My most recent column for Prospect deals with collective intelligence and decision-making, with inspiration taken from the natural world. Full text on the Prospect website here, or after the fold. Continue reading
Another brief postcard from Orkney, this time from the shores of the island of Flotta – a short ferry ride from where I live (in the west of what we call ‘mainland’ here on the archipelago). A super-pod of porpoises has been in residence for several weeks, as they have every autumn for the last few years during their breeding season. Full text on the Guardian website here, or after the fold. Continue reading
My new year’s resolution to post quarterly about my reading diet went forgotten in June (as were most of my resolutions). However, I did keep track, so here’s a list to cover my reading-for-pleasure since March.
Some of the below were consumed as audio, after I made a decision to cut down on podcasts-listening in favour of audiobooks. Some people might quibble over whether that counts as ‘reading,’ but I think: sure, why not? There are no rules. Where the audiobooks were in themselves notable, I’ve mentioned that below.
I enjoy writing these notes, as I find it helps me digest and retain what I’ve read. I also love to chat about books. If we’ve crossed literary paths, or if you have a recommendation, then please drop me a line on Twitter.
The Peregrine // J A Baker: A true classic of British nature writing, which I’ve only just gotten around to reading. Beautiful, meditative, meandering – slashed through with the fresh violence of the hunt:
Their rapid, shifting, dancing motion had been so deft and graceful that it was difficult to believe that hunger was the cause of it and death the end… as thought the hawk had suddenly gone mad and had killed the thing it loved. The striving of birds to kill, or to save themselves from death, is beautiful to see. The greater the beauty the more terrible the death.
The Peregrine condenses ten years of sightings into a single year’s diary entries, a glittering work of synaesthetic descriptive bravura. The sky is “peeled white”, sparrows rise in “warning puffs”… Just great.
Trick Mirror // Jia Tolentino: This debut book of essays from the New Yorker writer was ubiquitous on social media and internet literary publications for a time, and happily it lived up to the hype. Very of the moment, and I think it transcends the moment too. Really it’s a book about the media’s reflection and refraction of the human condition. One or two essays fell flatter than others (I’m thinking, particularly, of her discussion of female protagonists in fiction), but her dissections of her own ambivalence about, and complicity in, our age of personal branding and ‘self-optimisation’ (see extract here), were outstanding. Continue reading
I recently moved to Orkney with my partner Richard, where he has been posted as a probationary teacher. At times like this I am reminded what a wonderful privilege it is to be self-employed – and able to up sticks easily, and work from such a beautiful and remote location. (Although it doesn’t feel at all remote, once one is actually here.)
I wrote about moving house – and how the task of packing up my belongings made me think rather wistfully of our six weeks living the ultralight lifestyle on the Colorado Trail – for Prospect, in my latest ‘Wild Frontier’ column. (Text can be found online here, or after the fold.)
I also had a nice surprise when my first Country Diary entry for The Guardian from Orkney was an unexpected hit, racking up more than 30,000 readers in its first few hours online (quite unusual for this section, which features gentle snippets of nature writing). It dealt with the arrival of stoats on the archipelago, and why conservationists believe that might be disastrous for the ground-nesting birds that live here. (Full text can be found here, or after the fold.)
Eradication and ‘population management’ of wildlife prompts important ethical questions in environmental circles – ones I have touched on in more length in the context of red deer culls (for Granta and The Guardian’s long-read section) and in a discussion of our instinctive dislike of ‘invasive’ non-native species (for the New Humanist). So, why not read more?
With a big book deadline approaching on the horizon, I’ll be cutting down my freelancing in an attempt to focus the mind. But I still maintain a trickle of regular publications which you might be interested in.
As well as my Prospect columns (entries passim), I continue to conduct literary interviews and edit for Five Books, a fast-growing book recommendation site that I’ve contributed to on and off since its launch in 2009. We have around 300,000 readers a month, from both sides of the Atlantic. Last year I became a director of the company. I love this work – it’s consistently fascinating, and has come to form a very useful resource for autodidacts. Recent highlights include a discussion of forensic psychology with the criminal profiling expert Prof David Canter, a snappy chat with marketing guru Seth Godin about the best books on his industry – and how marketers deeply impact our way of thinking about and talking about the world around us, plus a vivifying discussion of the Booker International Prize shortlist with chair of the judging panel Bettany Hughes. There’s more: have a browse of my interview feed here.
I also still write my monthly column on wildlife for the glossy lifestyle magazine Scottish Field. Recently I’ve covered subjects including the regeneration of oyster beds in east coast firths and west coast glens; the annual descent of gannets upon the Bass Rock, the largest colony in the world; the wacky racers dashing across the island in search of orcas in Shetland; and conservationists’ attempts to return golden eagles to the soaring updrafts of the Southern Uplands in the borderland between Scotland and England. These are not available online, so find the text of some of my latest articles after the fold. Continue reading
Another brief postcard for the Guardian’s regular Country Diary slot, this time from a rocky inlet near Armadale, on the Isle of Skye. I highly recommend the short amble through the woods beside the permaculture community and campsite Rubha Phoil, where one can often spot otters and seals, or at the very least go away with a pocket full of emerald-green sea urchin shells. I went there with my partner Rich and my eagle-eyed niece and nephew who live nearby and are expert rockpool-hunting specialists.
I contributed a long article to the summer issue of Prospect, about wilderness therapy and the impact of nature upon mental health and the treatment of mental illness. In it, I profile the work of Scottish charity Venture Mòr, an amazing organisation led by outdoor instructors turned counsellors, which has been working to bring the field of ‘wilderness therapy’ to a wider audience in the UK.
Full text can be found on the Prospect website here,
My latest column in Prospect magazine is all about ditching the tent and the bulky equipment and sleeping under the stars. A bivvy bag is helpful if you want a little bit of protection from the weather – but remember why you’re outside in the first place. The photo above is from an idyllic night we spent on the cliff’s edge near Skaill, Orkney, having taken some inspiration from the brilliant Alistair Humphreys.
I was so excited and grateful to hear that my new book project, Islands of Abandonment, has been selected to receive grant funding through the Calderwood Charitable Foundation’s Art of Journalism initiative. The application process, which is open to journalism fellows of the MacDowell Colony, required me to provide samples of the work in progress and records of associated research and travel costs already accrued, which have been a significant financial outlay over the past two years.
The funding is intended “to help the growing number of independent journalists and mitigate the impact of diminishing budgets for long-form journalism at media and publishing outlets.” More information about the Art of Journalism initiative can be found here.
It is a huge boon to receive the grant, not only in practical/financial terms, but emotionally too – it is great to feel supported and to receive outside recognition of a project’s value. So thank you, thank you to the Calderwood Charitable Trust.