Under The Stars – A Journey into Light by Matt Gaw: A Review

Under The Stars – A Journey into Light by Matt Gaw

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Sometimes you read a book that you can’t put down or one that you don’t want to end, it’s rare to find a book that does both of those things but Matt Gaw’s latest might just be that book.

 

The day my review copy arrived in the post I was by coincidence standing on my back door step at 2.30 in the morning waiting for my dog (he’s older and sometimes gets up in the night for a wee). I was marvelling at the fact that the streetlight that normally lights up our back garden was out (as are all the ones nearby since the local council decided that it could save money by turning them off between midnight and 4am), and that I could see a little more of the night sky than I perhaps normally would. This is one of the topics (light pollution not my dog) that the author covers so well. We’re so used to our artificial light that if you never miss something until it’s gone, how do you square the circle that when you remove artificial light there is so much more to see!?!

Matt Gaw takes this and more besides and goes out into the dark (and the light) to examine these issues in more detail. From how artificial light or a lack of darkness can affect not just us, but also the other inhabitants of our planet the wildlife, he goes to places such as Dartmoor where it’s darker and to the lights of London and his home town of Bury St. Edmunds. Comparing and contrasting these environments he writes eloquently about the beauty and dangers of the dark as well as the hazards of the light.

Like his last book, Matt also risks life and limb to bring this book to the reader, suffering for his art seems to be a particular hazard adventure for this author.

I really couldn’t put this book down at times and I suspect that perhaps the subject matter will not be one that many people will have thought that much about, but Under The Stars, is a book that could easily change all of that. Well written, with some stunning prose, his research with the right mix of historical facts and real life, it will make the reader think again about light and dark, and the night sky.

About the Author: Matt Gaw is a writer and naturalist who lives in Bury St. Edmunds with his young family. His first book is the highly acclaimed, The Pull of the River: A Journey into the Wild and Watery Heart of Britain [see my review here]. His journalism has been published in the Telegraph, Guardian, Times and BBC Countryfile Magazine and his broadcast credits include BBC1’s Countryfile, BBC Radio 4 Extra and BBC Radio 5 Live. He edits Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s magazine and runs nature writing workshops for children and adults. He also writes a monthly country diary for the Suffolk Magazine.

Under the Stars – A Journey into the Light is published in hardback on 20th February 2020 by Elliott & Thompson.

[Disclaimer: The publishers very kindly sent me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I have received no payment for this review, and the thoughts are my own.]

 

All Work and No….Well You Know What I Mean TWTW # 57

I’ve tried to write this post several times. Each time I’ve wanted to rant about the General Election. I’ve  just tried to write about it again, but I can’t. I just can’t


So in more positive news, I’ve managed to secure client work, that if I’ve got my timetabling right will take me through to nearly the end of February. One item fell off of the list but was replaced by something else. So work looks like it’s going to be busy. It might mean that these posts also get a bit curtailed over the coming weeks, including this one.


Outside of work I’ve not done a tremendous amount else really. I did manage to read Past Tense by Lee Child over a couple of nights. It’s unusual for me to be able to stay awake long enough to read very much in the evenings, even more so as it just felt like the author was going through the motions. It did cross my mind that there were at least another 100-pages that might have been in an earlier manuscript that got ditched at some point during the editing process, a storyline that never played out. Who knows. It won’t be making my favourite books of the year (if I get around to writing about it this side of Easter 2020).

I’ve been making a conscious effort to try and read some of the books that have been on my shelves for a while, and to not buy too many “new” books. Partly this is to try and create some space but also it seems daft to have so many books sitting there that I haven’t read yet. I don’t mind having lots of books, but it would be nice to think that I’ve actually read some of them!


I’ve been continuing to listen to The Whisperer In Darkness this week. The next three episodes were released on Monday and the reminder are due to be released this Monday (today as far as the posting of this goes). I’ve been really enjoying it. The series writer Julian Simpson, posted a little bit about the research that sits behind the episodes this week which you can read here. You can also find an iTunes link to the episodes in that post, if you haven’t been able to make the BBC website work for you.


I’m also looking forward to some of the radio that’s on over the Christmas period. I picked up a copy of the Christmas Radio Times in the week, and I have to say that there is bugger-all on television over the Christmas period, but the radio section looks pretty good.


Right that’s it for this week. Off to Somerset for client meetings this coming week, but otherwise I’m at my desk, nose down for the remainder.

The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal by Horatio Clare

Horatio Clare’s excellent book “The Light in the Dark” is out in paperback today. I read it last year in hardback, but wanted to mention it again as the paperback is released, as it was one of my standout books of 2018. It’s a timely read as although as the subtitle suggests this is A Winter Journal, it starts in the last days of Autumn and finishes in the first days of Spring.

It’s a tale of feelings and emotions and mental health and mental wealth, stories of the author’s family both in times of joy and pain, observations of the world both rural and urban and the passage of time across those darker months.

I can’t emphasise how much I like this book, it is so incredibly well written, and open about the authors personal winter and such an engaging read. I sat down with my copy to remind myself one afternoon last week, and ended up finishing the book again in bed that evening.

If you’re looking for an engaging read or even something for a present for someone this Christmas then I’d recommend The Light in the Dark.

Wintering. A Season With Geese by Stephen Rutt: A Review

img_20190912_150521920Wintering. A Season With Geese by Stephen Rutt

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

This is Stephen Rutt’s second book this year, I reviewed his first, “Seafarers” and noted that he’d set the bar very high for himself in terms of his next book. Well, here it is and I’m pleased to say that the bar is very much maintained and possibly exceeded with Wintering.

Like Seafarers there is an element of autobiography from the author, but again this is a biography of the birds, or at least the time that they spend on our shores when visiting us from their summer breeding grounds.

Rutt interweaves his life in Scotland, as he is finishing his previous book, with his interactions and observations of the different species of geese. With visits to other parts of the UK he sees other species and in each case interweaves his observations with those of the likes of Aldo Leopold, Sir Peter Scott and others. Like Scott he also mulls the ethics hunting / eating geese and that the role of goose is more than just as wildlife – foodstuff, feathers for quilts & clothing, guard animal etc, and perhaps that a goose is for more than Christmas.

As with his previous book Rutt writes openly and his style is such that it is like being next to him when he’s in the field, he writes with skill and the observations of the geese are beautiful. As the author found, the geese are captivating and so are his descriptions of them. As I write these words a skein a dark-bellied brent geese fly over my home and I’m thinking back to the words of the book and whether there’s a black brant amongst them (something that I’ve yet to see!)

The historical research and references add depth to the story. If I have but one complaint it is that the book is on the short side and it left me wanting for more, but then wintering geese don’t visit us for long either, so perhaps that’s a reflection of their stay.

I’d also like to give a hat-tip to Elliott & Thompson Books. I’ve reviewed a number of their books this year and I am consistently impressed with the quality and beauty of their covers and bindings.

If you’re stuck for a Christmas present this year for someone who’s “into their birds”, then getting them both Wintering and The Seafarers would make them very happy, but then again why wait for Christmas!

Wintering. A Season with Geese by Stephen Rutt is published by Elliott & Thompson on the 26th September 2019

 

That Wet Dog Smell TWTW # 29

It’s raining outside as I write this and my office smells of wet dog as it was raining when we went for our morning walk too. It’s still quite warm though, although thankfully not too humid.

I seem to be behind with a few things at the moment, this weekly post included.


I’ve been doing quite a bit of chutney making and pickling this week. Another batch of pickled gherkins have been added to the store cupboard (about 5 jars worth), and a gooseberry and red onion chutney. This latter mix made 8 jars almost exactly, leaving me only a teaspoon worth to try. It was very good, and I have great hopes for it when it matures (in about a month). It looks like the sort of chutney that will work well with cheese and cold meats and possibly just to be eaten straight off of the spoon!


The wind had blown over the sweetcorn on the allotment and I’ve had to stake each individual plant to keep them upright. Hopefully they’ll survive the experience, although as a plant sweetcorn are very intolerant at having their roots disturbed. A shame if they don’t make it as they have already started to form cobs.


I’ve been reading “Irreplaceable” by Julian Hoffman this week. It is a great book and I thoroughly recommend it. It is also in some ways a depressing book. It is about those wild places and species that we have lost or might loose to what some people would call “progress”. I was familiar with some of the stories, but if you’re not it’s probably even more eye opening particularly with respect to some of those sites that are supposedly “protected” but in reality are not. I had quite a rant about it in my journal:

I finished reading “Irreplaceable” this afternoon. It really is an eye opening book. Although several of the stories were already familiar to me – many of them weren’t and it is truly shocking what we are doing to this planet in the name of progress. It feels that many of the current decision makers – the politicians, councillors and others just don’t care (or understand). They see progress as “at any cost” and that very often means at the expense of those things that we should hold most dear. Many of the stories are the sorts of things that I could all too easily see happening locally here because of weak leadership and low morales where a developer could easily sway the council with promises of “economic growth”, “more jobs”, “greater income for the local area”, when it’s all about the money, money, money; when in fact that is probably the last thing it should be about and the fact that many of the things that would suffer cannot simply have an economic value attached to them. They are our lifeblood, they support our health, our welfare, our mental prosperity and so many other things. All too often the decision makers simply do not give a shit about such things, that are mere travails, are inconsequential, of no meaning and no value!

Well it’s about time for a change and putting some of those things at the heart of such decisions.


My Ten (15) Favourite “Natural History” Books

I thought I’d sit and scribble out a list of my favourite Natural History books of all time. It wasn’t an easy task. I wanted to keep it to 10 books, but have ended up with 15, it could easily have been 20 or 30 and several of the authors I could easily of included second and third entries. I’m also sure there are many that I’ve missed, and memory plays tricks, but I remember all of these books fondly as “natural history” but one or two stretch this definition a little.

I recommend all of them, but appreciate that natural history might not be everyone’s
cup-of-tea and that this list is in not in a particular order other than the one that I wrote them in.

(Please note the links are Amazon affiliate links, so should you click on a link and buy that book I’ll receive a small commission).

  • My Family & Other Animals by Gerald Durrell This is probably well known to many but it is the biography of the young author on the island of Corfu where he moved with his family and how his time spent in the wilds of island shaped his life as a naturalist and conservationist.
  • The Island Within by Richard Nelson I discovered Richard Nelson through his podcast “Encounters” (which is sadly no longer being produced), this is his story of time spent on an uninhabited island near his home, the wildlife there and his exploration of it and the surrounding area.
  • Cry of the Kalahari by Mark & Delia Owens I remember reading this in my late teens and it evoked thoughts similar to those upon reading Born Free. Part adventure and part exploration log of the authors’ time in the Kalahari desert.
  • The Outermost House by Henry Beston Another well known classic written by the author from his time on Cape Cod in an off-grid shack.
  • Waterlog by Roger Deakin The classic wild swimming book and how the author seeks to swim in rivers, ponds, lakes all over the UK and beyond.
  • The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane Of all of Robert Macfarlane’s books this is still my favourite. When originally written the author stated that there are only four places in the UK where you can go and not hear the noise of traffic. I wonder if that is still true or whether now there are any left.
  • Common Ground by Rob Cowen If I had to pick one book to be on this list it would be this one. It will probably divide it’s readership between those who love it, and those who don’t like it or understand it. I think it is simply brilliant.
  • The Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell Another classic, the story of the author and his time with Mij, Edal and Teko who are otters on the west coast of Scotland.
  • The Wild Marsh by Rick Bass American author Rick Bass takes us through a year in his life in the Yak valley as an author, naturalist and conservation activist.
  • A Single Swallow by Horatio Clare The journey from southern Africa to the UK as the author follows the migration journey of swallows in real time.
  • Rising Tide Falling Star by Phillip Hoare Simply put these are stories of the sea, but that is underselling the mesmerising and truly brilliant narrative.
  • Guests of Summer by Theunis Piersma A wonderful story of housemartins in a small Dutch village as the author chronicles their lives and those of other similar avian visitors.
  • Sacred Sierra by Jason Webster Fiction author buys run down farmhouse and chronicles his first year on the steep sided valley.
  • Nature Cure by Richard Mabey How nature helps to cure the depression suffered by the author when he moves to Norfolk.
  • Deep Country by Neil Ansell The journal of the authors five years in the Welsh hills in an off-grid cabin and his surroundings.

Book Review: Bloom by Ruth Kassinger

“Bloom – From Food to Fuel, The Epic Story of How Algae Can Save Our World” by Ruth Kassinger.

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars.

From her own garden pond, back in time to when life began and fast forward to today where algae can be in soup, sushi and running shoes, Ruth Kassinger takes readers on a journey through the complexities, triumphs and tribulations of algae. Through many facets that most people won’t simply be aware of to those that could be fundamental to the future of the human race.

Now when I was asked to review this book, I had to confess that I already know a little about algae, I’ve been involved in microalgae projects that look to harness them to produce products of value. So this book for me is part Bus-man’s holiday but it was so much more than that. It is truly mind expanding, regardless of how much you already know – or think you know. Whether the author is talking about the blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), microalgae, or macroalgae (seaweeds), there is just so much information you’ll probably end up wondering how you never heard of a lot of this before, and perhaps why.

It’s extremely well written, and in a style that is engaging from first page to last, and if you think the subtitle might be a little over-the-top, then prepare to have that illusion shattered. The author clearly knows her subject and her first hand research has taken her to many places that many people won’t know exist or perhaps won’t have even considered that they have a connection to algae, but as you read you’ll realise that some pretty well known brands are investing in algal technologies and that many others probably should be.

I particularly enjoyed the parts on food and fuel, expanding my culinary knowledge, and gaining a better understanding of why some projects and companies pivoted their business models the way they did. The untapped potential in some areas is still huge, but timing or political will can be everything

This is science writing at it’s most engaging and rewarding for the reader, whether scientist themselves or just plain interested in widening your knowledge.

The book also comes with some recipes at the end for algae (mostly seaweed) dishes, which is a really nice touch (although I haven’t had a chance to try any of them out yet, I’m planning to).

Bloom – From Food To Fuel, The Epic Story of How Algae Can Save Our World by Ruth Kassinger is published by Elliott & Thompson Books on 4th July 2019.
(Published as “Slime” in the US by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

About The Author: Ruth Kassinger writes about the intersection of gardening, history and science. In addition to her several books, Ruth has written for the Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Health, National Geographic Explorer and other publications. Find her online at: www.ruthkassinger.com

Disclosure: The publisher provided me with a free copy of this book to review.