The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison: a strong contender for your Christmas list

If The Stubborn Light of Things was an object other than a book, it would be a wooden countryside gate, drifting open at the gentlest of touches to let you onto the path beyond.

Nature-writing is a tricksy beast of a genre. I find myself less enamoured as time goes by of the books that are purely about people – Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun was enjoyable, and even won a prestigious nature-writing prize. But it’s not about nature. And many other books on the same shelf, while they’re (mostly) not about people, fall victim to the author’s urge to make the most elaborate constructions of words – to the point that it becomes about the language and not the wonders of the natural world they’re meant to be evoking.

Melissa Harrison doesn’t bother with any of that. Her writing is accessible, in the best possible way. She begins The Stubborn Light of things by admitting that it took her a long time to realise she could be a nature-writer, because she didn’t feel she had the knowledge, and she lived in an urban environment instead of the country. Perhaps many other people feel the same about reading nature-writing, if not writing it.

So let Harrison lead you onto the path. Each “entry” in this book is short, originally published as part of the Nature Notebook series in The Times from 2014 to early 2020. They follow the author’s seasonal observations of the life in the small world around her, ever-changing, ever-vibrant. The writing itself is often quite sparing, though scattered with lovely turns of phrase (like puddles of blue shining in a field). You learn new things about the natural world almost by stealth. And you marvel at Harrison’s powers of observation, you want to live up to it. I delighted in moments such as

“the mud under the tannin-rich oaks is blacker than the surrounding earth…”

I’ve never noticed this; now I’ll look for it.

Harrison is also adept at weaving subtle devastation into her observations and her musings about the wider human/natural world. She speaks of the loss of species and abundance, and the loss of human knowledge that could help us see what’s happening. She puts environmental problems into simple words:

“In making the countryside work so hard for humans, its ability to support other creatures began to be lost.”

Harrison practices what she preaches. She writes of choosing plants for her garden based on what creatures need them at what times of the year. She describes the time she had a great tit nest in her garden, and she calculated when the chicks would fledge so she could sit vigil on that day and protect the fledglings with a water pistol (“I’m proud to say they all survived.“)

By the end of the book, it’s clear that Harrison has become a lot more learned than she claims or believes herself to be. But she still doesn’t present herself as part of an erudite clique. She wants to share the observations and knowledge that are the result of her love and help her to love the natural world more. As Helen Macdonald said in her recent book Vesper Flights, there’s a joy and wonder in being able to recognise and name things. Still, Harrison doesn’t want a lack of scientific understanding or memory to ever be a barrier:

While wildlife identification brings richness and particularity to the world, wonder happens with or without it. We should never let taxonomy be a barrier to engagement.

If you’ve never read nature-writing before, or you have and you’re not sure about it, or if you revel in it – then this book is for you. It’s for your loved ones. It’s for everyone.

The Stubborn Light of Things is published on 5 November. With thanks to Faber & Faber and NetGalley for an advance copy of the ebook in exchange for an honest review.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s