Lev Parikian’s three great loves in life are nature, music and the game of cricket – and he is, ‘truth be told, a nature-watching Johnny-come-lately’.
The author of two previous volumes on conducting orchestras and bird-spotting, our new-found Great Outdoors evangelist derives his latest title from The Origin of Species (natch), in which Charles Darwin noted: ‘it is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank’ of plants, birds, insects and worms, ‘all produced by laws acting around us.’
From the spiders in his kitchen sink and the ‘impossible balance’ of the domestic garden (‘simultaneously both with and against nature’), to his ‘patch’ of Norwood Grove and Streatham Common, Welsh bird sanctuaries and even the moon, we are surrounded by, dependent on, and significantly susceptible to nature, writes Parikian – but there is little understanding of it.
He chats to dog-walkers in the local parks. He goes on day trips to, say, John Clare’s part of Northamptonshire, or Walter Rothschild’s well-stuffed Victorian museum at Tring. He takes ‘a good solid walk, awakening [per Beethoven] “cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside”.’ He sees otters on the Isle of Skye, beluga whales in the Thames, and Arctic terns ‘in your face like an argumentative drunk’.
So Into the Tangled Bank is a layman’s guide to everyday nature, and indeed to the laypersons out and about in it (whence his subtitle), many of whom ‘don’t realise they’re experiencing nature, of course’.
Parikian has an interest in all the stuff that’s just outside the average hobbyist’s enthusiasm – the lives of great naturalist engravers; the late-19th century feather industry; the amount of cellulose in underpants. And a keen eye for human detail – the ‘mindfulness’ of failing to draw a heron; the formidable and unimprovably-named Etta Lemon (RSPB founder); how considering the growth of a ‘Perfectly Normal Tree’ makes him ‘need a bit of a sit-down’.
He has a few prevailing views, none too prescriptive: expecting nature to ‘put on a show’ (pointless); the contextual importance of death; how ‘everything is 10 per cent better by water’.
He has concerns: about the largely white-adult-middle-aged-male demographics of the twitching fraternity; that ‘nature, in our daily experience of it, will never be [as] cinematic’ as the latest hi-def BBC flagship production; that it takes more qualifications to be a bird-ringer than to become prime minister. His relationship with early mornings is ‘mixed’. And he is not that keen on joggers, or on Audi-drivers.
But his approach ‘is generally to wander around a place and see what, if anything, is around’. This makes him the perfect guide for people-watching, if not bird-spotting. ‘Look at that man there, the one standing next to the “do not feed bread to the ducks” sign, feeding bread to the ducks. Fascinating.’
Parikian’s the sort of chap who finds it notable that gardeners hate slugs and snails ‘but not, interestingly, puppy dogs’ tails,’ and who is more embarrassed by his occasional impassioned rant than he is about being caught lying down in the street to take a photo of a butterfly. From gardeners to soil to worms to Darwin in a few sentences, his conversational – not to say ‘rambling’ – essay style is both effective and affectionate, a cheerful (and more realistic) antidote to the Whitmaniacal aggro or Thoreauic self-regard of so much nature writing. His jokey, honest tone (there is a certain amount of swearing), peppered with TV references and daddish puns, frames him as more of a suburban Gilbert White, with better anecdotes.
If there is one serious thread through all this tangle, though, it’s to be found in the fact that – aside from Parikian’s paeans to South London’s public parks – most of us now have to go somewhere, as he does, to see nature. ‘We raise our children in concrete jungles, and they wouldn’t recognise a cow if it sat on them.’ It’s possible to over-romanticise, of course; but Lev Parikian is quite sure that ‘man has suffered in his separation from the soil and the other living creatures of the world...’ and that ‘disconnection from it means a disconnection from ourselves’.