Three Books on Nature & Conservation

‘If we really did heed the call of the wild, he suggests, then not only can threatened species be brought back from the brink, but so can we.’

David Robinson discovers revelling in the wonder of the natural world is key to encouraging greater care of our planet as he reads these three excellent books.


The Vanishing Ice: Diaries of a Scottish Snow Hunter
By Iain Cameron
Published by Vertebrate Publishing

Extraction to Extinction: Rethinking Our Relationship with Earth’s Natural Resources
By David Howe
Published by Saraband

Mistletoe Winter
By Roy Dennis
Published by Saraband


The other day, I heard someone say that guilt and shame were the only things that would see us through the next 10,000 years.  Maybe that’s true. Without guilt at the polluted planet we’re bequeathing to our descendants, without shame at the speed with which we demolished its resources, maybe human beings don’t either have or deserve a future of hundred years, never mind anything longer.

Even so, I have my doubts. Because finger-wagging and fact-shaming probably won’t make us actually want to save the planet. For that, we need something more: fascination and wonder at the world around us, perhaps, or a passion to discover more about it. And while the three new Scottish books I’ve picked this month might not have all the answers, they at least point in the right direction.

Iain Cameron’s The Vanishing Ice explains his fascination with Scotland’s snow so well (crisply and evenly, I’m tempted to add) that he makes you share it. There’s something so wonderfully quixotic about searching out and recording our longest-lasting snows that intrigues even those of us who have never been anywhere near Garbh Choire Mor on Braeriach in search of Sphinx and Pinnacles – the two most reliable patches of summer and autumn white in what is invariably, in winter, Scotland’s snowiest corrie. Close up, in October or November (at any rate before the first snows of winter) Sphinx and Pinnacles are rather unimpressive to look at: neurotically small, and stained with ptarmigan poo, decayed mosses and grasses. And yet snow-hunting out of season can be a visually magnificent obsession too: who wouldn’t want to look up at the scalloped roof of a Ben Nevis  snow tunnel,  as exquisite as the ribbed vaulting of a medieval cathedral, shown in Murdo McLeod’s cover picture?

The odds are, of course, that you and I might never see such things. We mightn’t venture inside a snow cave because we don’t really belong that far up Ben Nevis that late in the year and even if we did, we’d worry about its roof crashing down on our heads. We don’t know enough about the Cairngorms to work out where, in the 1930s was the only snow visible every month of the year from a British train station’. And again, if we did, and if we were, like Cameron,  up there in the middle of a storm, with winds like being hit by a car, horizontal rain turning into swirling snow and the ever-present risk of rockfalls or 1000-foot tumbles, surely we’d call it a day rather than struggle onwards and upwards to check whether a particular piece of rock had any of last year’s snow on it before it got covered over with this year’s. Wouldn’t we?

In those circumstances, Cameron pushes on. Why? Because, he explains, ‘I had to count every last flurry of snow from the preceding winter before they were buried for another nine months or so’. Had to? Yes, because that’s what a true obsession is. In his case, it’s nothing to do with climbing (he is, apparently, not too good with heights, which to me makes him even more impressive). He wasn’t born halfway up a Scottish mountain, he works in building safety not in the wild outdoors, and when he bought his first book relevant to his new obsession (Scotland’s Winter Mountains by Martin Moran) he was not a geologist, meteorologist or any other kind of ologist but an apprentice Clydeside electrician.

Cameron is, however, both an authoritative and enjoyable guide to the rather niche subject of Scotland’s vanishing snows, whether for anyone set on checking out his map references or those of us armchair chionophiles (snow-lovers) who take them as read. There is an inevitable echo of Christopher Nicholson’s hauntingly elegiac Among The Summer Snows about the topic, although because Cameron’s mission is not fuelled by grief, it is inevitably less introspective. Or rather, there is a kind of grief, but it’s planetary, not personal. He admits that he feels sad when a patch of snow he had expected to find has already melted away: a ridiculous emotion, he realizes. (Or is it?.)

For the purposes of this column, though, I prefer to look instead at what sparked his obsession in the first place: the view north from his parents’ bedroom in the new house they’d just moved into when he was nine, the highest on an estate in Port Glasgow. One May morning in 1983, he looked across the Clyde at what looked like a white cloud or a strange and distant country but turned out to be the snow-covered top of Ben Lomond, Scotland’s most southerly Munro. There’s a photo of it in his book.

It all began there and then, not in a geography lesson at school or with anything he read, but with a sense of wonder. To the bemusement of his parents, he felt compelled to check snowfalls at Scotland’s ski resorts and, though a 13-year-old non-skier, rang the premium-rate phone lines to find out. He still can’t, he says, explain why he’s so fascinated with snow. I think he’s wrong and the book – unshowy, quietly heartfelt – is the proof.

To me, these initial moments of enchantment, when we can see a writer first shaping up to his subject, are fascinating. There’s another fine example in David Howe’s Extraction to Extinction.  He was seventeen, standing on Alderley Edge (these days, that plush part of Cheshire where Manchester’s top footballers live) and his teacher asked him to reimagine what everything in front of  him was like 250 million years ago, when it was a flood plain on the Tropic of Cancer. They then found some green and blue crystals in a rusty red rock. That’s malachite, the teacher said, pointing. What people used to smelt copper to make bronze – how they made arrowheads, brooches and tools before they’d learnt how to make iron. A seed was sown in his mind: geology became, for the first time, imaginable.

The book opens out into a highly readable study of well or (usually) badly we have made use of the Earth’s rocks and minerals, leavened with the kind of facts you really ought to know by now, such as where to go to see the world’s first concrete block of flats (25 rue Franklin, Paris from 1904) or that King Tut’s dagger was made from a meteorite, or that event just changing all the UK’s cars to electricity would eat up twice the world’s annual production of cobalt. He also has a pithy way with words: climate change, for example, is ‘what happens when we burn millions of years of fossilised sunlight in two lifetimes’. In every way looking beneath the surface, this is a  convincing guide to our depleted, overheated planet.

In Mistletoe Winter, a delightful collection of essays that neatly pairs with last year’s Cottongrass Summer, conservation legend Roy Dennis comes up with the ultimate image for our times: mountain hares and ptarmigan, both in their white winter coats and plumage, against our increasingly brown and snow-denuded peaks. This would be, he says, ‘another wake-up call from nature’, but Dennis is growing tired of their repetitiveness: far better, he argues, to remove the vote from anyone over 60  (‘older people have had their chance and failed’) and give it to 14-year-olds.

As he has already outlined in Restoring the Wild earlier this year, Dennis is staging his own rebellion against extinctions by reintroducing lost habitats and reintroducing species that used to live there – projects which started with his attempt to bring back sea eagles to Scotland while he was warden of the Fair Isle Observatory in 1960. These are, he says, hard times for capercaillie and woodcock: maybe the foxes, badgers and pine martens preying on them would have other things to worry about if we could, as he wishes, reintroduce the wolf, lynx and brown bear.  And even though the bearded vulture seen flying over the Peak District last summer – and the subject of one of the book’s 35 seasonally divided essays – isn’t native to our shores and never has been, you can practically hear him thinking Yes, but it should be. Wildlife may be in retreat, some species may be reaching the limits of their life on earth, but there’s a radical and invigorating optimism at the heart of Dennis’s work. If we really did heed the call of the wild, he suggests, then not only can threatened species be brought back from the brink, but so can we.


The Vanishing Ice: Diaries of a Scottish Snow Hunter, by Iain Cameron is published by Vertebrate Publishing, priced £20

Extraction to Extinction: Rethinking Our Relationship with Earth’s Natural Resources, by David Howe and Mistletoe Winter, by Roy Dennis, are both published by Saraband, priced £9.99.

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