17 November 2016
‘Autumn: An anthology for the changing seasons’ edited by Melissa Harrison. This is third of a four-part seasonal series.
Elliott & Thompson had already come up with the concept of the series, and in fact had begun the initial research for Spring . They were looking for a series editor, someone to help steer the tone and content of the books, and who could help with the commissioning process. When they got in touch I was interested straight away, but a little worried aabout whether I’d be able to do as good a job as I knew the series deserved, what with having a day job and also writing a new novel in my time off. But I loved the idea of the books, and I was already buzzing with ideas for writers and extracts we could include, so I said yes. Fortunately, the team at E&T were so good that I never felt overwhelmed by the commissioning or editing process.
E&T had previously published an anthology in support of The Wildlife Trusts, called Nature Tales: Encounters with Britain’s Wildlife, so the relationship was already there. I’m a member of the London Wildlife Trust and have links to other Trusts, too, so I was very keen to support their work, which is of vital importance across the UK.
Our researcher, Bronagh Woods, spent a lot of time in the British Library, looking for extracts from classic works of literature and nature writing. I had my own list of older and more contemporary works I wanted to see represented, and established nature writers I wanted to commission. Meanwhile, The Wildlife Trusts put out a call for submissions among their members, and both E&T and I spent time looking for nature bloggers and conservationists who might be persuaded to contribute. Throughout the process, we kept an eye on the balance of male and female writers, the geographical spread of the pieces, and the range of subjects covered; we also looked for pieces by writers of colour, who are underrepresented in writing about nature.
There were some extracts we weren’t able to include, either due to space constraints or because of copyrights issues, which was a shame – but anthologies can never be exhaustive. And the editing process was necessarily different with new and less experienced contributors than with established writers, who are used to being subbed. But overall, the process was very smooth – and really enjoyable.
I’m working on my third novel at the moment, which is taking up most of my time. And I have another couple of ideas I want to get cracking on once it’s done…watch this space!
In her introduction Ms. Harrison describes her love of autumn…She notes that although this time of year has qualities sometimes associated with dying (or at least dormancy), we can definitely discern in it the vital interconnectedness of decay with new life. Although plant growth slows or stops as fall progresses, it is also harvest time with its bounty of food for wildlife and people. At the same time it’s a key season for saprophytes: fungi, moulds and relations, the recyclers of the world…A few writers take us along as they forage for fungi…Kate Blincoe writes, ‘It was macabre from a distance; a pure white, human-sized skull glowing out from the darkness of the woodland glade…It was a giant puffball mushroom, the size of a football.’
Through a variety of accounts, we experience the seasonal bounty ready to nourish humans and wildlife; sloes, blackberries, elderberries and more. In a piece from The Farmer’s Year: A Calendar of English Husbandry (1933), we are transported to apple harvesting in Kent where one of the party has picked ‘this seventy year’, and horse-drawn wagons are filled with bushel baskets. More recently, Janet Willoner brings the reader along with her into an old Yorkshire orchard, picking apples with fanciful names like Keswick Codlin, Blenheim Orange and Peasgood Nonesuch, and then through the fragrant (and sticky) steps of making cider.
For bird watchers, fall migrations are full of anticipation and activity, both in the skies and on the ground. Dr. Rob Lambert describes frenetic annual pilgrimage of birders to the Scilly Isles or Shetland, where birders can witness mass migrations and ‘make or break reputations.’ Chris Murphy shares a similar autumn ritual at St. John’s Point, where he observes the return of hundreds of seabirds, including gannets, kittiwakes, razorbills and occasionally Sabine’s gull or storm petrels.
Each piece in this collection conveys its author’s unique voice, which combine to create an ode to autumn. We are drawn into each writer’s experience of the UK landscape at this particular, often poignant season… Most are contemporary pieces, but there are a few works (usually short) from the 19th and 20th centuries. Several are by Thomas Furley Foster, from The Pocket Encyclopedia of Natural Phenomena, published in 1827. Here’s a portion of one:
‘Fieldfares, when they arrive early and in great abundance in autumn, foreshew a hard winter, which has probably set in, in the regions from which they have come. They usually come in November.’
It is comforting somehow to read observations of nature from previous times, as they punctuate a cycle of appreciation for similar plants, birds, wildlife and landscapes that we continue to experience today…
Some of the entries from current writers are particularly lyrical. Ginny Battson gathers strands from natural history and ancient Greek philosophy to weave a poetic tapestry on the ever-changing connectedness of the natural world:
‘A leaf is not a leaf forever. It is in a state of flux between leaf and particulate, living and dead. A leaf that falls in the stream is the beginning of a chain. Spin, yaw, pitch and submerge, it’s hurrying downstream in a thrum of fluvial energy and I lose sight of it.’
Another current contributor, Jo Cartmell, eloquently shares her experiences of wildlife at her local wetland, Barton Fields, in Oxfordshire, where her patience is rewarded with sightings of water voles and Tawny owls. She writes:
‘I love this season of gradual withdrawal. It is not only a visible withdrawal by nature, but a subtle inner withdrawal, too; a slow imperceptible retreat into ourselves…A chance to recharge the soul after a spring and summer of almost constant activity.’
Louise Baker creates a multi-faceted tour of the sensory pleasure of the season, from the plethora of berries, the perfume of wet leaves, the crunch of leaves underfoot to the soft sounds of wildlife in the growing stillness.
The format of this volume offers several benefits, apart from the pleasure of reading each piece. It provides an opportunity to discover new writers, (there is an index with short bios of each contributor), and to follow up by reading more of their work elsewhere. It also presents a diversity of styles and voices, whilst remaining under the umbrella of the theme… yet within that framework are a delightful range of perspectives and experiences.
I thoroughly enjoyed this entire book. This volume or the entire set would be a great gift for anyone, especially a nature-lover, or anyone who appreciates good writing. The length of individual pieces makes it perfect for busy people…easy to dip in and out of, yet satisfying to delve into for a satisfying bout of seasonal immersion.
Postscript: A boxed set of the entire series: Seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter (boxed set of four paperbacks) is now available at the usual outlets and online at: http://www.amazon.co.uk.
Very highly recommended…
Speaker Review – Excerpted from the Winter Issue AGCBC Bulletin. For more info see Alpine Garden Club of BC.
Howard Wills – AGCBC – December 9th, 2015
Report by Jo Turner, photos by Howard Wills
Attendees of the December meeting had the distinct pleasure of hearing UK plantsman Howard Wills talk on Semperivums and Related Plants. Mr. Wills is a long-time expert grower of Sempervivums and Jovibarba. Howard runs Fernwood Nursery, in Peters Marland, near Torrington, Dorset, UK. He holds the NCCPG collections of Sempervivum, Jovibarba and has also held the Phormium collection until not long ago.
The genus Jovibarba is closely related to Sempervivum, and, as Howard noted, some experts say they are too similar to warrant a separate genus designation. The main differences are displayed in the floral structures. While the flowers of Sempervivumsare open, Jovibarba flowers are cupped, and have fewer petals, joined at the base. Unlike Semperivum flowers, which are most commonly found in shades of red, pink or purple (some species are yellow or white as well), often with a dark stripe in the center, Jovibarba flowers are usually yellow, though they can range from almost white to a deeper yellow shade.
Howard has participated in many of Britain’s most prestigious garden shows, and won Gold medals at Chelsea in 2005, 2006 and 2010. Howard, with his wife, Sally, wrote a book, ‘An Introduction to Sempervivum and Jovibarba: Species and Cultivars’, which he had a few copies of for purchase. It is chock full of information about all aspects of growing and displaying these plants. I would highly recommend it.
Mr. Wills’ enthusiasm for the genus he has specialized in for many years is infectious. Throughout his talk, his passion for all aspects of this genus shined. Over the course of the evening he shared tips on their cultivation and propagation, a variety of cultivars, history, including medicinal uses, how they relate to Fibonacci series, and how to display them to best advantage, along with a mass of stellar photos illustrating his points.
Sempervivums (common name houseleeks), are members of the Crassulaceae family, and have been grown in the UK for centuries, although (strangely), there are no species native to Great Britain. Native to higher elevations, in Morocco and Central Europe, across the Balkans, Caucasus and Iran, they are found nowhere else in the world. Howard stressed that although Sempervivums have succulent leaves similar to many more similar genuses, they are much hardier than most. Subsequently they are not nearly as tender as Echiverias, Agaves, Aeoniums and other succulent plants. He noted that Sempervivums are actually very tough and relatively easy to grow, with their only essential requirements being sun and good drainage. Snow and cold seem to not present any lasting problems either. Regarding possible predators, Howard displayed his love of wildlife when he mentioned that should blackbirds occasionally dig up his plants (often looking for vine weevils), he will check the roots, remove any larvae he finds, replant and leave the larvae nearby for a tasty meal for the birds.
Sempervivums reproduce mainly by producing offsets, the proverbial ‘chicks’ when we see a clump of hens and chicks. He noted that to encourage even more offshoots you may remove the monocarpic flowers, which usually appear in the second or third year of a plant’s life. A cautionary tip he passed along is that, as Sempervivums do die after flowering (being monocots), one might not want to purchase one in flower, although, with the presence of offsets on many plants, only the actual flowering portion would be affected. Regarding the leafy offshoots, a new set of babies should appear each year, on the periphery of the original plant. He illustrated with a photo how you can easily distinguish each year’s new stolons, which are easily removed and potted up. If new plants are desired, late summer is the best time to make cuttings. Of course one can also just let the clumps get bigger and bigger, filling a pot or area in aplanting, which happens quite quickly. Howard stressed that growing from seed is also very easily done, although cultivars won’t come true, and so aren’t usually propagated that way.
Having entered Sempervivums in many garden shows over the years, Howard really knows how best to arrange a planting for maximum interest. He shared his enthusiasm for creating patterns with red/green rosettes, geometric arrangements, tighter/looser textures, and a variety of designs with us, in a series of stellar photos. He also told us about his fascination with the mathematical repetitions created by the spirals and rosettes of these genera, and made reference to their affinity with Fibonacci spirals. The Fibonacci spiral is described as the ‘Golden Mean’ and describes a pattern made when certain numbers are repeated in sequence. Here is a link showing some Fibonacci spirals in nature: http://www.goldennumber.net/spirals. The Fibonacci sequence is where each number is the sum of the previous two numbers.
The Fibonacci spiral: an approximation of the golden spiral created by drawing circular arcs connecting the opposite corners of squares in the Fibonacci tiling; this one uses squares of sizes 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and 34. All in all, a fascinating and highly informative presentation by a man whose enthusiasm for Sempervivums is definitely contagious…
‘An Introduction to Sempervivum and Jovibarba: Species and Cultivars’ by Howard and Sally Wills. Published 2004. IBBN 0-9547533-0-5.
The nursery and garden are open by appointment. Fernwood offers a full mail-order service.
It’s a coldish (2C) clear, sunny day in Vancouver. We had an ever so slight dusting of snow overnight. Snow around here is a very ephemeral phenomenon, usually only around for few days at most..It does however, totally alter the landscape, however briefly, creating silhouettes on roofs and branches, painting the world with a frosty brush. The ground is hard, unyielding, and in the garden, bronzed leaves display their ragged silver fringes…
I jumped, (well maybe tiptoed), into the world of blogging last autumn, and somehow the landscape in my world shifted as well… The observations, interactivity, and general thoughtfulness and humanity of those blogs I encountered, (and followed) encouraged me to aspire to join in…The community on Twitter, some who blog, are an amazing and wondrous bunch who mean alot to me. A few more experienced bloggers kindly offered very useful advice (you know who you are), and I will always be grateful. There are a few things I plan to write about this year in particular.
The news every day is full of how nature is being attacked, seemingly on all fronts, from bees threatened by hive collapse and neo-nicotinioids, to oceans filling with plastic, which in turn is devoured by marine animals/fish, then becoming present in the flesh of, guess what, the tasty morsel on your plate. Meanwhile governments around the world seem to have blinders on when it comes to understanding the potentially devastating consequences of processes like fracking. In British Columbia, Canada where I live, our government’s enthusiasm for LNG is only surpassed by the folly of issuing a permit to allow the headwaters (source of the town’s water supply) above Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island be used as a toxic waste dump. How is this even possible??? But enough gloom…
Every day I encounter examples of individuals and groups who are deeply commited to upholding and protecting the natural world. Some are gardeners, or designers, or plant propagators, others work to save species or habitat. Still others study and educate communities about beneficial insects and pollinators. Some work with young people to introduce them to the natural world. Their approaches are quite diverse, yet there is a commmon link – the idea that mankind is not the be all/end all of this planet. These ongoing efforts provide a much-needed sense of hope that people can make a positive contribution, within communities, in schools, in gardens, conservation projects, and in countless other initiatives. I hope to highlight some of these projects, books, and people this year.
I also plan to write about some public gardens, introduce some new (and old, but stellar) garden books, and share some horticulturally related events and lectures with my readers. Plus, perhaps a bit of serendipity, just to mix it up a bit.
And so, onward to a new year…. May it bring resilence, a renewed sense of wonder, and the joy to be found both in making and experiencing gardens, (along with the achy muscles), and also by connecting with the wild mysteries of this natural world we call home.