Book reviews, January 2023

Christmas was wet, too wet for doing much outside other than getting damper, so I made a good start on the book pile. Environmental campaigner Guy Shrubsole’s “ The Lost Rainforests of Britain” had a lot of publicity in the autumn: so lots more folk must now be aware of Britain’s rainforests. Job done? Well that must be part of his purpose. The paperback version will tell yet more people about them. And that must be a good thing.

Basically the book is a series of visits to woods, each one an opportunity for Guy to display his growing awareness and to raise issues. I can’t fault his enthusiasm. Indeed, I share it. Once he has discovered rainforests he visits lots; they obviously have a great effect upon him; he becomes a passionate advocate. There are suggested proposals for increasing their area. I can’t really fault them.

I could be picky: what makes something a temperate rainforest?; the species he describes are all too often the same; some of his claims about species and woods and discoveries may be disputed by some; there’s insufficient (to my mind) discussion of the variety of different Atlantic woods. There’s a preponderance (unsurprisingly) of woods near where he lives in south-west England: there’s relatively little about Scottish, Welsh and Cumbrian sites. But, as I said, I’m being picky.

For Cumbrian sites he goes to Johnny’s Wood in Borrowdale and Young Wood near Mungrisdale. I’m not sure those are the best places to go. But that’s from my local lichen perspective and it’s hard to disparage a book where Sticta, Lobaria and others get regular mentions. And maybe we don’t want to encourage too many folk to go near the very special places…

Did it enthuse me? No, but I’m grabbed already. Did it make me want to go to new places? Yes, it’s 30 years since I went to a wood in south west England, so it must be time for a visit soon. Do I recommend it? Well it depends on who you are. If you know a lot about lichens/ bryophytes/ wet woods it may disappoint. And you may be picky. But if you want to broaden the interest, then it may be a good one to suggest for people.

And so to Eoghan Daltun’s “An Irish Atlantic rainforest”. There’s a story here: rebuilding an old house in Dublin; learning about sculpture in Italy; buying a fascinating property in County Cork; fencing it to stop overgrazing killing the woodland. There’s little detail about the wildlife, but great local landscape and social history. The power of a good rainforest to enthuse and interest is revealed. But there’s a series of (to me) blander, less interesting chapters on rewilding and the impoverished state of Ireland’s ecosystems. I knew about that anyway, and maybe I’m spoilt by Tim Robinson’s detailed stories. So I ended up a little disappointed. Not by what Eoghan is doing, which is great, or by what he wants to happen, but by the book. Ho hum.

And then it was Vincent Zonca’s “Lichens: Towards a minimal resistance”, recently translated from the French. It’s a wide ranging tour of art, thought, poetry, prose, biology, ecology, symbiosis, mutualism, philosophy and just about everything else that lichens touch on, or that touch on lichens. The index includes, among those I’ve heard of, John Cage, William Wordsworth, Peter Kropotkin, Salvador Dali, David Hawksworth, Barry Lopez and Rosa Parks. And then there’s all the others.

At times the book is almost unreadable, at times inspiring, at times revealing, at times just pointing at rabbit holes (have a look at:  Rather appropriately, there’s a lot going on, and it’s time consuming to deal with it, even superficially. Have I thought a bit more about things and linkages? Yes. Do I understand it all? No. Does it make me want to know more? Yes. Will I come back to it? Surely, on many occasions. If only to find suitable quotes and inspiration:  “Thinking like lichen allows us to know our ecosystem better, and the everyday environments of our wanderings”(p213). It’s time to go outside in the rain.

Pete Martin