I Belong Here, by Anita Sethi

When I read The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, I went on a bit of a hunt for more lyrical books about ‘walking to find your place in the world’. Ever since visiting Holy Island, I’ve had a hankering to walk St Cuthbert’s way – it’s like an itch that won’t pass – but until my children are either big enough to join me or big enough to move out, I have to content myself with enjoying such trails vicariously.

I Belong Here by Anita Sethi is one of the books which have helped assuage that urge.

The book is – at its core – about a walk along the Pennine Way. This trek across the ‘Backbone of Britain’ is not just as a hike, however, but also medicine for the soul.

Sethi suffered a racist attack prior to undertaking the walk and skillfully uses the path as a metaphor for discussing our sense of origin, self, and home. She speaks about the dangers of being a woman, walking alone – particularly the additional dangers which occur when you’re not a white person in a predominantly white country. She discusses the difficulties faced by single parent families and those on low incomes when it comes to access to nature.

It was a timely reminder for me, as I struggle to reach civilisation using public transport, just how lucky I am to live swathed in the green of the countryside. I know that I’d rather be having issues getting into town than getting out of it. The health benefits – both physical and mental – of living in the midst of nature are touched upon in Sethi’s work, as are the ways in which those with money act as gatekeepers to the natural world for those without. Sethi makes many references to the way that walking and nature helped her to combat her anxiety – the book is a wonderful piece of activism, championing the fact that the countryside is for everyone.

There are so many excellent points about identity, and how the countryside of a nation can define us as much as the culture of it can. Again, it’s not something I’d given much thought to, but of course we’re shaped by our physical environment. The book made me feel, more than ever, that I belong in my little corner of the North East – the summer chanterelles, winter kale, and autumn apples of my immediate area have built my bones. The earth here has fed me, and I, in turn, will feed the earth. The land and I belong to each other, and Sethi’s book was an incredible reminder of this.

I could say so much more about this book, but in short, the best thing about this book was the way that it made me reflect on my place in the world. And the conditions which allow me to feel that yes, I Belong Here.

This is a definite ‘must read’.

Have you come across Anita Sethi’s work before? If so, I would love to hear what you think.

xx

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren, was a book that I initially dismissed after having read 161 pages.

I’m not really sure how that happened. Usually, if I make it to the 50 page mark in any book, I’m guaranteed to finish, but in this case, I just didn’t. In 2019, I bagged up the book and took it back to the library unfinished, presuming that I would think little more of it,

Except, I thought about it all the time. I thought about the wonderful ways in which Jahren uses the scientific processes of plants as a metaphor for the many facets of humanity. I thought about the many different kinds of love she talks about. I thought about the unlikeliness of life as she describes it – poetry meets science.

I knew I had to find a way to finish the book.

I put myself back on the waiting list for it and was about to check it out again when the pandemic happened. And then my place in the queue expired and I forgot to renew it.

But earlier this year, that same copy I’d started in 2019 made its way back into my hands and I gobbled up the rest of the story.

There’s not really a lot to say in terms of plot – the book’s subtitle covers it all rather succinctly. It is a story of trees, science, and love. But it’s more too.

It’s a book about the family we choose and about the ways that love endures. It’s about plants, undoubtedly, but about people too and our connection to the world. I felt like a cell of a bigger organism whilst reading this book and that sense of connection is worth so very much after such a long spell of isolation.

It’s about the sacrifices that we make to do the things we want – living in dodgy trailer parks to own a horse, for example, or sleeping in a van. It’s a nice reminder that our priorities might not be linear, and that at some points in our lives, our actions might align with our values more than others.

There is so much here to love, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why I put this to one side. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to hear what was being said, or perhaps I just needed time to let the first half percolate. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I went back to it.

Another great reminder that life isn’t linear, and reading books doesn’t have to be either.

What’s the longest time you’ve taken to finish a book? I think this one is a record for me at three years, but in my defence, I did have a chunk of time off! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Love.

xx

Cradle to Cradle by Michael Braungart and William McDonough

This was a really interesting book.

First published in the early years of the new millenium, this book argues for circular design, and gives amazing examples of instances where such a thing has been achieved.

It argues that humanity can do better than being ‘less bad’ for the environment – that we have the capacity to create a world in which waste fuels industry in a more meaningful way than the incineration of refuse to produce electricity.

It argues that we need to stop selling products, but to sell – instead – a product’s service. One of the examples given is a carpet – the customer pays for the service of the carpet, then at the end of said carpet’s useful life, the top is removed, reprocessed and remade into another carpet, whilst the underlay remains intact and ready to receive its replacement.

It talks about incredible work at the Ford Rouge plant – where mushrooms and plants are used to purify the soil of toxins, caused by a century of industry. It talks about incredible financial savings that businesses can make, simply by making their car-parks porous. It talks about what a city would look like if all the roofs were made of living grass – a natural way to improve air quality, retain water to cool the town, and to ease strain on public water systems, all whilst improving habitat for wildlife.

This book was really inspiring for a number of reasons. Firstly, it didn’t deal with the concept of ‘reduce’, at least, not in the way we’re used to viewing it within the sustainability movement. Instead of ‘use less’, Cradle to Cradle encouraged ‘reduction’ by redesigning our systems to use waste as raw material, effectively, negating it as a concept entirely.

I guess the most accurate description of this book I can think of is: ‘an optimistic capitalist does environmentalism but in the best possible way’. It’s the sort of thing I’d give to an engineer, or small business owner – or an eco-skeptic who acknowledges there’s a problem but doesn’t think we can do anything about it.

It also made me look at some of my own deep-founded beliefs. Whilst I’m not going to start spending money at That River Company any time soon, and will continue to boycott Nestle, I have a lot more respect for businesses who do work with the brands that I personally consider evil. The question: ‘How can you work with such people?’ was asked throughout the text, and the answer the authors gave – as a sustainability based company – remained ‘How can we not?’ If we want to change the world, we can’t just ignore the parts of it we don’t like – we have to actively engage with them to change them.

The book is a very short read – under 200 pages. It’s perhaps beginning to date a little now, the main body of the text having been written around the year 2000, but the concept is sound and if you’re interested in learning more, there are multiple case studies on the Cradle to Cradle website.

Have you read this book? If you have, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I’m also open to recommendations of nature themed/sustainability books and documentaries. Particularly those which don’t place sole responsibility for the climate crisis on the consumer…

The best of the books 2.0

After all the amazing books I read last year, I decided to do another round-up of earth-loving literature, in case people need some gift inspiration.

Books make superb gifts, and can so often be sourced second hand.

Anyway, here – in no particular order – are some great reads from 2020.

Rootbound, by Alice Vincent

This is an absolutely beautiful book. It’s written like poetry, and chronicles a year in the life of the author, following a break up. Walking the fine-line between intimacy and intrusion with perfect grace, I feel like this would make a wonderful gift for a tired millennial, or someone in the midst of a life change.

It talks about the history of plants, as well as the wider world – the way everything around us seems to rushed and busy, and why a connection with nature can be instrumental in forcing us to slow down to look after ourselves.

Read my full review of Rootbound here.

Oak and Ash and Thorn, by Peter Fiennes

I don’t often have favourite books, but I think if I did have to choose a favourite of those I read in 2020, then Oak and Ash and Thorn would be it.

I initially described it as a love letter to the forests of Britain, and an obituary to those we’ve lost, but it’s so much more than that. I think of parts of it when I’m walking in the woods still, all these months on. It speaks about the healing found in the trees, and as such, I think it would make a lovely gift for anyone in need of a little love after this year.

Read my full review of Oak and Ash and Thorn here.

Hidden Nature, by Alys Fowler

I absolutely loved this book, though that might have something to do with the fact that I’m an enormous fan of Alys Fowler’s work. She was absolutely instrumental in my wanting to grow food for myself, after I stumbled on her BBC series about edible gardening, and how one could have a space which was both beautiful and practical.

In this book, she discusses finding natural beauty in the unexpected places within towns – like the Birmingham Canals. But she also discusses the hidden nature within ourselves. This is a wonderful voyage of self discovery.

Read my full review of Hidden Nature here.

The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide, by Jen Gale

One of the more practical books I read this year was the Sustainable(ish) Living Guide by Jen Gale. This was definitely more of a ‘how to’, rather than a nature memoir, but the friendly tone makes it incredibly accessible. Based firmly in the philosophy that doing something imperfectly is better than doing nothing, this is a fantastic introduction into lowering our impact on the earth.

I would definitely recommend this for anyone who doesn’t think they have time to live lightly.

Read my full review of Jen’s book here.

How to Give Up Plastic by Will McCallum

I found this guide to giving up plastic one of the better ones. I like that it acknowledges that there is no single path that everyone can take, and that sometimes, plastic is necessary.

I think one of the best things about this book is how based in practicality it is. So many of the things I read about environmentalism bemoans the state of the planet without offering ways to fix it beyond ‘don’t use plastic bags for your vegetables’. This book went into details on how to protest, and how to set up beach cleans. It’s a realistic representation of the scale of the problem.

Read my full review of How to Give Up Plastic here.

How to Break up with Fast Fashion, by Lauren Bravo

This book is a fabulous introduction into how the things we wear are made, and why we should stop buying mass-produced, unethically-made clothing. Stark in that it doesn’t pull any punches, but empowering in that we can still change things.

This is one of those books which I fully intend to present to my children when they reach their teenage years, and I imagine it will be a good antidote to many shopaholics.

Read my full review of How To Break Up with Fast Fasion here.

A Life Less Throwaway, by Tara Button

This is a wonderful book, all about how buying a single high-quality item can actually save you money over the course of your life. It goes into the environmental impact of things like planned obsolescence, and how one can avoid it.

The author runs a website which details many objects which have been proven to last, but the philosophy of why she’s created such a resource is outlined in detail in this book.

This would make a fantastic gift from someone about to set up house on their own.

Read my full review of A Life Less Throwaway here.

How to Save the World for Free, by Natalie Fee

How to Save the World for Free by Natalie Fee was one of the first books that I read in 2020. I really love the premise of the book – that environmentalism doesn’t have to be elitist and expensive. That said, I’m in a somewhat privileged position, and I’ve yet to read ‘Working Class Environmentalism’ by Karen Bell, so I don’t know how true the ‘for free’ part will ring with who need things to be actually free.

Regardless, there are many really great ideas in here which so many of us could take on.

Read my full review of How To Save the World for Free here

RHS Plants from Pips, by Holly Farrell

This is definitely a ‘for all the family’ sort of gift. Both myself and my children reference this regularly and we all find the instructions clear and concise. We’ve managed to grow numerous avocado plants by using these instructions, as well as a very delicate, temperamental ginger bud, which sort of sulks on the window ledge.

There are all kinds of ideas in here, and it just goes to show that you can find life and nature anywhere, even in your compost heap.

Read my full review of Plants From Pips here.

There were a few others that I read over the course of 2020, but these are definitely my top picks.

What did you read this year, and what would you recommend I put on my library list for the coming 12 months? I would absolutely love to hear your recommendations! As ever, you can leave a comment here, or contact me via Twitter.

Rootbound by Alice Vincent

Rootbound: Rewilding a Life by Alice Vincent wasn’t a book that was on my radar, until the author tweeted a two star review, left by someone on Amazon.

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And on the strength of that, I bought two copies – one for me and one for a friend – because it’s everything I’m all about. Yay plants, EU, and feminism!

The book chronicles a calendar year in the life of the author. It begins with a break up – an event that’s echoed in a wider setting by the Brexit referendum results* – and ends with hope, made possible through green spaces within cities.

I think it’s a particularly timely book – a chronicle of the Millennial experience and a partial explanation as to why house plants are suddenly the only thing appearing on my Pinterest Feed…

Like Fowler, Vincent manages to write intimately without it feeling like an intrusion. There’s an underlying honesty to the work – an unapologetic, simultaneous acceptance and disdain for the way in which the Millennial generation has been expected to work and live. In general, I can draw a lot of comparisons between Hidden Nature and Rootbound – the discovery of a sense of self within the green space of a city seems to be a theme through both works.

I hope that it’s a theme we’re going to start seeing throughout our society.

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Throughout the book, Vincent chronicles the history of the plants she’s discussing – from nostalgic sweet peas, to the Victorian obsession with ferns, we learn about why we grow the things we grow and why the green spaces within cities look the way they do. Indeed, in many cases, we learn why they’re there at all. I particularly loved the section about parks. It gave me back some hope that people can – and historically have – come together to make a change for the good.

This is another book that isn’t strictly about environmentalism, but which I think is important to read. That restorative power of green spaces – chronicled so nicely in Oak and Ash and Thorn – is something that we all need and should be aspiring to find within our own lives. And like Fowler’s work, it shows that this can be achieved even within urban spaces.

Also, this experience has reminded me how important it is to be honest about the things we’re reviewing – this book wasn’t what the above reviewer wanted, but his honesty led me to it, and that’s brilliant.

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*(Wikipedia article linked to for those not in the UK)

Oak and Ash and Thorn, by Peter Fiennes

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
Oh let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wildness yet.
–Gerard Manley Hopkins, INVERSNAID

Quoted in the book Oak and Ash and Thorn (OAT) by Peter Fiennes, the above poem largely sums up the message of this work. At its most basic, OAT is a love letter to British woodlands and an obituary to the ancient forests we’ve lost. More than that, though, it can serve as a roadmap to where we could should be going, if we want to make things better.

The book is structured in such a way that we follow Fiennes on a tour of different woodlands – from scraps of forest near large London airports, to slivers of wood abutting Sheffield. Along the way he explores our national relationship to the forests and concludes that whilst Britain loves trees, we’re afraid of the woods. By citing beautiful classic literature and contemporary studies, Fiennes holds up a very telling mirror through which we’re invited to examine the changes that have been made and those we’re making.

It sounds, from what I’m saying, like something of a bleak book – but it really isn’t. The last chapter in particular is a wonderfully hopeful end to an otherwise sometimes often heartbreaking tale. Yes, in places, it feels like an extended edition of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, but that’s down to the truth that we are exploitative and take our woodlands for granted. The prose and mood – by contrast – are optimistic and focus on the restorative power of the woods. I think this is the overall message we’re supposed to take from the book – forests are healing places. 

There are many chapters in which Fiennes begins by entering the woods in a dark mood. Whether discussing hunting, macarbre fairy tales, or impotent rage against impending service stations and runway expansions, his time in the trees is always grounding, always mending. 

This book took me far longer to read than many of the others I’ve reviewed. Written in proper prose, rather than the bullet points of ‘how to’ guides, the format accounts for some of this – but not all. I think, primarily, it was a desire to actually digest fully the information I’d been fed. It isn’t that the prose is heavy, or difficult to read – the difference is that there’s nutrition in it. A meal, instead of a snack – nourishing and wholesome and a little bitter. And like a proper meal, the things I’ve gained from reading it will help build me – shape me – and become a part of me. This book is one of those rare tomes which I’ll keep with me, long after I’ve closed it.

Now, more than ever, I’m determined to make a change.

The Woodland Trust is mentioned often in the book. If you’re interested in discovering more about thier invaluable work, you can find out about what they do here.

Have you read Oak and Ash and Thorn? I would love to hear what you thought of it. You can get in touch either here, or on Twitter.

Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler

Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler was one of the library books I was lucky enough to get trapped with whilst on lockdown. I ended up reading it last, though – after Jen Gale’s Sustainable(ish) Living Guide, and a wonderful bit of literary criticism which explores why everyone seems to love Mr Darcy (I still don’t get it, by the way!)

I sort of wish I’d read this first though, as it’s definitely relevant to the quarantine situation we’re in.

In short, the book is about the hidden nature we find within our cities, but also within ourselves. It chronicles Fowler’s exploration of the Birmingham canal network, and her own sexuality.

The love story Fowler tells is elegant and honest – a tale of romance which  features both the canals and her new partner. She does an artful job of centring her own experience in the breakdown of her marriage, whilst somehow managing not to sound self-centred. What struck me most was how she quietly respected the privacy of both her former husband and her lover, without losing a sense of intimacy in the prose.

I said that this book is relevant to the lockdown we find ourselves in, by which I mean: – lockdown is shifting our proverbial lens to focus on enjoying nature in unexpected places. So many people who live within cities and who might normally drive out to a country park or National Trust property, are now forced to seek out green spaces closer to home. Those who might not have previously made the effort to enjoy the natural world around them may now have a greater appreciation of what is on thier doorstep – I know I certainly do, and I walked the lanes around me daily even prior to the pandemic (followed by a very springy dog).

What I found most interesting – aside from the incredible chapter which detailed the impossible-sounding life cycle of eels* – was the inversion of accepted wisdom regarding wild spaces. The book was a wonderful reminder that the neat, tended fields of farmland are anything but wild, whilst the abandoned banks of an industrial canal …? They belong entirely to Mother Nature – reclaimed from man by plants and creatures. If we wish to see feral things, perhaps we need to stop searching in the manicured countryside and look to our city scapes instead.

It’s an interesting thought, and something that I will definitely keep in mind going forwards. It’s also a fascinating prism through which to view the rewilding process – perhaps all we need to do in order for the earth to reclaim spaces we’ve used is to trust that she will, and let her get on with it.

Have you read Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler? Or have you read any of her other books, or Guardian column? I would love to hear what you think, if you have. As ever, feel free to contact me here, or on Twitter.

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*Please – if you know of any easily digestable eel-related non-fiction, I would absolutely love a recommendation. I honestly spent a hefty chunk of the book with my mouth open in astonishment at the lives of these mind-blowing creatures.

The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide by Jen Gale

Before I start reviewing this book, I’ve got to confess that I’m already a massive fan of Jen’s. I’ve been following her work since she began blogging about buying nothing new for a year, and while I was still on Facebook, hers was one of my absolute favourite groups.

Sustainable(ish) Living Guide: Everything you need to know ...

This book was exactly as good as I’d hoped it would be. It was full of Jen’s humour, and her gentle acknowledgement that we’re all trying our best and that no one is perfect.

At the beginning, she does say that if you’re already doing the usual, basic things to limit your waste production ( i.e. the ‘buyerarchy of needs‘, ‘refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot’ etc.) then you’re probably not going to get a great deal from the book… but I would debate that. I’ve read a lot of books in this area over the past ten years and I didn’t get bored reading this. On the contrary – the tone was lovely and warm, and even though a lot of the information wasn’t new, I just enjoyed the prose.

I managed to pick up some tips on mending – I feel like I’m late to the Sugru party! – and a few other things beside. To my shame, even though I’ve been hankering for a wormery to help dispose of my dog’s poop for years, it never occurred to me to investigate a DIY wormery!  I will be looking into that as soon as I possibly can.

And I thought I was doing really well on the kitchen and bathroom, but I found myself sticking post-it notes in every second page in the chapters which covered these rooms.  I also find it so reassuring to see – in black and white from someone who’s been paid to write about this sort of thing – that Jen still buys plastic wrapped crisps and yogurt. Like, I know we shouldn’t be celebrating the fact that we still need to do this, if we want to eat these things, but I am all over celebrating the fact that someone is being honest when talking about it.

Another thing I really like about this book is that it doesn’t focus solely on plastic. The last few reviews I’ve done have felt very plastic heavy, when actually, that’s been one of the easiest elements of my life to change. What I’d love to hear more about is fuel efficiency, cheaper ways of insulating my home, how to keep microplastics out of my wash… there are so many other things to be tackled which are so often forgotten about when people start talking plastic.

And as discussed before, I’ve got a real Thing about good citations and this book has lots of them, which is lovely. It’s nice to have an idea as to what I can go on to read next (beyond my gardening books which are quickly looking very worse for wear as I get to grips with my outdoor space!).

All in all, this book really does have something for everyone in it. I’m really glad that this is one of the books I’ve got with me at the moment because I can take my time to look at the various links which are offered up, and I can properly look through the publications it draws from.

If you’re interested in Jen’s work, why not check her out on Twitter, or on her website?

Less Stuff by Lindsay Miles

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Less Stuff by Lindsay Miles describes itself as ‘Simple zero-waste steps to a joyful and clutter free life’.

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More of a lifestyle book than a waste reduction handbook, it reads rather like Marie Kondo’s famous ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up’. In fact, I would go so far as to call it a waste-conscious appendix to other anti-clutter books, rather than something specifically advocating zero-waste.

Whilst it’s a great book, and a fabulous resource, I don’t feel that it goes far beyond saying ‘dispose of your clutter responsibly’. The later part of the book does go into detail about how to do so, but this is only around a third of the page-count and in terms of proportions, I would far rather have read something where the possible means of discarding objects made up the main body of work. As it is, the process of deciding what to let go occupies two thirds of the book.

That said, not everyone is at the same point as we are – when we moved to Scotland, I purged many, many unnecessary items so that we were able to transport our belongings north in two transit vans and a Polo. I did this with the Marie Kondo book. This being the case, there isn’t nearly as much clutter as in many homes. As a companion guide for someone looking to undertake the KonMarie method, or as a complete work for someone who wants to try a different approach to decluttering, this book is absolutely ideal.

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The artwork is lovely – simple line drawings and bright colours. The spacious layout and magazine-column style texts make it a really easy, quick read.

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I especially like the sections at the start of each chapter. These are a brief description of what’s coming, which makes the book easier to navigate as a workbook when you’re undertaking the clearing out itself.

My copy of this book isn’t actually due back to the library for a good long while yet, so I’m going to actually try and follow the outlined method of clearing out to see what happens. I’ll compare it to the previous attempt to declutter and let you know how I get on. I don’t think there’s much to get rid of (we’re not big shoppers and it’s only been five years since we moved) but as I need to make space for a second-hand piano that my husband has bought, something really has to give and this is as good a way as any to go about that.

Have you tried decluttering with a handbook as a guide? Has your house ever got to the point where you need to declutter, or do you feel as though living simply has saved you from Too Many Things? As always, I would really love to hear your thoughts – here, or on Twitter.

How To Give Up Plastic by Will McCallum

How To Give Up Plastic by Will McCallum is another little environmental gem of a book.

Broken down into short, easily digestible sections of text, this book offers solid reasons on why we should give up plastic, followed by a comprehensive way to go about that.

Natalie Fee’s book, How to Save The World for Free, and Lucy Siegle’s Turning The Tide on Plastic both do similar things, but are somewhat… meatier. This isn’t a criticism of any of the books – McCallum’s, or the others – but it’s worth keeping in mind as some people have time constraints.

I think the main points of difference in this book are the calls to action, and the interviews – I found the one with Jamie Szymkowiak from One in Five regarding plastic straws particularly enlightening

Whilst I’m not likely to set up any protests, the practical help for setting up a beach clean is very much appreciated, as is the letter writing advice.

As pictured above, there are lts of easily quotable statistics, but a favourite bold printy bit is;

There isn’t a single path to giving up plastic and the routes will vary across countries and communities, but there is a single message: that we need to stop producing so much of it.

And honestly, that’s one of the truest things I’ve read that’s been written on the subject.

Have you read this book? If you have, did you fill in any of the plans? I didn’t, because I borrowed this copy from the library, but I would love to see what others out there have come up with! As ever, get in touch here, or on Twitter.