Tales of the wild: Elegy for a River & The Secret Networks of Nature – Books review

Written by Clémence Aycard, who newly joined Climate Museum UK as an Emerging Practitioner and Associate. Based in Scotland, she works in museums, and specialises in ecocritical art history – telling stories of the environment through fine and decorative art collections. This is her first post on the website, and is part of our series of Climate Reviews.

It is said that you should never judge a book by its cover. I like to listen to popular wisdom, so instead, I choose my books by their title. This is how I encountered Elegy for a River by Tom Moorhouse, the first book of this review. It sounded so poetic that I picked it up from its library shelf, newly arrived and still pristine. It has a pretty cover, too – all blue and green with shadow figures of plants, birds, and a small rodent (which, as it turned out, is central to the book).

I never used to read non-fiction. As a recent master’s graduate and a museum professional with a soft spot for academic research, I did not usually choose books that reminded me of work, or real life, for personal enjoyment. In the last year, this has changed dramatically. As my social and environmental awareness grows, I understand more acutely the importance of reading real stories to give weight to my engagement and values.

Which brings us back to Elegy for a River, the first environmentally orientated book that I picked up for leisure reading. The second book of this review, The Secret Network of Nature by Peter Wohlleben, was read some eight months later. Both have much in common and deserve to be discussed together.

To start with, they are not academic. Or rather, they are, but in the most accessible way. Both are based on extensive research, years of literal field experience, and an intrinsic understanding of the intricate relationships regulating the vast organic mechanism we call ‘Nature’. While Elegy takes place along water, The Secret Network will take you deep into the woods. Where Elegy focuses mainly on one species, the water vole, a small riverbank rodent whose existence is probably unknown to most people, The Secret Network looks at a variety of species, from trees to deer to fungi to beetles, describing the way their lives intertwine, for better or for worse.

Both are written with a light tone and good-natured humour. Neither author will ever make you feel stupid, nor use terms that ask you to look at a specialist dictionary. This is a conversation – someone is talking to you about their passion for their job, the environment, and the life it sustains. They do so in the friendliest manner: they just want to you to listen, understand, and spread the word. They want everyone to feel included. It is not just their environment, it’s ours.

As pointed out by Tom Moorhouse, if you have read The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, then you have already encountered at least one water vole in your life. But if you’re like me and you just assumed that a character named ‘Ratty’ was a rat, then you probably haven’t noticed. Water voles are small, unassuming creatures. And yet, as Tom Moorhouse brilliantly describes, they carry the weight of an entire life chain on their tiny rodent shoulders. Like many tiny creatures that are easily unnoticed, water voles are essential to ecosystems in places where they are found – in this case, the network of English waterways. Like many tiny creatures that are easily unnoticed, water voles are threatened with extinction. And like many easily unnoticed tiny creatures, getting systems in place to preserve them is hard.

Elegy for a River is a tale of hope and hardship, of feet in the water, wind and mud, tattered traps and tiny teeth. I enjoyed the honesty of its author, his de-romanticizing of the work of a conservationist. The science in it is backed up by long hours spent outdoors, not always successfully. It is a touching, somewhat wet metaphor of the fight against the environmental crisis. Loads of efforts, loads of sad days, and even more perseverance.

The Secret Network of Nature also has this taste of the outdoors. Peter Wohlleben, who also wrote The Hidden Life of Trees, is a forester, and his writing carries with it the smell of trees and dirt. Instead of focusing on one species, The Secret Network examine how the cogs of nature interact to create flourishing ecosystems. I learnt much from this reading, about intricacies I would never have thought of. Did you know salmons are key to tree growth in Alaska? That fire ants create living farms of aphids to feed on? That trees can recognize their own offspring? Nature is both magical and grossly cruel. I uttered many a ‘Oh my god that’s horrible’ while reading, but I emerged more fascinated and determined to protect the environment than ever before.

Unfortunately, along with their share of laughs and amazement, both books also carry their load of guilt. It’s not intentional – no one is pointing a finger at the reader and shouting ‘You did this!’. But by highlighting the miracles of nature, both authors also shed light on the way human activities and interactions have disrupted it. In England, water voles are now an almost extinct species. Tom Moorhouse also mentions the case of the native crayfish, decimated by the import into British waters of its more aggressive American cousin. Peter Wohlleben highlights the impact of high concentration of nitrogen on tree growth and increasing heatwaves on their resistance. He mentions hunting practices of feeding prey, which disrupts Darwin’s beloved natural selection, and hypothesizes on our impact on organisms that live so deeply in the soil that they seem otherworldly. There is a lot of sadness in contemplating life so vividly and knowing it is so fragile.

There is a lot of wonderment, too. While both men talk about reparation, rewilding, and preservation, Peter Wohlleben asks a question I had never actually pondered before – what are we preserving? Is it the state of nature as it should be, or the state of nature as we’ve made it? Where does the course of nature’s history start, or rather, where do we make it start, in order to conserve?

Tom Moorhouse illustrates this perfectly: ‘Do rabbits belong to Britain? Most people would probably answer yes. […] But they are not native. They were first brought by the Romans […]’.

Forests take longer to grow than to be destroyed. Trees move, and with them do other species. Ecosystems regulate themselves, but when we choose to protect a species, where does its legitimacy begin? Do we always consider how it impacts another? What if this one very photogenic bird was the death of this really ugly beetle?

Elegy and The Secret Network tell the story of tiny creatures that are easily unnoticed, and that are easily erased. They carry open-ended questions, with open-ended answers, on what we choose to fight for, to save and sacrifice. Cute animals that sell T-shirts are on the starting blocks for preservation, but the flying insects we’ve learned to be wary of might not really make the list. Aside from calling for institutional, financial, and popular support, I understood these books as calls for a better education system – one in which children of all ages would be taken on long outdoor walks, invited to play with the ‘dirt’ and told how much life a handful sustains. I wish someone had told me, when I was young and terrified of everything, how the networks of fungi just a few centimetres under our feet basically run the planet. I wish I had been shown how to look for signs of weakness on tree bark or recognize animal droppings. These books do not teach such technicalities, but they are a first, brilliant step towards understanding why seemingly unimportant studies are at the heart of every future we may fight for.

In order to write this review, I had to re-borrow Elegy for a River from the library. I was sad to see that, eight months after my first read, it is still pristine – the last stamp in it was for me. This is a book that deserves to be read, talked about, taught about. So is The Secret Network of Nature, that I have already promised to lend to at least four different people. These books are beautiful, well-written, funny love letters to the world, to the chain of small insignificant things that sustain an entire planet. They carry a lot of harrowing realities, but they carry hope, too. Hope, because of the strength of nature. Hope, because of people like Tom Moorhouse and Peter Wohlleben. Hope, because they also give advice on how to help – Elegy for a River ends on a list of actions to take to support wildlife regeneration.

That’s why these books seemed ideal for the Climate Museum UK bookshelf. Like us, they do not lie about the present, but believe in a better future. Like us, they call for education, participation, active discussion. Like us, they talk of loving what’s out there – and I hope they will make you talk of it, too.

‘So much of what is gone is far from irreversible. And more and more we are hearing public demands for action: on climate, on species loss. And we have solutions, ready-made, provided by decades of research. The only question is whether we can find the will and the courage to implement them.
I think we can.
You see, I have this wild hope…’

Tom Moorhouse, p. 235

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