In preparation for summer

The days are deniably drawing out, even if we have to share this daylight lengthening with bouts of 'Beasts from the East Parts 1, 2 and, apparently, 3'. To get us in the mood for those warm days, drowsy with the buzz of insects and perfumed via the waft of wild flowers, here's a selection of books - all highly recommended - that will only make us yearn all the more for their return.


In Pursuit of Butterflies by Matthew Oates
Matthew Oates has spent the past 50 years of his life in love with butterflies and has forged a career out of studying, counting and being enthralled by them.

The book is autobiographical, but it is much, much more than a 'been there, saw that' memoirs. Each page is packed not only with anecdote, but also with information - information that is anything but dry. I have learnt so much about butterflies from reading this that when I now go out into the field I am looking at them in a very different way. No longer are they just colourful and fleetingly glimpsed insects to be identified and committed to the notebook - thanks to Mr Oates I have a flicker of understanding about what they are up to and why.

In his 50 years study his research has unlocked secrets of their life-cycles that had remained unknown. He certainly has his favourites, none more so than the Purple Emperor, and his quest to see the all black aberration (iole) had me gripped. I now want to see a 'Black Admiral' and also the valenzia form of the Silver-washed Fritillary. Before picking up this book I was aware of neither. He has turned me from a part-time butterfly lover into something more.

The author has wandered through the years with not just butterflies as his companion - poetry and cricket are obviously great refuges from the 'modern-day systems' that he so clearly despises. We get to meet other butterfly champions, are shown around the butterfly hot-spots and share in his incredible highs and lows. Whether he is forgetting about having taken his two young daughters onto a mountainside, regularly coming across fornicating couples on downland in the dead of night, or rescuing an adult Brimstone from under several inches of snow, just like each butterfly season no page is the same. After reading this, you too will go out butterflying with a new pair of eyes.

By the way, he marked that snow-bound Brimstone on the wing with indelible ink and saw it again, three months later, a kilometre away.


Rainbow Dust by Peter Marren
Peter Marren is one of my favourite authors of wildlife publications. His 'Poyser' on Britain's Rare Flowers and British Wildlife Publishing's Mushrooms are both delights which I re-read with as much enjoyment as their first sitting. 

Rainbow Dust explores the relationship between us dowdy people and the brilliance that are butterflies. It begins with the author laying down his own beginnings with lepidoptera and then takes us to meet those who first described them, who named them, collected them, painted them, studied them and conserved them. This gallery of 'movers and shakers' is full of characters, from the plebs to the aristocracy, and shows us how they all contributed to our appreciation of butterflies in varying, but similarly major ways. How these insects have coloured our culture, haunted our folklore and entered our psyche is laid out before us.

I will never look at a Red Admiral in the same way again - the depiction of this species in the paintings from the 16th-17th century was as a metaphor for death; children from the middle-ages (and possibly before) used to tie thread to butterflies bodies and then attach them to their hats, so that they walked along accompanied by fluttering friends; the sources of many of the binomial names are revealed, a mixture of the classical, macabre and mischievous. There are pages and pages of this sort of stuff.

Marren does not do dry - his writing style is as if you were having a pint in the pub with him, so effortless and inclusive is his prose. Full of anecdote, aside and entertainment, he never the less gets to the nitty-gritty of any subject. Published by Square Peg, it is a beautifully produced book, with yet another stunning cover by Carrie Ackroyd.



The Butterfly Years by Patrick Barkham
It is a book that informs, entertains and makes you think about why we take such an interest in the natural world around us. I’m a sucker for any well-written natural history literature and this is definitely one that comes into that category.

It's got me all wistful for butterflies again. I can normally expect to see one by the end of February, usually an individual flushed out of hibernation by a spot of shed tidying or a shaft of warming sunlight. In most years the honour will go to a Red Admiral, a Small Tortoiseshell, a Peacock or a Brimstone. On one mild mid-February day several years ago, I recorded both Small Tortoiseshell and a Brimstone – a double flutterby start to the year!

The book has also made me realise that there are species, within easy travelling distance, that I should go and see before its too late. I haven’t seen Glanville Fritillary, Lulworth Skipper or Heath Fritillary. I really ought to get myself into gear and put that right this coming summer.

Get the book and you wont be disappointed. A word of warning though – you may find yourself adding a few trips to your list this summer.


Orchid Summer by Jon Dunn
This is no 'went there, saw that' account made in a strictly chronological order - to have been so would not only been generic but also turgid for the reader. What Jon has done is to use the premise of his quest to cleverly - seamlessly - weave into the story multiple rich threads dealing with the personalities involved in discovering orchids, naming them, protecting them and studying them; the orchid folklore, the rich history that they possess and their astonishing mechanisms for obtaining their food and their reproduction methods. There is no 'cut-and-paste' methodology going on here! He has also handed over extra time to the species that warrant our fuller attention, those that have a more 'interesting' tale to tell. This works wonderfully well.

This is a book that does not only entertain and inform, but, something rarely experienced, also inspires. Because you are there with the author as he kneels down before his quarry and experience with him his emotions (whether they be of success or failure) it makes you want to seek out your own audience with the orchids as soon as possible. As his quest evolves, so does his relationship with the orchids themselves. In places this is heart on the sleeve stuff, a natural history confessional.

Jon is a master of communicating factual information. In less skilful hands this can come across as dry, but he is able to irrigate and hydrate them into memorable passages of text. His brilliant descriptive prose appears throughout the book, with turns of phrase that, with a few skilfully chosen words, places you alongside him experiencing the plants and habitats first hand. If you thought you knew all there was to know about our orchids, then reading this book will make you realise that you didn't - and if you know very little about them then you couldn't find a better place to start to get to know them better. I will be looking at them with fresh eyes this coming summer and I am impatient to start. I yearn to seek out their variations; to really take in their structures; to try and observe some of their pollination methods at work - only a week ago none of these were even considered as things that I wanted - needed  - to do. For a start, the local Bee Orchids will be grilled in the hope for a var. chlorantha.

If you thought orchid hunting was all summer days and flowery meadows in the company of gentle souls think again! You will get drenched and cross swollen streams with him on Rum, get covered in mud in Herefordshire woodlands, be rounded on by irate golfers and menaced by beer-swilling Cumbrian red-necks. And, unusual for a natural history book, I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions - for plants that have been linked to testicles and libido for centuries a bit of 21st century bawdiness in not out of place!  References beyond the world of orchids are many and do nothing but add richness to the experience - and most of them land back firmly in the world of the orchid - Adolf Hitler is even referenced twice!

This is a book written, designed and published by people who care. From the charming 'arts and crafts' book jacket illustration to the font and paper choice; from the inclusion of a ribbon book mark to the aching desire from the author that we all embrace our wildlife and cherish it - this is a work of love. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


Chasing The Ghost by Peter Marren
I've only just got hold of this book, hot off the press, but have included it as nothing that has been written by Peter Marren is anything other than a resounding success. I cannot wait to get stuck in as the author takes us on a personal odyssey to track down all of the wild flowers to be found in Britain.

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