‘Forgive me: I was unable to repel the torrent of great nature writing springing from south-west England’, says Patrick Barkham (author of natural history books such as Wild Child and Islander) when explaining how he selected the 67 pieces for this anthology. Being Devon-raised and now living there again, I empathise – I haven’t been able to repel it either. There’s something in the wild weather that blows in over Cornwall that brings with it wonder and story-telling.
Nevertheless, this collection spans the whole archipelago and brings together the literature of the land – folklore, fact and fiction. Barkham’s curation is arranged in ‘fields of vision’; from woods and birds to coastlines, farming, discomfort and joy. Extracts from historical masterpieces (including my favourite bit from Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native) sit next to contemporary authors such as Helen Macdonald and Robert Macfarlane.
Barkham acknowledges that ‘the whiteness of British and Irish nature writing is stark’, although it should be ‘relevant to everyone who lives on this land’. He includes six contemporary writers who don’t come from a white British background, including Bulgarian Kapka Kassabova’s take on the Highlands, which offers ‘a new vision of familiar surroundings’.
Readers of The Wild Isles might have memories stirred, vision sharpened, wonder kindled. They might also ask what the future will look like. The authors in this weighty anthology become more than the sum of their parts, marrying an appreciation of beauty and the joy of self-discovery with a recognition of ecological crisis. The outcome is an exceptional addition to any nature- or book-lover’s bookshelf.