Flay lay of Vintage books on climate change and nature

‘We cannot overestimate the power of storytelling,’ Greta Thunberg told the 2021 Edinburgh TV Festival in a livestream conversation with Jo Nesbo. ‘Storytelling is a huge contributor to changing these social norms.’ So, as all eyes are on Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), here are just some books that we believe can help to bring a more human meaning to the climate and sustainability discussions in the news.

The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018)

We’ve learned a little about a few of them, in isolation. But nothing is less isolated or more social than a tree.

Richard Powers is well-known for his novels that delve deeply into a subject by which he’s fascinated. Pulitzer Prize winner The Overstory is his love letter to trees and an urgent plea to care for our environment. He was inspired to write it by an encounter with a giant redwood, which Powers described as a ‘religious conversion’ that showed him his place in ‘a system of meaning that doesn’t begin and end with humans’.

In The Overstory, the lives of nine disparate people are woven together by their deep appreciation for trees: some become activists, some make technological or scientific breakthroughs and all of them recognise the extraordinary wonder of trees and the need for urgent action to protect them.

The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James (2015)

I had never stood in such intimate company with a wild bull elephant or felt its breath steaming upon my face, had never watched the ground beneath my feet fall away until all that remained was the small patch on which I stood trembling. How could a man survive such a thing unchanged? How could he glimpse that unholy omen, a warning as ancient as the oldest of fables, as obvious as a black-bellied cloud, and ignore it?

When a young elephant is brutally orphaned by poachers, it is only a matter of time before he begins terrorising the countryside, earning the nickname ‘the Gravedigger’ from the humans who fear him. Crossing his path of destruction are Manu, a young man drawn into the alluring world of ivory hunting, and Emma, who is working on a documentary set in a Kerala wildlife park. 

Selected as a Guardian Book of the Year and shortlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize, The Tusk That Did the Damage is a compelling novel about how we treat nature and one another. 

Greenery by Tim Dee (2020)

Somewhere between the top of Europe and the bottom of Africa, a spotted flycatcher snaps after a fly every daytime minute.

This is a new masterpiece of nature writing from the author of The Running Sky. One December, in midsummer South Africa, Tim Dee was watching swallows. Between the winter and summer solstices in Europe, spring moves north at about the speed of swallow flight, which is also close to human walking pace. Greenery recounts Tim Dee’s journey tracing their flight from South Africa to Scandinavia, following the swallows and the best days of the year. Interweaving a diary of spring spreading through Britain, D. H. Lawrence and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, stories of Egyptian taxi drivers and chronobiologists in arctic Norway, this account is expansive and often profoundly beautiful.

The Garden Jungle by Dave Goulson (2019)

Gardens provide us with a place where we can reconnect with nature and rediscover where food comes from. If we embrace this, we gardeners might just save the planet, and in doing so save ourselves.

The Garden Jungle is a wonderful introduction to the wildlife that lives right under our noses, in our gardens and parks, and the myriad ways we can encourage them to thrive. Dave Goulson gives us an insight into the fascinating and sometimes weird lives of these creatures, taking us burrowing into the compost heap, digging under the lawn and diving into the garden pond. He explains how our lives are inextricably intertwined with that of earwigs, bees, lacewings and hoverflies, unappreciated heroes of the natural world. For anyone who has a garden, and cares about our planet, this book is essential reading.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014)

The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.

H is for Hawk is a moving meditation on grief expressed through the trials of training a goshawk. As a child Helen Macdonald was determined to become a falconer, learning arcane terminology and reading all the classic books. Years later, when her father died and she was deeply struck by grief, she became obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk. Buying Mabel for £800 on a Scottish quayside and taking her home to Cambridge, she embarked on trying to train one of the wildest animals. This is a book about memory and nature, and how it might be possible to reconcile death with life and love.

The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch (1978)

As I lay there, listening to the soft slap of the sea, and thinking these sad and strange thoughts, more and more and more stars had gathered, obliterating the separateness of the Milky Way and filling up the whole sky.

The Sea, The Sea won Iris Murdoch the Booker Prize in 1978 and is one of her best known and best loved books. Charles Arrowby, having retired from a life of relative success and notoriety in the theatre, leaves London to move into a mysterious old house on the coast. Here he takes daily walks, eats hilariously strange and unappealing meals and writes his memoirs. His greatest pleasure is swimming in the sea; wild and beautiful and strange, the water slowly unspools each of the threads holding his life together. Arrowby is obsessed with the idea of living hermit-like in isolation and anonymity, but as with all of his whims, he tires of it quickly, turning his attention instead to winning a single prize at any cost: Hartley, a woman he loved in his youth.

Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

In 1845 New England essayist, poet and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, ventured into the woods surrounding Walden Pond to begin an experiment in simple living. 

Living in a cabin by himself for two years, two months, and two days, Thoreau’s Walden provides a record of that time spent in solace amongst nature. But more than a portrait of life in the woods, Walden is a poetic meditation on man’s place in the world – what it means to live in and amongst society, as well as a rousing call for self-reliance and freedom in the face of civilisation’s demands.

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (2020)

The sea, that expanse of nothingness, could reflect a man back on himself. It had that effect. It was so endless and it moved around underneath the boat. It wasn’t the same thing at all as being on any expanse of earth. The sea shifted. The sea could swallow the boat whole. The sea was the giant woman of the planet, fluid and contrary.

The winner of the Costa Book of the Year, The Mermaid of Black Conch is the entrancing tale of a fisherman and his unexpected catch – the mermaid Aycayia.

Aycayia is an innocent young woman under the curse of jealous wives to live as a mermaid. When fisherman David rescues her from American tourists, he vows to win her trust. Slowly, painfully, she transforms into a woman again. Yet as their love grows, they discover that the world around them is changing  and they cannot escape the curse for ever...

Kilvert’s Diary by Francis Kilvert (1938)

A wild rainy night. As I write I hear the scraping and squealing of the fiddle and the ceaseless heavy tramp of the dancers as they stamp the floor in a country dance.

Few have written more beautifully about the British countryside than Francis Kilvert. A country clergyman born in 1840, Kilvert spent much of his time visiting parishioners, walking the lanes and fields and writing in his diary. Full of passionate delight in the natural world and the glory of the changing seasons, his diaries are as generous, spontaneous and vivacious as Kilvert himself.

This new edition of William Plomer’s original selection contains new archival material as well as a fascinating introduction illuminating Kilvert’s world and the history of the diaries.

The Snow Leopard by Peter Mattiessen (1978)

The secret of the mountain is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no "meaning," they are meaning; the mountains are.

The Snow Leopard transports the reader to the high Himalayas, all the way to the dazzling Tibetan plateau of Dolpo. The book is based on Matthiessen’s notes from the journey he made in 1973 and the physical endeavour, the exertion, the blizzards, the endless negotiations with sherpas, the bone-rattling cold, are all there. But it is also a book about the mind, written at a time when the author was in desperate need of solace and searching for it in the hard silver light of the mountains – their grandeur, beauty and indifference. Matthiessen is also searching for a glimpse of a snow leopard, a creature so rare as to be almost mythical.

Modern Nature by Derek Jarman (1991)

I sit here in the dark holding a candle that throws my divided shadow across the room and gathers my thoughts to the flame like moths.

I have not moved for many hours. Years, a lifetime, eddy past: one, two, three: into the early hours, the clock chimes. The wind is singing now.

In 1986 Derek Jarman discovered he was HIV positive and decided to make a garden at his cottage on the barren coast of Dungeness. If you haven’t been introduced to the genius of Jarman yet, this is the place to begin, as he delves into his green-fingered childhood, his time as a young gay man in the 1960s, and his renowned career as an artist, writer and film-maker.

Facing an uncertain future, he nevertheless found solace in nature, growing all manner of plants. While some perished beneath wind and sea-spray others flourished, creating brilliant, unexpected beauty in the wilderness. At the heart of Jarman’s journal is his defiant spirit and almost renaissance-like fervour for the world around him. It is at once a lament for a lost generation, and a devotion to all that is living.



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