I was so fortunate to receive this lovely book from the publishers – I’ve so far read and reviewed for Shiny New Books the author’s book on seabirds, “The Seafarers“, and his fascinating book on geese, “Wintering” (link is to my personal reaction with a link to the Shiny review). I think another reviewer is reviewing this on Shiny, so look out for that review, but here are my personal thoughts on this volume that takes in the warblers he was originally supposed to be writing about, the summer and, pretty incidentally and not intrusively, our year of pandemic last year.

Stephen Rutt – “The Eternal Season: Ghosts of Summers Past, Present and Future

(May 2021)

The worst catastrophes come in increments, not as a sudden apocalypse. They begin with a creeping strangeness, a delicate series of disorientations that can be ignored while some birds still sing, while nature still has some voice. It’s the wrong birds singing at the wrong time. The voice corrupted. It’s those out of sync with time, season, country, continent … (p. 9)

As I mentioned above, this book was supposed to be about warblers. But then lockdown came, Rutt got stuck in Bedfordshire with his partner’s family, and he started thinking about how the seasons are going wonky due to global warming, and affecting the bird life he loves and knows, and how on Earth to write a book on birds when he can’t actually travel to see birds (later in the book, they get to go home to Dumfries and Galloway and take trips further and further afield in their local area, but restrictions still, well, restrict him). So he looks up things in the almanacs he handily packed for the journey South, does a bit of Google Earthing and reads up on things as well as remembering and doing some hoping, something he’s learned to do the past few years.

Rutt is a writer who always, for me, gets the right balance. Here we have the pandemic and lockdown but it’s not shoehorned in everywhere and he doesn’t go on about it, it’s just there, a constant background, as it was at the time. There’s some really sad and challenging stuff about species decline but there is also hope and there are some positive stories. There’s enough of the personal to be a warm book but not too much, and the scientific is always there, underpinning everything.

We work our way through the summer months, interspersed with chapters about particular species, egrets and nightjars but also natterjack toads, pipistrelle bats and wasp spiders. He uses the passing of the season to muse on what’s happening in the world, how the shift in weather has affected nature and unbalanced almost everything. He opens with descriptions of things in the wrong places, “birds shuffled like a pack of cards and dealt into strange locations by the harsh hand of the weather” (p. 21) and goes on to discuss why this is happening – not just disturbed weather patterns but changes in farming practices and other human behaviours (I started to think about Isabella Tree’s experiment at Knapp documented in “Wilding” and was glad when Rutt mentioned her; he talks about another farm that the RSBP has wilded and he also has at least a video call with the other great naturalist Stephen, Moss, which is lovely to read about, if sad in its content. Like other books I’ve read, he is keen to point out the unbalanced land ownership which leads to great houses promoting their owners’ wealth and tracts of heather, burnt and releasing carbon, for grouse-hunting (in typical fashion, he celebrates how nature is gradually asserting itself still).

Rutt develops a local walk in Bedfordshire – a “patch” – much like Matthew and I have done in our local park, two springs round now. He admits on the loss of species that there is “a selfishness at the heart of my sadness here. Birding is my mental and physical refuge from whatever else is happening” (p. 73) although he doesn’t labour the point – there are plenty of other books that can talk about nature and mental health more explicitly He celebrates meeting people who are interested in wildlife and documents how the lack of traffic promoted people listening to birds in Spring 2020. It’s also interesting that he branches out a bit more into looking at other creatures, especially dragonflies, and is pleased when he’s able to name tens of flowers in a field, and it is heartwarming to see his move from depressed nihilism of his teenage years to a faint hope, a faith in human nature and a call to bear witness and to act rather than just record.

I love the descriptions Rutt uses – he’s such a pleasing writer. And he raises a smile in a good many places, here, for example, on the picky habitat preferences of wading birds:

Waders are like Goldilocks. Or perhaps it’s better to say that each marsh is a Rubik’s cube of cows, grass, water and mud, that solving it for one side ruins it for another. There is no general, all-purpose marsh for a wader. (p. 89)

It’s not all doom and gloom, there are some great initiatives and success stories with some different birds and butterflies moving into the UK. I hadn’t realised egrets were so recent and I was glad to hear of my favourite (sounding) bird, the bittern, reaching greater populations in places. The attempts at bat rescue and release brought a (happy) tear to my eye, and he pays tribute throughout the book to, as usual, the writers who came before him, and also to the legions of volunteers and campaigners who work for our wildlife.

The book ends with the aforementioned call to bear witness, as lovers of the natural world, and also to see climate change for the terrible risk it presents. He is somewhat cheered by the way people have adapted to changed lifestyles during the pandemic and hopes this might extend to mitigating climate change, proving his own observation that everything is connected. An important and still lovely book.

Thank you to publishers Elliott & Thompson for sending me a lovely copy of this book in return for an honest review.