As a child, I remember being enthralled by the stream-side world of BB’s Little Grey Men – how the gnomes fashioned fish hooks from bone, used snail shells for blackberry wine and could speak with the Kingfisher! A few years later, as a young teenager, I treasured my large volume of Lincoln Barnett’s The Wonders of Life on Earth which stimulated an early love affair with Darwinian evolution and its unparalleled explanatory power. When beginning my apprenticeship as a zoologist, I was absorbed by books written by field biologists such as Iain Douglas Hamilton, Jane Goodall, George Schaller and Valerius Geist, which opened a window onto the lives of our most charismatic creatures. These days I enjoy a wide range of animal books, including classics, biographies, field guides, textbooks and books by anthropologists that illuminate animals from the eye of other cultures, but still most of all I enjoy the field biologist, when he or she blends close animal observation, an understanding of evolution and ecology, human culture and history, to illuminate a species and ourselves from many varied angles.
Our relationship with nature is a real muddle of different bits and pieces – aesthetic and pragmatic, spiritual and commonplace, shocking and wonderful. Presumably books help us to interpret that link, and perhaps in some cases even to forge it. Out of curiosity I sent round an email to a group of friends and colleagues about their favourite animal books (FAB for short!). Many of them have some connection with wildlife through their work as field biologists, conservationists and scientists or are otherwise involved with animals. Age of respondents varied from 11 to 80+, some recalling books they enjoyed from as young as 4.
So as not to restrict choice, I requested that any kind of animal book be considered: “novels, children’s stories, field guides, texts, autobiographies – anything goes”. However I did restrict the number of favourite titles to a maximum of 3 per person. I’ve compiled a list of responses organised by four categories (or genres as they like to say in the book world): novels (N), true life (TL), zoology (Z) and children’s books (C). In some cases the distinction is difficult to make in which case I’ve just plumped for one, more or less arbitrarily. There are 57 favourite books so far; I am putting the list of 14 ‘true life’ books in this first post. The other lists will be published on the Wild Nature blog in parts 2, 3 & 4 over the next few days.
Books mentioned as favourites by two respondents are marked with an asterisk, and by three or more respondents with a double asterisk. Quotations from the books are within double inverted commas, a quote from the publisher or a review is within single inverted commas, and a comment from one of the respondents (or my own occasional remarks) is without any inverted commas.
True Life books
**My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell. (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1956) ‘An autobiographical account of five years in the childhood of naturalist Gerald Durrell, aged 10 at the start of the saga, of his family, pets and life during a sojourn on the island of Corfu.’
A Zoo in my Luggage, by Gerald Durrell. (Penguin, 1960) The story of Durrell’s 1957 animal collecting trip to British Cameroon.
*Ring of Bright Water, by Gavin Maxwell. (Longmans, 1960) ‘Maxwell’s descriptions of the Hebridean landscapes are very evocative and atmospheric, and the otters come alive as intelligent and hilarious creatures. This is also a book about a different lifestyle, Gavin Maxwell truly “dropped out” when he found the magical bay of Sandaig.’
**Cry of the Kalahari, by Mark and Delia Owens. (Houghton Mifflin,1984) One respondent admitted that Cry of the Kalahari was so inspirational to them so long ago, especially because it touted living and learning about animals by being with them, rather than a view from 30,000 feet above. Another respondent mentioned: its about the romance of adventure in wild Africa. A third respondent was moved by the book but frustrated by the naivety shown by the authors.
**Jock of the Bushveld, by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick. (Longmans, 1907) ‘Jock of the Bushveld was first published in 1907 when it became an instant best seller and a local classic. Since then it has never been out of print.’ One respondent recalls: it was read to me by my father and I have read it myself countless times.
Nature’s Child, by John Lister-Kaye. (Little Brown, 2004) ‘John Lister-Kaye’s meditation on fatherhood, and the delights of bestowing experiences on his daughter during those wonder-full years of childhood.’ Lister-Kaye’s travels with his daughter are brilliant.
Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds, by Joy Adamson. (Pantheon Books, 1960) ‘Joy Adamson’s remarkable true story of a lion cub in transition between captivity and the wild captures the abilities of both humans and animals to cross the seemingly unbridgeable gap between their radically different worlds.’ ‘Based in part on George Adamson’s notes.’
Horses and the Mystical Path: The Celtic Way of Expanding the Human Soul, by McCormick, McCormick and McCormick. (New World Library, 2004) ‘Strap yourself into a Celtic saddle for a stirring mystical ride into the horse-human relationship.’
Gorillas were My Neighbours, by Fred Merfield. (The Company Book Club, 1957) A story of the author’s life among the gorillas of West Africa. ‘Love this book and the dry way its author relates some quite hairy moments with cannibals, crocs, unpleasant hunters and the peoples he meets on his journeys.’
No More the Tusker, by George Rushby. (W. H. Allen, 1965) Rushby describes better than many contemporaries what it was like to live in the African bush.
Among the Elephants, by Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton. (Collins, 1975) Back in the early 1970s, only a few pioneers had based their studies on long-term observation of individual animals. It was new, exciting and risky. This book gives some great insights to elephant behaviour and also captures the lighter side of bush life in Lake Manyara National Park.
The Soul of the Rhino, by Hemanta Mishra. (The Lyons Press, 2008) A Nepali Adventure with Kings and Elephant Drivers, Billionaires and Bureaucrats, Shamans and Scientists and the Indian Rhinoceros. One respondent writes: a fascinating and, at times, humorous account by Nepal’s first government ecologist of efforts to ensure that this endangered species survived the onslaught of poaching and habitat destruction in Nepal, where the animal is symbolic of the nation’s natural and cultural heritage. Entering the body of the rhino is an awesome kingly rite that touches on soulful matters.
In the Shadow of Man, by Jane Goodall. (Collins, 1971) Jane Goodall’s groundbreaking classic book based on 10 years of field study which launched her career as the chimpanzee’s ambassador to the world of humans.
The Year of the Gorilla, by George Schaller. (University of Chicago Press, 1966) In 1959 Schaller travelled to Central Africa to study and live with the mountain gorillas of the Virunga Volcanoes in Zaire, Rwanda and Uganda. This is a wonderful account of pioneering field work ‘under difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances by one of the great wildlife biologists’.
* * * * *
The next post will list favourite animal books in the ‘novels’ category.