides of the leaves. My breathing slows, and perhaps my heart; my attention seems to be distilled and focused by the water, rather than its usual distracted scatter. It isn’t meditation, I don’t think, because my focus is keenly outward; but I’m sure every angler will recognise the feeling I describe.

Not just anglers. Harrison is here describing the feeling I have sitting on my favourite rock in Anglesey, gazing out to sea: nature waiting, as I like to think of it. Reading the above passage took me straight back there, to my favourite rock. For that alone, the book was worth its cover-price.

An excellent, uplifting read.

Highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Disclosure: Melissa Harrison and I follow each other on social media. I consider her an online friend. I made a guest appearance in episode 16 of her podcast, where I displayed my non-expertise about bats.

By Richard Carter

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Website · Facebook · Twitter · Newsletter · Book

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