A Book That Changed Me

Contained in this post is, very nearly word for word, the speech I gave tonight at Bloomsbury Toastmasters. Given that it’s about a book, it felt appropriate for this blog.

Toastmasters, to bring the uninitiated up to speed, is what I describe as “like Scouts, but for public speaking”. An international organisation with 17,000 clubs and many multiples of members. It’s become a regular and invigorating part of my life, and I cannot recommend it to everyone enough. Have a Google – chances are there’s a club near you, waiting for your life stories, your courage, and your voice.


Speech No. 4: A Book That Changed Me

It’s not every day that you find yourself fighting through brambly undergrowth in a storm, while holding a small Ziploc bag containing a very miffed vole.

Nevertheless, this is what I was doing one evening in spring last year, in a small wood in West London. How did I get there? Thanks to a book, as it happens.

I’m an avid reader, and I think books are like people in the way that often. the unnoticed changes they inspire in you are far more numerous than the changes you notice. But for once, I have the pleasure of knowing exactly how a particular book has changed me, and the things I have experienced because of it. And it’s affirmed my faith in the power of books to take us out into the world.

Madame Toastmaster, Mr President, fellow Toastmasters and most welcome guests, I’d like to tell you about a very special journey that I took in 2016.

I read this particular book in January. It’s called Common Ground, and it’s written by an author called Rob Cowen. It’s his account of constantly revisiting the same small patchwork of woods and fields near Harrogate in North Yorkshire over the course of a year. At the moment the book world’s seeing a real renaissance in nature writing, and Common Ground is a wonderful example – the author speaks so intimately about the landscape and wildlife he encounters, from a fox with eyes like ‘coronal black holes over exploding suns’ to the way that new mayflies ‘ripen in the warm threads of sunlight, spiny forelegs bent, wings straight and three tails extended like whiskers’. It’s the kind of writing you just want to cram into your mind like nourishment for the soul.

After I’d read the book, the first change I noticed was how I experienced moments of nature. I’ve always loved nature with a passion. But since Common Ground, these moments, however fleeting, have somehow deepened for me. When I hear the chatter of a woodpecker, or see a heron flying overhead, for example, I actively pause in appreciation. And here in London, every fragment of nature I glimpse is something I’ve come to take the greatest pleasure in. It means that often, even if I haven’t had a great day, I can look back at the hours past and think things like “but I saw that grey wagtail. I haven’t seen one of those for a while,” or, “I love it when those starlings that have their morning chat on top of the bus station, when I’m on my way to the tube.”

The next thing that Common Ground started to make me do was get out and explore more, on my own, at any time of day. In the book, the author didn’t find his patch of land by consulting a tourist guide or following a signposted walk. He noticed a patch of green on his map and pushed his way through a hedge to get to it. He often visited before dawn – one of the best times for wildlife – and mostly, he went on his own.

So I started taking more walks on my own. And while I haven’t yet found the courage to shove myself through a hedge to see what’s on the other side, I have discovered how comfortable I am walking alone and for the sake of it, whether in a wood or somewhere in central London.

I even did something that I would never, ever, have considered doing before. One weekend in the spring, I visited the bracing Norfolk coast with friends, and I made myself wake in the freezing cold at five am to go to the beach. And I stood on that beach with no one around me but seagulls, and watched the most beautiful sunrise.

I did something else in the spring too. I had a bit more free time on my hands and I wanted to do some kind of volunteering, though I didn’t know exactly what. Until I saw a newspaper article about a volunteering opportunity that met the memories of the book like two flints sparking a flame. It was with the London Wildlife Trust and involved helping to survey small mammals populations at several woodland sites in West London. The name of the project was… Vole Patrol. Interesting name aside, here was a chance for me to help a wildlife charity monitor the health of green spaces, all while exploring places I would never have known of otherwise.

I got everything I expected out of the project and more. In between the actually pretty hard work of collecting and baiting traps, and helping to process the voles, mice and shrews we caught, I heard the ghostly shriek of a barn owl for the first time. I saw a bluebell wood in all its delicate majesty, and deer running through a dewy meadow. One time I was crossing a deep stream using a fallen log and I looked down into the water and saw, unbelievably, mussels. Did anyone here know that there are freshwater mussels surviving within the boundaries of Greater London?

So that’s how I came to be thrashing my way through the thorny undergrowth while it rained and thundered, with a vole in a Ziploc bag that I was taking back to the capture site for release. There was a lot of swearing that time.

But I am so glad that I got to do it. And I don’t know if that volunteering opportunity would have caught my eye if I hadn’t read Common Ground so soon before. I certainly wouldn’t have yanked myself out of bed to go and watch the sun rise from the sea if I hadn’t been trying to consciously emulate the author, and I certainly would have done less walking. Common Ground broke down fences in my mind that I hadn’t even realised were there, and even now the memory of the book shines its own light on all the treasures of the natural world for me.

The story I’ve told tonight is a very personal one. But it’s also an example of the power and the importance of books – of other people’s stories. And I encourage you all to think about the books that you’ve read, however long ago, that have enriched your life.

The books that are helping you to write your own story.

Common Ground.png

One thought on “A Book That Changed Me

  1. What a wonderful speech! Lovely to read about the wildlife you have discovered with your volunteer role! It reminds me of when I volunteered to monitor ospreys and a saw a barn owl actually hunting in dusk, which I’d never seen before, it was so thrilling.

    I WILL read Common Ground very soon 😀


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