Book Review: Few and Far Between, by Charlie Elder

Few and Far

A pair of blue tits nest in the table beneath a fir tree in my back garden every spring; a robin is a permanent resident; most evenings since May magpies have been fighting with crows for proprietorship of the back garden – they swoop over the roof and disappear into the denser woodland by the old railway that runs along the foot of the garden; a colony of rabbits live under the shed; four deer visit regularly every spring. This year, the garden has been busier with wildlife than last year, but not as busy as three years ago. In 2011, the year after the really bad winter, there were few wildlife visitors. I don’t keep a note of these visits, but after reading Charlie Elder’s book on nature conservation, I know I ought to.

Elder’s Few and Far Between: On the trail of Britain’s rarest animals (Bloomsbury) illuminates our understanding of what is lost, what we know we have now, and who is keeping watch on the state of our wildlife. Do we take it for granted that blue tits will always be there? What usefulness do they bring to the ecosystem of our gardens – what do they do for humans? Elder shows that such questions are the wrong way to think about wildlife and conservation. Some creatures exist just because they do – and that should be enough for our concerned watchfulness over their numbers.

I reviewed Few and Far Between in the Times Literary Supplement (29 July 2015)

Charlie Elder’s website is a good starting point for finding out about contemporary conservation issues.

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Book Review: Britannia Obscura, by Joanne Parker

Britannia Obscura

Britannia Obscura: Mapping Hidden Britain by Joanne Parker (Jonathan Cape)

Writing to his commander from Castle Stalker on Loch Laich, in Appin, a month before the Battle of Culloden, Captain Frederick Scott complained, “this Place is not marked on any of our maps”. William Roy’s subsequent maps included detailed surveys of important Roman sites, owing to Roy’s personal interest in antiquities, while swathes of land, settlements, islands, lochs, hills, and glens were unrecorded. When Roy’s surveyors were unable to access areas remote from Wade’s roads, he simply made “informed guesses” on location and topography. Britain’s national mapping agency has its origins in Roy’s 1747 commission to map the Scottish mainland. Nowadays, their slogan is “No-one Knows Great Britain Better”, nonetheless, pace Ordnance Survey, there are many ways of looking at a landscape: the personal as meaningful as social, historical, political or military significance.

Joanne Parker’s slim volume describes five very different maps: the cavers’ maps, the lost canal network, the megalith hunter’s map, ley hunter maps, and aeronautical maps; maps of the imagination and geographical maps. Parker situates each map within its relevant literary and historical context, but also moves away from text-based research and includes magazine-style snippets of interviews with contemporary cartographers in the field, together with references to websites and blogs in her inclusive approach to looking at the landscape through “a variety of lenses”.

For the review in full see this week’s Times Literary Supplement [subscription needed]