This was a book I actually finished at the weekend, so still during Nonfiction November, but didn’t get time to review, frustratingly. So now I’ve read or started everything I planned to read apart from “Homesick” – and at least “The Good Immigrant USA” will now ‘do’ for #DiverseDecember!

I’m also pleased that I’m almost caught up to being a year behind, after having slipped back horribly in getting through the books I bought the longest ago, and even when picking newer books off from time to time. It’s all good.

Simon Barnes – “On the Marsh: A Year Surrounded by Wilderness and Wet”

(02 October 2019, The Works, Penzance)

This book has contributions from Edmund Barnes and Cindy Lee Wright. Cindy is Barnes’ wife, she has done beautiful illustrations for the starts of each chapter, and Barnes also includes moving passages of appreciation for both her art and for her support of their family. Edmund – Eddie – is a young adult who has Down’s syndrome and has contributed both a his character to the book and his rather lovely poems scattered through it.

I did worry that I would find too many personal incursions into this book – not because I don’t like reading about people living with different conditions, but because I like my nature books to be about the nature. But here, the theme of Eddie’s life and the effect being on the marsh has on it, as he passes through a big year where he leaves school and starts college, learns more about nature and learns some potentially hard lessons about his beloved horse (don’t worry, though), is woven beautifully through the book, with promised excursions and repeated joys bringing a daily structure to the book which echoes the monthly and annual one. There is some polemic, and why the hell shouldn’t there be, about the odd unkind educator and the very existence of people with Down’s syndrome, but the main theme is carried through with aplomb.

There’s polemic, too, about nature conservation, about keeping wild lands joined up, and a lot of musing on what ‘wilding’ and ‘rewilding’ are and what we should do to our land – Barnes makes the excellent point a couple of times that “our land” can be anything from a massive estate to a window box, but it all matters and it all involves decisions (we’re thinking of climbers and fruit trees to plant to offset our next-door neighbour’s huge extension, for instance). He mentions Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” a couple of times, and visits the farm where it’s set, which is making me eager to pick that one up. But the joined-up nature of wild places is the most important thing for him:

It’s part of something that covers the nation: a vast and spreading web of places where the wild things are. And every strand depends, at least to an extent, on all the others; when you break a single strand you weaken the entire web. (p. 63)

We come off the marsh in fact to visit his neighbours and friends around and see how they manage their land and what they think of his. There’s quite a lot about the local nature reserve at Minsmere, which is lovely to read about. 

He’s got a nice turn of phrase – his horses turn into dragons on a frosty morning “I found I had exchanged them for a stable of dragons, three twin jets of smoke billowing over the three half-doors” (p. 73).

In one very exciting passage, he also reveals that his grandfather lived basically half a mile from where I live now! My next but one read has featured Peckham, too, so everything really is a web of knowing and places!

Barnes’ African sojourns also feel natural to relate here, talking about the lions he loves and the naturalists he’s spent time with and, notably, seeing migratory birds on the marsh that he has also seen on that other continent, thousands of miles away. As well as Cindy’s lovely animal illustrations, there is a pleasingly drawn map at the front. I learned a lot reading this book (are baby spoonbills really called ‘teaspoons’ by birders, though?), it’s the everyday small pleasures, recognising a birdsong, seeing a new creature, seeing the same creature again and again that really stuck with me when I finished this book.